Monday, March 23, 2009

WHAT IS THE CHURCH?

I personally believe much of the turmoil we face in our Convention today [speaking only as a Southern Baptist] can be credited to the difference on how we view the Church. I'm speaking of viewing the church as primarily and "institution" or primarily an "organism."

This was brought out anew to my thinking as I read Dr. Al Mohler's blog post written in response to a woman who had written in the national newspaper USA TODAY about women NOT being viewed as equal in the eyes of the Church. I have to say I agree with Dr. Molher's critique that you don't set forward a truth because of how it is viewed in the culture. We are to set forward our views on women AND men [or anything else theological] based on how we view the text of scripture. I also have to say that, undoubtedly, D. Mohler and I might disagree on our view of women in the church but both of us would be doing so on how we view scripture not culture.

But my interest was peaked by one statement that Dr. Mohler made that is different than how many Southern baptist [myself inluded] see the Church. In this post I'm going to put up the quote AND a portion of an article by another Baptist with a differing view. So you will see the quote first and then a longer statement by John Reisinger.

In fairness to Dr. Mohler [whom I admire in many ways] were he able to speak to the issue I'm raising he might come closer to John Reisinger than I know. But I'm simply using a quote not assigning a doctrinal belief to him. It's a contrast of thoughts I'm raising here...not men. First the Mohler quote then the quote from a Reisinger article.


Mohler quote

"Nevertheless, those who believe that the church is an institution established by Jesus Christ and who believe that the Bible is our sole final authority for belief and practice must obey what the Bible teaches. This means that we must also follow the pattern set out in the Scripture as the pattern set out by God himself." Dr. Al Mohler

Reisinger quote

"The Landmark Baptists, along with Rome, insists there is no such thing as a universal/invisible ekklesia. They are convinced the only ekklesia in the NTS [New Testament Scriptures] is the local/visible ekklesia. If we ask the question another way, the Landmark Baptist and the Romanist miss the boat. Instead of asking whether the visible or invisible ekklesia is the most used concept in the NTS, let's ask this question: "Do the NTS emphasis union with Christ via the indwelling Holy Spirit, which all agree is true of all Christians, or does it emphasize membership in a local congregation of professing Christians?" That is bottom line in the discussion.

The moment you try to make the "local/visible" ekklesia to be an institution, or physical organization, which is supposed to be Christ's Vicar on earth, as opposed to the ekklesia being an invisible/universal spiritual organism, you are half way back to Rome.

My contention is that the NTS do NOT give us two different definitions of the ekklesia of Christ. There is not a spiritual ekklesia where all who are in it are saved, and a physical ekklesia made up of both saved and lost. The moment we allow these two different kinds of ekklesias, we have denied and changed the basic meaning of ekklesia as being "the called out ones." The difference between the so-called 'universal' ekklesia and 'local' ekklesia is not that one is a spiritual organism made up of regenerate people and the other is a physical organization with both saved and lost in it. There is only one ekklesia and the different uses of the word is only referring to how many of the 'called out ones' you are talking about. In one instance you are talking about all the called out ones, or the ekklesia for whom Christ died, and in the other instance you are talking about all those living in Corinth, or wherever, for whom Christ died.

The Bible does not talk about the difference between an organization and an organism. The so-called visible ekklesia does not take on a life of its own independent of a living relationship with her Lord. The ekklesia of Christ does not have an ounce of authority on her own. She speaks for Christ only when she speaks His words. She represents Christ only when she repeats what her Lord has spoken. She cannot say, "Christ has made me His Vicar on earth therefore you must obey me without question."

I repeat, the ekklesia emphasized in the NTS is not an institution, or organization that you join, but it's a spiritual body into which the Holy Spirit has baptized you. Everything is determined by the phrases "Christ in you" and "you in Christ." It is this truth that the NTS emphasize.

Should Christians today join a group of Christians and live under the love and discipline of that group as it has defined itself and its beliefs in its constitution? Absolutely! But not because that is the way the early church did it. Where is there a single instance in the NTS of any individual being examined and then joining "a local church?"

Should a group of believers write out their beliefs and rules of conduct and require everyone who wants to join their church to promise to live under those rules. Absolutely! But again, not because that is the way the early church did it. Where do the NTS say that each group of believers wrote a constitution?

