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What Is the Church?Jesus established the Church "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up" (Ephesians 4:12). We are to know and be sure of what we believe, and be mature in it (Ephesians 4:13). Our continual temporal responsibility is to "grow up" in the faith (Ephesians 4:15), and "build up" each other (Ephesians 4:16). We are built up through the equipping and the encouragement of our fellow Christians.
EdificationThe whole purpose of church members meeting together is to give encouragement to each other (Hebrews 10:25). It is the encouragement of others that gives us our hope (Romans 15:4). We are encouraged through the comfort (1 Thessalonians 4:18) and consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3-5, 12, 17) of our fellow believers. Edification comes when we "make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification" (Romans 14:19). Everything the church does should be for the building up of Christians (1 Corinthians 12:19), and not their tearing down (1 Corinthians 13:10). If a church causes discouragement, something is wrong.
EquippingThe church is to equip its members "in every good thing" (Hebrews 13:21), "so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged" (1 Corinthians 14:31). Through this exhortation and teaching (1 Timothy 4:13), we stimulate one another to love and good deeds. If the church is not teaching, it is not doing its job! It must equip believers with the truth, and avoid any type of flattery, theatrics, or greedy attempt to grow the church for the wrong reasons (1 Thessalonians 2:5-7).
The PastorThe ultimate teaching authority in the church is the pastor/teacher (Ephesians 4:11). In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7, we see that the pastor must be a respected man, above reproach; a good teacher, disciplinarian, and household manager; and, a prudent man, strong in the faith with a mastery over the material details of life such as money and alcohol. His primary responsibility is teaching (1 Timothy 5:7), and he is to teach willingly, not grudgingly. He is to teach and gently guide the believers (2 Timothy 2:25), like a shepherd does his sheep (Ezekiel 34). For his service to the church, the pastor is worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17) and receiving his living from the church (1 Corinthians 9:14) through the sharing of the church members (Galatians 6:6). The church members should love, appreciate, and esteem those who labor and teach them and exercise authority over them (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15). However, since the congregation freely chooses their pastor, the church members have ultimate authority over him, and they should rebuke and/or remove him if he continually fails in his role of leading the church in teaching and encouragement (1 Timothy 5:18-20).
Pastors must be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2). They must not be like those Paul described in Romans 2:1, who pass judgment on others, when they themselves are guilty of the same wrongdoings. As an example, pastors and TV evangelists who preach against adultery, then fall into it themselves, are actually condemning themselves (Romans 2:1). However, we must realize that pastors are people too. They cannot be expected to perform supernaturally any more than the rest of us. They don't think deeper thoughts, they are not capable of more divinely-appointed knowledge, and they don't have some higher privilege of access to The Father than others. We should not think of pastors as being the "neck" of the body of Christ, where Christ is the head, and pastors should not view themselves this way. A man with excessive ego, personal ambition, or a need for reassurance that he is important to the church, is not qualified to be a pastor. His highest priorities should not be committee meetings, national conferences, and denominational recognition.
UnityWhen the church meets together, the services are to be conducted in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:40). The members should be of the same mind, of one accord, and of one voice (Romans 15:5-6), and they should agree with that same mind, and avoid divisions and quarrels (1 Corinthians 1:10-11). They should be comforted and like-minded, and live their lives in peace and love (2 Corinthians 13:11).
The Lord's SupperOf secondary importance are the church ordinances (or symbolic ceremonies), the Lord's Supper (or Last Supper), and water baptism. The Lord's Supper is simply a symbol and a ritual symbolizing the actual death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul mentions sharing the cup and bread, and in 1 Corinthians 11:20-29, he further describes how the first century church did this. Nowhere does the Bible tell Christians that they should practice the Lord's Supper, but it has become a tradition with most Christian groups by following the example of these early Christians. The emphasis, however, should be on one's self-examination (1 Corinthians 11:28) rather than on the ritual.
Water BaptismWater baptism is simply a ritual symbolizing the actual baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Acts 10:47 indicates that all believers are candidates for baptism. Again however, in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17, Paul discounts the importance of water baptism by noting that he was grateful that he did not baptize very many people, and he was not even sure how many he did baptize. Peter also reminds us that water baptism is only a symbol, by telling us in 1 Peter 3:21 that water only removes dirt from the flesh, and it has no saving power. Great care must be taken to examine any scriptures concerning baptism, because the scriptures refer to seven different baptisms. These are the baptism of: Moses; John the Baptist; Jesus; the cross; fire; the Holy Spirit; and, water. If the baptism of the Holy Spirit is confused with water baptism, great distortions of scripture may erupt.
The Local ChurchIn short, the church is a group of believers who come together for encouragement, edification, and teaching. Unity and order are a part of the church environment, but arguments and disruptions are not. Believers are each a part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:11-31), and Jesus Christ is the head (Ephesians 5:23). Perhaps we would do better to more closely follow the example of the first-century local church as described in Colossians 4:16, by spending more time simply reading God's word in our church services. This is what Paul recommended, and it is how the first churches functioned for hundreds of years. Churches are to encourage believers through Bible study, equipping, and edification.
MisnomersUnfortunately, there are many misnomers about what a church should be. The church is not a social organization where people go in order to be seen, to make contacts, to round out their children's education, or to get pumped up as though they were filling their tanks at some sort of emotional filling station. Neither is the local church a place to present superficial or hypocritical challenges, scare-tactics, or food-for-thought. The church is a place to learn the Bible, but it has been estimated that few attendees can name even one of the first four books of the Bible, or identify Biblical terms such as Calvary.
Churches should not measure themselves by "growth" just because the first church "grew" in the book of Acts. Churches should not over-emphasize goals and statistics of membership growths or budgets for buildings and programs. Most financial problems in most churches would be solved if those churches simply abandoned all of their activities in which God is not leading them and supplying their financial needs.
Church members should not be measured by how much they smile, visit, proselyte, handshake, emote, hustle, attend committee meetings, conferences, banquets, and family nights, or by how much other "doing" they can accomplish. Church is not the place for devices, formulas, steps, commitment cards, or invitations with emotional appeal to the guilt and pride of the old sin natures of the members. Christians should feel comfortable in their Christianity, instead of feeling guilty.
Pseudo-EvangelicalsChurches are certainly no place for malice, attacking one's integrity, or recognition of accomplishments, especially under the guise of doing God's work. Success is not measured by buildings, membership, attendance, organs, chimes, flowers, or banquets. It is sad when we can accurately estimate the size of memberships and budgets of churches by looking at the front door of the church building. Perhaps an appropriate term for these deceivers would be "pseudo-evangelicals."
MissionsChurches should be mission-oriented. They should not consider the souls of their potential members to be more important than the souls of people who will never attend their particular church. We should especially support foreign missions where people are more open to the gospel than in our own country. Yet, frequently, churches spend five or ten times the amount of money on church buildings compared to what they spend on missions.
ConclusionsOur churches should be groups of believers under the authority of pastor/teachers, who equip and encourage each other. However, the church is not an organization trying to "make the world a better," or a means of approaching God through groups. Our relationship with God is still a personal one, but we need regular encouragement and edification from fellow believers. We must understand the true purpose of the church, and learn to use it as a tool instead of as a crutch.
Owen Weber 2008