Category Archives: denominationalism

The problem with talking about “my” church…

…is that it reeks of sectarianism. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe for a second that most of the people who use this language when referring to the congregation they’re a part of mean it like that, but when I come along talking about “my” church as opposed to “your” church I am denying a great deal of the New Testament revelation concerning Christ’s church in doing so.

In the New Testament “the church” is identified simply according to the place where the community of Christ-followers is gathered together. A few times this is seen to be in a private home, but mostly it is confined to the boundary of a specific city or town. The local church is just that-all the disciples of Jesus in a given locality.

To talk about the church in any other way is to perpetuate the centuries-long confusion that daily arises over the rampant (mis)use of that word.

Some Christians are very frustrated with their oft-attended congregation. They are disappointed with the leadership’s lack of social concern as opposed to the more liberal-minded gathering on the other side of town, for instance. Yet other Christians are very proud of the work and assumed identity of their particular group, finding it hard not to boast about the way “their” church follows more closely to the heart and teachings of Jesus than others do.

And again I say, it all reeks of sectarianism.

Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not ranting and I’m not upset. And I don’t claim to know the way any better than the next guy. I myself experimented with a handful of other brothers and sisters for about three years in a more “organic” expression of church life and we too failed to impact the world in any significant way. So I will gladly take my place in line and join the swelling ranks of those who talk like they know what’s up when evidently they really don’t. 🙂

It’s just that when you’ve seen something you’ve seen something, that’s all there is to it. And when you’ve really spied something of the truth-something which you would gladly compromise on if you could but you can’t-then the only recourse is to pursue it.  

All I know is, I cannot in good conscience talk about “my” church and “your” church like I once did. It took a heavy dose of revelation and lots of practice to break those old habits and bring me to the point of actually changing my speaking. In other words, I had to train myself to begin to speak in a language that better reflects the reality of Christ. And the journey is not over, obviously. 

Wherever we are, we all need a greater consciousness of our oneness with fellow seekers. The more we get in touch with the actual source of life the more our living and speaking will reflect that life, and vice versa. There is no merit in merely imitating the language and forms of first-century churches, as that would be counter-productive to our calling. Our calling is not to follow a form or a model but a living Person. This is the true meaning of “organic.” At the same time, however, we may certainly gauge the success of our own following by looking at the standard of those who have followed him closely in the past.  

Jesus said it best when he pointed out that what is in a man’s heart will inevitably come out of his mouth. The way we talk about things reveals our understanding of things, and the church is no exception to that rule. When I talk about “my” church in contrast to “their” church in reference to other believers who live just across town, a few blocks away, or in some cases only a few doors down, all I am doing is showing the world that I have no idea what the church really is.



Living a church life that involves ALL God’s people

The brothers and sisters I meet with on a regular basis are few in number. It’s been that way all three years we’ve been together. And while I am thoroughly convinced that it is not our number but simply what we are that makes for the Lord’s testimony, we often long for more fellowship with other believers. So in the past six months or so, as the light of the local church being the fellowship of all God’s people in a given place has dawned upon me, I’ve been moved to more actively seek out fellowship with other believers beyond the “walls” of our particular circle.

Thus far, the results of this endeavor have been both rewarding and frustrating. While we have been able to connect with many brothers and sisters who have different backgrounds and emphases of truth, at the same time it’s been difficult to gain any kind of reciprocation to our reaching out. Whether they are too busy, too cautious or simply do not see the importance of it, many saints don’t seem to have much desire to really go beyond their own congregation to have fellowhsip with other local believers. It’s heartbreaking, really. 

Even still, we press on. If the church is really one, and if the practical expression of that oneness is the local church in the city, made up of all believers who reside in a given locality, then we are obligated to go beyond our little circle to embrace fellowship with all believers. Even as we seek to be true to the truth the Lord has committed to us and to go forward with the light He has granted, we must walk in step with this realization that the local church is not just my little organic group. The local church encompasses all the saints in my city who call upon the name of the Lord, and even if they will not live like it I must. To do any less than this is to be a sect and not a church. To whatever degree possible, even as I seek to move forward with the few brothers and sisters I share life with on a day to day basis, I still have to find some way to experience and display a practical unity with all the believers in my town. Anything short of this will never come close to fulfilling God’s purpose.

So then, we must be true to what we see. We must go forward upon the ground of oneness, meeting simply as fellow members of the church in our city, expressing the Lord Jesus in truth and fullness. But we must also put into practice a local church life that extends beyond our own borders, for though we are taking our stand according to the way we believe God views the situation, the fact remains that we are not the only peeps in town who are “of Christ”. Therefore our fellowhsip must never be confined to any particular group or party. It takes “all the saints” to comprehend the awesome depths of the love of God, and only together will we ever come to know Him in His fullness.

