What is the Church?
Good morning! It’s good to be back with all of you. Last week, we had the opportunity of going to Village Missions Staff Conference at Green Bay Bible Camp in Kelowna, BC. And it was really good. We had a great time.
We just want to thank the Leadership Team for allowing us to go and for paying our way there. And we would also like to thank each one of you who prayed for us, that we would arrive safely there and back. Aside from Benji and Gideon being carsick for a good portion of the drive, it was a smooth trip.
Now, in case you're wondering why we were attending a Village Missions Staff Conference, it’s because this church is a Village Missions church, and Helena and I are Village Missionaries.
Village Missions exists to glorify Jesus Christ by developing spiritually vital country churches in rural North America. And they aim to accomplish this by placing pastors in small town and rural churches that might otherwise have to close. Village Missions actually preserves the gospel presence in over 220 communities across the United States and Canada.
And so, what Helena and I just attended was a Conference for all of the Canadian Village Missionaries. And there was quite a number of us. We were able to connect with a number of couples who are doing the same kinds of things that we are doing. We were able to share our blessings and struggles with these individuals and have them share their blessings and struggles with us.
One couple shared with us about their son who has been wrestling with same-sex attraction for a number of years, but who is actually going to be getting married to a young woman here in a few months.
One guy shared with me about the work that he is doing with first nations people, and how he has seen God break through the darkness that has hung over this one community for many years.
One couple had to leave halfway through the Conference to go back to their church, because their board chairman, who had been admitted to the hospital earlier in the week, had passed away. They went back so that they could grieve with their church family on Sunday morning.
There were a couple of young families there who have just recently moved into their fields, and they’re still becoming familiar with their congregations.
My parents, who are also Village Missionaries, were also working through death, as my Aunt Judy, my mom’s sister, passed away just before we left for Conference. And then, they just had an older woman in their church pass away, as well.
One couple on the last night of Conference found out that his mom has cancer in her face. And that night, him and Helena and I and one other couple stayed up late, talking and laughing and having a good time. And this guy said that that was exactly what he needed during this difficult time.
So, this Conference is a real blessing to us and a good opportunity for us to connect with these couples and families that we only see once a year.
But then, we were also in these sessions every morning and evening, where we were able to sit under the preaching and teaching of the Word by Spence Laycock, who is the pastor of Faith Community Church in Blackfalds.
Over the course of the weekend, Pastor Spence expounded on Romans 12:1-2 and what it looks like to be a gospel presence in an ever-changing world. And he just did such a wonderful job at navigating us through the biblical text.
But one of the things that he said in the last session, that caught my attention, is that he said it would be tempting to look at our gathering at Conference as the ideal church. If you think about it: We connected well with these other young families who are at the same stage of life as we are, who are doing the same work we are doing, and who are going through similar ministry-related issues.
It’s absolutely tempting to want to surround yourself with people of the same age, gender, and job. We naturally look for, and are drawn to, those similarities that we have with other people.
I was talking with a guy a couple of years ago, who was finding it difficult to connect with some of the men in his church, because they didn’t have the same common interests that he had, and he didn’t have the same common interests that they had.
And I just pointed him to the fact that we as Christians have a single common point in Christ that links us together more closely than any other common interest we might have with another person. I have more in common with an Iranian Christian than I do with a young, white, Canadian male who is not a Christian.
But we don’t tend to think in these terms, because what this guy was looking for, and what so many Christians these days are looking for, are common interests with other people.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s good and right to desire things in common, but it’s not what characterizes the local church. Boyle Gospel Chapel is not defined by the age or gender or employment of it’s members. We’re not. We are defined solely by who we are, together, in Christ.
And so, as tempting as it might have been to want our gathering at Village Missions Staff Conference to be our church, this is the local church that Helena and I have covenanted with and who’s authority we have come under. And that is why I say it’s good to be back with all of you, because this is where we belong.
Village Missions is not a church, but it does place pastors in churches. And that got me thinking: What is the local church? When we talk about the church, what are we talking about? What is it that makes a church, a church?
I was reading a book by Jonathan Leeman, titled, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, and here is the single-sentence definition that he gives for the local church that I really loved: “A local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.”
What I want to do this morning is I want to unpack this statement for us, looking at a few key passages of Scripture that give us the basis for the local church and what the church is.
