IN SEARCH OF THE AUTHENTIC CHURCH
By Rev. Ted Pike
10 Mar 14
Editor's Note: This is the transcript of the first third of my recorded Bible study under this title at Truthtellers.org.
The Bible commands believers not to forsake gathering together. That command will be applied differently by Christians depending on their circumstances, but the bottom line is that it enjoins every believer to come to church.
What is church, according to Jesus and the New Testament? It is certainly not a place we go to be entertained or make friends. It is not even a place we go to soothe our consciences. In fact, it is not primarily a place to be comforted. The purpose of church is to have victory against sin in our lives, to become more spiritual.
The world can provide entertainment, potlucks, coffee, and fellowship. But the world is never going to assist us in becoming holy. The pursuit of holiness often requires hearing what we do not want to hear. We may be corrected in sometimes unpleasant ways. "…the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son." (Heb.12:6) Church is where we learn the deep things of God, how He is radically different from us and His ways from our ways. Church also is where we are empowered and instructed to assist in evangelism to the world.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with churches making their services as enjoyable and attractive as possible, as long as they prioritize their central purpose: to assist God in helping people die to self-will and enter into spiritual rest. "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24) Such is a place of "peace that passes understanding" which keeps our hearts and consciences resting in Jesus.
In this article, I will attempt to define what the Christian church is and can be, largely by considering its origins according to the Book of Acts. Some may object that modern Christians cannot be as dedicated, selfless, and spiritually focused as New Testament saints. Yet the power of the Holy Spirit was once poured out on common men in a way that shook the world. I believe it is the duty of every Christian to seek His power to do it again.
Contrary to the popular conception that the church is a kind of a hospital ship filled with spiritual babes and varying degrees of sick, wounded, battered people being nursed to health, the truest conception of the church of Jesus Christ is as a battleship. Returning to the descriptions of the church in the first chapters of Acts, the church is a spear point, a cutting edge of spiritual conquest over principalities and powers of darkness of this world.
Man is a spiritual and ethical being who must become pleasing to a holy God if he is to live with Him forever in heaven. Man is made in the image of the Spirit, God Almighty, Who imparted that image of Himself into our physical body. We are a complex union of a free will and our physical cause-and-effect body. If we ignore our spiritual guidance system and believe we can live only on a physical plane, according to pleasures, instincts, ambitions, and material desires, we offend both God and our moral nature to such a degree that our life is going to go very wrong. The decisions we make in the spiritual realm profoundly affect human consequences in our lives.
Animals face no such consequences. Animals hunger, kill others, and feel no remorse. They mate, have offspring, and do the same thing the next year. In contrast, human beings create chaos and war by just doing what comes naturally. We are not spiritually deepened when church is a place where people do what comes naturally (expressing such human desires as "I want warm fellowship. I want nice evenings and entertainments and happy retreats."). When church resembles a country club we are not pressured to go in the direction in which church was really intended, toward God.
Without such help, we will make animalistic decisions in some of the most important areas of life. We will make such decisions in response to the stresses of marriage and rearing children, leadership, political choices and business choices. We will often make wrong choices that lead to disastrous consequences. Guided only by the physical and not having spiritual eyes, we may well not even know where we went wrong. This is because we didn't have the kind of depth and moral understanding that only comes from getting what church is meant to stimulate: a spiritual change in our hearts that gives the ability to live without sin. True church teaches us to go to God in simple childlike faith, hear His voice of guidance in a confused world, and obey. Yet because most Christians have not been taught the necessity of relinquishing their lives totally to God, it is no mystery that they don't know what is wrong with their often dysfunctional lives and families.
True spirituality saves us from a world of grief. Tragically, however, in the evangelical church, there is usually little interest in the truly spiritual and theological. This is manifested by great impatience with long or deep sermons. A 20-minute, almost drive-through sermon is the standard. Some might go as long as 40 minutes, but how different this is from a century and a half ago. There are many accounts in the 19th century of families traveling many miles by horse or wagon to the meetinghouse. It was taken for granted they would spend the entire day listening to preaching that often lasted hours. People do not have the ability to spiritually comfort us like the comfort we receive from delving into the deep things of God and even sometimes hearing from Him what we don't want to hear.
I attended a church once and was met in the parking lot by a man who shook my hand warmly and told me, "We have a lot of good fellowship in this church!" I was tempted to ask if there was as much truth. The Sunday school class teacher said, "We are sanctified by associating with other believers." This was an ostensibly holiness Nazarene church. Yet he was asserting that the work of sanctification of the believer (which used to be taught as requiring death to self in Nazarene doctrine) had now morphed into the belief that we are sanctified by rubbing elbows together with other believers.
