13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
George Bernard Shaw said, “If you destroyed all of the churches tomorrow, people would the very day afterwards begin to build them up again.” Jesus spoke of the church when he said, “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The Greek word that we translate into church is “ekklesia.” It literally means “to call out.”
The cities of ancient Greece were democratic and self-governing. Decisions took place in local assemblies, in town hall meetings. Only free people could participate; slaves could have no part in them. When the meetings were scheduled, the word was sent out to the shops and the homes of the city to announce it. Those who responded to the call and came to the meeting made up the ekklesia, the assembly. They were the body that governed and directed the affairs of the city. Ekklesia is a political word that means an assembly of called-out people.
The Lord took this word and gave it a spiritual meaning. He used it to describe those people who had heard and answered the call of Jesus Christ to become his people. He came to describe those God-governed people who followed Jesus as Lord. Jesus brought the church into being; he established it. It is his assembly, made up of his people. The church is sometimes called the body of Christ; it is sometimes called the bride of Christ; it is sometimes called the family of God. All of these names help us to understand the importance, the significance of the church in the modern world.
In recent days the church has fallen under insidious attack. In a way that I have never seen in my ministry, churches everywhere have fallen under great criticism. There are four criticisms in particular that I want to speak to:
1. The church is bound up by tradition.
2. The church is blinded by Satan.
3. The church is filled with unsaved people.
4. The church is led by hirelings.
And it is even stated plainly, “You may have to leave the local church to find Jesus.” Such attacks cannot go unanswered. So I want to speak to those four accusations and insinuations. First, it is being said that the church is so bound up by tradition that it cannot worship God or do the work of God as it ought. By definition a tradition is a time-honored practice. Every movement, every institution, every organization, if it lasts long enough, will eventually develop some time-honored practices, some traditions. They are simply customary ways of doing things. It has never been my experience that our Baptist traditions interfere with worship or the working of God. It was in a traditional church that I first heard the Gospel. It was in a traditional church that I was saved. It was in a traditional church that I grew in the Lord. It was in a traditional church that I heard and answered the call to be a pastor. It has been in traditional churches that I have labored for more than 30 years. It has been in those traditional churches that I have seen thousands of people give their lives to Christ, become new people, have their families helped and be blessed in multiple ways. I have known of nothing in the tradition of the churches I have attended that would hinder our worship of God and the working of God. This church has been a traditional church from its beginning. It is a traditional church today. And it is going to continue to be a traditional church.
Second, it is being taught that the church is blinded by Satan and does not know the truth about healing, about demons, and about praise. The church, some say, is so blinded that it has become man-centered—interested only in nickels and noses, buildings and budgets. And all counting and emphasis on numbers is boasting in the flesh. But I remind you that there is book in the Bible called Numbers. And the Holy Spirit led someone to count the multitude fed by Jesus with the few fish and loaves. It is only that we know there were 5,000 people fed that day and not just five that we understand the magnitude of the miracle. As counting helps us to see the mighty work of God in the past, so it helps us to see the mighty work of God in the present. The Holy Spirit led someone to count the 3,000 converts that were saved on the day of Pentecost and to have that number recorded in holy scripture. The numbers help us to know that a mighty moving of the Holy Spirit took place then. We are unapologetically numbers conscious at Green Acres. Numbers represent people. We don’t count the hymnbooks in the pew rack. We don’t count the number of cars on the parking lot. We don’t count the number of chairs in Sunday school classrooms. All we count are people. The church that doesn’t emphasize numbers doesn’t emphasize people. We do not look upon our buildings as monuments to ourselves or to any man. Buildings are tools, a means of carrying on God’s ministry. I have always assumed that you understood that. Not only have I assumed that you understood that, I assumed that you understood that I understood that. Buildings are a practical necessity and we shall continue to build them as long as we have enough people to fill them.
Third, the church is accused of being filled with unsaved people. I am aware that in some instances the Lord’s sheepfold has been turned into a zoo. We have taken all kinds of creatures into it. We have become so broad-minded that our brains have fallen out. We have allowed ourselves to be inflicted and infested with unbelief. I am confident that many of you are members of a church but are not really saved. But for the life of me I do not know which ones of you are still lost. People, search your heart. Do not trust in church membership to save you. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life. No person will reach the Father but by him. It would be tragic indeed for you to sit in a church all of your life and on the day of judgment discover that you were lost because you had never committed your life to the Savior.
