Where is the Church?
20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
Three of the vital areas of our lives are the church, the home and the nation. It will be thirteen years ago, this month, that I came fresh from Dallas Seminary to the Bay Area and to the work here at Peninsula Bible Fellowship, as it was known then. It was almost thirteen years ago that I first spoke to this group, meeting as a small group down in the community center. I remember the thing that impressed me about it, and which was reflected in the opening story that I told that I would like to repeat this morning.
I reminded them of the visitor to a certain city, who was a stranger in town and he came in and asked a man on the street where the various churches were located. The man was something of a wag. He said to him,
They're right where you would expect them to be. The Episcopal Church is next to the theater, the Presbyterian Church is down by the ice plant, the Methodist Church is next to the gas works, the Baptist Church is over by the river and the Synagogue is next to the bank.
And I remember commenting on the fact of how interesting it was to find a church located in the community center—right where it ought to be.
Well, where is the church? Our subject could be as well entitled What Is The Church or even Why Is The Church? but
where is as good as any. As all of us know, churches come in assorted flavors and sizes, and it is also clearly evident to any who are familiar with the present world, that many of the churches that exist today are a far cry from the New Testament concept of a church. And perhaps as we look at what the church is and what it is like and why it exists, it might be helpful to begin by approaching it from the negative—as to what a church is not, since there is such confusion in this area today.
In the first place, the church is not a fraternal lodge, out to get new members and serving as a kind of religious Rotary Club for men and women alike. There are many groups like that, but that is not what the church is. Neither is it a religious country club with traditional rituals that are as sacred as those at a fox hunt. Nor is it a political action group, that is a pressure block or an association of do-gooders who are waging battle against the social ills around. It is not a religious democracy; intent on making its own laws and admitting its own members.
In a recent letter to a local newspaper a lady said,
I want to tell you about churches and preachers. The churches belong to the members. The minister is just a guest, or to be plain, a hired man. We, the members, decide to whom we will offer the job of filling our pulpits. When and if we want him to go, we will vote to tell him so, as we voted to ask him to come. All this talk about a minister taking the lead is just stuff. Members will decide what members to accept and to whom doors will be opened and to whom closed. This is the truth of it and all this talk about Christian duty is meaningless. The Christian members of churches will decide; the preacher is just the hired man.
Well, that's not a church either.
The church is not a kind of a non-segregated waiting room for people who are expecting to take the next bus to heaven. Sometimes we gain that impression, that it is the place where people are just waiting around for the Lord to come and take them. It is not that. It is not a regular meeting of religious hotheads who are looking forward to their weekend religious jag, although unfortunately many churches seem to reflect this character where people come to drift into some kind of a religious stupor for a while, that serves in place of an alcoholic jag. And neither is the church a kind of low-calorie dessert for those who are seeking something nice that won't hurt their public image.
All these exist, and all of them are called churches, but they are caricatures, distorted cartoons of the church, counterfeit parities, inaccurate facsimiles of the real thing. This is not what a church is. Most of us first meet the church as an organized society, and we tend to think of it in terms of that; but it would be quite misleading to think that organization is an essential or even the primary nature of the church.
One of the simplest definitions of the church is
a company of redeemed people. This is exactly what the New Testament has in mind when it so frequently uses the word
saints all the way through. A saint is a person who has been
sanctified. And that frightening word simply means
put to its proper use, that's all. If we would use it in terms of other activities, we would quickly take away the frightening aspect of it. You are sanctifying the chairs upon which you are now sitting because you are putting them to the proper use, a use for which they were designed, and intended. I am sanctifying this pulpit, at the moment, but I hasten to assure you anyone else could do the same thing. It is putting it to its proper use, and a saint is a person who has all his life been put to an improper use other than God designed and intended, but because of a marvelous encounter with the living Lord Jesus, has now begun to be used properly. He is put to his proper use, that is why he is a saint. He is a redeemed person, and the church is a company of redeemed people.
I remember with what joy I visited the Cathedral of Cuernavaca in Mexico, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and with what astonishment I entered it and saw that all around the walls, in the niches where the saints usually are found, there were none—there were no images at all, even the Virgin Mary was absent. The altar was simply a marble slab, a plain marble slab, with twelve seats around it where the bishop and the priests celebrated the Lord's Table together. And the bishop was showing me through this and I turned to him in astonishment and I said
Dónde están los santos?—
Where are the saints? And he said with a chuckle,
Well I have taken them down and locked them in the back room. But he said,
Now the saints come in the door, and by that he was reverting to the true New Testament concept of a saint, a living person, who has been put to his proper use—a redeemed individual.
