CENTRALITY OF THE CHURCH AND HEALTHY CHURCHLIFE
We continue to focus on what we can do to ensure that we stand in the last days. In 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10, we see clearly that God has called a people to be His, not just individuals, although individuals are important to Him. It is God’s desire and plan that a group of individuals should be called out to be His people, His nation and His priests. It is therefore imperative that the believers, filled with the Spirit of God, should grow and develop towards maturity in the context of God’s calling. The child of God should not stand alone and seek to grow alone. It has to be within the context of the church and healthy churchlife. The believer must recognise that he is a member of the family of God and he should take his proper place in the local congregation. Notice the term “healthy churchlife”. It is not just a group of Christians coming together, but rather God’s people congregating together after the pattern that God has prescribed in the Scriptures, manifesting the life of God in practical churchlife. We see therefore that one aspect of ensuring that we stand in the last days is to grow and develop in the context of the church of God and in the context of healthy churchlife. Why is it so, we may ask?
Let us consider how the church is so central in God’s plan and desire for mankind (see Ephesians 2:19-22 and 3:6-10). Notice first of all how Paul reminded the Ephesians Christians that they are fellow citizens with all the saints and fellow members of God’s household. As God’s children, we do not stand alone, but we belong together with all the people of God. We have been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone. We see the picture of a building whose foundations have been contributed by the apostles and prophets, and the building is held together and stabilised by the cornerstone, the Lord Jesus. The child of God is part of this great building, which is fitted together to be a holy temple for God to dwell in. In Ephesians chapter 3, Paul went on to reveal how the Gentiles and the Jews are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. And indeed the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. We see how central the church is, in God’s calling and desire for His people. The believer is called into this body and he has a role, together with others, in the building up of this body of Christ.
The last book of the New Testament, Revelation, records many events of the last days and it is interesting to note that the church features prominently in this book. The first few chapters record the message of the Lord Jesus to the seven churches in Asia. Here the message is universal, with its implications and applications for the church of God, even today. In it, the Lord dealt with the need to be faithful, to be true and to keep the first love for God in the hearts. The Lord also warned of the dangers that abound and the consequences of failing Him as a church. We see therefore the important role the church of God would fulfil in the last days and also how significant it is for the child of God to realise his role in the quest to ensure that the Lord God is glorified in His body. It is also interesting to observe that the seven churches of Asia were actual congregations. The number seven probably indicates that they are representative of the total church of God. Here we see also that the outworking of the church and churchlife does not take place in a theoretical or conceptual context but in the context of local congregations in daily outworking.
Note the centrality of the church in the events of the last days (see Revelation 19:7-8 and 21:1-3). We see here the bride of the Lord Jesus mentioned and the reference to the New Jerusalem. The church of God which consists of all the saints in Christ Jesus would dwell in the New Jerusalem. There God would be among His people and He would wipe away every tear from their eyes and there shall no longer be any death or mourning, or crying or pain. Once again, we see the central place the church takes in God’s plan and calling and also in the final fulfilment of God’s purpose for new heavens and a new earth with the New Jerusalem. Yet, in terms of practical application and outworking, we who desire to be in the mainstream of God’s plan for His people must ensure that we fulfil our responsibility in the context of healthy churchlife in the local congregation.
We now take a look at what healthy churchlife means. In Ephesians 4:11-16, we see that healthy churchlife must mean focusing on the equipping of the saints for the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ. Believers must be equipped adequately for service and the direction of service is to build up the body of Christ, not for personal gain or personal status and satisfaction. The church belongs to Christ, and not to any particular person or group. It is God’s church, not “my church” or “your church”. The process of equipping and building is a continual one, growing in quality and depth with the passage of time. The aim and objective pointed out here is attaining to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. It is not just service without an aim. It is not just building and building without any sense of direction. It is to build God’s people to be united in the faith, to become mature in the knowledge of God and to manifest the character of God as reflected in the being of Christ.
