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Defining the Church - Part 1

Tom Pennington • Selected Scriptures

  • 2006-07-23 PM
  • Systematic Theology
  • Sermons


In the past, we have talked about the reality that love and hate are not mutually exclusive. You can both love and hate the same object. I gave the illustration of George Washington and his relationship with Benedict Arnold. I have a new illustration: it's my computer. I both love it and hate it at exactly the same time. This afternoon has been one of those times when I've hated it more than I have loved it. So, hopefully, it will work and function for me this evening; if it doesn't, we'll just get along without it. But I want us to come tonight to look at what is the church?

It's becoming increasingly more difficult for the average professing Christian to explain what the church is. There was a time when, if you mentioned the term "church", there was generally understood a certain definition of exactly what constituted the church. But no longer is that true. And one of the primary reasons for that is that there are evangelical leaders today purposefully redefining what the church is. There are a number of new ways of doing church. Here are just a few of them. Of course, a number of years ago now, probably 20 years ago, the seeker sensitive movement really began to reach critical mass, and it has continued to exist.

Then came the contemporary worship church, jettisoning everything that had any recollection of the past, anything traditional of any kind, going for all new models in every aspect of church life. Then came the house church which said that the real church, the real New Testament church, could only meet in homes in small groups, that was the church. That what we're doing here tonight isn't the church meeting together because it violates the New Testament model.

After that I remember, and some of you may remember, there was a group of people who began to espouse what was called "the family faith experience," or "family church". Now, you should gather, not with other believers outside of your immediate biological family, but rather you should restrict the primary focus of your worship of God to your family. I knew of a church in California that would make this aspect of worship their primary focus of worship so that they would gather in their families on Sunday morning, and then they would gather on Sunday evening together. This began to influence the church in certain areas of the country.

More recently has come the cyber-church, which is really nothing more than a variety of spiritual experiences through the internet. People connecting via the internet and doing church, if you will, over electronic means. More recently, just within the last few years, the emergent church has bloomed, which is semi-traditional in that they still meet together as we meet together tonight, although they don't like buildings and set-ups like we have here, structures like we have. Instead, they prefer things that are more visual, more mystical experiences, from prayer labyrinths, to candles, etc.

But those are somewhat traditional, believe it or not.

There is being birthed today a vast variety of non-traditional church experiences. Here are a few examples; George Barna lists these in his book Revolution, which is a terrible book as I mentioned the last time we studied together. But he lists some of these and encourages them in place of joining together with other believers to worship as we do on the Lord's Day. He says, instead there are a lot of believers involving themselves in independent worship events, in which, what he calls "worship gypsies", lead groups of people assembled for what amounts to a concert in worship and that is the church, if you will, to those people. It may be intermittent, it may be very infrequent, but it's their church.

There's the marketplace fellowships; business assemblies, gatherings of those who are connected, not by their devotion to Christ primarily, but by their workplace. Coaching communities, in which there's a mentoring relationship that takes place, a purposeful mentoring relationship in various contexts. Internet faith groups; and I don't know what that is, I really can't explain that to you, I didn't find a definition for it anywhere. But obviously it has some relationship back to the cyber church, but more loosely connected than that. And then finally, Barna says a lot of people are giving up church as it has been considered for 2,000 years to instead pursue some para-church ministry that's intended to substitute for that connection to the church.

As you look at that list, it becomes clear immediately that we are lost in a muddy fog of what the nature of the church really is.

So, it's crucial that we stop, as we always must, as we begin this study of the church together, and ask ourselves the most basic question. And it's this: how does the Bible define the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? What is the biblical definition of what constitutes a church? Now we're going to begin that study tonight. We're going to begin, and this will be a little more of a classroom setting because I really want you to get the key biblical words and get your arms around those words because there's so much confusion about them. Lord willing, next Sunday night we'll look at the main images, the word pictures that the New Testament uses to describe the church, and the application of each of those. They're powerful. I'm looking forward to that study myself, and being able to teach you next Sunday night.

From there, we'll go to ask ourselves, what are the key components of a church? How do you know if what you have is a church? What constitutes a church? And from there we'll ask, finally, what constitutes a healthy church? It's one thing to have a church. It's another thing to have a church that's vibrant, and alive, and thriving, that's modeled on the New Testament. So, that gives you a little road map of where we're going over the next several weeks. In time past, this would have been a much briefer study, but because of what you see in this list I've just given you, because of the fog that surrounds the issue, I think it's imperative that we start, literally from ground zero, and lay brick upon brick of what the Bible teaches about the church. And that's what I want us to begin to do tonight.