In the next article I will attempt to demonstrate why there is such confusion about church polity in our day. We must deal with problems for which we have no clear answers. We struggle with situations that not only did not exist in the apostolic age but also could not have been anticipated in that age." John Reisinger [All emphasis made by PB]


Interesting. Your thoughts? let me know...graciously. :)


Paul B.

25 comments:

Bob Cleveland said...

Paul,

Let's forget everything the Bible says about the "church" except for one thing: Jesus is going to build it.

I then ask myself what will be wrong with the church that Jesus builds. And despite the fact that it'll be made of humans, I cannot believe that anything Jesus Himself builds will have anything wrong with it, at all. Not now, not ever.

Thinking of that, I cannot believe God is referring to all this stuff here as His church. It's just not good enough to be that.

But if you look past the organizations and the buildings and all the stuff, and think of all the redeemed, through all the ages, apart from all the organizations. free of all the trappings save Jesus' righteousness, ahhh .. there you have perfection. And there, you have the church.

In my opinion, anyway.

Aussie John said...

Paul,

Your words, "I repeat, the ekklesia emphasized in the NTS is not an institution, or organization that you join, but it's a spiritual body into which the Holy Spirit has baptized you."

There are so many people,many younger ones, who, although not fully grasping that truth, have an inkling that it is true, and, for that reason are leaving those who have ideas of the grandeur of their particular institution.

They are also grasping another truth, that there is an ever growing gap between the ekklesia of Jesus' intention, the one we read of in the Bible, and (generally speaking) the practices of the institutional membership (including many leaders) who claim to be Christians).

Paul Burleson said...

Bob,

I think you have restated PRECISELY what Reisinger was saying in far fewer sentences than did he. Good job.

Granting the validity of what you've said, any messes or failures we get ourselves into will have more to do with the non-sacred organizations, structures, or forms that the Church might create, for whatever purpose in what ever generation, than it has to do with the essence [nature] of the Church.

But this is why it IS so important that we truly understand the true biblical essence of the Church. [Institutional or Organism]

Paul Burleson said...

Aussir John,

Those are,of course, John Reisinger's words but I sure think yours are to the point also. Especially these words..."

They are also grasping another truth, that there is an ever growing gap between the ekklesia of Jesus' intention, the one we read of in the Bible, and (generally speaking) the practices of the institutional membership (including many leaders) who claim to be Christians)."

I do believe that gap is growing unfortunately. I'm hoping this post will help ever so slightly with anyone who reads it.

Lee said...

Ironically, we're having this discussion in our church right now. There's a level of frustration among what has been a slowly declining church that was once able to draw a full house from a neighborhood that has transitioned into an upper middle class, diverse population that is overwhelmingly postmodern in its lifestyle and thinking, and not nearly as familiar with the church as the previous generation in the neighborhood. It is not easy to talk to 60 and 70 year olds and try to get them to understand that a church is not really a place that you "attend" or "go to" but is a body of which you are an essential part, and you can't "go to" something that you are.

Paul Burleson said...

Lee,

I think this is what is so difficult with the belief that the "institutional church is really the Church. Institutions can decline and decay. But if we were truly to see the institutions as non-sacred forms we could change forms as needed with changes in the context of our place of ministry and not mistakenly believe we've failed to grow as a church.

But to learn this after years of believing and hearing the opposite is very difficult. I think to some degree we are almost a prisoner of our traditional concepts when dealing with older people. Not all fail to see and change but many just can't/won't.

Gem said...

Hi Paul,

Out of lurking for a minute to say that I feel respected and understood by this post. I have left the institution, but remain part of the Body of Christ.

Thanks for your good heart which shows through in your writing. May your tribe increase.

Paul Burleson said...

Gem,

You ARE respected AND understood by a whole lot more people than just me and the numbers are increasing.

debbiekaufman said...

It seems that the local church, while being a place for believers to gather, is also a picture of what the Universal church is on a smaller scale.

Paul Burleson said...

Debbie,

I think so. A small portion of the church gathered together WOULD mirror the reality of the whole. But the place where they gather is not the church as you and I both know.

I don't agree with the Church of Christ folks theologically much at all but I sure do like their statement found above most of their buildings that says... "The_________[fill in the name] Church of Christ meets here."

Contrast that to the Southern Baptist campaign a few years back that said "Sunday night church..the place to be." It speaks for itself doesn't it!!

Todd said...

Paul,
I know some will quibble over this. But, making the church an institution and the bible its "rule" book seem to reduce Christianity to a system rather than a redemptive relationship.

