Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What is Church, part II

Ok...lots of 'lurkers' out there, but no takers on What Is Church comments. I'm not surprised. The reasons for that form part of my beliefs on church. How about this quote then,

"As I look around on Sunday morning at the people populating the pews, I see the risk that God has assumed. For whatever reason, God now reveals himself in the world not through a pillar of smoke and fire, not even through the physical body of his Son in Galilee, but through the mongrel collection that comprises my local church and every other such gathering in God's name. In this confused and confusing world, we are called to share in the representation of what God is like, to give God form in this world. Martin Luther called us "God's masks": because the world cannot withstand the direct force of God's glory, he said, God uses human beings as the prime expression of himself....We humans cause God great pain, yet God remains passionately involved with us. Should not I have something of that same attitude toward the church around me?"

The above quote is from Philip Yancy in his book entitled, Church: Why Bother? Interesting thoughts that come from a section of teaching out of 1 Corinthians. I don't think any believing Christian would argue his thoughts. My question to you is this, how do you think that relates to the institution of church? Do you believe scripturally that the Lord commands us to be in community within a church setting? What do you think? Game enough to leave a comment....?


Nate Maas said...

Let me start a bit off topic by saying that all who read and do not post are may not be 'lurking' but perhaps reflecting and not wishing to speak in haste. My fear here is that I would speak as Elihu who remained silent, then after careful thought and listening to Job, provided little additional help for six chapters.

The church is an interesting subject and one with a bit of personal history for me. Recently I have had several friends from Bible college reconnect with me and inform me that they were no longer attending church. They had decided that church was full of people there to wound and backstab and that they were better off enjoying their Sunday mornings, spending time with their families and having private devotional time. These were not follower-type Christians, but heartfelt believers. From their letters it is easy to follow the chain of events that lead to their situations. Now, I am not adverse to an occasional retreat to a quiet place, but these were believers who had not left for a Sunday or two, but for years now.

As I know this subject will take me off on tangents and I don't want wander from your topic, here is my personal answer to several questions in your last two posts. Several of your questions came down to why do I go to church, so I’ll give my thoughts here.

After thinking for a time, I go to church for several reasons (not all are in play every time, but sometimes more than one of these in combination):

1) It’s my custom; 2) It can be exhilarating; 3) It can be challenging; 4) To gather with other believers; 5) As an example for my kids; 6) It’s a witness to others of my relationship with Jesus; 7) To be obedient to God.

Let me explain.

1. Custom. Habits can be both bad and good. Sometimes I go to church because I just don’t even think about it. It’s what we do on Sunday. I think of Daniel when Darius signed the decree to pray to no God, but the king, it is written that Daniel continued to pray three times a day “as was his custom since early days.” Was it required of Daniel to pray three times a day? I don’t think so, but it was his pattern of interacting with God. Would it have been wrong then for Daniel to stop praying during the 30 days, since it was not required, but only a custom? I believe so, because he would have clearly been giving deference to man over God. This would have broken the “Have no other gods before Me” command. However, if the habit becomes more important that the reason for the habit, the pattern should be set aside. For example, if I notice someone looking like they are in distress while on my way to church, I hope I will be sensitive enough to stop and put the immediate need ahead my own inconvenience.

2. Joy. It is fun for me to worship with other people. I like sitting in the front of church because it’s less distracting for me. I love singing with other believers. I don’t sign well, but I worship from my heart. I remember as a boy occasionally being bothered by people who were very loud and very off key. However as I got to know them, I began to realize that their volume was their way of worshipping naked and unashamed before their Maker. It is my hope that the Sprit intercedes and translates my voice into something acceptable to the Father. Worship is a way I am vulnerable before others and before God. I find that God meets me in a good and wholly different way than when I meet with him individually and I want all of him and not just the parts that I think I should have.