But, at the same time, I remember that a church is an assembly line whose finished products are delivered in heaven. We are at various stages of development in our spiritual lives, many levels of maturity. I sometimes feel like Jamie Buckingham when he said, “All the holy men seem to have gone off and died. There’s no one left but us sinners to carry on the ministry.” The church has always been a collection of imperfect saints in the process of becoming. And the church must constantly be in a state of renewal. But I find it difficult to believe that it is filled with lost people.
Fourth, the church is accused of being led by hirelings. The word hireling comes from a Greek word that means “wages” or “pay.” The word refers to a hired servant or employee, someone who works for pay as distinguished from an owner or someone who has a proprietary interest in the business. Such a person would likely have very little interest in the overall success of the business but would have more interest in his own wages, working hours, and working conditions. To know that, to accuse another of being a hireling, would require a knowledge of his innermost motives. To say with any certainty that that is true would necessitate knowing more about a person than we can know. It is disastrous when a person’s attitude degenerates into such criticism and cynicism. Unfortunately it happens even to professing Christians. Such cynicism results from the practice of projecting on to others the attitudes that the cynic has toward himself. Seeing a fault in their own souls, they generalize and assume that all men are the same. The man who is consumed with a love of money will assume that everyone else is solely motivated by the same lusts. They cynically conclude that no one could possibly be motivated by genuine Christian generosity and compassion. In the same way, a man who was a church member and discovered late in life that he was lost might assume that many other people are like he was. Or a man who is himself a hireling or has known of hirelings might assume that many others are hirelings also. But that is a projection of his own attitudes and experiences and not necessarily true.
Listen carefully to what the hypercritic says about the church. It actually tells you more about him than it tells you about the church. I believe that such caustic, insidious accusations are the work of Satan. Screwtape, in C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters, is an undersecretary of Satan charged with the task of supervising a man until he arrives in hell at the end of his days on earth. Every time this demonic assistant gets in trouble, he writes a letter to Satan seeking advice. On one occasion the demon is in trouble because his human has joined a church. He writes a letter to the underworld asking what to do. Satan replies that the matter is not as serious as it seems. He counsels his emissary to be sure to stay with his man at all times, especially in church. Then Satan advises him, “Keep him aware of little things”—of the fact that the usher is a hypocrite, that his shoes squeak, that the lady’s hat doesn’t fit properly. Satan says, “Never let him see the church with her banners flying for that is a sight at which all hell trembles.”
I remind those of you who are hypercritical of the church and feel no need of it that it was the only institution our Lord saw fit to and felt necessary to leave on this earth. The local church was and is God’s instrument for doing his work in today’s world. If you want to be in step with God, then the church cannot be an object of your scorn. It must be the object of your affection, service, devotion, and support.
In the light of the fact that the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the family of God, what ought to be our attitude toward it? If the church is God’s instrument for doing his work in today’s world, what should be my involvement in it? If the church is the only institution our Lord saw fit to and felt necessary to leave on earth, what should be my relationship to it?
1. Build and bless the church.
Our first responsibility is to build and to bless the church. This is what New Testament ministers always endeavored to do. Acts 15:40-41 says, “And Paul chose Silas, and departed, being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches.” Paul spoke of the physical perils he faced in his journeys as a missionary and then added that “Besides those things that are without, there which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). His great spiritual concern was the care of all the local congregations. In admonishing the proper use of spiritual gifts, Paul discouraged speaking in tongues publicly because it did not build up the body of Christ. Then he declares, “Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12). Whatever we do, we are to build up the church. Any organization or ministry that does not build up the local church is not a scriptural ministry! It may have spiritual truth proclaimed and it may achieve some spiritual good, but it is not functioning in a scriptural manner! Every true Christian ministry will bless and strengthen the local church.
2. Work and minister through the local church.
Our second responsibility is to work and to minister through the local church. The New Testament Christians were not freelance operators. They carried on their activities under the authority of the local church. Jesus gave his apostles the authority to carry on his work when he established the church. He said, “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The word keys symbolizes authority. The words bind and loose were very common Jewish phrases. They were used especially of the discussions of the teachers and the rabbis. Their regular sense that any Jew would recognize was “to allow” or “forbid.” To bind something was to declare it forbidden. To loose it was to declare it allowed. These were regular phrases for making decisions in regard to law. Jesus was telling his disciples that they were going to have to make decisions that would affect the welfare of the whole church and he was giving them divine authority to act in his behalf.
