Who is the Church?
Developments in Recent Times have given Definition to a Rather Elementary Question? In Interest of Securing Unity, We’ve set in Motion a Dynamic that Over the Years has Created a most Insidious Divisiveness! CAN it be Fixed?
What religious organization in the modern era doesn’t see itself as being the True Church of God? In fact, it isn’t hard to find one (or several) that regards itself as being not just the one, but the “One and Only True Church of God! The Church in its present state is most wonderfully divided, with each ‘split-off’ group, large or small, no matter, with a high regard for itself and exhibiting varying degrees of disregard for its fellows in the Faith. It is the rare organization or fellowship these days that can truly be amenable toward other fellowships. It would be more comforting to find these ‘differences’ to be the result of considerable doctrinal differences, but that isn’t the norm. Typically, one organization is dismissive, even to the point of contemptuousness, of all others, not over distinct doctrinal positions so much as the matter of organizational affiliation!
This is sad, but it’s the legacy of the generation who grew up in the once dynamic Worldwide Church of God. People who ‘came into the Truth’ under that ministry learned to be a particular way, and learned it rather indelibly. We may not see the full end of it in this living generation! Each of the successive ministries (whether representing themselves as organizations or not) seem to retain a degree of the old characteristic. Some casually imitate what they learned, others attempt to replicate it to an even more zealous degree than was ever the case in the WCG’s heyday!
Where the taproot of this condition developed, is in the definition of what was conceived as being “the Church”. Though the founder of the original organization, especially in his later years, pointedly emphasized that “the Church is a living organism, not an organization”, few really grasped the full ramifications of his statement, including even the one who posed it, at times!
Are we cognizant of what difference it makes in how we define “the Church”? Would redefinition of what the Church really IS make any real difference in our time? One can only hope!
A revealing passage of scripture is found in Matthew 18, beginning in verse 15. “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
Tell it to the Church!
It’s interesting and revealing to hear how various ones explain this offence-resolution-formula given by Christ Himself. An explanation heard recently in one of the larger successor groups was that ‘the Church’, referenced above, was the ministry and its offices of authority in the organization. When a resolution proves unattainable, the ministry must become involved, and discipline brought to bear. Our question should be, why use the word Church if only the ministry is meant in this place?
A number of unfortunate situations could arise if this formula isn’t applied properly. Some safeguards are built-in, but people being what they are, even this can be grossly mis-used. Personalities and people with prominent regard within congregations can skew matters. It is the involvement of other (hopefully unbiased) witnesses who can offset these human tendencies toward misrepresentationv of facts. Sadly, history contains many examples where the victim is made out to be the offender, and the offender exonerated. Such is likely to happen when one party is personable and articulate and the other shy and not well spoken. This is the area where unbiased and objective witnesses are most useful, if they are allowed to be. But they aren’t always allowed to be objective in over-controlling organizations. That’s where the definition of “the Church” becomes important.
What reinforces the idea of ‘the ministry being the Church’ idea is the next passage: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (v.18) Binding and loosing is regarded as the exclusive domain of the ministry, after all. But, keep in mind, the running context here is resolution of personal offenses, not necessarily establishing Church policy.
Who IS the “You”?
Yet, the passage continues: “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (v.19) It’s harder to sustain the idea of the ministry as being the exclusive meaning of the word “you” in this place. (Nor does it say one of the two or three must be a minister.) Does it reflect back to the “you” (thee) in verse 17? Is the word “you” in these places meant to be the membership? In at least two of these three instances, that’s the case!
And, what happens when the minister (thus “the Church”) is the offender? Shudder the thought!
1st Corinthians 6 poses an interesting consideration in this regard. Not only minor ‘offenses’ but major ones! Here it’s impossible to sustain the idea that it’s intended for the ministry to be the lead element in determining issues that come up within the congregation. “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren.” (1st Cor. 6:1-8, emphasis added.)