3. Challenge. In your second post, you allude to God using other humans to represent himself. I believe this to be true. Being with others is a time where God can challenge me to learn from others in ways that I wouldn't normally want to. I find that our sinful nature attempts to fashion our concepts of God in ways that we would want him to be and in comfortable ways. God likes to disturb our comfort and reveal ever new facets of his being to those who seek him. I don’t always like it because it is often a mirror that reveals my own sinfulness. Who is Jesus? Is he the lover of my soul or is he the coming judge? Is he Grace Church Jesus or is he underground house church Jesus? He is all and more. He is the Ancient of Days and also Abba. He is the Lord of Hosts and the Still Small Voice. He is the Son of God and the Son of Man, the Lion of Judah and the Lamb without Blemish. He is all these and more! I am challenged by church, but it is sometimes good to be challenged. I wonder at church. My friends in their avoidance of church seem to be questioning if there is not a better way to do things than meet together in the traditional sense. Yet I wonder if disengagement with others is better. I don’t’ like being hurt and it’s easy to be hurt at church. But I find it’s better to be hurt while following God than while disobeying him. God gives strength for me to keep being wounded. Jesus clearly didn’t need people, yet he’s always returning to the Synagogue or to the market, or to Jerusalem. There were times he found a quiet spot, but then he’s soon back into the thick of things again doing the will of the Father. Why did God create the church? I do not know. His ways are not comprehensible by me. Why did he choose Israel of all the nations? Am I a better servant than Jonah? I don’t think so.

4. Assembly. God is not only the god of the plains or the god of the hills or the god of the seas, there is no house to contain him. We can meet with God anywhere, but meeting together is special. Worshipping together is different than worship by myself. Being in a group of Christians is different than being on a crowded beach or Thursday night downtown. I enjoy being with God’s people in a place we have built to honor him. There are several additional aspects I enjoy about meeting together. In the book of Job, God assembles the angels and asks Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?” When I read my Bible, I consider Hosea and I consider David. On Sunday morning though I can look around and consider living saints. They are an encouragement to me. Do I consider those with handicaps who endure more physical pain? Do I consider those who are aged who have remained faithful? Do I consider those who quietly make the church work behind the scenes? Do I consider the youth volunteers who put up with the energy of my children? I also find I have the tendency to become introspective when I am by myself. When I meet with others, I can see that visible great cloud of witnesses which spurs me to continue running my life of faith.

5. Example. Going to church is an example for my children. It shows them in yet another way that I value the Lord, I value his people, and I am setting a pattern for them to follow until they can choose for themselves.

6. Witness. A few years ago when I finished my Master’s degree, Cal Poly decided to hold the graduation ceremony on Sunday morning. It has been my custom to go to church and several of my classmates even remarked to me ahead of time, I guess this will be one Sunday you won’t be in church. I asked my professors if it was required for me to be at graduation. They asked why and I said that I’m normally in church on Sunday morning. One of them remarked, “It’s not required, but I think that God won’t mind if you miss one Sunday - this is a day that you should receive recognition for your work.” I had to be careful not to offend, but I said that I felt it wasn’t right to receive honor for myself on a day that I had set apart to worship God. This witness to my classmates was powerful. For me it’s a matter of compromise and those who don’t compromise maintain a powerful witness. I’m sure some misunderstood or thought I had some kind of zealous Sabbath complex, but I think it comes down to motives and those who understood were made curious.

7. Faith. You raised the question of Hebrews 10:23-25. The Greek word in verse 25 for assembly is ‘episunagoge.’ This word carries the meaning of a ‘complete collection’, not a partial collection or subset. Church may not make sense to me at times, but I’m instructed to not forsake the meeting together in a complete collection particularly as the day approaches. I keep seeing this day getting closer so it becomes increasingly relevant. There are a lot of things that don’t make sense to me in the Bible. Why did Jesus spit, make mud, and tell one blind man to wash in the Pool of Siloam to be healed? Why did God allow Jonathan to die in battle with Saul? Why did God give ten tribes to Jeroboam if he knew he would be a wicked king? There are so many questions that I have that are unanswered. What I do know is that God requires me to exercise faith and obey him in the things he has revealed to me. All over the Bible there are examples of things going bad for people who “…because you have not listened to the word of the Lord…” or “…because you did not faithfully obey…” This reason is less intellectually satisfying than some others but faith is not by sight or reason it is by trust.

Perhaps more than you wanted, but definitely not lurking. Happy for a return dialogue to sharpen my thinking. I haven’t written my college friends about this yet, so it would be good to get my thoughts strait before writing them.

Missy Grant said...

thanks, Nate. Well thought out and well written (not that I would experience anything less from you). I am going to post more on this topic in comment and posts, but am waiting to see if any others choose to jump in.

It is interesting to read your thoughts on obedience. Do you believe God's Word calls us to gather together? (I'm not saying it doesn't). I was just wondering about the hypothesis that you are obeying God by attending church. I'll comment more later.