So they established the office of deacon and ordained seven men to serve the church in that way without any direct command from the Lord to do so (Acts 6). The Lord had already given them the authority to do that. It was in recognition of and submission to this divinely given authority that the apostles carried on their ministry. Paul and Barnabas went out on their first great foreign mission enterprise under the auspices of the local church (Acts 14:26). When they returned they gathered the church together and “rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). They understood that their chief responsibility on the human side was to the local ekklesia. When controversy arose in Antioch, various groups decided to confer with the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29). When they arrived in Jerusalem the scripture says, “They were received of the church” (verse 4).
When a decision was finally agreed upon, the scripture records that “then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church” (verse 22). Such instances give sufficient evidence to establish beyond any doubt the place the local church held in the ministry of the New Testament Christians. The church is the one institution that the Lord authorized to carry on his work. If you expect to reap eternal rewards, you had better make the proper investments. Give the church of the living God your highest and best allegiance. You ought to serve through it as well as work to build it up.
The church is here to stay. Other organizations come and go. They enter onto the scene of human history and then pass as quickly as they have come. But Jesus said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail” against his church. Death itself cannot overcome it. It shall endure beyond the grave and into eternity. Home Bible studies and prayer and share groups are of great value. I recommend them. But they are by their very nature temporary. We have no real need to explore ourselves or to explain ourselves for years and years. And even the expression of our opinions about scripture satisfies only for a brief period of time. Eventually we long to listen to someone who knows what he is talking about. That’s why God gave pastors and teachers to his church (Ephesians 4:11-12). If you are wise then you will put yourself under the instruction and authority of a God-gifted and God-appointed pastor teacher. You will work under the authority of and through the local church to do your primary ministry. Don’t give your best efforts to second-rate causes. Find a place in the local church and roll up your sleeves, loosen your tie, and get busy for the Lord. Build and bless the church. Work and serve through the church.
3. Be loyal to your leaders.
Our third responsibility is to love and be loyal to the leaders of the church. What I am about to say here should not be construed in any way as a personal defense. By and large people are kind and benevolent toward me. Besides, I accept the fact that some criticism goes with the territory. As President Truman liked to say, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” I am in the kitchen voluntarily and I can take the heat. Joel Gregory once said, “When most pulpit committees go looking for a preacher, they want a man who spends as much time in the study as a professor, as much time in the hospital as a doctor, and as much time calling on prospects as an insurance salesman. They want a man who preaches like Peter, prays like Paul, and can administrate the church like an IBM computer.” I am aware that nobody can please everybody.
If you don’t like me, I can understand that. My children don’t even like me all the time. I have three children and it would be difficult to get a two-thirds majority in my favor at any one time. My wife doesn’t like me all the time. Can you believe that? Most of you probably think she adores me. The truth is, there are occasions when she abhors me. And, there are times when I don’t even like myself. So I can certainly understand how some of you might not like me. I say again, this is not a personal defense. My concern is for the general disdain expressed about leadership in our churches today. There are many who are severely condemning and judging the pastors of our local churches. Where does the scripture give us the right to do that? The truth is that the scripture warns us very clearly against that very thing. “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19).
Clearly, charges against a minister must be made by a fellow Christian member in the presence of several witnesses within the church. Reckless public charges and accusations have no scriptural justification. To the church at Thessalonica Paul wrote, “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). You are to respect and honor them “for their work’s sake.” The great responsibility and high position of the pastor is revealed in Hebrews: “Remember which have the rule over you, who have spoken the unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation … Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
Throughout scripture we are admonished to pray for, obey, respect, love, and support the anointed of God, the minister. Nowhere are we told to judge and condemn the pastor. Yet today, across this land, the ministers of the Gospel are under continual attack from professing Christians. Of course we have an obligation to recognize heresy in the professing church of Jesus Christ. But we have a responsibility to deal with it in a scriptural manner. We do not have a right to malign fellow Christians simply they do not agree with us at every point of Christian experience or doctrine. We never have a right to be vicious, mean, and malicious against the minister. Let me say it again: the church is God’s instrument for work in the world today. It is the only institution that he saw fit to or felt necessary to leave here. If you are his, get in the church. Work to strengthen and build the church. Carry on your ministry through the church. Pray for and support the ministers of the church. To do otherwise is to go contrary to God’s way.