Now this is what the church is. Redemption means
a new beginning, a fresh start, a new basis. If any of you have ever had the humiliating experience of having to hock anything, you also probably know what it is to redeem it. You go down and buy it back. And that which has been rendered useless by putting it in a pawn shop, where it can be used neither by the pawn shop owner or by anyone else, is now put back into proper activity and circulation. It is a fresh start. That's what redemption is. And this is an absolutely essential note to the concept of a church.
This is the reason why you cannot
join a church, or the Church. You cannot join the Church—it is impossible. And all our efforts to get people to join churches are entirely manmade ideas, accomplishing manmade ends with no real significance whatsoever. You don't belong to a church by signing a card, or by going to a confirmation class, or by making a public confession. You belong to the Church only by means of a redemptive experience, of a saving encounter with the redeemer, with the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is only through this redemptive renewal that you enter the Church at all. If you are
in Christ, in that sense as the New Testament uses it, then you are also in the Church, without exception. If you are not in Christ, no matter what ritual or form you go through, you are not in the Church, even though your name may appear on a dozen church rolls. And you can be chastised, and baptized, and pasteurized, and simonized. None of it will do you any good unless you are in Christ.
Now this is why the church is not a collection of good people, trying to be better as so frequently people get the image of a church. The church is a company of people who know they are not good. They have at last waked up to the fact that they are not good, and they have come to the only one who is good, and they are continually exchanging their wickedness for His goodness. That is what a church is and that is what redemption is. It is that continual living of the exchanged life where all that He is becomes all that we are, just as once on that dark and bloody cross all that we were became all the He was.
Now the most frequent figure for the church in Scripture, and a very beautiful one, is that the church is a body. This is a marvelously, meaningful figure, and if it is true, as it is true, then it means that each one of us is a continually-walking illustration of what a church is, for we all have bodies, and the church is like our body, and you find that figure employed many places in the New Testament. There are several illuminating factors suggested by this.
First of all, a body displays diversity in unity. As Paul says in the 1 Corinthians 12,
...all the body is not the same member. It is all not one big eye, or one great large ear, or a foot or something like that, and thank God this is true. Wouldn't it be terribly frustrating if our physical bodies were all one member and we found ourselves to be nothing but one great huge ear listening to everything that came along but unable to tell it on the phone to anyone else. Or if we were one formidable staring eye, continually seeing but never speaking or interpreting or understanding, what a monstrosity a body like that would be. So the glory of the body is its diversity. It is not one member; it is a dozen members or more. It is hands and feet and eyes and ears and nose and five senses, and all this makes for the wonder of life. Now this is the glory of the church. It is not one thing performing one function; it is many things, many functions being performed.
This is why you have that beautiful section in First Corinthians on the gifts of the church, gifts given by the Spirit of God. They are not all the same. There is the gift of prophecy, the gift of knowledge, the gift of help, the gift of administration, the gift of ruling, the gift of understanding, discerning spirits, the gift of tongues, interpretation, etc. They are all different, and no one has all the gifts nor does everyone have the same gifts, by any means. This is what makes the church so delightful and it is the concept of it that we ought to highly value. The one great enemy of this is to try to force everyone to have the same gift. What a mistake that is. It is like insisting that all the body perform one function, that your foot learn to hear as well as the ear, or that your eye learn to walk as well as the foot. It is a travesty upon the character of the body. It is the very diversity that makes it glorious. But in spite of this diversity, our bodies all have the same unity; all the members of the body share the same light. This is immediately evident. We don't have one kind of light for our legs or another kind for our eyes. Nor do we have a different system of operation for one part than for another.
We all have unity, and so in the body of Christ, we don't need to create the unity of the body. This would be absurd. Supposing I said to you,
Now struggle and try all you can to keep your body together. Well, you say,
I have been trying to do that all my life. That is keep body and soul together. But you don't struggle to keep your body together. It is together, it shares the same light. You need to recognize its unity, but you don't need to create it. It is the same in the Body of Christ. Paul writes to the Ephesians, and he says,
…endeavor to keep unity of the Spirit, [Eph 4:3] not endeavor to create it. But if I might transliterate it a little more accurately, what he said was,
endeavor to keep in view the unity of the Spirit. It is already there, just remember it. Remind yourself of it.
Now in the physical body this is certainly true. If we have a sore on our leg, we treat it the same way we treat a sore on our ear because it has the same light, the same healing properties are there, and doctors don't need to learn one kind of treatment for sores on the leg as opposed to another kind on another part of the body. And this, carried over to the spiritual application to the church, is why a local church such as this or any other church is regarded as a full expression of the one universal Church. Have you noted in the New Testament how easily the apostle Paul goes from talking about a local church to the total catholic universal Church and uses the same terms for each, and there seems to be no problem in his thinking in this regard. That's because they are the same name. They are called the same name because one is a microcosm of the other. That is an interesting word, microcosm. It comes from two Greek words
cosmos—micros meaning little and cosmos meaning world—a little world. Formerly the Greek philosophers maintained that each man is
a little world, that in your own personality, you reflect all the complexities and struggles and problems that the world as a whole does; and this is true. And in this same sense, each unit, each local congregation of a church, reflects the complete perfection and problems and resources of the entire church, and so you can use the term interchangeably. One is a microcosm of the other. The smallest unit has the same qualities characteristic of the whole.
