I would like to share my thoughts concerning the today’s church, the church of the 21st century. It is an important question to ask ourselves, where we are as a body of Christ. What is our role in today’s society, and how can we fulfil our mission? We know, as a universal church that Jesus commanded us to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19). We also know, as fellow brothers and sisters, that the body of Christ must be united in order to fulfil the great commission as it is written in the book of Ephesians, ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’ (Ephesians 4:12-13).
The purpose of this paper is not to address the topic of the great commission but to go a step back and find out what did Apostle Paul mean by ‘building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood…’. After all, achieving these things mentioned above is a desideratum for fruitful work for the Kingdom of God and fulfilling the great commission. The finding here is that the church, particularly in the western culture is insisting on preaching the Gospel of Jesus to the non-believers and neglecting the building up of the body of Christ. In other words, the church is on a ‘whole milk diet’ which unfortunately slows down its growth. Hebrews 5:12-14 warns about this tendency in particular by saying ‘For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.’ As vital as this text is in its entirety I would like to stop and ponder on the words: ‘unskilled in the word of righteousness’.
A very important theological truth often missed out is that we as Christians are in a constant spiritual warfare which means we are at war against Satan 24/7 as long as we choose to do God’s will. Consequently, Satan will always try to destroy the church and the work that God has called us to do. Perhaps one of the most relevant phrases that encapsulates Satan’s attack plan for the church is by John MacArthur who says; ‘Satan continues his efforts to make sin less offensive, heaven less appealing, hell less horrific, and the gospel less urgent.’ Despite all that we do have the assurance from God who is providing us with strength and protection. One of my favourite encouraging verses is in John 16:33 – ‘I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’ Although encouraging, the verse above confirms through the words of Jesus himself that we, as a church will suffer. This can be manifested through persecution of the church or trials, both allowed by God. But what if the church does not experience any suffering? Is it possible that this suffering is not present in some parts of the world? Or is it possible that we do not represent a threat for Satan anymore? Some of the most terrifying diseases for people are those that do not show any symptoms or pain. Hence, making them almost impossible to be detected in time. Similarly, it is a dreadful thing to be attacked without realising. In a society that becomes more and more tolerant toward sin, it is the church’s duty to stand firm and not be tempted to follow trends. Apostle Paul urges us in Romans 12:2 – ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ It is my belief that we are currently living the end of days and there are clear signs that suggest the times. Several texts in the New Testament describe with great accuracy today’s society. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 ‘But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.’ 2 Peter 2:1 ‘But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.’ 2 Timothy 4:3 ‘For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions…’ Matthew 24:12 ‘And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.’ So then how can we remain standing firm in a world so broken? By taking up ‘the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm’ - Ephesians 6:13.
In order to defend ourselves from the enemy it is vital to know the enemy, to know who he is and his power. If as Christians we can identify the sin in our lives / in our churches, then we will know what we need to repent of. Therefore, the Apostle Paul warns about conformity with the world because it leads to spiritual blindness. Once the sin becomes a normal practice it is not regarded as offensive anymore. Furthermore, when sin infiltrates and compromises the church there is no distinction between the body of Christ and the world anymore. Hence, the church becomes ‘unskilled in the word of righteousness’. In a world that embraces sin and promotes the values of selfish men, the church needs to become offensive to the world and stand against its values. But because we are in the world, in the sinful nature, as a church we become sensitive to the ‘sound teaching’. Here lies the challenge for the church – re-embracing the solid food, regaining the powers of discernment, and retrain by constant practice to distinguish good from evil – going back to Hebrews 5:12-14.
The church needs to revisit the values by which we are called to live as Christians, as a fully functioning body of Christ in holiness and righteousness. ‘For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.’ - Romans 6:18. As a church we are called by Jesus to be the salt of the Earth. Salt is not only used to give taste. One other use for salt is for the purpose of preservation. It is not by chance that Jesus used this parable in the sermon on the mount. We are called not only to make a difference but to preserve the truth that is constantly being distorted. But what happens when the church loses its power to do these things? Jesus warns about this danger in his sermon in Luke 14:34 by saying: ‘Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ It is God’s grace manifested in his word that he has provided us with solid food for nurturing our body. Having had milk once accepted Jesus and repented, it is time to grow. ‘Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.’ - 1 Timothy 6:11-12. God in his providence has not only given us the theoretical wisdom through parables but a comprehensive teaching on how to live a holy life, how to pursue righteousness. It is time for the church to look for the solid food in the Scripture for ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.’ - 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Some of the most provocative and unpopular teaching today is inspired through Apostle Paul who provides clear and practical instruction. Here are some of the issues that Paul addresses in his letters of the New Testament that are still present in churches today: · Division (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-23; 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:1-16); · sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 6:12-20); · lawsuits among believers (1 Corinthians 6:1-11); · various issues concerning marriage, family, and the unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:1-39; Ephesians 5:22-6:4; Colossians 3:18-25; 1 Peter 3:1-7); · food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1-13); · idolatry in various forms (1 Corinthians 10:1-22); · taking communion in an ‘unworthy manner’ (1 Corinthians 11:17-33), as well as dealing lightly with the other sacraments; · misusing spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-11; 1 John 4:1-6); · lack of love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13; 1 John 3:11-24); · unorderly worship (1 Corinthians 14:1-40); · no reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-6:13); · compromising the Temple of God (referring to our physical bodies) (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1); · lack of generosity (2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 9:6-15); · presence of false apostles and teachers (2 Corinthians 11:1-15; 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 1 Timothy 6:2-10; 2 Peter 2:1-22; Jude 1:3-16); · idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15); · poor selection of the deacons and elders (1 Timothy 3:1-16; Titus 1-16); · abandonment of the sound doctrine (2 Timothy 3:1-4:8; Titus 2:1-15); · lack of wisdom (James 3:1-5:6).
These are only few of the problems that the universal church / local churches are struggling with, problems that need to be addressed. How can they be addressed? Here are a few principles by which the church needs to stand by and implement where they are absent. First and foremost, church leaders must preach against these issues and signal the alarm where sin is present in the church. It is not enough to preach general repentance but address the problems individually as flagged in the Scripture. Second, conduct a careful selection of the church leaders (deacons, elders) according to the good practice recommended in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 – ‘Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.’ Thirdly, ‘Purge the evil from among you.’ If there is one thing that people are mostly offended by today is of being judged. While we bear in mind that God is the ultimate Judge and know to ‘judge not, that you be not judged’ (Matthew 7:1), the leaders must exercise the authority given to prevent the defile of the church. Paul again is very clear in the instructions written to the church of Corinth: ‘But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.’ (1 Corinthians 5:11-13). Many churches may find this a harsh thing to do. However, Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 shows us how to handle this with love: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.’
As a body of Christ, we are called to be fruitful, we are called to be the salt of the Earth, ‘for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’ - Ephesians 2:10. Today there is still time to re-evaluate our church and ask ourselves: If Jesus was to write a letter addressed to us / our church, what would he say? There may be many things tailored individually but one part may surely apply to all: ‘Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ – Revelation 3:19-22.