Now we began, actually, our study about the church, a couple of weeks ago, on the evening of July 4th, and Sheila and I enjoyed worshiping together that evening. I'm kidding; there were more of you here that night. But some of you weren't able to be here because you were out of town, a lot of people traveling. So, let me remind you of what I shared with you that night because I think it's important for those of you who weren't here to get the backdrop of this before we look at the definition. I'm not going to take long with this, and if you're interested or curious, you can listen to that message and catch up. But let me just remind you of why we've seen this drift from a church centered life. Why all of those models I showed you? Why have we deteriorated to that?

Well, there are a number of reasons and these are just a few I jotted down. From outside the church, I think you have the pursuit of materialism that robs people of their time. They're too busy pursuing new cars and new houses, living above their means, and these overlap, obviously, but that adds to the busyness of modern life that ties people up and so other things have captured their attention besides the church.

The over commitment of the family. Most families have so many things going that the church somehow keeps dropping down the list. A hundred, two hundred years ago, for a believer, next to the personal relationship to God, next to the care of his family, was the church and his ministry within the context of the church. But because of the over commitment of families today, the church has hit the skids.

The quest for self-fulfillment. A lot of people drop church because it doesn't give them what they want, it doesn't give them the emotional high, the buzz that they really want, and so they go looking for it somewhere else. They don't realize the church isn't primarily about them, although we all gain from our time together. It's about obeying God, it's about worshipping God.

And then there's the cry for egalitarianism and individualism. They don't want to come together and shoulder-to-shoulder be brothers, submit themselves to the elders of the church, and so forth. Instead, everyone wants to sort of create his own designer religion.

As far as the drift from a church centered life from within the church, I think there's several factors, and again I'm just going to touch on these. But the anonymity of the megachurch. You go to a church of 10,000 or 20,000 as we have down the road, people, and pretty soon it doesn't matter whether or not you go, no one even knows. They don't miss you, and there's a very real sense, even in a good large church for a person to feel lost in the crowd.

The rise of the seeker sensitive church redefined what it means to go to church so that now in many of these seeker sensitive churches, the Sunday time together isn't about the believers and the church worshiping God together, it's about trying in some way to reach out to the lost by accommodating them and making them feel comfortable. So pretty soon, true believers aren't being fed on the Lord's Day; there's no reason to go because it becomes just an evangelistic service of some kind, and even loosely evangelistic at that.

There's the rise and influence of para-church ministries. From the radio to the television, we're bombarded with ministries outside the church that call for our time, our prayers, and our money. Even those that are good can rob us of the commitment to the church. And I think one of the primary causes for the decline of the church from within the church is the decline of expository preaching. People aren't being fed, and if they aren't being fed, then they're not going to keep coming back.

My dear mother, who's now with the Lord, she died last summer, in fact, just this past week was the anniversary of her death, and she was my greatest encouragement. I would call her every couple of weeks or so and we would talk, sometimes more frequently. And sometimes when life was particularly busy, not as frequently as that, but we just had some wonderful times together talking. She was also my biggest fan; she was not the only member of my fan club, but she was a major contributing member. And she would listen to all my sermons. In fact, my oldest sister tells me that she'd get these tapes that I would send and she would make her rewind them, and then my mom would listen to them three, four, five times. And she said this to me, on a number of occasions, to encourage me to continue teaching the Scriptures, she said, those who are true believers will always be hungry for the Word of God. And I think that's exactly right. But when they're not getting it in the church then what happens? They go somewhere else. And so, I think that's been one of the main causes for the decline of a church-centered life.

So, why should the church matter? And again, let me just briefly review what I went through a couple of weeks ago. Why does it matter? And I developed all these at length, which I'm not going to do now, but let me just touch on them. When you look at the example of New Testament believers it's clear that church ought to matter, their lives centered on the church. When you look at the teaching and the pattern of the apostles, the thrust of their ministry was in the church; wherever they traveled they connected to the church. They prayed for the church, their heart poured out, Paul said, I feel the daily pressure of the churches. This was the heart of their life and ministry. Then when you look at the commands of the New Testament, it's clear that the church is to be the center of our world as believers.

