What is a Biblical Church?
As we remember the Church Reformation this Sunday, in a particular way I'm thinking about the nature of the church and why this is so important regarding missions work. One thing we appreciate about the reformers of the church from the 1500s is how they defined the church in Biblical terms, and in simple terms.
In particular, we appreciate John Calvin on this matter, when he said:
"Wherever we see the Word purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God."
Though it's a simple statement, it's actually loaded with a lot of very important information regarding the nature of a Biblical church. (We won't touch on all of it here today.) The word, for example, may be preached and taught in numerous places, but just because the Word is preached and taught it does not necessarily mean the people hearing it are a church. Many people gather for Bible study and the word is properly preached and taught, but without the right observance of the ordinances it's not actually a church. It's simply a Bible study. They may sing songs at the Bible study, but that simply means that it's a Bible study with songs. There may be prayer at a Bible study, together with songs, but it's just a Bible study with prayer and songs. It's not a church.
As another example, we have the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).
The RCC has the word of God, but they put it on an equal level of authority as the 'oral traditions' that were passed down from the apostles. Often, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, they negate the Word of God in order to observe their own traditions.
Regarding the right preaching of the word of God, we believe the Reformers had the Gospel message in mind as well. The gospel message is the central message of Scripture regarding our salvation; the message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone (slogans of the reformation). If the true Gospel message is not being taught, but instead the gospel of works is being taught, there is a real problem. Sadly, the RCC teaches a gospel of works. The apostle Paul spoke clearly in Galatians 1:6-9 regarding different gospels, in particular a gospel of works.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. - Gal. 1:6-9 (emphasis added in italics)
Let him who preaches a different gospel be accursed - Anathema. Accursed by God is any person, group, or so-called church that preaches a different gospel than the gospel that was passed on to us as revealed in Scripture.
In addition, apart from the Roman Catholic Church, there's still a need for reformation today, unfortunately, in many Evangelical churches as well.
What is often called the Gospel today is what we could rightly call a prosperity gospel; it's a different gospel. (Another helpful article HERE). People are told to say "yes" to Jesus Christ, because inviting Jesus into your life or heart, they will receive all kinds of material blessings. In this way their life will be better, they will be more fulfilled and happy, and other things like this. Interestingly, there's a partial truth in this, because when we obey God's word, generally speaking, life does go better. God's law is designed for human flourishing.
Though life gets better (generally speaking) when we are united to Christ our Lord and Savior, we cannot ignore the reality that there is a cost to following Jesus Christ. Jesus made that clear to us. More on this calling to be a disciple of Christ HERE. The church itself, as you may or may not know, was in a real sense built upon the blood of the martyrs. Many Christians for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, their Savior, who died for all their sins, to save them from the wrath of God the Father, have died as a result of their faith in Jesus Christ. Many who have not died, have been very ill treated, persecuted, abused, even raped because of their faith in Jesus Christ. This reality goes on still today in many places, in particular places like China, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and different parts of India as well.
I know of a church today that suffers from not having a pastor because the denomination currently has no one available in their region. There are other men present who are Biblically qualified to be pastors, and willing and able to serve the body of believers, yet because they are not recognized or "licensed" ministers of the gospel in that denomination they cannot perform normal pastoral duties. Though they can preach and teach the Word of God they are not able to administer the ordinances of the Lord's Supper and baptism. In addition, there's no meaningful church membership, and obviously no church discipline either. Though they gather as a group of believers, and sing God's praises, pray together, and even hear the word faithfully preached together, technically speaking, they are not actually a church. They're not actually a local expression of the Body of Christ without the proper administering of the ordinances. They may have the name "church" on their window, they may call themselves a church, but technically speaking, they're just a glorified Bible study...
A sad reality in this period of history as we live through a pandemic, is that many churches have closed the doors entirely. I know of a church here in Italy that has not gathered in person since March of 2020. That's now going on 2 years! Meeting on a video call is not sufficient for believers that identify as a local expression of the body of Christ. Certain things we are commanded to do as a body of Christ simply cannot be obeyed virtually. Not only are we blessed beyond measure when we obey our Lord and gather together to worship, but our gathering in person is also a very important testimony to a lost world that needs to see true humanity as it gathers to worship the Lord Jesus Christ.
The reformation started 500 years ago and the world was forever changed as a result. That reformation is still happening today. It's going on in each true believer as the Holy Spirit renews us day in and day out through the ongoing process of sanctification. The reformation continues in local churches as well as denominations. It's very important for all of us, as believers, to be able to define and have a good definition of the true gospel and also what constitutes a church. This reformation Sunday, I'm particularly mindful of the importance of Christians being able to understand and define what a church is, Biblically. To that end, I'd like to commend to you a couple books and a few short articles that you may find helpful on this matter.
One of the blessings of being a missionary in Italy is our labor, by the nature of it in Roman Catholic culture, forces us to make sure we have a firm understanding of Biblical Christianity and of the doctrine of the Church. We focus our efforts in Italy exclusively on the labor of apostolic church planting. As a missionary church planter, trained and equipped in apostolic church planting, let me affirm to you that understanding the nature of a Biblical church is of utmost importance. If you should learn that you are not part of an actual Biblical church, my loving exhortation for you today would be to learn what a Biblical church is and make sure you find one and seek to become a faithful member there where you can flourish and where you can serve and encourage others as well.
Book Recommendations Regarding the Church
Articles on the Church
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