Just so that you can see that what I’m saying is rooted in the Word of God and that these aren’t just my ideas or opinions, I want us to turn in our Bibles to Hebrews 10.
1. The first point that I want us to consider is that a local church is made up of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name.
Look at Hebrews 10:24-25. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
What I’ve noticed is that we tend to focus more on the phrase “not neglecting to meet together” than we do on the rest of this passage. What I mean by that is that we tend to use this passage to get people to go to church, but we don’t tell them why they need to go to church. We don’t tell them the significance of it.
In the verses just before this passage, the writer of Hebrews gives us this great encouragement that, through the saving work of Jesus Christ, we have the privilege of access to God. We can confidently and assuredly draw near to God, because of what Christ has done for us in our place on the cross.
Before Christ, we did not have this great privilege. In the Old Testament, only the priests had access to God, and even this was usually at a prescribed time. But Ephesians 2:13 says that “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
We have been welcomed into the presence of God through Christ. Therefore, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
What we need to be calling people to is not simply meeting together for the sake of meeting together. We have been called to something much greater than just simply going to church, and that is, “stirring up one another to love and good works” and “encouraging one another.” That’s why we gather together.
The reason why we regularly gather in Christ’s name is that we might strengthen one another’s faith. Our very presence on a Sunday morning is encouraging to people. We don’t tend to think about church in these terms. We don’t think about what our presence in the church means for another brother or sister in the faith, because oftentimes we’re thinking about what's in it for me.
It’s the consumer culture in which we live. And I’m here as much as anyone else. You would think that with me being a preacher that I would be more sympathetic to other preachers, but I’m going to be honest, I’m one of the harshest critics. And that’s simply me losing sight of the purpose of our regularly gathering together in Christ’s name. It’s simply me focusing on what I get out of church.
So, yes, we need to regularly gather together in Christ’s name, through whom we confidently come before our heavenly Father. But we need to continue to meet together, in order that we might strengthen one another’s faith in doing so.
2. And so, a local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name. The second point that I want us to consider is that the local church exists to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and His kingdom.
Turn to Matthew 16. In this passage, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is.” And they give the popular responses that they have heard: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. But then, Jesus asks them this pointed question: “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter, who normally just stuck his foot in his mouth, gives this astounding response, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And here is what Jesus says, in Matthew 16:17-19: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Now, this is the first of only two times in the Gospels that Jesus mentions the word, “church.” And here, Jesus is talking about the universal church: the assembly of all Christians from all ages from all over the world.
But notice what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is affirming what the Father has revealed to Peter. And so, Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church.” Now, theologians have long debated what Jesus is saying here, but based on the context, it seems as though Jesus is building His church on people who confess the gospel, because that’s exactly what we see Peter doing here.
And Jesus goes on to give Peter and the rest of the apostles “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” that is, the authority to do what Jesus just did with Peter.
In other words, Jesus is establishing the church and giving the church the authority, as God’s official representatives on earth, to stand before gospel confessors, like Peter, and affirm their confession.
Now, I just want to be clear, this does not mean that going to church makes you a Christian. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Going to church regularly will not save you from your sins.
Rather, the church simply has the authority to affirm that you are a Christian. The role of the church is to affirm the gospel confession that the Father has revealed to the individual. We see this throughout the New Testament, as people come to faith in Christ.
Look at Acts 2. Peter gives this Holy Spirit-inspired sermon, and Acts 2:41 says that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” If you look down at Acts 2:47, it says that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” That’s Jesus continuing to build His church with gospel confessors.
Jonathan Leeman tells the story of when he spent five months of college in Brussels, Belgium. He writes, “During that time, my US passport expired. If I had tried to leave the country without renewing my passport, I would have gotten in trouble. I no longer had valid documentation affirming that I was a US citizen. One afternoon I went to the US Embassy in Brussels and had my passport renewed. The embassy didn’t make me a US citizen that afternoon, but it did officially affirm it. Even though I’m a US citizen, I don’t have the authority to officially declare myself as one before the nations. Yet the embassy’s affirmation gave me the ability to continue living in a foreign city protected by all the rights and benefits of my citizenship.” Did you catch what he’s saying there?
In Philippians 3:20-21, the apostle Paul writes that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
The glorious reality is that the local church officially recognizes our citizenship in heaven. The local church acts as an embassy, where, if we are already members of a church, it’s like stepping through the embassy doors, having them affirm that I am a follower of Christ, and receiving all of the benefits and rights of citizenship.
