THREE CHEERS FOR THE CHURCH
by Charles (Chuck) R. Swindoll, (from his book "Growing Deep in the CHRISTIAN LIFE")
You remember Alexander, don't you? Well, maybe not. I introduced him to many of my readers a few years ago. Some of you may have forgotten. The little book that contained a slice out of his day was called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. This kid is my kind of guy. The stuff he goes through is so typical, you'd swear you've been inside his skin.
I'm glad to say that the lady who wrote his biography (I think it was his mother, Judith Viorst) has continued to write. She's written a book about herself called How I Became Forty....and Other Atrocities. Great little book!
Then she wrote If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries, which is pretty close to something that Alexander might have written. So think about that little five-or six-year-old fellow when you read the next few lines:
Like I said, he's my kind of guy. Actually, I've been thinking about that line for a long time: "If I were in charge of the world...." If that were ever true, what would I do?
If God allowed me to be in charge for just twenty-four hours, I'd do one thing....I'd change people's opinion about the church. I would remove all prejudice about the church. I would erase all church scars and heal all church splits, all church bruises, and all hurts that came from church gossip. I would remove all those horrible offenses. And in place of all that? I would have everybody see only the values of the church. If all I had was twenty-four hours, that's what I'd do if I were in charge of the world.
But since I'm not, I will ask you to do the next best thing: I will ask you to take charge of your thoughts. And for the next few pages I challenge you to allow no negative thoughts about the church to enter your mind, only positive ones. (No fair cheating, now.) I'll do that with you. And let's see what a marvelous thing God has done in giving us churches.
FOR A FEW MINUTES, REMEMBER SOME CHURCHES
Let's go back to our childhood. Let's go way back. Let's go all the way back to when we first hears the hymns and we first listened to sermons and we first formed our impressions about church. And while we do that, let's allow the letter to the Philippians to guide us in our mental journey.
Days of Childhood
That was my church: little country town, little country church. But what a place! To this day I cherish healthy memories about that little house of worship.
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:1-5).
A statement in verse 3 should be linked with a thought in verse 5: "I thank my God in all my remembrancein view of your partnership in the gospel from the first day...."
Think about your "first church." You were just a little girl....you were just a little guy. It was probably there where you first received formal instructions and learned to respect the authority of Scripture. You learned to sit still (longer than you wanted to) and to pay attention to something you didn't fully understand. You remember those early days when you listened to the hymns, when you formed your earliest religious impressions. It was there you discovered that there was a man of God who opened God's Book and believed it with all his heart. You probably sang your first solo there. Say your first wedding....and funeral....and baptism. Joined your first choir or ensemble. It was there you discovered that you had leadership skills. It was there you learned the hard way that when God speaks it's best to listen...and not only listen, but also to obey.
It was there you gave yourself to that first group of people. They became a part of your life. You saw them every week, and you laughed with them, you wept with them, you celebrated with them, and you grieved with them. Just a little pocket of people. And because of them, the seasons had new meaning. Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas took on new color - even the new year gained purpose and significance. You thank God upon every remembrance of those people who were partners with you in the gospel. You and I have the church to thank for all those rich childhood memories.
Times of Crisis
For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (vv. 7-8).
Observe his reference to imprisonment. Let's let that represent our trials, our life crises. Think about that. You may have lost your mom or your dad....a brother or a sister. And as helpful as the hospital staff or the physician tried to be, no one could minister to you like the people of the church. No one put their arms around you and said "I understand" like they did.
Some of you can recall stumbling out of the physician's office, having heard the news about the disease that could (and probably would!) take your life. It most likely was not a neighbor or some coworker at the office who entered into your crisis and said, "I understand"; it was someone at your church.
When your mate said, "It's over....I'm leaving," and then walked out, who helped you cope? In all of the embarrassment, the rejection, the anger, and the disillusionment, you probably didn't receive comfort from someone at the local bar or your bridge club. Chances are good that there was somebody from your church who said "I've got a scar like that. And while you're hurting, I want you to know that I hurt with you. Even though you feel pushed out of society and shoved aside like a second-class bum, I understand your pain. And I stand in defense of you. In fact I love you."
Remember when grief struck you at the deepest level? Remember when your loved one was put in a casket? Maybe the banker could tell you where you could find a loan to get you through that hard time. Or maybe the insurance man helped you by bringing the check. Perhaps an attorney gave you sound advice. But who was there when the flowers wilted? Chances are good, the person who spoke well of your departed loved one was the pastor of a church. The people who surrounded you and gave you hope to go on were church people. They understood your world, they brought light to your darkness. That's the way God designed the church.