Just my .02

Peace.
Todd

Paul Burleson said...

Todd,

EXACTLY.

And a system works on performance being able to be measured as successful [or not] while a relationship works on grace and mercy being able and willing to be extended. Big difference to me.

Aussie John said...

Paul,

You said, "Not all fail to see and change but many just can't/won't."

Absolutely! Almost 30 years ago I did a study on change in the Body of Christ: 16% changed for the sake of change, 30% changed once they saw that change was needed, another 20% would eventually change once they had seen that the 30% didn't receive any adverse effects, but the rest said they wouldn't change EVEN IF IT MEANT DESTROYING the Body they belonged to.

Your comment to Debbie & Todd: As local believers corporately mirror the whole, so the individual believer must reflect the same.

The BIG failure is to not understand grace and mercy. Almost every pastor/church I know (in this country) say they are, by the mercy of God, saved by grace, but insist on driving the flock with the whip of law.

Paul Burleson said...

Aussie John,

That is good stuff.

I think your final paragraph is so true and I personally believe the reason pastors drive people with the law is because such pastors DO NOT truly understand Grace at all. I've heard Peter Lord say so many times..."You practice what you believe, everything else is just religious talk."

To me the shape we're in is pretty scary from the human perspective.

{I'm glad our confidence is in the Lord.] :)

traveller said...

It is certainly difficult for me to see the church as an organization or an institution since it premised on love relationships between God and humans as well as among humans. This is not to say that at least the human relationships have a degree of organization to them. But even if a group of us get together for dinner and have a spiritual discussion that is impromptu it takes a form of organization to get the meal together.

My personal view is that the institutional expression of church is dying. What may replace it, and whether there is any single replacement, remains to be seen. But the trends are pretty clear: decentralized, small groupings, networked, deprogrammed, relational, no hierarchy or formal organization, less physical building focus, and greater connectivity through the Internet between gatherings.

For me, one of the most telling indicators was a Barna survey finding a few years ago. 80% of the financial support for institutional churches came from people over 50 years of age. As that group of people age the resources of the institution, which is very expensive to maintain, will diminish. When the money ends so will the institution.

Even if this prognostication is wrong and the institution survives it will look radically different in only a few short years. This is a wonderful adventure to be on with the Holy Spirit who blows, as the wind, where it wills.

Paul Burleson said...

Traveller,

Very interesting stuff. It will be surprising to us all how things "shape" up in the next few years.

I believe we're being forced to understand that the "shapes" are not sacred. For me, that's one of rhe better things about it all.

Bryan Riley said...

Paul, you generally enjoy the benefit of having like-minded readers here. Wade must be called out to entertain dissenters. :)

Great post. I think we struggle so much in this area because "church" always brings the picture of a building and not of people. That is how our culture has shaped the word in our minds.

I love what Todd wrote up above.

Lin said...

Reisinger gets it right. He asks the hard questions many of us have been asking for a while because we do not see the current structures of our churches in the NT.

I keep meeting many Christians who are frustrated with 'church'. The teaching is either shallow or the structure is so heirarchical it is like going to a workplace where you cannot exercise your spiritual gifts unless the boss allows it.

I have thought often of Lydia and the first ekklesia in Europe meeting in her home. Because she asked! I contrast and compare that with what I see taught today and shake my head in wonder as to how far we have wandered.

Paul Burleson said...

Bryan,

I think you are right on. Wade does have a different purpose in hosting his blog as I've mentioned before. His is almost an oasis for people who have been wounded and whose legitimate dissent has gone unheard or disallowed in an illegitiment fashion.

Consequently, the atmoshphere is a bit more argumentative, as detractors DO emerge, and perhaps even a bit of a negative atmosphere develops on occasion. [Not on Wade's part and a lot of commenters.] However, he knows how to nip that stuff in the bud.

But people are learning they CAN dissent legitimately and Wade is modeling how to do that with respect to keeping dissent on issues and not personalities.

I have to admit that he is a MASTER at facing negative reaction to legitimate dissent and he learned that under fire as his book "Hardball Religion" will show in unbelievable terms. So he is well schooled in it and he is passing that along and a lot of people are being ministered to that have found no listening ear elsewhere. More power to him I say.

{I'm just glad the Lord allows a different purpose for my blog.]