Now when we say that, we need to understand what that smallest unit might be. It is not limited to our ideas of membership. We say that we are a member of such and such church because we have gone through a certain process and thus identified ourselves with it. Now I have no quarrel with this because I find it a helpful, practical way, sometimes, to keep track of who is who, but it has no real significance in terms of what a church is, or of your part in it. Actually, the smallest unit of a church was described by our Lord himself when he said,
…where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst. [Mat 18:20] Now that's a church! Where two or three Christians are gathered together in His name, that is in the consciousness of His presence, in the desire to express fellowship or worship or something in relationship to Him together, that's the church, so that here this morning, where two or three hundred times that, are gathered together we have a church, because we are gathered in His name. But if this afternoon, two or three of you are meeting together in some home somewhere and you are talking of the things of the Lord and discussing something of Christian life or fellowship together, that's the church. You are never out of church. We are always in touch with it.
The Church is a living organism, and we all belong to it, equally with one another and if three of those Christians meeting together someplace this afternoon, of them one was a Baptist, one was a Methodist, one was a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian, or Congralutionist, or whatever it may be, you would still have the church. The Church exists quite entirely apart from any denomination distinction. There for that moment and that purpose is the church—where two or three are gathered together, there am I in the midst. Now that is the wonderful unity and diversity of the body.
But a body also involves a unified authority, that is, there is a government in our body and there is a government in the church. In the body all of the members are under the single directions from the head, taking orders from the head. There are in the body, I am told, lower control centers in the brain, there are ganglia and nerves, and so on, and all these are part of the government of the body. But the overall direction, the unifying authority of the body is the mind, the brain; and that is why nothing really takes place in our body without the authority and the order of the head. Now, so it is with the church. I've often illustrated it this way, if you accidentally put your finger on a hot stove, the finger feels the heat in a sense, but all it really does is transmit a message up the head, and the message travels right up your arm and up the nerves to the brain. And when it gets up there it says,
It is hot down here! Now the finger just stays right there, it never moves, even though it is hot, until the message comes flying back from the brain that says,
Well, get out of there!, and then you move, so that the whole control of the body is vested in the head.
Now this is very essential to remember because it is so eminently true of the church. The church is not a headless body left here to struggle on through this world. If it were, it would behave exactly like a chicken with its head cut off—aimless, flopping about, doing nothing, but it is not. It may appear to do that sometimes, but it is not. It is under direction of a living head, who is present, who is united to the body, who is perfectly able to express Himself through it and direct its activities, and He is doing it. And that Head of course, is the Lord Jesus, operating through the body by means of the Holy Spirit who dwells within.
In the church there are certain offices which the Lord himself has set up, given by him, that represent the channels of his authority and direction within the body, just as the nerves and the ganglia and the control centers are the means by which the head directs the activities of the body. We read in the epistle to the Ephesians that the Head of the Church has given certain offices Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers—all of these related to the directing of the Body, the developing of it. They are also referred to as elders, overseers or bishops—all of those mean the same thing. But the authority is Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. He plans the strategy of the body. He initiates the activity. It is He who exercises discipline and organizes for specific tasks and He does it through the Elders as they seek His mind through discussion and prayer and study.
Now it is possible for the visible church, that is the conglomeration of people who assemble together calling themselves Christians, to do quite different activities than the true church does, and to become involved in very meaningless activities as even many members of the true church can become involved. But the only activity that ever counts, that ever stacks up for anything, and the only judgment that is of any value whatsoever is that which is performed under the direction and the instigation and authority of the Holy Spirit. Everything else will be wood, hay and stubble. Only that which He originates becomes gold, silver, and precious stones.
Now because the Lord has chosen to do this through men, this is why the members of the church are exhorted to obey those in authority, who have the rule over them and in several places in the Scripture you have that word given. It is not because these men are the tyrants who rule the church, but rather they are the instruments through which the Lord speaks to His church and disobedience then, is disobedience against the Lord. We need to remember this because we are told in many places of the sin of murmuring, of criticizing, of continually dissenting with that which is the decision made by those whom the Lord has put in positions of authority within the church.
The only true ground of dissent, and there is a place for dissent, but the only true ground of dissent is to come directly to those involved and show them from the Scriptures where they are departing from the will of the Lord, in principle or in precept. If you can't do that, then it is you who is wrong, not the Elders, and it is you that is violating the headship of Christ, not them. Now this is a very necessary note to sound, because we so easily fall into the habit of criticizing and murmuring and making all kinds of obtuse observations on what the leaders are doing and never realize that this is a sin against the authority of the Lord. This is what Israel did so continually in the wilderness, murmuring and complaining against God's direction in their lives.
