The Epidemic of Irresponsibility
A growing problem throughout our society is absenteeism. Compared with past generations, students today are less faithful in attending classes. Employees are less dependable in showing up for work. And church members are more sporadic in going to church. The reason is that many people today, especially young people, feel less need to meet their responsibilities. They have a weak commitment to duty.
Why? Because many are too selfish. They measure every option by its potential to make them feel good, and if its feel-good quotient falls below a certain level, they reject it.
Why else? Because many are too soft. Any slight physical or emotional upset incapacitates them, leaving them unable to keep up normal routines.
A Battle Raging
It is a good thing that our nation does not have to fight another war like World War II. Never again will we be able to mobilize a whole nation to live sacrificially for the sake of a war effort, with the chief burden falling on a massive army of citizen-conscripts. People today would be too selfish and soft to meet the challenge.
But we as Christians are in a far more significant and terrible war than any war with guns and bullets (Eph. 6:10-7). The church battles the kingdom of darkness for possession of the souls of men (Matt. 16:18). Each individual believer fights a relentless enemy seeking to destroy his joy and testimony (1 Pet. 5:8). To prevail, we must overcome selfishness and softness (2 Tim. 2:3-4; 1 Cor. 9:24-7). One proof that we are good soldiers is faithful support of the church, a support that does not neglect membership and regular attendance.
The Great Commission Revisited
As we observed in the last lesson, Jesus used four verbs to define the mission of the church (Matt. 28:18-20):
- make disciples,
- teach all things whatsoever He has commanded.
Also as we observed earlier, every person alive has reciprocal obligations. He must
- receive the one sent,
- become a disciple,
- be baptized,
- hear and believe the teaching of all these things.
These obligations place him in a role of dependence upon the church, for it is the church that gives him the gospel, baptizes him, and instructs him in Bible truth. Clearly, then, God expects a Christian to go to church.
Moreover, because a Christian has become a disciple and received baptism, he is himself now a member of the church. Whether or not he belongs to a local assembly of believers, he belongs to the church universal, which includes all believers in Christ—the same church that Christ addressed when He laid down the Great Commission. Therefore, every Christian has an obligation to participate in the work of going, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching. But how can he do anything worthwhile by himself? A lone wolf is not very effective. To do the work of Christ in such a way as to achieve real and lasting results, he must do it in cooperation with other Christians. He must join a church and support its ministries, as well as using it as a base for his own ministries.
Why a New Believer Needs the Church
A new convert might object that he does not need the church to teach and exhort him. He might say, rather presumptuously, that he can teach himself everything he needs to know. After all, he has the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Are they not sufficient? In defense of his ambition to be independent, he might even know enough Scripture to quote Psalm 119:99-100.
But this verse is talking about a mature Christian. Indeed, a Christian with discernment honed by deep study and faithful application of the Word can be his own teacher. Although he profits by the ministries of the church, he could survive spiritually without them. But a new Christian is a spiritual infant (1 Cor. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:2). Like a baby, he must depend on others to feed him. His own mind still gives some attention to a lifetime of worldly influence, and his own heart still carries some baggage left by a lifetime of sin, so that even though he reads the Bible, he may not come to the right conclusions. He may force Scripture to fit his pre-existing ideas and habits. He needs to sit under the teaching of godly men, who will show him the true meanings and correct applications of Scripture.
The Holy Spirit can, without help from any human agency, bring such conviction to the heart of a new believer as to break down his foolish habits, and such enlightenment as to dispel his foolish ideas. But God prefers to work through the church. He never takes direct action that preempts a ministry He has given His children. Because such a ministry is good for them, He declines to interfere with it. Consequently, He directs a new convert to attend church and, if he refuses to go, gives him no promise of private tutoring by the Spirit.
The Divine Plan
God's plan for spiritual babes is to place them in a nursery under the care of gifted people. The nursery is the church (Eph. 1:22–23; 4:4–7, 12–16). Besides others with specialized skills (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:28–31), the gifted include four kinds of leaders (Eph. 4:11).
