Tag: Ecclesiology

The Discipline of Church

by on Dec.06, 2008, under Bible Study, Reflection, Sermon

Anyone who has been a Christian for any reasonable amount of time has suffered disappointment in their church. Maybe you feel that the church is heading in a direction you consider unwise or unwarranted, or teaching things that you can’t agree with. Possibly you are frustrated because you feel the church is not moving in the direction God is calling it, or is moving too slowly. Perhaps it is because you have been sinned against by a leader or another member. In my case it came when one of my leaders told me that she had committed adultery and was getting a divorce.

Whatever the reason, it hurts. It hurts because when we join a church and engage in community with others we open ourselves up to one another, we trust each other. So when sin comes – and it will, for we are all sinful – we feel the betrayal that much more than if we had never let our barriers down.

At such times, it is only natural to ask, ‘Why do I need the church?’ Wouldn’t it be easier and safer for me to just go it alone and do my own thing? Surely it’s enough if I read my Bible and pray – just me and Jesus, no need for anyone else.

It might be nice to think so, but the reality is very different. If you take time to read through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, you will find that he uses a number of images to describe the Church. The church is Christ’s family, his temple and his body. All of these are images that imply participation as a group. There is one family, and the whole church is a part of it. There is one temple, and each member is a stone, being built together to make it.1 There is one body and each one of us is a part of it.2 Whether we like it or not, regardless of whether it is convenient or not, we are dependent upon one another. C. S. Lewis writes:

[Jesus] works on us in all sorts of ways… through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences which seem (at the time) anti-Christian… But above all, He works on us through each other.3

Men are mirrors, or “carriers” of Christ to other men. Sometimes unconscious carriers.

Another thing to note about the images that Paul chooses to illustrate the nature of the church is that there is no real choice involved. Do you get to choose what family you are born into? Of course not. Can the brick say to the builder, “Please use me for this building and not for that” ? No, it cannot.

This is an important message for our society, where the consumer is king. Recent years have given birth to the phenomenon of ‘church shopping’. This is where people go from church to church looking for one that is a good ‘fit’. Once again, C. S. Lewis offers some helpful insight here. In The Screwtape Letters a senior demon, Screwtape, writes to his inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, who is on his first assignment.

Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches… the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy [i.e. God] wants him to be a pupil.4

God wants us to be pupils; ‘church-shopping’ makes us into critics.

This requires common sense, of course. There should be certain minimum requirements – for example a church should proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and should be committed to teaching the Bible. It’s no good showing up to your local mosque or Kingdom Hall just because it is the closest religious establishment and calling that ‘church’. You will have to work out for yourself what your minimum requirements are, but so long as the church you are in meets those requirements, don’t go shopping around for one that is ‘better’. And if you do happen to stumble on a ‘perfect’ church, whatever you do don’t join… for then it will no longer be perfect!

Brothers, the Bible makes it clear that we are dependent upon one another. God’s people are being prepared to serve each other so that the whole body of Christ may be built up.5 This means that we are responsible for supporting one another. Why do we lay bricks the way we do so that they overlap? I am no builder, but I imagine that at least part of the reason is so that they spread the weight of the building more evenly. Imagine what kind of building you would have if you had to check each morning to make sure none of the bricks had decided to move on to another building! Similarly, if we are always on the lookout for something better then we will be hesitant to commit to the overall work – and others will be hesitant to depend upon us.

So, like many of the other disciplines we have considered this weekend, the discipline of church requires that we be committed. If we are not, then we are short-changing ourselves and others. Kent Hughes writes,

We are tragically diminished by non-participation in Christ’s Body. Correspondingly, the Church is diminished by our non-participation as well.6

This why the writer to the Hebrews commands that we ‘not give up meeting together… but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’7

In our remaining time, then, let’s consider what such discipline looks like in practice. Firstly, it involves regular attendance. ‘[Y]ou do not have to go to church to be a Christian. You do not have to go home to be married either. But in both cases if you do not, you will have a very poor relationship.’8 Positively, participating regularly in the life of the church allows us to experience the benefits of community, such as love, support, good teaching and fellowship.