Another figure of the body also helps us to understand the true work of the church—what the church is here for. Now you could get a lot of arguments on this, but if we come back to the idea of the body, it is very, very clear. The church is here as simply a manifestation of its life. That's all a body is for. What's your physical body for? Is it just to earn a living? Is it in order that you might do a certain kind of work -- an architect, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a mechanic, or something like that? Is that why you have a body? No, it is not that, that's only a part of it. It is not in order that you might perpetuate the race with so many kids or that you might have a rack on which to hang an ever-changing line of fashions. It is not this.
The purpose of the body is to permit whatever you are to be visible, to let your personality become visible and to make an impact upon the world, whether for good or for evil. That's why you have a body, and therefore the purpose for the church as a body is not to do any specific thing, though that will be a part of it, but its major purpose, its one reason for existing as a body, is not to change law, or to cure social ills, or to teach moral values. The one thing it exists for is to manifest the life within. That life is the life of Jesus Christ, His life. To be in the world what He is.
John picks this and says that very thing in his first epistle,
as He is, he says,
so are we in this world. [I John 4:17] That's what we are here for. One of the clearest words in scripture along this line is found in 1 Peter 2:9, and Peter was the great authority of the church. He says
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people that you may show forth the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. You are—in order that. You are these things which are characteristics of His light, in order that you may be a continual manifestation of His life and may show forth the deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light, so, that the Church is very realistically the Body of Christ. It is Christ at work in the world and only as society is touched by that living life of the Lord within, through the church, does anything take place. But the same thing takes place through a vital living church as took place when men and women came in contact with the Lord himself, in the days of His flesh in Judea.
He turned the nation upside down. Someone has said that there were more workdays lost during the time of our Lord's ministry than at any time in all their history. Men couldn't leave him alone. The marvelous fascination of his person and his character drew men to Him so that they left their work, and their fishing, and their tasks, and their homes and came after to hear His word. This is because they sensed here is one who knew, here is one who cared, here is one who loved and who had life, who knew the secrets of it. And they listened. This is what the church needs to be. What did He come to do after all? That is what the church is to be doing, for it is Him doing it through the Church, His Body.
When our Lord began his ministry, he came to his own home town in Nazareth and Luke tells us,
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue as his custom was on the Sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and he found the place where it was written, [Luke 4:16-21]
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, He is Spirit-filled. Why? because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those that are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he said to them,
Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Now that is what He came to do. He came to touch men, to center their lives. He came to open their eyes. He came to set them free. He came to show them what was hampering and hindering them and dragging them down to destruction and He came to proclaim that a deliverance had been wrought, that a means had been obtained by which they may be free from these things, that they could stand up, as God intended them to, man and woman free from all the destroying, cloying, disturbing, destructive elements of their lives. And that is what He did, and that is what He is doing in the world through the Church and when this is done everything else inevitably takes place, inevitably follows—moral values are proclaimed, social ills are cured, the level of society is lifted, at least to some degree. A salt permeates the structure of society that prevents rottenness and corruption; a light flames out that leads men out of darkness into life.
Dick Halverson wrote:
The authentic influence of Jesus Christ in the world is not institution, monolithic or unilateral. It is not the influence of councils, or boards, or church administrators, or preachers, important as they may be. It is not the impact of resolutions or decrees or declarations or overtures, instructive and inspirational as they are. The authentic influence of the church in the world is the aggregate impact of millions of individual Christians, encircling the earth, penetrating every unit of society with their personal commitment to Jesus Christ. They are Christ's salt of the earth and light of the world in history.
Now the more clearly we understand what we are, the more consistently we demonstrate it. All that is needed for the church to be effective is to simply stop talking about struggling to be what we ought to be and start believing what we are, that's all. As long as we talk about what we ought to be, we never gain it. It is when we quietly believe that Jesus Christ, indwelling us, is all that we need and start believing what we are, we begin to demonstrate the wonderful deeds of Him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. May God use these truths to make us faithful in our calling to Him.
What a glorious instrument, our Father, is the church thou has called into being. Help us always to see that it has nothing in itself, never will have, never does have. It is not the church that we serve, it is our risen Lord. It is not the church that we strive for, it is Him, and as we center all on Him and believe that he is all to us, then we become all that we ought to be. We pray that this simple truth may grasp us and change us and make us a delight to Thy heart in Christ’s name. Amen.
Message transcript and recording © 963, 1995 by Ray Stedman Ministries, owner of sole copyright by assignment from the author. For permission to use this content, please review www.RayStedman.org/permissions. Subject to permissions policy, all rights reserved.