If we see this clearly, we would realise that a group of believers who come together, year in and year out, without equipping the believers for service and building has failed to realise one important aspect of healthy churchlife. If, at the end of many years, only a handful of believers are contributing to the building of the body of Christ because they have to, being given the task of sitting in committees, and the majority are just going along without any spiritual direction or contribution on their part, healthy churchlife is certainly missing! Is it not true that in the context of many Christian congregations, many believers come to worship service, behaving like observers, not participating in any way actively or spiritually? Is it not equally true that activities are conducted by those who have been assigned to the task – the care and concern committee would conduct visitation, the chairman of prayer meeting would conduct prayer meetings and so on? The spontaneous care and concern, the active spiritual exercise by each member, no matter how insignificant it may seem – all these are the manifestations of the reality that the believers are being equipped for service and for building of the body of Christ – are these lacking?
After many years, have believers grown in the knowledge of the Lord? Have they become more like the Lord Jesus, growing in maturity and towards the stature which belongs to the Lord? Here we are referring to spiritual knowledge and spiritual reality, not just in terms of mental knowledge and in terms of many activities and courses which have been conducted over the years, but essentially, the people still remain as carnal and as ignorant as they were many years ago. In Ephesians 4:14, Paul indicated how this growth can in one sense be measured. The children of God will no longer be children spiritually, easily deceived by false teachers and false teaching. They would be stable, understanding what they believe and why they believe.
Another manifestation would be speaking the truth in love and growing in all aspects into the Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. If the believers are growing well, they would not be afraid of the truth; they would welcome the truth and be prepared to face the truth no matter how painful it might be. And the truth would be spoken in love – for the purpose of edification and for building up, not for tearing down. However, love does not mean there is no correction and no rebuke. Love has to do with the motive and the desire for the best for one another. And love does hurt at times. Ephesians 4:15-16 paint for us a picture of harmony and love – the body being fitted and held together with the Head the Lord Jesus, the proper working of each individual part, and the growing and the building up of the body in love. This is essentially the pattern of healthy churchlife.
Now, if we put the individual believer within this beautiful picture, the believer contributing, receiving, growing and, together with the rest, building and being built in relation to the Head, we would realise how important it is for the believer to be in the context of healthy churchlife, if he were to ensure that he stands in the last days. The church is very central in God’s plan and calling and also in the fulfilment of God’s eternal purpose. Healthy churchlife is God’s pattern for proper growth and upbuilding of the body of Christ – God has intended for every believer, without exception, to have a place and part to fulfil in the building of the body of Christ.
We go on to consider some other practical reasons why the believer ought to be in the context of healthy churchlife. As we look at these reasons, we would marvel at the wisdom of God in His plan for His people. One obvious reason is that healthy churchlife offers protection to God’s people. In the midst of spiritual warfare, deception and false teaching can easily creep in. In the context of healthy churchlife, proper teaching and correction in love would go a long way to prevent the child of God from going astray. Also, group leadership and Christ as the Head, would ensure that the church does not go astray because one person with charisma seeks to go his own way. The proper equipping of the saints, the proper teaching with the Scriptures as authoritative, and wholesome knowledge of God and His ways would ensure that the church does not succumb to the wrong emphasis or distortion of the truth. In the absence of healthy churchlife, it may not be difficult to imagine how believers can be swayed to the wrong direction either for personal reasons or on the ground of the scholarship of the person who introduced such a wrong view. We see how healthy churchlife can protect the children of God from such wrong teachings.
Protection is afforded also by virtue of the fact that healthy churchlife implies that the believers are growing and developing as a body of believers. It is widely known that many animals travel in groups to protect themselves against the common enemy. Wild buffaloes can battle against a common enemy like the tiger when they are together whereas they become victims if they wander away alone from the herd. There is some parallel in this in terms of spiritual protection for God’s people in the context of healthy churchlife. But there is much more than what is seen in this illustration. As churchlife is ordained by God, He Himself would be pleased to bless His people in a special way as His people seek to be faithful in churchlife. For instance, there is much power in the prayer of the church which is far different from that of prayer of individuals alone; there is also the spiritual reality of being one in the Lord in the context of churchlife which has an impact in the spiritual realm and in spiritual warfare far beyond our understanding.
