What It Means to be A Church

Phil Congdon, New Braunfels Bible Church, July 9, 2015

What does it mean to be a church?  Many Christians may be surprised to learn that God has a plan for the church – what constitutes a church, how it functions – and He has not left us without instructions.  In fact, the New Testament is very clear about what God’s plan is for the church, who should lead it and how they should lead it, the different official roles there are in the church, and how we should live together.

At the outset, let me be clear on what we are talking about.  The Bible talks about the church in two general ways.  In one sense, the church is the Body of Christ.  We call this the  ‘universal’ or ‘invisible’ church.’  It is made up of all Christians, and it is impregnable. Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Mt 16.18).  Nothing can stop it.  It is indestructible.

But if the universal church is impregnable, a local church, like NBBC, is very fragile.  It can easily be hurt, divided, even snuffed out.  Paul planted churches throughout Galatia on his first missionary journey, and within a year they were all in turmoil because of false teaching and internal division.  In fact, every church Paul planted faced internal problems and divisions within a few years.  Jesus Himself wrote letters to churches like Ephesus in Revelation 2-3, and within a few decades, many of them were gone.

Our health and vitality as a church will depend on whether or not we assiduously follow God’s plan for the church.  This is no different than following God’s plan in other areas of life.  We have ignored God’s plan for marriage and the family in our country, and we have reaped the breakdown of society which results.

What, then, is a local church?  An assembly of believers that gathers together for worship, fellowship, teaching, and prayer.  This four-fold breakdown is found in Acts 2.42:

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The unity of that early church was its greatest strength.  People shared freely from what they had with others who were in need.  They were persecuted and poor, their leaders were imprisoned, and many were put to death – yet their influence was great.  But as the years passed, problems started to arise.  There were divisions, infighting, and that, in essence, describes much of church history to this day.

Richard Halverson, former chairman of the US Senate, summed up the history of the church: “In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centered on living for Christ.  Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome and became an institution.  Next it moved to Europe where it became a culture.  Finally it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”

The church in America has become big business, and it is often run like one.  Megachurches have their ‘CEOs’ who oversee empires with huge budgets and cutting-edge facilities.  Church-growth gurus teach seminars on how to keep getting bigger and bigger.  But often, lost in all this effort to grow, is any concern for the directions God gave for the church in the New Testament.  Let’s get a quick overview.

First, who is the leader in a local church like ours?  Only one answer here: It is Jesus Christ.  He’s not up for re-election, and he never steps down.  No one can take His place.  He is the head of the church, and the unchallenged leader.

Eleven years ago when I came to New Braunfels as the first pastor of NBBC, I preached my first sermon from 1 Samuel 8: “Is there a man at the top?”  In 1 Sam. 8, Samuel is grieving because he is the judge of Israel, but the people have come to him asking for a king.  He feels that the people have rejected him as their judge, and God replies that “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8.7).  If there is a man at the ‘top’ of a church, that church has rejected Jesus Christ as head of the church.

What then is a pastor?  You will search in vain for a pastor – at least by that title – in the New Testament.  You never read about “pastor so-in-so in the church at Corinth.”  Why?  Because according to the NT, churches are not led by a pastor.  They are led by a group of men, called elders.

The term “pastor” actually means “shepherd.”  In the early church, there were men who had a gift of teaching, and if these men became elders, they were known as “pastor-teachers.”  If you want to know what the biblically-correct title for me is, it is “teaching elder.”  I am an elder first, and my gift is teaching, so I teach.

This means, therefore, that I have no more authority in this church than any of the other elders.  You know me better, because you see me up front every Sunday, but I am first and foremost an elder.

“OK,” you say, “then what is an elder?”  An elder is a godly man who exhibits the character and capabilities listed in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1.  In the NT, elders were never “elected” – they don’t ‘run for office.’  They are ‘recognized’ by a congregation for their godliness and leadership by example.  Others look up to them for their spiritual maturity.  They are not appointed by the pastor; they are recognized by the people.

Elders have three main tasks as ‘shepherds’ of the ‘flock’ of God.  Like any good shepherd, they guide the flock, seeking to lead it in the direction God wants them to go.  This means spending hours praying and discussing what the church should do.
Secondly, they guard the flock from predators inside and outside the church.  When Paul called the elders of the church at Ephesus to him in Acts 20, this is what he told them (vv28-31):

“Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”

Paul knew Satan would throw everything but the kitchen sink at the little church in Ephesus, and that this would require the elders there to be on guard – sometimes against ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ from inside the church.  Elders guard the church.