Remember disillusionment as a youth? (Just spend a moment thinking about that! I've never met anybody who wanted to be teenager again.) Crisis after crisis. And remember the youth pastor who believed in you when you didn't even believe in yourself? Remember the Sunday school teacher who said she (or he) loved you, regardless?
Remember not knowing exactly what you should do in your career, and some pastor spoke directly from the Scripture, cutting a clear path of purpose through your dense fog of confusion?
Remember the tape of some sermon you played over and over and over again? What if there had never been a church? What if there had never been a cassette recording of some pastor who ministered to you? Remember, it wasn't from some law office or from some doctor's waiting room or even from some funeral home that you help came. Quite likely, your help to go on came from the church.
MOMENTS OF CELEBRATION
While we're traveling memory's lane, let's not miss the flowers!
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (vv. 9-11).
Where did you find your mate? More than likely you (like I) found her or him in a church. Where were you married? If you weren't married in a church, you probably wish you could have been. Who gave you the best counsel? Probably a pastor. Who was there to dedicate your first baby? Who said, "Marriage gets a little cold. And we've got a conference designed to help add a little spark to it...."? Who ministered to you when you really got scared about how to rear your family? Who said, "We affirm the family. We stand with you all the way through it, even at this time when your daughter has run away. We're here. We're not leaving"? Who was most effective in convincing her not to get an abortion? Who rejoiced with you when she turned back to the Lord?
Celebration times. Times of praise. Times when we are
......filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (v. 11).
How about when you made a decision to serve the Lord Jesus in your future career? How about when you celebrated a graduation out of school, and maybe even out of seminary? Who was there to say, "We're with you, we applaud your achievement - and if God leads you overseas, we won't forget you"? Perhaps the church held you closer than your own family. Perhaps the church contributed more to your income than any family member has ever contributed, because the church believed in you.
When a pastor or a music minister or an associate pastor defects from the faith, the tragedy will make the headlines. How often a church split will scandalize a neighborhood.....or a brother or sister become offensive and say an ugly thing to you, or about you. And that weighs on your mind so heavily it possesses your thinking when someone brings up the subject of church. I know many people today who say, "Don't bother me with church. I've had it up to here." I understand. But I am saddened to meet people so jaded, because I realize how much they lose. There will come a day when those same bitter people will need the church. What a marvelous thing is the local family of God!
Let me go a step further. As helpful and beneficial as most parachurch ministries are, they are all dependent upon the church to exist. When you're in college and Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade or some other campus ministry has really guided you and encouraged you, it is worth singing praises to God. But when you graduate, you need a church. The church, alone, has staying power.
It is in the church, week after week, where we learn faithfulness. It is in the church that we first learn to give and to tithe. It was the first place I gave out my allowance. I remember squeezing my allowance in my hot little hand until I thought the buffalo would roar. But my mom and dad convinced me, "Son, this is where part of your money goes." It is in the church that we first learn generosity. I didn't give it to a friend. I didn't give it to a family member. Or a school. I gave it to God's work. It is in the church that discipleship is carried out. It is in the church that accountability is modeled. It is in the church that marriage is upheld and singleness is dignified without your being hustled. It is in the church of Jesus Christ that we find the doctrinal roots that establish us in our faith.
When the plan to reach out onto some foreign soil is determined, the church is there to make it happen. When an evangelistic series is promoted in the community, it is the church that does so. When the project is over, when the crusade team members have all gone home, the church stays. It takes new converts and nurtures them into their own walk. Three cheers for the church! In spite of all her weaknesses and human flaws, it is still the most significant rallying point for Christians on this earth today. It will continue to be so until Jesus Christ returns.
WHY THE CHURCH IS SO SIGNIFICANT
Let me show you why the church is significant in the world and in the community.
In the World
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well-known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear (vv. 12-14).
I understand that Paul means this personally. But allow me to broaden the application and apply it to the church. Why is the church significant to the world? Because the church represents penetrating light and undiluted salt in a lost, confused, insipid society. Interestingly, when a church remains neutral on a moral issue that affects the community, the public will criticize that church. The public will state that it has let the community down. In the public arena, the Church of Jesus Christ is expected to stand for righteousness. Even the uncommitted, the nonchurch crowd know in their hearts that a church that is weak regarding sin has lost its way.