Concluding thoughts on the ground of the church

So for a few posts now we have looked at the ground of the church. I hope it’s been of some benefit to you. We’ve seen how the ground of the church is tied to the practical display of our unity in Christ. I have yet to find a truly diverse group of believers who share a common life in Christ and regularly come together who do not gather upon this ground. Without the restriction laid upon us by this revelation of the local church, it is only natural that we will gravitate toward those believers who share our own personal tastes, doctrines, and dispositions. 

In Corinth, for instance, where the situation was so explosive it might have resulted in numerous congregations spread throughout the city-some based upon a certain man’s ministry, some based upon the exercise of spiritual gifts, and so forth-what did Paul do to help remedy the saints’ outlook? He pointed them to Christ and the cross, and gave them a wonderful presentation of the great diversity of the Body of the Lord. Simply because we are different, or because we emphasize different aspects of the divine revelation, is no reason to separate. We still must come together as the church in our city. Otherwise the testimony of the Lord will be lost. The walls will be thrown down, the holy stones scattered, the vessels of the Lord all carried away to Babylon, and in the absence of the House of God we will all go to building synagogues.

To conclude this series, then, I’d like to refer back again to another post I wrote a year or so ago entitled The local church: A history of change. Be sure to take a look at it before you go. Share some thoughts of your own while you’re at it. If you’re one of those who senses the Lord’s call to rebuild, let me say that the ground is all-important. The temple can only be built on that spot which the Lord has chosen to give a true expression of Himself. And while all Christians will respond to Paul’s inquiry-“Is Christ divided?”-with an emphatic “no”, not all seem to understand how that translates practically.

Oh Lord Jesus, do a work in our day and age that is beyond all that we are able to ask or think! Stir our spirits and give us a heart like David, who refused to lie down on his own bed until he had secured a dwelling place for You to rest Yourself. Show us Your plan and Your purpose to re-take this earth for Yourself, and how wonderfully bound up with that plan is the coming together of brothers and sisters for fellowship! Break down any wall that divides us and make us one with each other as You, Lord, are one with your Father. May it be practical and may it be real, that the world may believe and have life through Your name!

Seeing the ground of the church in Revelation 2-3

Where in the New Testament do you see a Christian leaving the church he is part of to go and join another? Or where do you see a brother getting fed up with the shallow teaching he receives in the assembly and going off to “start” his own church just down the road?

Even in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation, where the Lord gives a message to each of the seven churches, when do you ever see the Lord advising someone to leave his church and find a better one?

The principle of one city, one church is consistent throughout the opening chapters of Revelation. Here again we see nothing other than “the church… at such-and-such a place.” The Lord is speaking to all His followers who live in each town. And man, some of these churches had problems! The church at Ephesus had left her first love for the Lord; the church in Pergamum had some who held the “teaching of Balaam,” and the “teaching of the Nicolaitans”, leading God’s people astray from Christ; the church in Thyatira was tolerating the presence of false teachers who encouraged people toward a lifestyle of sexual immorality; the church in Sardis had digressed into a form of godliness which denied the real power and life of God-their life was largely one of outward formality lacking any true inward life; and the church in Laodicea was full of spiritual pride and complacency!

Strikingly absent in any of these cases, however, is the Lord telling anyone they should leave their church and find a better one. Nor does he say, “You who are overcomers, separate yourselves from such wicked doctrines and practices, and form a separate assembly so you can get it right!”

You see, in the first century, if you were a follower of the Lord Jesus and you lived in Thessalonica, you were part of the church in Thessalonica. You lived and gathered and fellowshipped with the other believers in town on a regular basis. To be “in Christ” and “in the church” were practically one and the same thing. The same goes for any other town. What about bigger cities with more people, you might ask? Well, if you were a believer in Jerusalem, for instance, where there was a larger number of disciples, perhaps you wouldn’t see all the saints regularly, or perhaps you wouldn’t know them all very well, simply by virtue of the fact that there were so many (and obviously there would be many different meeting places of the church throughout the city, mostly in the believers’ homes). But still the church was uniquely one. There were large gatherings for all to hear the apostles speak in Solomon’s Porch, and there was a wonderful inter-mingling between the saints for the breaking of bread and prayers in their varioius houses. The home gatherings were not along the lines of most “house churches” today, however (many of which are not built on the ground of the church and operate separately from other local believers). Rather, there was a consciousness of unity even though there were separate meeting places. And they were all just “the church” in their city. Nothing more, nothing less.