- Apostles. In the New Testament, this term is reserved for leaders of the early church, among them the original twelve disciples (Luke 22:14), Matthias (Acts 1:26), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:14), James the Lord's brother (Gal. 1:19), Titus and his two unnamed companions (2 Cor. 8:23), Timothy and Silas (1 Thess. 1:1; 2:6), and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25). The term apostle means "one sent," referring to someone like a messenger or ambassador.
- Prophets. The term prophet comes from roots which convey the meaning "speak forth." In Biblical usage, it refers to anyone who speaks under divine inspiration or with divine enablement. Thus, in the New Testament, a prophet variously denotes a foreteller (Acts 11:27-8; 21:10-1), a preacher (Acts 15:32), or a writer of Scripture (2 Pet. 3:2; Eph. 3:5). The meaning of "prophets" in Ephesians 3:5 suggests that when it recurs a few verses later, in Ephesians 4:11, Paul intends the authors of the New Testament.
- Evangelists. Only two figures in the New Testament are called evangelists: Philip, one of the original seven deacons (Acts 21:8) and Timothy (2 Tim. 4:5). Paul's instructions to Timothy show that he regarded an evangelist as primarily a church-planter (1 Tim. 3:1-13; 5:21-22; 2 Tim. 2:2), who exercised some continuing authority over the new churches he had established (1 Tim. 1:3; 5:19-20).
- Pastor-teachers. The King James Version treats the two offices as distinct, but most interpreters infer from the Greek construction that Paul is describing only one office, involving both pastoring and teaching. The parallel passage (1 Cor. 12:28) mentions only teachers.
The list is obviously a descending hierarchy. No longer in our midst do we see apostles, or prophets in the narrow sense intended by Paul. Only the last two offices remain in our day.
The Work of Discipling
The church's ministry to new believers resembles school teaching. A teacher labors within a framework of predetermined strategies, methods, goals, and objectives. Strategies lay out general approaches to teaching that take some larger perspective into account (such as the needs of students, a particular theory of learning, or the teacher's worldview). Methods name the specific techniques and tools, whereas goals and objectives state the content to be learned. In a course on beginning algebra, for example, the goals list the main content areas, and the objectives list the specific topics. As for strategies and methods, an algebra teacher might shape the course to meet the special needs of poorer students, and to implement this strategy, he might use both lecture and individualized instruction, two examples of methods.
Likewise the church has methods, strategies, goals, and objectives. Paul in Ephesians 4 reveals what they are.
- Method. The only legitimate method of ministry is "speaking the truth in love" (v. 15). It is not enough to speak truth. Without love, truth is a bitter pill that the hearer instinctively spits out. The Bible advises all Christian workers to use gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24) and tact (Col. 4:6) founded on genuine concern (Gal. 5:13).
- Strategy. The strategy for ministry is to employ only those methods that edify the saints (v. 12). We must avoid the trap of doing whatever is most popular or entertaining.
- Objectives. Paul mentions several. The work of the church should equip the saints for ministry (v. 12), produce unity of the faith (v. 13), increase knowledge of Christ (v. 13), and build resistance to false doctrine (v. 14).
- Goal. There is one overarching goal—to help spiritual babes grow to maturity, defined as becoming like Christ (vs. 13, 15).
The Only Valid Reasons for Not Attending
To gain the benefits the Lord provides through the church, how often is it necessary to attend? To what extent must a Christian be involved in his church?
The Bible does not respond to these questions directly. But it leaves no doubt as to the right answer. Perhaps the most helpful passage is Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The idea tying the passage together is this: if we love God as much as we ought, we will devote as much time as we can to learning, meditating upon, and teaching His Word.
In one week of our lives we have approximately 112 waking hours. The church asks us to spend only four or five of these in church services. If we stay away from the gatherings that God provides to ground us in His Word, how can we imagine that we are making His Word the center of our lives, as Deuteronomy 6 requires? We should come to church whenever the doors are open, unless we are (as we say) "Providentially hindered." That is, we should come unless God intervenes to keep us away. Viewing the hindrance as Providential is appropriate under three circumstances.
- We are too sick to come,
- We have no transportation to church.
- We must carry out a deed of mercy or necessity. A mother may stay home to care for a sick child. A fireman may go to work instead of church because there is no sabbath rest for emergencies. A man may miss a service because he has stopped to help a stranded motorist.