And finally, last time we looked at the priority of Christ Himself. Christ only committed to build one institution, one organism, and that is the church. As good as other things may be they are not a substitute for the one, primary purpose Christ has in our world today, and that is to build His church. So, that's just a brief review of what we looked at. Church matters. We need to get connected to the church because the church, whatever it is, matters to God. It becomes foundational that believers really understand what it is. And that's what we're going to look at together.

I want us to begin tonight as I said, by looking at key biblical words. First, take a look at the English word that's in your English translations. The word "church", also the Scottish and the German, similar words, come from a Greek word which you'll recognize the similarity of, "kuriakon". And the word comes from the word "kurios", which means "Lord", it literally means "belonging to the Lord". This word occurs two times in the New Testament; neither time in specific reference to the church itself. It occurs in reference to the Lord's Supper and in reference to the Lord's Day, in Revelation 1:10; 1 Corinthians 11:20, the Lord's Supper, and Revelation 1:10, the Lord's Day.

Early Christians however, used this word, "kuriokos" or "kuriokon", as I have it here, to refer to the place where they met, because they said it belonged to the Lord, the place belonged to the Lord. It was carried over I'm sure, from the concept of both the temple and the synagogue. It was a place that belonged to God and so the early Christians would call the place where they met "kuriokos", meaning "belongs to the Lord." And because they understood that the place was only special because of who met there, they began to apply the same name to the people themselves, and that has passed down through the centuries to us in English, as "church". The basic idea is "belonging to the Lord".

Now, let's look however, at a more important word which is the Greek word. You're familiar with this Greek word; I'm going to put it up, I don't usually give you Greek words because most of you don't speak or read Greek. But this one you will recognize, "ekklesia". This is the Greek word that is commonly translated as "church". It's made up of two Greek words, "ek", meaning "'out" and "kaleo", meaning "'to call" or "to summon". Now, contrary to popular teaching, however, this does not necessarily mean "called out" or "separated ones". You'll often hear people say that; that makes good preaching but it's not necessarily true. It's based on what is called the root fallacy. If you were to take any English word and cut it into its parts, it wouldn't necessarily mean what those root words mean, because words over time evolve in meaning and you have to look at how it's used to really discern its meaning. This word, "ekklesia", means "an assembly summoned or called together". That's what it means.

Now, let me show how this word was used first of all, in secular Greek. The word "ekklesia" was used outside of the Scripture and outside of the religious community of believers in several very interesting ways. One Greek lexicon defines it this way, in secular Greek "it was an assembly of the citizens summoned by the crier". It was the legislative assembly. You begin to immediately pick the idea of a sort of political overtone in the secular use. Another says the common term for a meeting of the "eklektoi", that is, those who have been chosen or elected, assembled to discuss the affairs of a free state. So, it's a lot like the way we use the word "assembly" in reference to our legislatures, our state and federal legislatures. It's an assembly.

Bishop Trench, who wrote an excellent resource called Synonyms of the Greek New Testament, defines it this way, he says, it's the lawful assembly, this is now again in use in secular Greek, the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the right of citizenship for the transaction of public affairs. You begin immediately, don't you, to see the overtones of this word in secular Greek. So, it came to mean or refer to any assembly regardless of their purpose or their manner of convening. Started out as a political assembly, but eventually the word came to mean essentially any gathering, regardless of why it is they gathered, and regardless of how it is they were gathered. Whether by a crier, as in the first definition, or by a schedule or impromptu, it didn't matter. Now, that's in secular Greek.

But that would not have been what would have primarily informed the New Testament usage of the word "ekklesia". Because the early church was composed primarily of God-fearing, believing Jews who came to embrace Christ as Messiah, the primary background of the word "ekklesia" in their minds would have come not from secular society, but from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint. And the word "ekklesia" provides, as it's used in the Septuagint, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, provides the primary background of how it's used in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, "ekklesia" occurs about a hundred times. It translates, when it occurs, it always translates the same Hebrew word. It's the word "qahal". In some of the old versions of scripture, the book of Ecclesiastes has its author listed as "Qoheleth". Some of you remember reading that word. It means "one who speaks to the assembly"; it's based on this word.