At least, this is the ideal which found expression for a while. 🙂

The point is, nowhere in the first century among any of the churches, whether large or small, do you find any example of Christians leaving one church to “go to” another. The whole thought is simply foreign to the New Testament. What a beautiful standard we have left to us by our early brothers and sisters!

No, things were not perfect. The more I study the New Testament the less I romanticize the experience of first century believers. There were parties, there were developing factions, and there were problems galore. Nowhere did it take long for the human element to creep in and spoil the show. But, overall, the expression of the church which we see in the pages of scripture is one of aspiring toward this ideal of the one Body of Christ in undivided local expression. The House of God built firmly on the ground of locality, with all believers living and meeting as one new man. 

Could it ever be that way again, here in Christian America? I won’t dare to venture an answer to that question, though it seems unlikely to me. But well within the range of possibility, and even proven experience, is for a representative group of believers-like those Jews whose spirits were stirred by the proclamation of Cyrus to return to Jerusalem-to go back, reclaim the original ground, sift through the rubble until they find the foundation of their faith, and begin the task of rebuilding the House of God on its proper ground, which is the local church.

I realize that with all this talk about the church I’m running the risk of gross misunderstanding. I’m also well aware of how this stuff can be taken wrongly, misconstrued, or twisted. I’m not trying to present anything legalistic here. I’m not saying you should get a map, mark out the city lines, then set up some airtight organizational entity based upon geography. All I’m trying to do is present the Lord’s own view, as best as it can be discerned from the example of scripture, to which those who have the hunger may repair. This is such a wonderful, liberating thing. The reality of God’s people all being one in Christ! As much as He has made us one with Himself He’s also made us one with each other! That we can all hold to our personal convictions over things, allowing each other the same grace to differ over non-essential items of belief and practice, and yet still come together as brothers and sisters enjoying the same salvation and the same rich Lord! 

In the first century, believers gathered upon this ground. Paul poured out his life to preserve this unity of the Spirit. The fact that we see no example in scripture of a Christian being advised to leave one church for another for whatever reason, but rather to hold the ground and minister Christ as an overcomer, is setting forth a very high standard for our own conduct. It may be possible to leave a denomination, a sect, or a “group” (and at certain points commendable), but it is not possible to leave the local church, not if you have really seen what the church is. Find some saints who are captured by this vision and gather upon this ground and you’ll have found a group of people who are in this thing together for the long haul. Such a testimony is rare, very rare, in our day, yet I say the world we’re living in is in dire need of it!

Where do you go to church? (re-post)

For the next installment of this series on the ground of the church I’d like to refer back to my post from March 24 of last year entitled Where do you go to church? Follow the link if you’d like to see the original comments, otherwise here’s a re-post of the entire article…

Can you imagine what it would be like if all the saints in your town gathered as one body, in love and in freedom? What a testimony that would be to the reality of Jesus Christ!

In the first century a church was identified only by its location. In other words, the biblical ground of the church is locality, and the only biblical grounds for separation between one church and another is location. It’s all a matter of geography, you see. In the New Testament you never see a church with a name. You only see “the church at such-and-such a place.” The issue is one of locality.

Alas, however, the setup of most “churches” today denies this basic fact of oneness and locality. The church building is the center of fellowship, where all (or most) of the action takes place, and people are drawn to come to it from many surrounding localities. Sadly, the people who gather in this manner are not provided much of a life together outside of the Sunday services, simply by virtue of the fact that they do not live near one another. The believers are scattered, much like the Jewish people were under Babylonian captivity long ago. Thus the majority of true church life-which is more than a weekly meeting but a day-to-day living together as the body of Christ-is lost.

Then consider this: Most “churches” today have names that reflect either a man, a doctrine, or a particular ideology, whether drawn from scripture or not. This is a contradiction of the true nature of the church, which has its life in Christ and gathers unto His name alone. This kind of gathering around a particular doctrine or teaching, or a gifted individual who handles all the ministry, is a major hindrance to any hope we might have of a practical unity finding expression among the Lord’s people.

If you were to ask me at different points in my life where I went to church I might have answered, “First Baptist,” “God’s Tabernacle,” or something similar. But if you were to ask God what church I am a member of, He would simply say, “the church in Portsmouth.”

It’s funny if you think about it. The very question most people spend so much time fretting over-“Where should I go to church?”-has already been answered for them by God. If you are a believer, if you have the life of God inside of you, then you are a part of the church in the town where you live. Period. If only all God’s people would see this precious truth and begin to live and gather according to it!

