I believe with all my heart that God is going to re-establish His true Church - the real Church. I’m talking about the Church that He intended, the one that makes it possible for those who really believe in Him to see His purpose fulfilled in their lives. And what is God’s purpose? To see all those who believe in Him conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit working in the Church (His true Church), the Father wants to strip away everything in us that doesn’t look like Jesus.
The traditional church today doesn’t know much about that. Most "pastors" (if you read the article "Leadership in the Early Church" you’ll understand why I put the word pastor in quotation marks) preach an American gospel that’s designed to make people comfortable with themselves and with God. It’s an upbeat message of "I’m O.K. you’re O.K. Just live your life however you think is best (as long as you come to church on Sunday and give me your money). Don’t worry; God will meet you where you are. No changes are required, forget repentance, let’s just rejoice and be happy. I’ll see you in heaven. Remember, God loves you, besides, you don’t believe anyone is really going to hell, do you?" Church ministry today is designed to give people what they want, what God requires is irrelevant. And, that is what you would expect it to be when men are in charge, instead of God.
To see what the real church looks like requires a somewhat novel approach, we’ll have to look at the scriptures. I know it sounds crazy, but trust me on this. You won’t find what you’re looking for in church history books. After all, the first church wasn’t a Baptist church in Oklahoma or Texas (even though the Baptists claim they can trace their roots all the way back to John the Baptist, a claim John is probably not too happy about).
No, the first real church was Jesus and His 12 disciples. The first church was actually a training school for those who would establish the second-generation churches after Jesus ascended back to the Father. It was Jesus showing His disciples, first hand, how to have church. They met in houses and gardens, by the sea and on boats in the sea, in the middle of the road, on hillsides and on mountaintops. They met wherever Jesus happened to be. These meetings formed their understanding of what church was supposed to be and established a pattern for the next generation of churches.
Now, just for fun, let me describe to you what one of these meetings in this first church must have looked like. When it was time for the meeting, everyone got dressed up in their best suit of clothes, grabbed a hymnbook and a big, fat Bible to carry under their arm. Then they all made their way down to the building with the sign out front that said "First Church". The marquee out front had the sermon topic for the day: "How To Overcome Anxiety In A Frenzied World", and the name of the class that would meet that evening, "Divorce Recovery at 6 PM". Everyone filed in, sat down in neat rows, eyes forward, and waited for the minister of music to start the service. They sang three songs, recited the Apostles Creed, sang another song, passed the offering plate and listened to a choir "special". Then Jesus, looking resplendent in a shiny, blue, three-piece suit, with a really great silk tie, took the pulpit and delivered a comforting, somewhat humorous, thirty-minute sermon. Everyone felt good about what they had heard and complimented Jesus on what a splendid job He had done, and then they all went to lunch. And Jesus was relieved that no one was uncomfortable with what He had said and felt sure that most of them would return next week. And in the satisfaction of a job well done, He soon forgot about the whole thing and began to think about something really important, His golf game (His putting had been terrible the past several weeks). That sounds just about right doesn’t it? No?
Then how about this? Get out your Bible (I mean it, don’t read any further, unless you have your Bible), now read Matthew 5:1 to 8:1. What you just read was an account of one of the very first church meetings. The actual church was small, but there was a "multitude" of visitors that day and the sermon was really long. Then read Matthew 8:2-4. That was the next church meeting, but this time there was only one visitor. Now read Matthew 8:5-13. Here’s something unusual. The sermon was only about 20 seconds long (imagine that), and it was both confronting and judgmental. I’m sure some of the visitors were offended this time, and I don’t think they’ll be coming back. Then Jesus had another meeting at Peter’s house (Matthew 8:14-17); another the next day by the Sea of Galilee (8:18-22); then, later, in a boat (8:23-27); and still another the following day on the other side of Galilee with the disciples, two other guys, a bunch of demons, a herd of pigs and some more visitors from town (8:28-34).
Are you getting the picture? From Matthew 5:1 to 8:34, Jesus had at least 7 church meetings. Actually, He probably had many more than that. How do I know? Because, in reading these 4 chapters in Matthew, the Lord taught me the one, overwhelming principle illustrated in this first church. It’s really simple, but at the same time, really profound. What does the first church show us? What should every church learn from its example? What were the 12 disciples doing? Pay attention. Here it is: THEY WERE LIVING WITH JESUS!!! The function of the church, any church, is to enable believers in their walk with Jesus. It must promote the reality of living moment-by-moment, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, week after week, year after year with Jesus.
The simple fact of the matter is that church is supposed to be the support system for believers in their continuous, uninterrupted relationship with Jesus. It should support them in their constant, openly transparent, submissive, obedient, life changing, transforming, renewing, Holy Spirit-led, love relationship with the Savior; and if you’re ever going to be conformed to the image of Christ, that is the lifestyle that is required. How can you be changed into something you haven’t experienced and submitted yourself to? And I don’t want to cover old ground again, but that doesn’t simply define a relationship. If you read your Bible (void of the prevailing religious bias and deceptions) you will realize that what I’m describing is salvation. The Bible doesn’t describe salvation as something that is accomplished in the past. It can’t be based on something you’ve already done (church membership, baptism, a profession of faith, confirmation classes, etc.). Salvation is a hope (actually, a confidence) that is based on what you are doing today. It is based on the firm commitment to a continual relationship with God that requires your submission to His will and purpose. It requires change (yours, not His). And I hate to mention this just now, but it involves suffering (really, you can look it up, try I Peter 4:12-19 for starters). If you just read the red letters in the Gospel accounts, you’ll see that Jesus never describes salvation as something that is quick and easy (only religion scribes using isolated verses do that). Instead, He presents it as something that is difficult, something that demands persistence and something that only a few will achieve (Jesus said there would only be a few that would be willing to travel the narrow road that leads to life).