I remember reading about the late president Calvin Coolidge, who returned home from attending church early one Sunday afternoon. He was asked by his wife what the minister spoke on.
"Sin," Coolidge replied.
Wanting to know more, she pressed him for some words of explanation. And being a man of few words with his wife, he responded, "I think he was against it."
When the pulpit denounces sin, people are influenced to stand against it. When the pulpit speaks on moral issues, people learn to penetrate the fog of compromise and gain courage to stand alone. For many, many years in our nation the church gave our nation its conscience. As its pulpits stood, its people stood.
"You are the salt of the earth," said Jesus. "You are the light on a hill. Don't put a bushel basket over it." Let the light shine. Let the salt bite. That's your role, Christian! The world expects it from us, even though it doesn't agree. In Paul's day "the whole praetorian guard" became aware of Christ! Even though many will not enter the doors of a local church (though they are invited), they expect us to stand for the truth as we see it in the Scripture. To do less is to diminish our distinctive and to lose our integrity.
In the Community
Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice (vv. 15-18).
Why is the church significant in the community? For at least two reasons. First of all, because churches provide the availability of variety. And second, because churches offer a singularity of message. Here's what this passage is saying. There will be churches of all different kinds. Think of the windshield wiper on your car. Churches will go from one extreme to another. Churches that are worth attending and supporting have the same pivot point, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is exalted. Christ is declared. Christ is central. But some will go at it from one direction, while others will go at it from another. A different style of worship. Another approach, emphasis, and methodology. And even a difference in motive (according to what Paul wrote).
J.B. Phillips paraphrases these verses:
I know that some are preaching Christ out of jealousy, in order to annoy me, but some are preaching him in good faith. These latter are preaching out of their love for me. For they know that God has set me here in prison to defend our right to preach the gospel. The motive of the former is questionable - they preach in a partisan spirit, hoping to make my chains even more galling than they would otherwise be. But what does it matter? However they may look at it, the fact remains that Christ is being preached, whether sincerely or not, and that fact makes me very happy (vv. 15-18).
I have a strong word to all who are given to public criticism of other ministries. Watch yourself! Rather than being discerning, you may have become too narrow and rigid! Learn from Paul. Even ministries that may employ a few deceptive motives, even churches that you choose not to attend, Paul said, in effect, "I rejoice that at least Christ is proclaimed."
Let's face it, if everybody attended where you attend, the community couldn't fit in. We must learn to give God praise that there is a variety of ministries. We gain nothing by promoting the idea that we have the corner on the truth, and that our pastor is the only one who has the answers for life. No, no, a thousand time, No! God may be using this man with his style for this ministry and that man with another approach for that ministry.....each one exalting and presenting Christ to different types of people.
My advice? Don't waste your time criticizing other ministries. Just attend the one that you prefer and give God praise that Christ is exalted. You may be thinking, "Sound pretty liberal to me." Well, it sounds biblical to me. If Philippians 1:15-20 isn't teaching that, then, frankly, I'm at a loss to know what it means. In our zeal it is very easy to think we've got the only church with the only answers for the entire community. We don't.
As a pastor, I am relieved and grateful that I am not the only fish in the pond. What an awesome responsibility that would be! Furthermore, that's Christ's role, since He is the Head of the Church. I look back on some of the things I have said, and I realize now I gave wrong counsel - or weak, at best. On occasion I listen to some of the cassette taped sermons I once preached (which is always a tough assignment), and I no more agree today with what I said back then than the man in the moon! After a few years I see it in a little different light and my words come back to haunt me. I'm so grateful not everybody believed my stuff way back then any more than they do now.
And while I'm confessing, I might as well admit, I'm thankful that even when I preached with the wrong motive (as I have on a few occasions, much to my shame), God honored His message at that time and rebuked me later. You see, in many communities there is a variety of churches available, but, praise God, if you listen attentively, you're going to hear Christ preached. Stop exalting one church as though it were the only<\I> place to attend! It is not. We would do well to remember that Christ is to be exalted....not some church.
