The Vital Place of the Church

I-will-build-my-churchTo say that, oftentimes, the world and the culture has invaded the Church in America over the past several decades is not an understatement. A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) wrote about this very issue primarily in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and it is even more apparent in our tech-saavy and culture saturated churches and mega-churches of today. Tozer wrote frequently about the current state of the church and its need to get back to the basics of true discipleship, and his insights clearly peered into a future he never lived to see. However, with all of the flaws found in the modern church today, Tozer believed that the following characteristics permeated true believers and that “the people who formed the minimal church should adhere to at least three standards” (quote source here):

1) they must trust Christ for their salvation;
2) they must worship God in spirit; and
3) they must have no dealings with the world and the flesh.

Tozer also “gave three characteristics of the meetings of a true church” (quote source here):

1) they will hear the Scriptures expounded,
2) break bread together in one form or another according to their light, and
3) try as far as possible to spread the saving gospel to the lost world.

In an essay titled, “The Vital Place of the Church,” found in Chapter 14 in The Best of A.W. Tozer (1978), compiled by Dr. Warren Wiersbe, and republished in 2007 as The Best of A.W. Tozer, Book 1,” Tozer wrote the following:

The Vital Place of the Church

by A.W. Tozer

The highest expression of the will of God in this age is the church which he purchased with His own blood. To be scripturally valid any religious activity must be part of the church. Let it be clearly stated that there can be no service acceptable to God in this age that does not center in and spring out of the church. Bible schools, tract societies, Christian business men’s committees,  seminaries, and the many independent groups working at one or another phase of religion need to check themselves reverently and courageously, for they have no true spiritual significance outside or apart from the church.

According to the Scriptures the church is the habitation of God through the Spirit, and as such is the most important organism beneath the sun. She is not one more good institution along with the home, the state, and the school; she is the most vital of all institutions–the only one that can claim a heavenly origin.

The cynic may inquire which we mean, and may remind us that the Christian church is so divided that it is impossible to tell which is the true one, even if such a one exists. But we are not too much troubled by the suppressed smile of the doubter. Being inside the church we are probably as well aware of her faults as any person on the outside could possibly be. And we believe in her nevertheless wherever she manifests herself in a world of darkness and unbelief.

The church is found wherever the Holy Spirit has drawn together a few persons who trust Christ for their salvation, worship God in spirit and have no dealings with the world and the flesh. The members may by necessity be scattered over the surface of the earth and separated by distance and circumstances, but in every true member of the church is the homing instinct and the longing of the sheep for the fold and the Shepherd. Give a few real Christians half a chance and they will get together and organize and plan regular meetings for prayer and worship. In these meetings they will hear the Scriptures expounded, break bread together in one form or another according to their light, and try as far as possible to spread the saving gospel to the lost world.

Such groups are cells in the Body of Christ, and each one is a true church, a real part of the greater church. It is in and through these cells that the Spirit does His work on earth. Whoever scorns the local church scorns the Body of Christ.

The church is still to be reckoned with. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against her” (see Matthew 16:13-20).

In his commentary on Matthew 16 in his book, Be Loyal,” (a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew), Dr. Warren Wiersbe writes the following on p. 147:

Today the cross is an accepted symbol of love and sacrifice. But in that day, the cross was a horrible means of capital punishment. The Romans would not mention the cross in polite society. In fact, no Roman citizen could be crucified; this terrible death was reserved for their enemies. Jesus had not yet specifically stated that He would be crucified (He did this in Matt. 20:17-19). But His words that follow emphasize the cross.

He presented to the disciples two approaches to life:

deny yourself                                  live for yourself
take up your cross                         ignore the cross
follow Christ                                   follow the world
lose your life for His sake            save your life for your own sake
forsake the world                          gain the world
keep your soul                                lose your soul
share His reward and glory       lose His reward and glory

To deny self does not mean to deny things. It means to give yourself wholly to Christ and share in His shame and death. Paul described this in Romans 12:1-2 and Philippians 3:7-10, as well as in Galatians 2:20. To take up a cross does not mean to carry burdens or have problems. (I once met a woman who told me her asthma was the cross she had to bear!) To take up the cross means to identify with Christ in His rejection, shame, suffering, and death.