It’s hard to miss his point that members of least esteem are the more likely to render just decisions. (That doesn’t say much for the high esteem crowd, does it?!) The point made previously about when highly regarded members, even ministers, are the key players in the offence resolution process, it can become biased in favor of the leadership, not the true victim necessarily. There are no real ‘brownie points’ when rendering unbiased decisions, especially if it disregards ministerial preferences! The subliminal point above is that people looking to curry favor make the more unreliable judges! Paul understood that all too well!
But what is very clear here is that the ‘judges’ are not the ministry or upper echelon of church administration. Paul saw the present danger of miscarrying judgment whenever those who see themselves as God’s express representatives on Earth render interpersonal judgments. He specifically identifies the average member as the better ones to do that! They carry less political baggage! There are fewer ‘authority issues’ to have to tiptoe around!
Additionally, we see reflected here another place that helps define “the Church”. It’s the membership as much as the leadership!
Able to Judge?
Further, it bears potent evidence of another activity that ought to be in play in the Church. The Saints OUGHT to be practicing their ‘judgmental skills’. It is the rare organization where this activity is allowed, let alone encouraged. “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?” More likely, the ‘professional ministry’ takes upon itself all administrative or problem resolution decisions, excluding the membership. As a result, members are totally unpracticed when it comes to using their God-given faculties. So much for being ready for the millennial Kingdom of God when those very talents will be called into play! (Rev. 20:6-7)
The Apostle Paul makes direct reference to a condition he calls not having our senses exercised. Hebrews 5: 8-14. Not only ours, but first pointing out the fact of Christ’s rounding out by suffering things no one could fully understand without direct experience. “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec.” (vs. 8-10) Paul points out that Christ’s competence level in relating to the human condition was in fact impacted by personal experience. Even He attained a level of perfection not otherwise attainable! Do we allow this to be the case? Do we see the importance of personally imitating His perfecting processes?
He continues: “Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that uses milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (v. 11-14) Paul also laments the difficulty of being able to lay before the average member certain profound truths. We find ourselves constantly preoccupied with reviewing the basics (milk subjects) with so few having a personal inclination develop the skills to handle more mature considerations. Even an entire ministry was hamstrung, not able to discern the proper course when an apostate administration gained control of the Church. It appears, they too were effectively ‘babes’ in the Faith, unable to stand strong for Truth and take right actions. Why? Because they too never really had their senses exercised. That organization, then existing, collapsed as a result.
Paul laments that those who by all the time they’d been in the Truth OUGHT to have been at least teachers, but instead were unweaned from having to be continually taught. This is a condition directly resulting from a ministry that reserves to itself all decision making.
Weak From Lack of Exercise
Another component in this situation is that the ministry allowed themselves to be similarly discouraged from exercising their senses by erecting in their minds an ‘authority structure’ which restricted all decision making to itself. Those who saw what was happening refused to admit to themselves what they really saw. The very people who discouraged membership maturity were themselves disallowed from the same by the system which they helped create, and to which they subordinated themselves. Paul would have lamented their action even more than he did the average member’s condition, had it happened in his generation.
What is particularly obscene is an organization and a ministry which sees itself as being “the Church” whose contribution to the Church’s condition is to discourage development of faith. By promoting a condition that discourages growth or maturity, they do disservice to the real Church: the membership!
A ‘Little Strength’
Earlier in the book of Revelation we find a message to a congregation we identify with the modern era as having “but a little strength”. Yet, God provides them an ‘open door’ to proclaim what truth they do have. (Rev. 3:7-11) This assessment is generally regarded as a mild commendation, but we ought to consider the possibility that it’s mildly corrective, a condition that resulted from our malformed political structure. Could we have been stronger had we allowed our senses to be exercised as we should have?
Your Work of Faith
Chapters 1 and 2 of First Thessalonians presents a very revealing glimpse into the regard the leading ministry had for the Church. If there were the concept of an authority structure in the first century, wouldn’t it show up in these verses? Take careful note of how these ministers addressed the congregation and how they appreciated their active expressions of Faith. “Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2: We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; 3: Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and (your) labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; 4: Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.” These apparently had a free hand to express the gifts God placed within them.