The local church doesn’t make you a Christian. Only our heavenly Father can reveal to us that we need a Saviour from our sins. But the local church does affirm that you and I belong to Christ and His Kingdom.
3. And so, a local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and His kingdom. And the third and final point that I want us to consider is that this is done through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.
Turn over to Matthew 28. Jesus has been raised from the dead and is about to ascend to the right hand of God the Father Almighty. But He has one last thing to say to His disciples.
Look at Matthew 28:18-20. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
As the disciples of Jesus are sent out on mission to make disciples of all nations, we see the importance of gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.
They were to teach these new disciples to observe all that Jesus had commanded them. If we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, gospel preaching makes known to its citizens who the King is, what the King has done, and what the King requires of His subjects.
If there is none of this taking place in the church, if we aren’t giving people the Word of God on a Sunday morning, then we shouldn’t expect people to become disciples of Jesus.
It’s why the apostle Paul, in 2 Timothy 4:2-4, writes, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
There is a seriousness to gospel preaching. The local church needs to make sure that it is giving people the good news of Jesus Christ, as often as it regularly gathers in Christ’s name.
But then, the local church also needs to administer the gospel ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus tells His disciples that the disciple-making process must include baptizing new converts in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as a way of marking them off from the world and identifying them with Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s baptism.
But then, look at 1 Corinthians 11. In verses 23-26, the apostle Paul writes that he is passing down to the church what the Lord Jesus revealed to him, “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”
That last verse is key to the administering the Lord’s Supper as a gospel ordinance: As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
Every Sunday morning, we partake of the Lord’s Supper in the Remembrance Service. And as we partake, we are proclaiming to a watching and waiting world that we belong to Jesus.
God wants His people to be known and marked off. There is to be this line that distinguishes the church from the world. And we see it here in these gospel ordinances. If you are looking for something a little more subtle or a little more non-committal, you’re not going to find it in the church.
And if you belong to a church, is there any greater way for your gospel confession to be affirmed than for you to be baptized and to take the Lord’s Supper with those in the church?
If we are a follower of Jesus and we belong to a church, but we aren’t receiving baptism and the Lord’s Supper, then we simply need to ask ourselves why we aren’t.
It seems like our gospel presence is greater when we are participating in these gospel ordinances, together, than if we aren’t. We need to realize that the local church is more than just me; it’s all of us. If one member is struggling, then we all struggle. And if one member rejoices, then we all rejoice.
When we are baptized, it’s the church observing our baptism. When we partake of the Lord’s Supper, it’s the church who partakes, together. It’s not this individual act that we can just do on our own; it’s a community that oversees and affirms one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
And the local church does this through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances. Through the preaching of the Word and the participation of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the local church is affirming that we belong to Christ.
We are Christ’s representatives in the world. I hope we realize how sobering this is. And I hope we don’t paint this picture of the church, that it can do no wrong, that it has the authority to do what it wants. Because I know that many people, maybe even some of you in this room, have been hurt by the church, specifically, the authority of the church.
And that’s the challenge for many of us. We have seen bad representatives of Christ over the years. And we wonder whether the church can be trusted, and whether this whole idea of membership and specifically belonging to a local church is a good idea.
But here is the glorious reality that is painted for us, in Ephesians 5:25-27, that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
That’s what Jesus is doing in and through us right now. He is cleansing us and washing us and purifying us. We aren’t going to get this right all the time. We will fail in our use of authority. But we are being made spotless, each one of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ, so that Christ might present us, at the end of time, before the Father, holy and without blemish.
This should change our aversion to covenanting with each other in the local church. In John 15:34-35, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
You’ve heard of the golden rule: Do unto others the way you would have them do unto you. This is the platinum rule: Do unto others as Christ has done for you.
And what has Christ done for us? Romans 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We were living a life of rebellion against a holy God. And yet, out of love for us, God sent His Son into the world to pay the penalty for our crimes against Him.
That’s a big love. That’s a hard love for some people. But it’s a love that Christ has shown the church, so that we can love one another.
Do we love one another as Christ has loved us? That’s the question. It’s when we lay down our lives for one another, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, that we display Christ’s love for the world and cause the nations to give praise.
This is what it looks like to be the church. May we see how glorious this institution is that Christ Himself has created, and how privileged we are to be part of it. Let’s pray…