Secondly, the discipline of church requires that you become a member. Membership means different things to different people, but in a church context it is a covenant relationship between you and your church. You agree to participate in the life of the church, and to support it through the good times and the bad. In the same way, the church commits to supporting you. It also means submitting to the leadership of the church and, if necessary, church discipline.

Thirdly, financial giving is an important part of the discipline of church. Your giving should be regular and systematic, and should take precedence over your parachurch commitments (missions, charities etc.). It is only by your support that the church can continue to minister in the name of Jesus – both to you and to others.

Finally, your church needs your participation. This is where you pour your time, talents, expertise and creativity into your church to the glory of God. This may mean joining a cleaning or mowing roster, helping out with one of the Sunday services, mentoring a child through the Kid’s Hope program or just about anything else. This has the twin benefits of being of service to others (both inside and outside our church community) and allowing you to grow.

This area of participation is probably one of the hardest parts of the discipline of church to get right, for it requires a balance. On the one hand we cannot simply give every available minute of the day to the church – to do so is to rob ourselves and our family. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is counselling those considering marriage to think carefully before diving in, for it involves being concerned about how they can please their wives as well as please the Lord. In Paul’s eyes this is a necessary consequence of being married – it means having less time to serve the Lord. Having kids decreases the available time even further… or so I am told!

On the other hand we cannot go entirely the other way and not participate at all because we have family (or friends, or hobbies, or work, or…). If we do then we end up as a bunch of islands, and we might as well not have a church at all. We become consumers, infants who are totally dependent on others for their sustenance rather than adults who are able to find and fix their own food… and perhaps some for someone else!

I’m afraid I don’t have a nice, easy solution for you – the truth is I don’t have it figured out myself! It would be easy for me to stand up here and say, “You should give 10% of your time/talents/money etc. to the church” but to do so would be dishonest. The truth is that the amount you can and should give will vary from person to person. Some people will be better equipped for particular kinds of service. The amount you can commit to will vary even throughout the course of your life – immediately after you get married, for example, is probably not a good time to be signing on to a ministry that will have you out every weeknight and weekend – whereas this might have been a possibility when you were single. If this is an issue that you struggle with (as I do) I encourage you to discuss it further small groups after this talk. Even better, find someone who knows you well and discuss it with them. This could be your spouse, or a Christian friend. Ask them to hold you accountable to whatever you decide – and regularly reevaluate together as your life changes.

Hopefully you see from all this that the discipline of church is a necessary part of the Christian life. However it is not something we do for the sake of doing the right thing – it also brings tremendous benefits for us and for our whole church. Without discipline we all suffer; only with it may we become the kind of church that Paul describes in Colossians 3:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’

- Colossians 3:12-17

If this is the kind of church that you want, it is going to require a partnership between you and your church; you must develop the discipline of church.

- Tim Campbell (16/11/2008)

Questions

  1. Why is the idea of church so unpopular today? Why aren’t more people interested in being a part of a good church?
  2. What are the advantages of being committed to a (single) church? What are the disadvantages?
  3. What are the minimum requirements for a church? Under what circumstances should you leave a church?
  4. Read Colossians 3:12-17. What does Paul expect of a healthy church? Note particularly how concerned he is about the relationships between church members. How do you see these qualities working out in our church?
  5. How should you be disciplined about church? You may wish to consider things like attendance, giving, participation and membership, as well as how you can contribute to the qualities identified out of Colossians 3:12-17 above.
  6. How do you strike a balance between too much and too little in your commitment to your church?

References

Lewis, C. S. 1997, Mere Christianity, London: Fount.
Lewis, C. S. 2002, The Screwtape Letters, London: HarperCollins.
Hughes, R. K. 2001, Disciplines of a Godly Man, Wheaton: Crossway.


Endnotes

  1. 1 Pet. 2:5
  2. 1 Cor. 12:27
  3. 1997, 157
  4. 2002, 81
  5. Eph. 4:12
  6. 2001, 174
  7. Heb. 10:25
  8. Hughes 2001, 175
Leave a Comment more...