A. W. Tozer, the godly Christian leader active in the middle part of the twentieth century, wrote a classic article bemoaning American mobility. The ease of travel, he complained, was seriously disrupting the ministries of the church during the summer, as people were using vacation time to go hither and yon instead of staying at home and attending their local church. He would be appalled at how undependable many of our families have become, not just during the summer, but all year around, because they would rather leave town over the weekend. There is a proper balance, of course. Now that a typical family is spread across the country, it is important that they keep up close relationships by visiting each other. But it also important to be a faithful member of a local church, coming as much as possible, even it means foregoing another trip to Grandma’s. After all, Jesus taught that serving Him comes before family obligations (Matt. 10:37; Luke 9:59-62).
The Duty of a Mature Christian
After a Christian has sat in church for many years and learned all things whatsoever, is he then free to pick up his diploma and leave? No. The aim of his education in spiritual things has been to prepare him to share in the work of the church (Eph. 4:12). The church helps each believer grow so that when he is mature, he can help others grow also. It feeds him so that someday he can be a feeder.
Scripture includes teaching in the job description of every mature Christian (Heb. 5:12). (In James 3:1, where "master" is the same word, "teacher," we find the apparently opposite instruction, but James is likely thinking of a teacher in leadership—in other words, a pastor-teacher). Indeed, not only in the family, but also in the church there are, or should be, abundant opportunities to teach. In most churches, the ministries that require teachers include Sunday School and children's church, as well as other ministries to children and youth. Sharing the gospel is also a form of teaching. Therefore, everyone is a teacher who helps in ministries of outreach to the community. A healthy church is one that offers every mature Christian many opportunities to participate in evangelizing the lost and feeding the young in faith.
It is obvious that a Christian cannot take advantage of these opportunities, or of the many other opportunities to serve God under the umbrella of a church, if he attends a church without joining it. A mature Christian must therefore not only remain faithful in attending a church; he must also keep his membership in a church.
What does it mean to be mature? It does not mean old in years or perfect in character or complete in wisdom. Where we have said "mature," perhaps we should have said "mature enough." A believer needs some knowledge and experience before he seeks to teach others anything beyond the simple gospel. But the prerequisite is not to attain a high spiritual plateau. Indeed, the best way to advance quickly in knowledge of God's Word is to prepare lessons, and the best way to grow quickly in Christian experience is to become active in ministering to people. Therefore, even a young believer should seek out opportunities to teach.
The Importance of Being Part of a Church
The text generally used to show the necessity of church involvement is Hebrews 10:25, which indeed shows that detachment from the church is contrary to God's will. But the text is instructive also in another way. It teaches that church involvement will become even more imperative as "the day" approaches. It means the day of Christ's return. The author is undoubtedly thinking of Christ's many warnings that the Last Days will be a dangerous time (Matt. 24:38-9; Luke 18:7-8; 21:34-6).
- It will be a time when people, even professing Christians, will eat and drink to excess.
- They will be obsessed with marrying and giving in marriage.
- They will be consumed with worldly care and anxiety.
- They will be so deficient in faith that they will stop praying.
- They will stop looking for Christ's return.
Paul, building on what Christ Himself taught, added many details to the picture Scripture gives us of this same historical period (2 Tim. 3:1-4, 13; 4:3-4).
- Men will be proud, selfish, and treacherous in character.
- They will have a form of Christian religion, but it will be spiritually empty.
- Foolish teaching will enter the church, even as good teaching is scorned.
Living as we do in the Last Days, we face all these perils as a present reality. The writer of Hebrews counsels us that an essential safeguard against the snares crowding our path is faithful participation in a good church, where godly men can exhort us how to walk.
A Warning against Forsaking the Church
The Book of 1 John furnishes several ways of assessing whether we truly belong to Christ. One of the most important is the love test (1 John 3:14). If a person stays away from church, can he say that he loves his brothers in Christ? Does he love them if he chooses never to see them? One mark of love is a desire to be near the beloved. A professing Christian with so little regard for other Christians that he is content to live apart from the church should, on the authority of 1 John, question his salvation. The test of brotherly love finds him to be no different from a heathen.