The Book of Acts Reveals the Purpose of the Church
How can today's church reinvigorate its people to desire the spiritual? To realize how far we have drifted from the truly authentic purpose of the church, we must go back to the Book of Acts where the church in its original form is exemplified. Let's turn to Acts 1:3:
[Jesus] presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. 4 Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Here, the true church consists of focused disciples gathered to wait on the Lord for spiritual empowerment. For us, that spiritual empowerment may come through reading of Scripture, exhortation, reproof, prophecy. This was a group of people consecrated to God without reservation and thus empowered by the Holy Spirit to be His witnesses to the nations. Church is a place to which we go primarily to seek help in achieving spiritual empowerment in our lives. Like the disciples, we should earnestly seek power and direction, believing and hoping that the pulpit may be the oracle from which the guidance we need will come.
Interestingly, before the filling of the Holy Spirit, the disciples, being human, expected a somewhat nonspiritual plan of action. They asked Jesus, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6) Even after all they had witnessed, they still clung to hope for a physical restoration of Israel. Do some of us have that kind of dream, that somehow if we speak enough truth and take enough action, particularly concerning the Jewish supremacist threat, we can throw off Jewish control of the federal government, Federal Reserve, and media, restore our republic, and somehow get back to fidelity to the Constitution? That's a worthy objective, and we certainly have to work in that direction, but that is not the kingdom of God. Jesus said the kingdom of God is in us, which means a moral transformation in our hearts that changes our instincts, values, and the way we react as God leads us in the direction He wants us to go. Acts 1 continues:
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
It is not God's will for any believer to be spiritually immature, lacking victory or direction in this life. Power is a promise from God. Thus, real Christians are like fighter pilots who take to the air into spiritual battle with tremendous firepower against the "prince of the power of the air." (Eph. 2:2) We are warriors, girded, as Paul says, with breastplates of righteousness and helmets of salvation. This is a conception of the church which is missing today. As Christians, we are a battleship for truth, and there is empowerment to fulfill that role. We cannot say: "Well, we live in a culture in which we can't be too militant. We've got to keep the crazies calm." No, the true Christian is a warrior who goes out against the forces of Satan all week as a force for righteousness and then returns to his home base, the church. There, like a fighter pilot, he expects to be debriefed and his actions critiqued.
And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them.
Here is another hint about the nature of the true church. Jesus is bodily gone. He is not here to physically answer our questions anymore, but the church is supposed to be a very important oracle for the messages of Jesus to His soldiers here on earth.
11 They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven." 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.
The church is not the full kingdom of God here on earth. Contrary to what the Preterist movement falsely asserts, Jesus did not come back 2000 years ago, and it is not given to the church to bring about the kingdom of God in its fullest sense here on earth. We are waiting, as the angels said, for the return of Jesus Christ to most fully realize God's great designs and blessings on this world.
13 When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
The true church is a body of intercessors who continue with one accord in prayer and supplication. Yet I heard of a local church that meets in a night club. Between the services the kids are allowed to play videogames to keep them interested and calm. Does that sound like the church of the Book of Acts which had power? Not just the religious experts or the clergy, but "all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication." That sounds like spiritual activity capable of holding back what the apostle Paul called "the beasts of Ephesus" - demonic strongholds these disciples would be encountering in the ancient world. They would be facing the same immorality, homosexuality, occultry and demonic infestation as militant Christians content with today - spiritual darkness which can only be dealt with through holy lives and God's power.
I suspect that if we could fully understand the spiritual world, we would perceive that spiritual warfare does not involve spiritual technology but rather is waged by the wills of the angels against the wills of the demons. Our wills are also meant to war with the principalities and powers of this world. Our wills are the very definition of the spiritual; and when we will in obedience toward God and against evil through prayer and supplication, God honors that, especially when we make it clear we are willing to sacrifice anything to have the Gospel and the whole truth prevail. We must be willing to go to prison and willing to be financially inconvenienced or even desolated for Christ's sake. When we prove that God's truth and His purposes in this world mean more to us than anything else, God promises His power. He respects our sacrifice. When Christ came down and died at Calvary, He willed that Satan be deposed from his power over mankind and He laid down His life a living sacrifice. He carried out what He willed and because of that Isaiah 53:11 says of the Father: "He shall see of the prevail of His soul and be satisfied." Out of Jesus' willingness to go even to the point of death, God then greatly exalted and honored Him, and He was given power to similarly give strength and victory to all who trust in Him. In the pattern of Christ, God allows every kind of affliction to believers who have told Him they are willing to pay any price so the Gospel can go forward. When we prove that by enduring any tribulation for His sake, God is also satisfied. He will fulfill His promise to give us and our church power, as He did to His church in the book of Acts.