This word, as Robert Sossi (sp?) in his excellent book on the church writes, "Qahal means [so this is the Hebrew word, now] means "an assembly, a convocation, or congregation" and can be used for almost any type of gathering of people. So, when the translators of the Hebrew Old Testament, in the second century before Christ, wanted to choose a word that would translate "qahal", meaning "an assembly of any kind," they chose the word "ekklesia." Now, stay with me for a moment. I'm going to show you more detail than you want to know, and I'll tell you why you need to know it in just a minute. It is important; I'm not just throwing this up for no reason, so stick with me for just a second.

When you look at how this word is used in the Old Testament, it can refer to an assembly of angels, and it does in Psalm 89:5. It can refer to the assembly of a nation as in Genesis 28:3, a company or an assembly of peoples, referencing the descendants of Abraham and Isaac. Genesis 35:11, the same sort of usage of the nation of Israel; "'I will make you an assembly of nations … shall come from you.'" It can refer, this Greek word "ekklesia", as it's used in the Old Testament, can refer to the congregation of Israel as it does in Numbers 16:3, notice the end of the verse, "… why do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?" In Greek, that's the "ekklesia", our word for "church of the Lord".

In Micah 2:5, "Therefore you will have no one stretching a measuring line for you by lot in the assembly of the LORD." So it can refer to assembly of angels, of a nation, the congregation of Israel; they can be gathered for various purposes. It can refer to gathering for civic affairs, and you don't need to read these verses, and you probably can't. Some of you with bad eyesight there in the back, this is a test, actually, you'll know whether to go and get new glasses after tonight. It can refer to conducting civic affairs; gathering or assembling to do the business of the nation. It can even be assembling for war as in Numbers 22:4 and Judges 20:2. Judges 20 says, "The chiefs of all the people, even of all the tribes of Israel, took their stand in the assembly of the people of God, 400,000 foot-soldiers who drew the sword." So, it can describe an assembly of warriors. It can even describe an assembly for evil purposes. In Genesis 49:6, here referring to the treachery of Simeon and Levi against Shechem, it says that they were united in an assembly to carry out the treachery against the city of Shechem. In Psalm 26:5, "I hate the assembly [the "ekklesia"] of evildoers.…"

It can also describe, and this is what we're used to, it can describe an assembly for the purpose of worship. And there are a number of places. The first reference of this word in the Old Testament occurs in Deuteronomy 9:10, where it says, "'The LORD gave me two tablets of stone written by the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you at the mountain from the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.'" So, that amazing event around the foot of Sinai when God gathered Himself around the top of that mountain with cloud and fire and earthquake, and God spoke from the cloud, and the people of God gathered beneath, is called an assembly. And obviously the purpose of it that day was for worship. The same thing in 2 Chronicles 20:5, and again in Nehemiah 5:13. These are merely representative.

Now, why have I shown you all those? Listen carefully. There are some who argue that Old Testament Israel was a church. And here's how they do it. They say the term "ekklesia" was really a technical term for church in the Old Testament, just as it in the New Testament. But as you can see, that is patently not true. There are a number and variety of uses of this word that have nothing to do with what we think of as the church, or even what those who want to call Israel in the Old Testament the church, how they would define it. As Robert Sossi says, "There is no evidence that such is the case."

By the way, let me tell you that we'll look, in the next couple of weeks, at the biblical arguments for when the church really began. But until then, understand that the church didn't begin until after the ministry of Christ. I'll prove that to you. We'll walk through that slowly in a few weeks. But until then, just understand that. It certainly did not begin in the Old Testament. We'll also talk about by the way, what is the connection between Israel and the church? We'll define that in the coming weeks.

Now, the word Hebrew "qahal" and its Greek translation "ekklesia", simply mean "an assembly". And at this point, they don't refer to the people who assemble, but to the meeting itself. If the people weren't assembled, then they weren't called an "ekklesia". The "ekklesia" was the assembly itself; it was the gathering. But "qahal" and "ekklesia" are used in passages that do refer to God's people gathering for worship, so therefore, "ekklesia" became the best Greek word for the New Testament writers to use to capture the nature of the New Testament people of God assembling for worship.

By the way, early in church life, there were two terms that overlap. Turn with me to James. I pointed this out to you before. But notice in James 2, James 2:2. Here James is talking about the issue of partiality, the issue of prejudice. And verse 1 he says,

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes.… [and so forth.]

And he sets a scenario. The word for "assembly" there is the word for "synagogue". Remember James was the first, probably the first New Testament book written, so the church is in its infancy. So, at this point, most of the believers, really all of the believers, with a few exceptions, are Jews. And so, when they think of gathering together with others who embrace what they embrace, they call it "the synagogue".