Salvation is not based on what you know about God, Jesus made that perfectly clear. It’s not an intellectual exercise; it’s a lifestyle. It’s living with Jesus. The church is a group of people living with Jesus, sharing their experiences with one another, as they live with Him; nothing more; but certainly, nothing less! A community of believers undergoing change together, submitting to His will and purpose, being conformed to the image of Christ, as they are being saved (yes, salvation is a continuing process that has a starting point, but no ending point, read Luke 9:23-24; I Corinthians 1:18; Philippians. 2:12-13; Hebrews 3:14 and I Peter 2:2-3 in the NIV, a translation that actually gets it right).
I’m amazed at the number of churches today who claim to be "New Testament", but have nothing at all in common with the churches described in the New Testament. On the other hand, it is equally amazing that I recently read of another church who described their search for identity and purpose this way, "In the absence of a clear model, we set out to create our own." I couldn’t believe it, "In the absence of a clear model?" Give me a break! Why not just be honest and admit that you’re just another traditional church looking for new and innovative ways to attract more people, while trying to figure out how you can effectively entertain them while they’re there, so they’ll feel good about the whole deal and come back the next week. And at the same time, slip something religious into the mix, so they’ll think they had some gushy, sentimental encounter with God (you know, something they can deal with on their own terms, nothing heavy).
But there is a New Testament model. If Jesus and His 12 disciples were the first generation church, then those established by the disciples after Jesus’ ascension were the second generation churches. Now, it’s time to really pay attention again. Remember the principle illustrated by the first church was living with Jesus. He was there, physically with them, every day, every night, day after day, week after week, for almost 4 years. Then He was gone! Now these men, and others, began establishing churches all over the place (in Asia Minor, Europe and Africa). And the principle of these second generation churches comes through loud and clear. Are you ready for this? If you can remember what you’ve already read, you should be able to guess. Here it is: LIVING WITH JESUS IN A COMMUNITY OF OTHER BELIEVERS WHO ARE LIVING WITH HIM TOO!!!
Now I’ve said all this as an introduction to get to this place. I’m not writing a book on the subject; you’re not supposed to learn this stuff from books anyway (or from pastor’s sermons either, for that matter). You’re supposed to submit yourselves to God and let Him teach you. But, since there’s so much deception in the so-called church today, and in the absence of truth, it’s important to at least point those who are interested in the right direction.
Now I know what the problem is. I’ve heard the argument many, many times. "God doesn’t speak to believers any more. That’s why we have the Bible. He speaks to us through the written word. The Bible is our only source of faith and practice." But now I have a real problem with that! THAT’S NOT WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS!!!
A look at Ephesians 4:17-24 might help. In verses 17-19, Paul is talking about living like Godless heathen in the futility of worldly reason, being ignorant of and estranged from God, and insensitive to any real spirituality (that is, being bound up in men’s thoughts, religion’s traditions and rituals, and experiencing no reality in God).
Then this is what we see in verses 20-24: "But this is not what you learn from following Christ! If you have really heard Him and have been taught personally by Him, as all true reality is found in Him, you will get rid of your old way of life, your old self that was on its way to destruction because of deceitful lusts. And then you will continually be renewed in your mind, with a fresh spiritual attitude, a new self, being recreated in God’s image, in righteousness and true holiness."
Thank you Paul for clearing that up for us! In my mind, the key to understanding what Paul is saying here is found in the word translated "truth" in verse 21 ("true reality" italicized in my translation above). The word is aletheia in the Greek text and means, "the reality of a thing, as opposed to the mere appearance of it" or maybe more to the point, "the truth as opposed to error". What Paul is trying to express is the fact that the true reality of Jesus is found in hearing Him and being personally taught by Him. That’s the spiritual reality or spirituality that I talk about in some of the other articles. Again, true reality is never found in man’s religion. The traditions and rituals of man represent only the mere appearance of God, and that’s not what He wants us to have.
And when we receive glimpses of this true reality from Him, the result should be that we accept Who He is and at the same time reject who we are and change. The result, then, is as Paul says in the passage – we get rid of the old self that is on its way to destruction and embrace the new self that is being recreated in God’s image, reflecting His righteousness and holiness!
Now, what does this have to do with what the real church looks like? I’m glad you asked. The answer is found in the very next verse, Ephesians 4:25. This is what it says, "Therefore, rejecting outright everything that is false, let us all show forth this true reality to those who are likeminded with us, for we are all members of the same body." This is what the real church should look like today: likeminded people (those with the courage to pursue Him on His terms, not theirs) who meet together to share with one another the true reality of Christ in their lives. What has He taught you and how have you changed? This is the real church: those who are being conformed to the image of Christ, sharing their experiences with one another, encouraging and supporting one another as they go.
I’ll end the article with this, it tells us what God intended and what the Scriptures describe (this is a simple explanation of Colossians 2:5-7): believers standing together, drawing strength from one another (verse 5), determined to live with Him and be like Him (verse 6), and having the very foundation of their lives firmly established on the things He is teaching them and being thankful for His participation in their lives (verse 7). Now that’s what the real church looks like.