Lin,

Mary [my wife] and I were driving home this morning from a bible study/fellowship time with believers [men and women] in Wichita Falls Texas who meet on Wednesday mornings for regular bible study out of several different denominations.

The group's desire is to reach couples not connected with or somehow believe themselves disenfranchised from mainstream churches as well as outsiders to the Kingdom.

The leaders of this group of people [a couple we saw come to the Lord nearly 40 years ago] are COMMITTED to their own local baptist fellowship and do this as a ministry in addition to whatever they do or wherever they are on a given Sunday.

My point is as we met with fifty to sixty people IN A HOME last night for fellowship supper and Mary and my bible study time and in a oilman's PLACE OF BUSINESS this morning for Q@A time, we both got a sense of exactly what you have referenced in your comment.

The emphasis was that we are on equal ground around our Lord, His Word and His Spirit. There were no super saints there just saints all on a journey together. Unbelievable fun.

I'm not sure but what the future may hold a lot more of this kind of "church life." It's sure a different form or shape to a church meeting.

Chris Ryan said...

Paul,

I am just getting around to reading this. And let me say that the post, and the comment stream, has been so amazing. I have found myself "amen-ing" a great many comments, and without the preacher having to beg!

I did a study of several churches in my studies last semester. I saw a great many different ways of doing church, and all were distinctly Baptist churches. My results were exactly what you and others have been discussing. I have pasted those conclusions below for whatever they may be worth:

As Baptists, we must continue to dialogue with our world, asking the questions they are asking and providing answers as they are presented in the Bible. Where we and the culture can agree, we must remind the culture that we are a part of it. Where we and the culture are in contention, we must continue to proclaim a Gospel at odds the world. Only in this way will be able to be a people who both reaches and teaches, a people who maintain both a relevant and Christ-like presence in the world.

According to one pastor, “The answer to the world is not found in any politician or voting-record. Those are all attempts to right all the wrongs, but neither one will ever do so. That honor is reserved for Jesus.” It is this message of a God who is redeeming the world that Missouri Baptists can and must offer, but how that message is conveyed may vary. The variety of methodologies evidenced even among different Missouri churches is proof positive of this. As we continue to present the eternal message of God’s redemptive action, how we do so can and must change.

The responses of these pastors seem to indicate that things are changing methodologically. Yet in every church I visited, it was the same message of a loving God incarnate in Christ who lived and died and rose again. Therefore, let us concern ourselves with the redeeming and transforming the world, admitting where our methods no longer work for this purpose and our belief has been misguided. By humbling ourselves in this way, we may open up opportunities for the world to hear anew the message we have tried to convey all along.

Paul Burleson said...

Chris,

You mentioned your studies last semester. I assume you're a Seminary student. If so, you're the reason I LOVED the pastorate I had at Southcliff church three minutes from SWBTS in the late seventies and early eighties.

We had a couple a hundred students and their families go through our church each year while they were students in Seminary. They were a breath of fresh air to me just as you are.

In fact, for six years I had seven interns each semester with whom I met every monday [no classes that day] to research, dialogue, share and pray. Those guys are the ones who named my ministry "Vital Truth" [which was still future then] and designed my logo which you can see on my website at www.paulburleson.com.

That was the mundane thing we did. The real thing was to examine things of the nature you have addressed as well as other principles of ministry and family life.

Oh the memories your comment brings back to me. Keep up the good work of creative research and thinking.

Chris Ryan said...

Paul,

Still and undergrad, but thank you for your kind words. And thank you for being willing to mentor those students. I am in an intership right now in which I am learning and growing leaps and bounds. It is my experience, and I am sure it was the experience of those seminarians, that sitting at the feet of godly ministers and learning the trade is a great blessing.

Paul Burleson said...

Chris,

If possible, let me know where you are interning. E-mail would be fine if it can be done. If not, no problem. But do keep dropping by and also keep commenting other places as your insights are quite valuable to all.

Lin said...

"The emphasis was that we are on equal ground around our Lord, His Word and His Spirit. There were no super saints there just saints all on a journey together. Unbelievable fun."

Yes, that sounds so wonderful! Some of us are finding this kind of community online, too, praying for and exhorting each other in the Lord.

I keep going back to what Bob said in the first comment:

Let's forget everything the Bible says about the "church" except for one thing: Jesus is going to build it.

Paul Burleson said...

Lin,

I know you're not surprised I agree completely.