However, there's already a transition going on because if you turn over to James 5, James 5:14, this an interesting passage and one I'll enjoy getting to. But verse 14 says, "Is…[any] among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the ["ekklesia"] … and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.…" So, at an early stage in the life of the church, apparently the terms were used almost synonymously, as this transition occurred. But obviously, the apostles under the inspiration of the Spirit, began to use exclusively the word "ekklesia". And there's a reason for that, and we'll look at it in just a moment.

Now, so let's look at how this word "ekklesia" is used in the New Testament. First of all, just a couple of statistics. In terms of frequency, it occurs 114 times in the New Testament. Three of those times it refers to an assembly of pagan Gentiles, you remember the crowd in Ephesus that got themselves into serious trouble. It's used of a mob and in the same passage it's used of a lawful assembly. But they're pagan Gentiles. Twice of that 114 times it's used of the assembly of Israel in the wilderness, both in Acts 7 in Stephen's sermon, he uses it that way, as well as in Hebrews 2:12. But the preponderance of the usages, 109 refer to the church, as you and I know it. Only 3 times, by the way, in the gospels, in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus promises to build His church. And then in Matthew 18:17 about church discipline, where He says if the brother won't hear the two or three witnesses tell it to the church, and so forth. So, you get the sort of idea of the frequency of this word. Mostly it is used of the New Testament church.

Now, when it's used that way there are a variety of what we could call senses. You understand what I mean by that. For example, when we use the English word "cool," that word has a primary field of reference, but it can have a number of senses. A person can be cool in temperature, and a person could be cool because they're in touch with contemporary trends, and so forth. It has several different senses. Well, the same thing is true of biblical words. They have different senses and you have to understand how the different usages that they can have in different contexts. Let me show you the senses of this word "ekklesia" in the New Testament.

First of all, as I've already mentioned, it can refer to a political assembly as you saw in Acts 19. It can also refer to the assembly of the nation of Israel at Sinai as Stephen mentions it in Acts 7:38. Still we haven't gotten yet to the heart of this word. A third sense is the church in the house of an individual. There's several times in the New Testament when the church is described in this terms, "Greet the church who meets in so-and-so's house." It's a real church; it was just a small fledgling church and it's referenced that way. Most frequently in the New Testament this word is used of the local church which, of course, there's overlap to the previous one, but, of a local church.

For example, in Acts 5:11, you have the church in Jerusalem. We know that that was a church, a very large church, because we learn that in one day 3,000 people were added to it on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, but it was a church. The same thing in 1 Corinthians; Paul refers to the church in Corinth. So, this is the most common usage of the word church. It refers to a local church. It can also refer to a group of churches in a region. Turn to Acts 9, you'll see this usage. Acts 9:31, "So the church [singular] throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, [and] it continued to increase." Here, obviously, we're not talking about a single, geographic church, we're talking about a region of churches, because the word "church" is singular, and yet there are several different regions listed. So it can refer to a group of churches within a region.

It can also refer to all those, this is another sense of this word, all those throughout the world who profess, underline profess, who profess faith in Christ and organize under appointed officers for the purpose of worship and service. Turn to 1 Corinthians 10, you'll see this usage, 1 Corinthians 10:32. In verse 31, Paul's giving this major corrective in chapter 10 to avoiding the pitfalls of Christian liberty. The Corinthians were in danger of running their Christian liberty right out to the edge and falling off the precipice into sin, and chapter 10 warns them against the abuse of their Christian liberty. And he makes this summary statement in verse 31,

Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense [and notice the sweeping words he uses, give no offense] either to Jews or Greeks or to [singular] the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved." [In the context, it's clear he intends this in a wide, sweeping sense of all those throughout the world who profess faith in Christ.]

Turn to 12:28. Verse 27 says,

Now you are Christ's body, [there's one of those images we'll look at next week] and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings.…" [and so forth.]

We don't have any apostles, folks. There's a local church that does, and I told the elders I wanted one, but right now we don't have one. And so, this, I shouldn't have said that, I'm sorry. That's what happens when I get away from my notes. God has appointed in the church, in that group of people who profess faith in Christ around the world, apostles, prophets, teachers, and so forth, various gifts.

