THE CRUCIAL QUESTION
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WHAT IS THE CHURCH?

Were one to ask that question "What is the Church?"of a group of people, there would, I am sure, be a dauntingly varied series of answers given. From the conflicting and confusing definitions and descriptions which would emerge how can we safely arrive at the truth? There is but one sure way, and that is to return to those to whom were given the initial revelation of God's plan, and to find out what they say. Chief among these would be, without doubt, the apostle Paul. His own testimony is very clear. He speaks of a double ministry for which he was chosen of God. Firstly he was appointed to preach the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ, and secondly his task was to reveal the true nature and purpose of what he frequently calls "The Church of God" The relevant Scriptures are Ephesians 3:7-10 and Colossians 1:24-29. In the former passage he speaks of preaching to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and then goes on to say that his next purpose is to "make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places." In the Colossians passage he says, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office (or stewardship) which was given to me for you to make the word of God fully known."

Any definition of what the church is should therefore be in accord with the teachings of the great apostle, to whom was entrusted the first revelation of God's thought concerning His church.

Recently I have been culling my library, sorting out what I want to keep and what I can discard. A little paperback entitled "Invitation to Pilgrimage" nearly went into the discard box, but something made me hold it back to read it again after the many years since I first bought it. It was written by an eminent theologian of the Church of Scotland, John Baillie, and it was his attempt to present the Christian faith to his academic colleagues who were not believers. I found much of profit in all of the book, but it was in the last chapter, "Invitation to Church" that I found a passage which thrilled my heart with its ring of truth, and with its harmony with all that Paul and other New Testament writers taught us about the church.

Here is the passage:

"The Christian Church is neither a local thing, nor a human thing, but is universal and divine. It has nothing to do with place or race, nor is it an association created by men for their own purposes. The Church is a divine society, created by God Himself; a society to which men are elected, not by human vote, but by the grace of God; a society whose one condition of membership is faith in God's forgiving love. It is indeed a human society in that its members are men and women, but it is a divine society in that its Head, on whom all its life depends, is the Son of God."

For many days I kept reading again and again that amazing definition, and thinking about what it really means to walk in the truth of it. We have all seen on TV those astonishing pictures of how explosive experts bring down huge blocks of flats or towering chimneys by blowing up the foundations and causing the whole structures to crash to the ground. If we really embrace the truth of John Baillie's definition we will find that it is like those charges of explosives. It will bring down in a heap of dust and rubble much of what men believe is the Church today.

The astonishing paradox is, that the man who wrote those radical words, was himself deeply and fully involved in a massive religious institution, with all the marks of what he himself calls "an association created by men for their own purposes". Such an institution is the antithesis of what he defines the Church to be. Yet, for all his formidable intellect, academic distinctions, and undoubted spiritual insights he seems unable to perceive the clear implications of his statement. How can we explain such a paradox?

As I thought about that question, I had to acknowledge that for far too many long years I had been in the same situation. I would have given lip service to the definition, while remaining blind to all it implies. It required the explosive of revelation from the Holy Spirit to bring down the entrenched strongholds in my mind of traditional views of the Church, and to begin to raise up, in their stead, God's view. What a day it was when that happened to me, when, as it were, the moment of detonation arrived, and I began to see and understand for the first time something of the wonder of the Church as the Father intends it to be, and I walked away for ever from the rubble and dust of the now-exploded old conceptions to which I had clung for so long.

"Many have gone back, because they are afraid of looking at things from God's stand-point. The crisis comes spiritually when a man has to emerge a bit farther on than the creed he has accepted." This perceptive word from Oswald Chambers may apply to many today in regard to the Church. More than one person has said to me, when I have explained why it is we are walking free of involvement with institutional church, "I know that what you are saying is true, BUT!" What follows the "but" varies, but it all boils down to that fear of abandoning man's way of looking at things and seeing things from God's view-point. They draw back from that crisis which will move them on beyond their present creed.