In Hebrews 10:24-25, we see how healthy churchlife can stimulate one another to love and good deeds and also encourage one another, and even more so, in the context of the last days. Such mutual encouragement and edification would protect the believers from spiritual discouragement and unhealthy depression and loneliness. Positive encouragement, stimulation and upbuilding in unity, love and fellowship can do much to ensure that the believer has every reason in the Lord to stand firm, even in the face of difficulties and pressure.
Besides protection, healthy churchlife also contributes to inter-dependence among believers, leading to complementary roles and the beautiful manifestation of body life (see 1 Corinthians 12:7-27). Such a life is attractive to those outside the church. In fact, from the days of the early church, many non-believers have been attracted and impressed by the life of believers growing together. They saw warmth and true Christian love expressed for one another; they saw mutual help and encouragement, seasoned with humility and sincerity and they wondered what made such a community possible. In a world of changes, stress and uncertainty, many look for friends they can depend upon and many search for true love. Nevertheless, for many of these, the search is in vain. But in healthy churchlife, there can be true friendship and fellowship in the Lord with wholesome Christian love; each one being different and yet together being one in the Lord, each one with a different gift and contribution and yet together being the body of Christ. Together, they have one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ and the same Holy Spirit works in them, distributing gifts individually to each one as He wills, to the end that there should be no division in the body but that the members should have the same care for one another. Every one has to give an account to the Head, the Lord Jesus and there is no room for pride or arrogance. Instead, this reality of inter-dependence and the need for one another should instil a deep sense of humility and meekness in every child of God. We are many and yet we are one. Certainly, this demonstrates the breadth and depth of the wisdom of God in His calling and founding of the church of God and body life!
In 1 Corinthians 12:7, we note the phrase “for the common good”. The outworking of churchlife and body life is for the common good – we must always remember that. Whatever we can contribute, whatever we can receive, the motivation is for the common good in the Lord. It should never be for self-interests, neither for certain segments of the congregation because of prejudice or personal preference. Let us learn not to be upset with decisions for the common good just because we may be affected in a way that is not to our liking. We must recognise that we need one another and are part of one another. There is no room for unhealthy individualism and independence. In one sense, we are all our brothers’ keepers. We cannot go around thinking that my life is my own and I can do whatever I like with it. Whether we like it or not, our lives affect one another and they affect the body of Christ. There is spiritual reality in the fact that when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it, if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it. We owe it to our brothers and sisters to live well in the Lord, for our lives would affect their lives and the life of the church. The fact that we need one another should cause us to be humble and to be open to learn from one another, even from those who are younger than us spiritually.
In the same passage of 1 Corinthians 12, we see that God has appointed various ones for various roles so that there may be proper order for the proper outworking of churchlife. There is secondary leadership and some may have more significant roles than others. In fulfilling our roles, we must not make it difficult for others to fulfil theirs. If we are called to teach and to preach, let us exercise them accordingly; if we are called to serve and to give, let us do them cheerfully in the Lord. If we are called to lead, let us do it diligently. Let not those who are called to serve and to follow make it difficult for those who are called to lead and vice versa. All would have to give an account to God and all would have to submit to Christ, the ultimate leader of the church.
We see therefore that healthy churchlife provides a most conducive environment for the believer to grow and to develop towards maturity. It allows him to be in a context where he can enjoy protection in the midst of various influences and pressures of the fallen world; it also affords him protection in the face of the spiritual attacks and onslaught of the evil one. It gives him the opportunity to receive wholesome preaching and teaching which are essential for his growth in the wholesome knowledge of God and His ways. There is also the context of the body life, where the believer can contribute, receive, encourage and receive encouragement. Through interaction and fellowship, the believer learns from others and in turn contributes to the lives of others, making progress in the building up of the body of Christ.
Hence, for the child of God to ensure that he stands in the last days, he ought to make sure that he grows and develops in the context of a local congregation and healthy churchlife.