Thank you for your thought provoking response. Many will be blessed by it.

Nate Maas said...

Thanks for your gentle words. One of the reasons I never entered full-time ministry is that I don’t like contentious debates that lead nowhere. The subject of the church seems to be a sore spot for many Christians. It’s hard to know how to dialogue without offending or being offended, just as I think it’s hard to question without bias, but I think you are doing it well.

To answer your question, I do believe that God desires us to assemble together. Although each person stands before God individually, the scripture as a whole reflects the practice of both Israel and the church to coming together regularly. Although imperfect, it is a foretaste of our eternal state when God’s elect will be gathered to Himself and we will be together in that great congregation. (footnote here: I’ve always found it very poetic how the scriptures record the deaths of the patriarchs with the phrase “he died and was gathered to his people.” Hard to see how the Sadducees missed the resurrection.)

I should specify here (as I’m sure you are aware), that the church does not imply a building. In English we use the word church to mean both the building and the body of believers. We get our modern word church from the Greek word, kuriakon. Kuriakon is not used in the Bible, but a translation of this word would mean “the Lord’s house.” In this sense, it is a building, not the people. Since Christians have since early times met together in a building, the people and the building have often been associated with the other. This is not to imply that I support tradition over scripture, but that ancient people made this connection.

The word that is typically translated as church in the Bible is the Greek word, ecclesia. This word carries the same ‘assembly’ meaning as the Old Testament Hebrew word, kahal (which means the same thing). Never do these words mean the building. Although in every instance this assembly of believers either directly or indirectly implies that there is a group of people meeting together for religious purposes. In fact, the believers in Antioch met in several congregations, but were called collectively the church (singular) that was at Antioch. This would be like talking about the church in San Luis (which would include Christians attending First Baptist, Grace, Mountainbrook, SLO Naz, etc.). The issue with the church is not where the church meets (building), but that the church meets. I know of house churches in San Luis, but the Christians in these congregations still come together for communion, baptism, etc. The ‘forsaking the assembly’ that I think Paul was worried about were not people meeting in their homes to observe communion, but rather Christians who gave up meeting (either in a synagogue or in a home) with other believers for the purpose of worship. I also don’t want to cast any dispersion on people who cannot come to church because they are physically unable. Forsaking means to give up or abandon and many desire to be with the assembly but cannot.

You asked about my hypothesis about obeying God by going to church. I struggled over whether to even use the word ‘obedience’ since it implies doing something that is not volitional, but suggests something undesirable. I tried to clarify my word usage by also using the word ‘faith’ to explain what I meant although what I was trying to explain was a combination of the two (I couldn’t come up with an appropriate term). Yet, can there be faith without obedience?

Hebrews 11:8 says that “By FAITH Abraham, when he was called, OBEYED by going…not knowing where he was going.” For me, faith is doing what God says to do whether or not I can tell you why I am required to do it. But I show my faith by doing it just the same. This is not blind submission either, but rather faith in Jesus because I love and trust Him. In this way, I obey God by assembling with other believers because I think that is what God would want me to do. Here I am implying a Romans 14:22-23 kind of faith. It is my conviction based on God’s word, that He would have me assemble with other believers. These verses show me that it would be a sin not to do what I think God would have me do. Although I think that it is right for me to come assemble and I think that scripture supports my view. I am not trying to make myself superior by attending church and I am not judging others who love God and hold to another conviction. I only encourage that conviction to be from faith.

This is where my thoughts go to my former college friends. It would seem from me that their convictions are not from faith, but rather that they had specific disputes with other believers (or false believers) in local assemblies, so their solution was to stay home and hold devotions by themselves or with just their family.

There are legitimate reasons not to attend church. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” I could see not going to assembly if you have such an issue, but the point here is to resolve the issue and then return. And then in the next verse in a separate context, He talks about making peace quickly with those who you are in contention with. I think Jesus is asking for us to make speedy reconciliation to the extent we can.

There is no verse that says to me to go to a church building to meet with other believers, but I think the pattern in scripture is pretty clear. Acts, in multiple places, records the church (believers) being gathered together. Hebrews 2 in quoting Psalm 22 says, “I will tell of Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You.” This is both OT and NT indication of getting together with other believers.

Obviously, studying the word, prayer, and worship are all things that can be done privately or together. Although it would appear to me that the regular practice in scripture is to assemble together in what we call church.