Since the late 1970's God has allowed my wife and me to serve together in a radio ministry, "Insight for Living." She directs the operation of this outreach (with the help of almost one hundred and fifty others) as I supply the voice and the messages. To our continual surprise, the Lord has given growth and caused His name to be increasingly more exalted through these broadcasts. Occasionally, I have wondered why. Perhaps one of the reasons is that we have no interest whatsoever in either promoting ourselves or in criticizing others. God's hand is on many ministries and He is using many ministers to get the job done. They differ from us in style, often in content, and perhaps in objective or even motive. But those who are proclaiming Christ cause us to rejoice. After all, they are able to reach certain folks we would never reach.
The same could be said of the church I pastor. There are many churches in southern California. They range in variety from the super-conservative to the loosey-goosey extreme. But the interesting fact is this: People attend every one of them. They choose to go there because they are ministered to and because they are comfortable with the style, the approach, the objectives. For every place where Christ is proclaimed and exalted, I sincerely rejoice. Thank God, I'm not the jealous or the competitive type. If God raised up those ministries, who am I to tear them down? That would not only be disobedient, it would be a waste of precious time and energy.
For the Christians
But I am hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. And convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by our opponents - which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me (vv.23-30).
This passage tells us something that the Masonic Lodge or the bowling team will never tell us. It says something the school board or the city council will never tell us. The church alone tells the Christian to:
....conduct yourselves in a manner worth of the gospel of Christ.....
You won't hear that from any other organization! No one will push hard against your breastbone and say, "Shape up your life. Get with it. You say you're a Christian? Walk like it. You've done wrong? Confess it and come back to God."
No one else does that. Only the church.
I'll add more - only those who continue faithfully in the
attendance of church services will hear reproof and
exhortation and encouragement and rebuke that will help keep
their lives in line. In fact, I recently came up with a list
of four specific benefits of church attendance:
I won't take the time to develop each one, but they are interwoven through these verses.
What I have observed is that Christians who lose faith in a local church and walk away, saying, "No thanks, I don't need it," have struggles, without exception, in one or more of these four areas - sometimes all four. They lose (or wish to lose) accountability. They lack consistency in their walk. They cultivate an independent spirit, rather than an interdependence of love and concern. And when pressure strikes, they lack stability. Why? The answer isn't that complicated: There's no family around.
My counsel is predictable - before you think that you really don't need a church, run down that list one more time. The consequences are inescapable. Especially if you have available to you a small group of caring, loving folks with whom you are free to interact, share the details of your life, and enter into theirs as well.
I might also add that apart from the church, there is no place to observe the sacred ordinances....something I dare not overlook in this book on doctrine.
TWO ORDINANCES UNIQUE TO THE CHURCH
In this wonderful body called the Church, God has given two very unique sacraments or celebrations. In no other organization will you find such things. One is called the Lord's Supper (your church may call it Communion, the Eucharist, or simply the Table). The other is baptism. The Lord's Supper is a memorial of remembrance, and baptism as a celebration of reflection. With no desire to offend anyone, I sometimes think of them as sacred pantomimes. They are sermons without words....full of symbolic significance. The Lord's Supper is saying, "He died for me."
Both require only a few words of explanation. Both are for believers only. Both are rich in symbolism, yet beautiful in simplicity. And both make bold statements to the world regarding the Christian faith.
Neither, however, is essential for salvation. By that I mean that they are because of salvation, not a means to it. Yet neither is to be treated lightly or viewed as if they are of little importance.
The Lord's Supper
I've often stated publicly that one of the most memorable communion times I can remember takes me back to the early 1960s when I was with a large group of Christian collegians up on the northern California coastline, not far from Santa Cruz. It was a church-sponsored outing. We were sitting on a windswept, chilly beach. We had sung a few songs around sunset. All we had to serve were chips and cola. Yet it was marvelous! I have never before or since served chips and cola at the Lord's Supper, but the elements were insignificant. Our Lord's presence was there in the sunset over the Pacific, in the pounding of the surf, in the faces of those young believers, in the tears that fell, in the testimonies that were spoken. And we worshipped our God as we met at that open place, sand between our toes, swimming suits on, towels wrapped around us as we shivered around the fire and passed the chips and cola among us. We did it all " in remembrance of Me."
The biblical basis for the Lord's Supper takes us back to the last meal Jesus had with His disciples before He was crucified. Matthew records the event in the simplest of terms.
And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And He took a cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the convenant, which is to be shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." And after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:26-30).