I am already a member of a local church, the church at Portsmouth. I don’t need to sign up or enroll in any membership class, or join a particular organization. I became a member by spiritual birth. The very moment I was born again in Jesus Christ I was also born into the family of God. The family of God worldwide, yes, but more specifically, the family of God in my own town. Membership in the local church comes by spiritual birth!

Even still, it’s not enough to confess this truth in theory and never see it come to any practical expression. The fulfillment of God’s purpose demands a practical expression of the church; therefore, we have to face this issue practically. If God has given us light concerning the local character of His church and the oneness of His body then we must follow through with it, as impossible and impractical as it may seem. This is how believers gathered in the first century. I know times have changed and that our situation today is drastically different than theirs was then, but even so, God’s will is just the same. Could it ever really be this way again, if only on a small scale? How I wish! But as the old song goes, “though none go with me, still I will follow.” This then is what we must work towards and live for: A true expression of the body of Christ!

Your comments and thoughts are more than welcome on this post, as I realize most people have probably never looked at things in this way before. I’m interested to know what you think.

Returning to God’s chosen ground

After re-reading yesterday’s post I realized that all the stuff I was trying to say I’ve said before on this blog, and said better. Check out the post entitled Is Christ Divided? and judge for yourself. The opening quote from that article is worth re-posting here for the sake of our present conversation:

“The denominational divisions which accentuate the problem are perpetrating an image of a divided Christ to the community in which we live. Such an image is at variance with the unity of the body into which we were all baptized. The same arguments that Paul used to deal with the factions and personality cults of the Corinthian church are applicable [here and now]. We can not hide behind some concept of ‘spiritual unity’ which has little or no embodiment in structure or institution; for, not only does it drive an unnatural and unbiblical wedge between the physical and the spiritual, it is also nonsense to the world to which we are called to be in mission, and thereby denies the very basis of the unity for which Christ prayed.”-Ian Cundy

As we looked at the Old Testament foreshadowing of the ground of the church (taking the temple in Jerusalem to be a type of the church), we saw that the ground had a unique significance in the plan of God. For there God chose to place His name. But what does that mean? Well, when I think of a person’s name I think of everything that makes that person who they are. Their personality, their character-everything about them is bound up in their name. So when God says “I will place my name there,” He is saying, “Here is where people can go to find out who I am. Out from this place I will express myself in all my glory.”

This was the testimony of Israel when the people gathered together each year at Jerusalem. By their unity and through their fellowship they were meant to show the world who God was.

In the above quote Ian Cundy mentions the prayer of Jesus in John 17. “Make them one, Father, even as you and I are one, that the world may believe You have sent me.” Here Jesus basically implies that the salvation of the world depends upon the express unity of His followers. Why? Because the purpose of God is to re-unite all things in His Son. Through Christ God is raising out of the ashes of fallen humanity a new creation over whom He is Head. He is raising a testimony to Himself. He is building a House not made with human hands that forms His answer to the confusion and division of Babylon. In the words of T. Austin Sparks, “God is concerned with the accomplishment of something worthy of Himself,” and the world will acknowledge His reality when they see in operation something which they in themselves know is humanly impossible to create.  

All this may sound very wonderful and heavenly, but it is intensely practical. It must be practical. If the church is all heavenly with no expression in the earth than I dare say she counts for nothing against principalities and powers. The whole purpose of God is to make visible something in the earth that is conforming to the image of His Son, so the rulers of the darkness of this age might be overthrown by a vessel who is taking back the dominion the first Adam forfeited to the snake.

All this and more is bound up with this matter of the ground of the church.

In Corinth the saints were ready to forsake the ground. They were ready to give up the unity of the local assembly for something less than Christ. And had they done it, what would have been the result? Paul’s question-“is Christ divided?”-gives us the answer. Paul’s point of reference for everything relating to the life of the church was Christ, for the church is to be the expression of Christ. Therefore whatever is not the image of Christ cannot be the practice of the church. Were the saints to forsake the ground of the church there would have been no true expression of Christ left to give to the city of Corinth, even though there were members of the Body of Christ still meeting together, evangelizing, teaching, and so forth. Without the ground there can be no temple, no house. If there is no practical unity, then what is there for the world to believe in? A Christ who is just as divided as the whore of Babylon? When you go into a city and you see five different kinds of grocery stores, seven different banks, and three competing gas stations, you may not think anything of it, for such is the way of the world system. But when you go into a city and you search out the believers in Christ you should see something different. Something other-worldly. Something that actually looks like a new society-a new humanity reunited in the Son as Head over all things. Yet what do you so often see? You see First Baptist, Second Presbyterian, and the third church of whatever. You see a divided Christ.