"And as He came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Look Teacher, what wonderful stones, what wonderful buildings!' And Jesus said to him, 'Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone standing upon another that will not be thrown down.' " (Mark 13:1-2) Do we realise that this prophetic word of Jesus applies not only to what happened in Jerusalem, when the Romans sacked the city in A.D.70, but also to every Christian institution, organisation and denomination set up by men. On that great day of the "Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet Him" all the massive religious bureaucracies and hierarchies will be seen as irrelevant and will cease to be. All the huge investments in buildings and plant will be left behind. Only that divine society whose life depends on its head the Lord Jesus Christ will remain. Our only assembling on that day will be to meet HIM. If then, these things are destined to be brought to an end, why do we so firmly cling to them now?
This leads me to share with you another quotation, this time from one of the great teachers of the early Brethren movement C.H. Macintosh. What he says underlines and reinforces the more concise and compressed definition of Church we have been considering.

"We must remember that it is to a living Christ in heaven that believers are gathered by the Holy Ghost. It is with a living Head we are connected -- to a "Living stone" we have come. He is our centre. Having found peace through His blood, we own Him as our grand gathering-point and connecting link. 'Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.' (Matthew 18:20) The Holy Ghost is the only gatherer; Christ Himself is the only object to which we are gathered; and our assembly, when thus convened is to be characterised by holiness, so that the Lord our God may dwell amongst us. The Holy Ghost can only gather to Christ. He cannot gather to a system, a name, a doctrine, or an ordinance. He gathers to a person and that person is a glorified Christ in heaven. This must stamp a peculiar character on God's assembly. Men may associate on any ground, round any centre, or for any object they please, but, when the Holy Ghost associates, it is on the ground of an accomplished redemption, around the person of Christ, in order to form a holy dwelling place for God."

A prominent Christian publication in New Zealand has recently published a series of articles on "Church Leavers", people who have stopped going to church and are no longer involved with institutional Christendom, but have not abandoned the faith. I am wondering, however, whether it is not those clinging to denominations and institutions who are the real "Church leavers", while those brave enough to venture forth trusting in the reality of the divine society, created by God Himself, and drawing its life from the Head, the Lord Jesus Christ and joined together by the Holy Spirit, are "Church discoverers." If I have truly been, as John Baillie puts it, "Elected to this society not by human vote but by the grace of God", and if the ground of my membership is "Faith in God's forgiving love", then I am indissolubly incorporated in God's Church. I belong to "The assembly of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven" (Hebrews 12:23) The Church is not some organisation which I may of my own will and choice join. To God's Church I have to be joined by an act of God, to be "baptised by the one Spirit into the one body." (1 Corinthians 12:13)

A few weeks ago I read again that wonderful book "Pilgrim's Progress", in which John Bunyan so vividly portrays the journey of "Christian" from the City of Destruction to The Celestial City. It struck me on this reading, that, in all his journey, not once did Bunyan make him go to church. Yes, he got to heaven without "going to church"!! But, from the moment that his heavy burden of sin rolled from his shoulders, "Christian" was in the Church, and he had fellowship, not in organised meetings but along the way with fellow pilgrims. I ask, is not that maybe the way God really meant it to be? Is there not a way of Church totally unlike what we have come to know from the religious organisations to which we have belonged, a way that does not require huge investments in buildings and plant, which does not require organisational bureaucracies to sustain it, nor does it depend on humanly appointed hierarchies of leadership? If John Baillie's definition of Church, and C.H. Macintosh's insights correctly reflect New Testament teaching, then there is such a way.
This message is penned with a double purpose. It is my prayer that, firstly, it will be an encouragement to those who have in the spirit seen and embraced the promise of such a radically different way, a "better country, that is a heavenly one" to press on in their pilgrimage, sustained by the assurance that follows, "Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city." (See Hebrews 11:13-16)

My second purpose is to challenge others to go to the great New Testament passages concerning the Church, and to test these statements of Prof. Baillie and C.H. Macintosh in the light of God's word., and then to take before the Lord the crucial question, "What is the Church", waiting on Him for a clear answer, and being willing to see things from Father's point of view, ready to emerge beyond what you have hitherto believed.

If you respond to that challenge and join the company of pilgrims who are "Church discoverers" be prepared for the cost, a cost unforgettably expressed in these further words of Oswald Chambers:

"Do you continue to go with Jesus? The way lies through Gethsemane, through the city gate, outside the camp; the way lies alone, and the way lies until there is no trace of a footstep left, only the voice, 'Follow Me.' "

Jack Gray,
10M/66 Avonleigh Rd.,
Green Bay,
AUCKLAND. 1007.
Tel. 649 8171831 E-mail <jackgray@clear.net.nz>