5: “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake. 6: And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost: 7: So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. 8: For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing. 9: For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; 10: And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” Here is a congregation that was renowned for its example and service to the brethren, being powerful witnesses everywhere. What modern congregation is known for this? Which one has the free hand to do as they did?
Absent is any mention of prominent individuals among them! They were followers of the Lord, not being locked into any intermediary authority structure. They labored as God inspired them to.
1: “For yourselves, brethren, know our entrance in unto you, that it was not in vain: 2: But even after that we had suffered before, and were shamefully entreated, as ye know, at Philippi, we were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention.” They were tried and humbled prior to coming to them. 3: “For our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile: 4: But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” Theirs was a long way from being any kind of well executed stage show to gain a following. 5: “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness: 6: Nor of men sought we glory, neither of you, nor yet of others, when we might have been burdensome, as the apostles of Christ.” How many ‘ministries’ are just that? Burdensome, over-bearing, restrictive! 7: “But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: 8: So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us.” Notice here the feminine kind of nurturing, as a motherly parent, referred to here, because we see also a masculine kind of exemplary exhortation referred to in the next paragraph.
9: “For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God. 10: Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe: 11: As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, 12: That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory.” The reference next to a fatherly kind of discipline indicates growth in character and responsibility. They’ve matured, they’re not spiritual ‘mommas’ boys’ anymore!
Their Commendable Response
13: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” They exhibited Faith in the True Source, not being first oriented to or through a human organization. Their examples were “the Churches”, which is defined and illustrated by like congregations who had suffered some of the same things they had. It wasn’t to any Church headquarters or any list of prominent apostles! 14: “For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: 15: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: … 19: For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? 20: For ye are our glory and joy.”
When we consider the persecutions these apostles had to experience, when we see the deep concern and affections they had for the congregations, it is difficult to conceive that any of them would isolate the congregations from one another in order to draw ‘a following’ to himself alone. Yet, so many in the modern age see that as essential in order (for them) to be able to do “the Work”!
How much greater could our witness be if each congregation were free to exhibit and develop the talents God has invested in each Saint? Instead, we see authoritarian ministers who refuse to allow members senses to be exercised, to consider matters such as those requiring ‘judgment’ or to have input toward doctrinal positions. It was that very environment that set up the WCG for its high dive into apostasy. The stabilizing mechanism was not in place to deal with it. Members (and even ministers) were disallowed from offering any real input or engaging in any real dialog in doctrinal reconsiderations. A very unhealthy condition!
Members were not allowed to “speak often one to another” in any real sense as Malachi 3:16 calls for. Only positive opinions were allowed. Those who had at least a small degree of cognizance of what was developing, deliberately self-censured. It was how we were trained to be!
Oh, that only we had sufficient numbers who had their senses sufficiently exercised to where they knew to ‘run the rascals off’! It’s uncertain if we have them even yet! We have some who are zealous for their organization, but aren’t as zealous for the Church. They don’t see any real difference!
Pillars and Grounds
Another passage that provides definition of what the Church is (or should be) can be found in 1st Timothy 3:15. “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Here a minister (Timothy) was being instructed in his conduct within, not over, the Church of God. Paul, a tentmaker by trade, refers to THEM using the structural components of a tent: as ‘pillars’ (the upright posts) and ‘grounds’ (the rope ties and stakes) that keep the tent standing upright and strong. Paul wasn’t referring to him, but instead to the membership who provided that stability. This is as it should be! It’s what works, if we’d let it! We wouldn’t let it work in the WCG, and it cost us the whole billowing tent!
No, it isn’t the ministry alone that comprises the Church. “The Church” isn’t some well structured organizational entity. The Church is, as we were told, ‘a living organism’, alive in and only through the indwelling of God’s Spirit, which is brought into it by those people who possess it! Its ministry and any ‘organization’ it might have is to serve the membership, not aggrandize itself. Christ specifically warned His disciples that they weren’t to be like the world’s organizations, lording it over their ‘underlings’. He told them they were not to be that way,  yet so many are bound to do that very thing! We may reasonably anticipate unpleasant results when we don’t get it right. Ω