But suffering always leads to glory. This is why Jesus ended this short sermon (see Matthew 16:21-28) with a reference to His glorious kingdom (in Matthew 16:28). This statement would be fulfilled within a week on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17).

The true church of Jesus Christ follows Him and not the world. In our society today so much of the world and our culture has invaded the church that there is a great need to get back to the basics of genuine and authentic Christianity–Christianity as described in the New Testament.

While there are many churches and many denominations in the world today, it’s hard to distinguish which is the true church that Jesus described in Matthew 16:18 when He stated, “. . . I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” In answer to the question, “Which church is the true church?” GotQuestions?Org gives the following answer (quote source here):

Which church – that is, which denomination of Christianity – is the “true church”? Which church is the one that God loves and cherishes and died for? Which church is His bride? The answer is that no visible church or denomination is the true church, because the bride of Christ is not an institution, but is instead a spiritual entity made up of those who have by grace, through faith been brought into a close, intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). Those people, no matter which building, denomination, or country they happen to be in, constitute the true church.

In the Bible, we see that the local (or visible) church is nothing more than a gathering of professing believers. In Paul’s letters, the word “church” is used in two different ways. There are many examples of the word “church” being used to simply refer to a group of professing believers who meet together on a regular basis (1 Corinthians 16:92 Corinthians 8:111:28). We see Paul’s concern, in his letters, for the individual churches in various cities along his missionary journey. But he also refers to a church that is invisible—a spiritual entity that has close fellowship with Christ, as close as a bride to her husband (Ephesians 5:2532), and of which He is the spiritual head (Colossians 1:18Ephesians 3:21). This church is made up of an unnamed, unspecified group of individuals (Philippians 3:61 Timothy 3:5) that have Christ in common.

The word “church” comes from the Greek word “ekklesia  meaning “a calling out.” The word describes a group of people who have been called out of the world and set apart for the Lord, and it is always used, in its singular form, to describe a universal group of people who know Christ. The word “ekklesia,” when pluralized, is used to describe groups of believers who meet together. Interestingly enough, the word “church” is never used in the Bible to describe a building or organization.

It is easy to get ensnared by the idea that a particular denomination within Christianity is “the true church,” but this view is a misunderstanding of Scripture. When choosing a church to attend, it is important to remember that a gathering of believers should be a place where those who belong to the true church (the spiritual entity) feel at home. That is to say, a good local church will uphold the Word of God, honoring it and preaching faithfully, the gospel will be proclaimed steadfastly, and the sheep will be fed and tended and cared for by godly leaders. A church that teaches heresy or engages in sin will eventually be very low on (or entirely bereft of) those people that belong to the true church—the sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow Him (John 10:27).

Members of the true church always enjoy agreement in and fellowship around Jesus Christ, as He is plainly revealed in His Word. This is what is referred to as Christian unity. Another common mistake is to believe that Christian unity is just a matter of agreeing with one another. Rather than speaking the truth in love and spurring one another on to unity in Christ, this encourages believers to refrain from speaking difficult truths. It sacrifices true understanding of God in favor of a false unity based on disingenuous love that is nothing more than selfish tolerance of sin in oneself and others.

The true church is the bride of Christ (Revelation 21:2922:17) and the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:121 Corinthians 12:27). It cannot be contained, walled in, or defined by anything other than its love for Christ and its dedication to Him. The true church is, as C.S. Lewis put it, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” (quote source here).

As Tozer stated in his essay titled “The Vital Place of the Church” above, “According to the Scriptures the church is the habitation of God through the Spirit, and as such is the most important organism beneath the sun.” Nothing else on this earth compares to Christ’s church, the one true church. And, as Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV) states:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame,and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

The NKJV states Hebrews 12:1-2 as follows:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

So let’s run that race with perseverance (endurance), fixing our eyes on Jesus (and on no one or nothing else), who is “the Author and Finisher of our faith.”

Now is not the time to wimp out . . .

It times to rise up, Church . . .

Rise up . . . .

YouTube Video: “The Church’s One Foundation” sung by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge:

Photo credit here

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