The final sense of this word is the most comprehensive sense. And it's all those who have been actually united to Christ as Lord and Savior. Now, notice there's a slight difference between the last two. The previous one was those who profess. There is a church, an expression of the church of Christ, all over the world, local churches, and in those churches are both believers and unbelievers.

But there's another way this word is used. It's used to describe specifically and comprehensively all those who are truly believers, who are the true church, who are actually united to Christ as Lord and as Savior. In Ephesians 1:22, we're told that God

"… put all things in subjection under [Christ's] … feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all."

The body of Christ is obviously confined to and defined by true believers. Unbelievers are not part of the body of Christ. Because remember, how do we become part of the body of Christ? The New Testament tells us we are baptized into His body the moment of salvation. We're baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ, and so there are no unbelievers, professing believers who aren't truly believers, part of the body of Christ. And therefore, this word you see here as it's used, "ekklesia" or church, is used to describe those who are truly Christians, and so forth in other contexts as well. So, there you see the ways this word is used in the New Testament. And when you read the New Testament, you've got to pay careful attention to what usage. Most of the time, it's refers to the local church, a church just like ours, in a specific place with specific people.

One thing I want you to see is how "ekklesia" is never used. It's never used of a building. You'll see people ride past and they'll say, "there's our church,' they'll point to a building. Remember they used "kuriokos", meaning "there's the place that belongs to the Lord." But they never use "ekklesia" to refer to a building. You see this structure in which we sit, is not the church. This is the building in which the church meets. This is the building in which we assemble. It's never used of a denomination; for example, we speak of a denomination as the Baptist Church, the "ekklesia" is never really used that way. And it's never used of course, of a state church like the Church of England.

So, when you put it all together, the word "ekklesia" has two primary meanings when the New Testament uses this word. One of them is the local church; a local assembly or assemblies of all who profess faith in Christ, in the Christ of the scripture. About 92 times, of the 109 references to the church in the New Testament, describe the local church in this sense. Then you have the universal church. What do I mean by that? All professing believers everywhere, underline the word professing again. The universal church is all those who profess Christ everywhere; about 17 times in the New Testament the word's used this way. This refers to the whole body of Christ redeemed, or who profess to be redeemed by Christ.

Theologians then, further divide this universal church into two categories. Perhaps you've heard the terms: visible and invisible. Some of you probably think, you know, I don't really feel like a part of the invisible church. What does that mean? Well, think about it this way. When they use the word "visible", they're describing the universal church as we see it. There are people all over the world who claim to be connected to Jesus Christ; that is the visible, universal church. You and I see it. We can see those people, all of whom profess Christ. But it includes both true believers, just as, sad to say, our church does, it includes both true believers and false believers, those who have not genuinely been converted. That is the visible, universal church. It's the universal church as we see it. The invisible universal church is the church as God sees it. The universal church as God sees it, and this includes only true believers. So, that gives you the context of how the New Testament uses this word.

Now, briefly, just in a couple of minutes here, I want to give you a little application of why this is important. What do you do with this? This is important to understand: the New Testament does not know a believer who is part of the universal, invisible church, that is who's truly connected to Christ, who isn't also a part of a local assembly. Now, I'm preaching to the choir because you're here tonight. But you need to understand this as you encounter those who profess Christ but say, "You know, I just never had much to do with the church." The New Testament knows nothing of that. In the New Testament, when someone became a Christian, he was described as being "added to the church." You can see it in Acts 5:11 - 14. You have the church, and when they came to faith in Christ, they're described as being added to that church.

Also, when you look at the New Testament letters, understand that those New Testament letters were written to local churches and their leaders. The assumption was that the apostles' instruction would get to the Christians there because only a single copy was sent, and it was sent to the church, to the leadership of the church. The assumption being that they didn't need to send out a universal email to those people who weren't connected to the church. The assumption was that if they were believers, they were connected to a local body of believers who met together, who assembled together.

There's a second application, and that is: be careful to gather with the church. You see, remember the nature of the word? At the heart of belonging to a church is assembling, that's what the word means, "to assemble". There are people that I have spoken with in my past years as well as here in Texas, who, when I ask them, so where do you go to church? They'll say, "I go to the church.…" and then when they struggle for the name, I know that there may be a problem. So, my next question, and I probably shouldn't do this, but, maybe it's insensitive, but my next question is, "Oh, really, o.k., well, who's the pastor over there?" And that really puts them in a difficult situation because most of them haven't been in 5, 10 years, and so, they're struggling to come up with the pastor's name.