The apostle Paul draws upon that scene when he later writes these words in the Corinthian letter:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me" (1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
Obviously, participation is not optional; on the contrary, it is a command, "Do this....!" Don't look upon the Lord's Supper simply as an available, optional part of your worship. We are assigned by God to do it continually. In fact, the command is a present imperative, "Keep on doing this in remembrance of Me."
Some observe the Supper every time they meet. Some observe it every other week. Some "keep on doing this" once a month. It would seem inappropriate to observe it less frequently than once a month since we are to "keep on doing this."
The instruction continues:
In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new convenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes (vv. 25-26).
We'll be eating together at this simple table in our churches until our Savior returns. It will be regularly observed by believers in rugged churches with thatched roofs as well as in beautiful cathedrals with high ceilings and ornate walls lined by stained glass....in brand new places of worship only a week or two old, as well as in places centuries old, they'll still be observing the Lord's Supper. That's the church's ordinance.
The place is not significant, but the condition of the heart is. Before we ever eat the bread or drink from that cup, each Christian asks within himself, "Is there anything between my Father and me? Is my heart clean?" A strong warning is attached to the instruction:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep (vv. 27-30).
The Corinthians turned to the Lord's Supper into a carnal event. Instead of an atmosphere of worship and humble confession, they made light of the event by eating too much, drinking too much, and showing favoritism to the cliques in the church. A circus atmosphere ruined what was designed to be the most memorable moments of worship a church family can enter into together. We must learn from their carnal display of disobedience. Each believer must examine his or her own heart before participating in the eating and drinking of the elements of the communion table.
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? (Romans 6:3).
In the first century the term baptism meant "identification." In fact, it was a fuller's term - the dry cleaner of ancient days. When he took a white garment and dipped in into a scarlet dye, he was said to have "baptized" the garment. The white garment's identity was changed to scarlet. Baptize was the term used when he "changed its identity." That's the word used here, transliterated "baptized."
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (vv. 3-4).
Did you know that in the ordinance of baptism, the water is a picture of death? Have you ever been told when a person goes under the water or has the water sprinkled over him or her that the water is a picture of their identification with the death of Christ? It is true. And as the water runs off, or as the person is brought up out of the water, it is symbolic of the resurrection of Christ out of death. The person being baptized is "acting out" his or her death to sin and subsequent newness of walk in Jesus Christ. This act of obedience isn't simply a take-it-or-leave-it issue. No. While it isn't essential for salvation, it is certainly expected of the believer. As with the Lord's Supper, it is a picture of our being united with Christ Jesus in the likeness of His death and His resurrection.
In my travels outside the United States, I have discovered that baptism is the most significant point of change in the eyes of the public. Internationally, the world believes that the one being baptized is indeed a Christian when he or she steps into the baptismal waters - a public testimony of faith in Christ. That act is a public declaration, saying, "I belong to Jesus Christ. I identify with His death for me. And by being raised from the water, I identify with a new kind of life that I could never live on my own, but by His power I will be able to experience. I've been born again. And that's why I want to display what has happened to me already in my life."
I appreciate the words that Philip Henry, father of Matthew Henry, wrote for his children. I became their baptismal statement:
LONG LIVE GOD'S PEOPLE
When we began this chapter, I asked you to take charge of your thoughts. I'd like you to do that again as I close the chapter. I urge you to ask yourself several hard questions: Where do I really stand regarding the work of a local church? Is my participation halfhearted or wholehearted? Does my walk reflect its purity? Does my giving reflect generosity? Dig deeper. Probe your own heart. Have I taken the ordinances seriously as He has planned them to be taken? Have I prayed for the church's mission and ministry? Do I support it in active service, not simply in passive presence? Perhaps you have been overly critical of other ministries and too exclusive regarding your own. Maybe you have stopped attending any local church. Now is the time to deal with those things. Please do.
As you align yourself with the church, you join a body of people who have played a vital role in the shaping of history. They have often been maligned and misunderstood. They have occasionally been fanatical and unbalanced, at times ignored and at other times admired and quoted. But they have usually been sincere. Whatever, the church is God's project. It will not fail. Long live the Church!
The following piece, though not original with me, sums up my convictions exactly:
Charles (Chuck) R. Swindoll's book "Growing Deep in the CHRISTIAN LIFE" can be found in Christian book stores.
Swindoll, Charles R., "Growing Deep in the CHRISTIAN LIFE" 1986 Charles R. Swindoll, Inc., Multnomah Press, Portland, Oregon 97266, p.351-368.
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