Finally, elders give food to the flock.  They teach God’s Word, and help the church apply what the Bible says to our lives.  Elders motivate the church to learn to ‘feed themselves,’ too.  I do this each week when I preach, but teaching is something elders do 24-7, as they meet with and minister to people in the church.

Someone might ask, “To whom do the elders answer?  Who are they responsible to?”  Only one person: Jesus Christ.  In 1 Peter 5, Peter says that when Jesus, the “Chief Shepherd,” comes, He will reward the ‘under-shepherds’ – elders – for their ministry.  This is critical: Elders are do not answer to people, or do what they want.  They listen to God, and follow Him.  If an elder does what he wants to do, or if he has his own agenda, He will answer to God.

You may have heard recently about some churches in which the elders, following the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, have come out in favor of homosexual unions.  Did God change His Word?  No.  Are they following God?  No.  They are following men.  They are no longer ‘elders’ in the biblical sense.  Elders guide, guard, and feed the flock of God, and they will answer to God for how they do it.

What about deacons?  The NT says less about deacons than elders, but still clearly reveals their role.  The word “deacon” means “servant.”  In Acts 6, the first ‘deacons’ were recognized by the church in Jerusalem.  The Apostles were committed to praying and teaching, and needed help with practical issues, meeting people’s needs.  Seven men were chosen to minister to these needs.  In 1 Tim. 3, Paul lists qualifications of a deacon.  They are strenuous!  Deacons are recognized by a church for their godliness, and serve the needs of the body.  They answer to God, and those who serve well are rewarded (see 1 Tim 3.13).  If a deacon has his own agenda, or does what he wants to do instead of following God’s will, he will answer to God.

That brings us to the congregation – the sheep, the flock.  What is the responsibility of the flock in relation to their leaders – in particular, to the elders?  Here, the NT is very clear.  Turn first to 1 Thess 5.12-13:

But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.  Live in peace with one another.

Hebrews 13.17 echoes this message:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

The responsibility of the members of a church toward the elders is to appreciate them, honor them, obey them and submit to them, so they can lead the church with joy and not grief.  Let me be blunt: The elders of NBBC have a demanding task; they battle Satan’s attacks on this church, and seek to guide this church the way Jesus Christ wants them to.  They desperately need your prayers and your encouragement, not attacks and criticism.

A few years ago Barbara Throndson wrote an entry in her blog entitled “Honor Your Leaders,” drawn from Hebrews 13.17:

It is not our job to critique or counsel our leaders.  Rather ours is to submit, support, follow, and obey… it (is) clear that when leaders wander off-track, we are not to follow them, lest we all wind up in a ditch.  [But] I have seen too many instances where the issue was not unbiblical behavior, (but) just a difference of opinion, style, or agenda…  I don’t want to give my God-appointed leaders grief. No complaints. No criticisms. Rarely suggestions.  Rather encouragement and blessing.

 Spiritual leaders have big jobs.  Chuck Swindoll says, “There’s probably no profession more emotionally enervating than pastoral work.  It’s filled with all kinds of groaning within the spirit that are often too deep for words.”  Our leaders need and deserve our prayers, our support and our appreciation.

My wife returned this week from a visit with her mother and family in Australia.  They live in a little rural town called Dungog, with not many people, and fewer churches.  While she was there, Jen attended Dungog Baptist Church with her mother.  It’s a small church; the main hall might hold 100 people, but closer to 20 attend.  The average age is somewhere north of 70.  The stone building is probably well over a hundred years old.  The clapboard walls and décor remind you of something from the 1970s.  The pews are uncomfortable.  It is often cold and the portable wall heaters hardly help.  There is no ‘worship team’ leading the latest worship songs, no drums, just a man or woman strumming a guitar, leading songs that were popular twenty years ago.  There is no pastor; a man drives in from another town each week to preach.  A real ‘loser’ of a church, some would say.

But when Jen spoke of the church, her feelings were just the opposite.  It was unencumbered, simple, and authentic.  No one came for a show, or a flashy program, or excellent music.  The pastor wasn’t a dynamic speaker.  They were there because they loved the Lord, and wanted to fellowship together.  It was the opposite of the mega-church ideal that we often strive for in America.  What if we spent our lives trying to build something in our church, only to discover when we stand before Jesus Christ that what we focused on wasn’t what He wanted at all?

At the beginning of each football season, it’s said that legendary coach Vince Lombardi would stand before his players, hold out a football, and say, “Gentlemen, this is a football!”  In other words, ‘Let’s get back to the basics!’

In a similar way, let me say, ‘Brothers and sisters, this is a church!’  When we forget God’s plan for the church, we start fighting and tearing each other apart.  We criticize our leaders instead of honoring them.  And we all hurt.

God grant that we can all get back to what it means to be a church.