In the words of Jeremiah, “the holy stones lie scattered” (Lamentations 4:1). There are Christians, yes, and even many of them are congregating together in a certain kind of way. But as for the House of God built upon His chosen ground, out from which God intends to show forth a true, undivided expression of His Christ-the walls are broken down. Chances are this is the case in your city, dear reader. There is a church in your city, but the walls of her testimony have been thrown down. The vessels of the Lord have all been carried off to Babylon, and the ground has been forsaken. Do you see the significance of that ground in the plan of God? Do you realize the importance of His House? Scholars tell us it was a very small remnant of Jews who responded to Cyrus’ decree to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Those who remained in Babylon were no less the people of God, no less loved, no less blessed, and no less favored. But for the few whose spirits were stirred it was not enough to go on enjoying religious life in the synagogues while the house and city of God lay in ruins. No matter what it cost they would go back to rebuild. Back to God’s chosen ground. 

“You who have escaped the sword, go, do not stand still! Remember the Lord from far away, and let Jerusalem come into your mind.” (Jeremiah 51:50)

“Take the vessels of the Lord, return them to the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its site!” (Ezra 5:15)

“To the church in Corinth”

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)

The first nine words of this verse constitute a pattern that is consistent all throughout the New Testament writings: “The church… at such-and-such a place.” There is only one church-one universal Body of Christ made up of all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ-that is expressed locally according to the city in which the believers reside.

Tonight I was with a brother. He told a story about how an old friend of his whom he recently reconnected with asked him what church he is a part of. He responded, “the church in Portsmouth.” His friend replied, “yeah, but what is the name of the church?”  Apparently he couldn’t conceive of a gathering of believers which doesn’t have a name. It’s funny how in today’s Christianity you can’t refer simply to the church in the city without it sounding strange to the ears of most people, yet at the same time you can’t talk about the churches in scripture without doing so! Nowhere in the New Testament do you see anything other than the church in the city. Consistently, all you find is the one Body of Christ, locally expressed.

(The possible exception to this rule is the church in the home. For my thoughts on that check here.)

But at the time Paul wrote this greeting to the church in Corinth, things were coming apart. Divisions were springing up. Other workers had visited the city since Paul’s departure, and some of the saints were factioning off around their favorite apostle. “I follow Paul,” some would say, while others proclaimed their loyalty to Peter or Apollos. To top it all off there were some who boldly announced, as if to shun all the rest, “we follow Christ alone!” 

What was happening here? The church of God at Corinth was in danger of being practically divided. The unity of the Spirit between those who are in Christ will never be disannulled, for it is based not on what we do but what He has done, but in the purpose of God that oneness is to be given practical expression, and that expression can indeed be forfeited. Here in Corinth was one of the first cases where the unity of the church was teetering on the brink of total collapse.

Had Paul not stepped in with this letter, and the supply of the Spirit to bring the saints’ focus back onto Christ and His cross, what would’ve been the result in Corinth? 21st century American Christianity, that’s what! Had you strolled through the city streets you would’ve found a “church” built around Peter’s ministry at the corner of 1st and main, one built upon the ground of Apollos just down the road, a “Pauline” church three blocks over, and worst of all, a little house group who claimed fellowship only with those who were anti-sectarian! God help us!

Was the situation really that perilous, or am I making all this up? Well, it would appear Paul at least was up-in-arms over the whole thing. Any honest believer today will read the first chapter of 1 Corinthians and agree that the situation was not right and something needed to be done, but when you try to apply that same principle to the divided state of present-day Christianity, suddenly it becomes ok!

But there is a convenient cover for this mentality, and it stems from the congregational view of the church. We take 1 Corinthians and apply it only to the specific group of Christians that we meet with. As long as there is unity in our group we think things are ok and according to God’s will. Never mind the fact that other believers are meeting separately just down the road. Yet we forget that 1 Corinthians was written to the saints who made up the entire city. This is because the ground of the church is the city. Scripture never speaks of the church in a county, the church in a region, the church in a nation, or the church on a particular street. The boundary is never bigger or smaller than the city.

Apply that to Corinth, and you see that God’s people were about to forsake the unity of the one Body of Christ-made visible through the local assembly-and divide themselves up into rival sects that were based upon different men’s ministries. No wonder Paul was about to go through the roof.

Having said all this, what are your thoughts? In the first two posts on this subject we dealt with Old Testament foreshadowing regarding the ground of the church. Here we have looked at a practical example from New Testament times. View them together and tell me what you think. Don’t toss it all out the window just because it seems too idealistic. I hope to continue approaching this from different angles in the days to come in order to present a precise and thorough view of the matter, so keep checking back or take a minute to subscribe. In the meantime, feel free to share some feedback.