Listen, a church, by definition, is an assembly. It's a gathering of people who profess Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 10:25, we're told not to forsake "… our assembling together …" By the way, there in a letter written to Hebrews, he uses the word "synagogue" again, as James did, in James 2, not "ekklesia". But the principle is the same. We're not to forsake the assembling together. Be faithful to gather with the church.

Another application is: beware of wolves in sheep's clothing who are a part of the visible church. Remember what the visible church is? It's all those who profess to know Christ, some of whom may not. This is a warning the New Testament sounds again and again. In Matthew 7:15 our Lord says,

"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruit[s]." [by both their teaching that comes out of their mouth and by their practice, you'll understand them by the fruit they produce. And by what they produce in their followers as well.]

In Acts 20:29 - 30,

"I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; [Paul says to the Ephesian elders] and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them."

Understand that because somebody's connected to the visible church doesn't make them the real thing, they may be a wolf destroying the church. In 2 Timothy 2, in fact, turn there for a moment, 2 Timothy 2:17. Paul warns Timothy that there are those whose talk will spread like gangrene. And then,

"Among them [and he names two men] … Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place they upset the faith of some. Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows who are His.…'" [He knows who the invisible church really is, and it's not always the visible. Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.]

Augustine said many sheep are without, that is outside of the visible church of his time, and many wolves are within. Let me warn you, however, of the opposite danger, and that is assuming that somebody you know in the church is an unbeliever. John Calvin was right, I think, when he warned us to show a charitable judgment. He defined it this way, he said that we should recognize as believers all who "… by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments of the ordinances, profess the name of God and Christ with us." Be quick to believe the best, but beware of the wolves.

Another application, and this is a hard one: you can be part of the visible, local church and not belong to the invisible, universal church. In other words, you can belong to the church as we see it, and not belong to the real church as God sees it. An example of course, is Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10, "… Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.…" This is a call to self-examination. We've seen it over and over again in James haven't we? In James 1 he tells us to look at our response to the Word. In James 2:14 and following, he says look at your works to see if your faith is alive. You're not saved by works, but the faith that saves is never alone, it's always accompanied, followed by, works. It's Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5 saying, "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!" Listen, to be connected to a visible church is not to be connected to Christ, necessarily. There's a warning here for all of us.

Final application: there's one practice the New Testament says is to be a regular and crucial part of the assembly and it's the Lord's Table, as the Scripture calls it, or the Lord's supper. We sometimes call it communion. The New Testament makes it clear that it is important to celebrate the Lord's Table with other Christians in the context of the church. We learn this both by the example of the early church; you remember in Acts 2:42, one of the four things that the early church was devoted to was the breaking of bread, the Lord's Table, and we learn it by command, by direct command. Paul quotes Christ as saying, "Do this, [what?] in remembrance of Me." There's a command. So, it was definitely part of the life of the early church. Why is it that we're to do this together with other believers?

Well in preparation for our taking of the Lord's Table, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 10. First Corinthians 10, and notice verse 16. Again, this is in the context of Paul dealing with Christian liberty, but he makes this interesting point about the Lord's Table. Verse 16, "Is not the cup of blessing [reference to the cup that we drink together] which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" The word "sharing" in both cases is the word "koinonia". It's a word which means "fellowship".

Now when the New Testament uses this word, it's not talking about sharing Spring Creek Barbeque in the fellowship hall, or Krispy Kreme donuts, although there's nothing wrong with either of those. It's more like, as I've reminded you again and again, when the New Testament uses that word "fellowship", or "koinonia", it's using it in the context like J.R. Tolkien uses in his book, "The Fellowship of the Ring." That small group, who bound themselves to Frodo Baggins, to destroy the ring of power were partners, they were in the fellowship of the ring. They were partners. So drinking of the cup, or eating of the bread here, in 1 Corinthians 10, shows our fellowship, or our partnership.

Now that partnership is with Christ, but it's also, and this is what he's saying here in context, a sharing or a partnership, a fellowship together with other Christians. It pictures that we are part of a partnership, that we're connected to each other. We are partners in receiving the benefits of the death of Christ. When we take of the Lord's Table, we're reminding ourselves that we are connected to an assembly, to a group of people who share a common commitment to the death of Christ, who benefit from that death just as we do. And that's what we do as we take of the Lord's Table together tonight.

Systematic Theology