The thesis of this article is simple. Every church member must work to keep the Church a Church. Only as the Church continues to live as the Body of Christ, the Household of Faith, the Community of the Saved, the Sheepfold of Christ, can she be used by Christ as a blessing in the world. It is the churchman’s task—and every member must be a churchman—to work diligently, lovingly and vigorously that we who are the Church may increasingly become the Church. A few years ago Prof. C. Veenhof of Kampen, Netherlands, wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Decisive Struggle of the Church.” With decisive candor he posited the thesis that the Church’s most important battle lay within her own bosom. He is right. We take our cue from his booklet. All must work lest the beauty of the Body of Christ be deformed by deviating teachings and loveless conduct. This is the common task of all who value their membership in the Church as the concrete embodiment of the Kingdom of God. We shall examine some Biblical evidence which should put everyone to work for the welfare of the mother of all believers.
THE CHURCH AT ANTIOCH
Under the guidance of the Lord, she had commissioned Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. Upon their return, Paul “rehearsed all things that God had done with them, and that he had opened a door of faith unto the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). The joy of the congregation, however, was short-lived. While the Church rode the crest of the wave of missionary successes, some men from Judea came and said, “Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Vigorous debate and no small dissension arose. The joy occasioned by Christ’s victorious march on Paul’s first missionary journey was tempered by trouble in the local congregation.
The leaders at Antioch advised consulting with the Church of Jerusalem. Apparently Paul was not in favor of such delay. He was convinced of his position. Only after receiving a “revelation” (Gal. 2:2) did he consent to arbitrate the matter at Jerusalem. At the mother Church there was vigorous discussion and difference. Certain believing Pharisees rose up and said. “It is needful to circumcise them and to charge them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Only after vigorous speeches by Peter, Paul, Barnabas and James was the dispute finally settled.
The solution was not easy to reach. Many arguments could have been used against Paul’s position. Circumcision was a divinely established rite. The Lord Jesus never abrogated it. In fact, the Master himself had been circumcised. Should not the Church honor tradition? Did the Savior not say that not one jot or one tittle of law should pass away until all bad been fulfilled? These sound like cogent arguments.
More arguments of a different kind could have been used against Paul. Why get so excited about circumcision? Would it hurt anyone if practised? Was it not a useful mark to distinguish believer from unbeliever? Must the Church experience trouble and dissension on such a small matter? With the whole Roman world perishing in sin. should a Church be troubled by an adamant and insistent Paul? Isn’t the Church losing its sense of proportion? It seemed as if Paul and Barnabas had been stricken with the deadly virus of stubborn intellectualism and lifeless orthodoxy.
What a tragi-comic situation! On the one hand, the Spirit of Christ was eagerly, triumphantly gathering and building a Gentile church. Church members in this new fellowship practised spontaneous sacrifice and self-denial. The Church was powerfully influencing the Roman world. On the other hand, there was trouble, argument, sharp words of controversy. Paul used strong words. He spoke of “perverting the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). The Galatian Christian, accepting the necessity of circumcision, he termed “foolish” (Gal. 3:1). In Philippians 3:2,3 he said, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision: For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” At the close of his letter to the Galatians Paul cuttingly remarks, “I would that they that unsettle you would even go beyond circumcision”; “would mutilate themselves” (R.S.V.); “would become eunuchs” (Beckeley) – Galatians 5:12.
Paul, however. did not relent. He fought for the churches in the churches. He refused to heed the attractive These Christians were rejecting Christ’s ordained me argument which says, “Stop these little quarrels in the Church and get on with the big task of witnessing to the world outside of Christ.” The circumcision controversy touched the heart of the gospel. Here was an issue which threatened to crack the very foundation stones of the gospel. The preachers of the circumcision and obedience to the ceremonial laws of Moses were teaching that Christ’s work was insufficient. For the Judaizers, God’s free, sovereign grace in Christ Jesus needed the additive of man’s works. Paul saw this clearly and fought hard in the Churches. Such teaching would bring the Churches into bondage (Gal. 2:4). In bondage to the laws of men, the church would dishonor the Savior and fail to reach out to a dying world. So Paul and Barnabas concentrated their energies on the Church. The Church had to be the Church, a community of believers living in love and faith, beyond the paralyzing grip of fear, anxiety and bondage. Only as the Church lived under the easy yoke of Christ could it be a blessing to the world. To keep the Church a Church, Paul did not hesitate to focus his tremendous energies on the life of the Church. The world’s greatest missionary to a pagan world carried on the burden of his task within the Church for the sake of the Church.
THE CHURCH AT CORINTH
Paul spent tremendous energy in caring for this congregation located in a busy, greedy, lustful, carnal harbor city. He toiled to eliminate the divisions which arose because church members ignored the Significance of Christ’s uniquely ordained offices in the congregation. Contentions arose because “each one of you saith, I am of Paul; and 1 of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ” (I Cor. 1:11, 12). These slogans meant more than merely stating a preference for certain preachers. We preachers find such preference abroad today. Emphasis on various doctrines, rhetorical polish, intellectual ability make for good and better preachers. Such factors as cultural sensitivities, spiritual temperaments and character development lead to preferring one preacher over another. This is not necessarily an evil, sinful matter. The only evil is that we preachers often wish we were more preferred.
The situation in the Corinthian congregation was much more serious. These people were derogating the office of the ministry of the Word. They accepted their favorite office-bearer exclusively, and refused to acknowledge that Christ Jesus works unto salvation through all lawfully called and ordained servants of the congregation. In fact, some went so far that they rejected all human servants and said, “I am of Christ.” Peter, Paul, Apollos were rejected as workers through whom Christ acted to gather by his Word and Spirit a Church chosen to eternal life.
Consider how they treated Paul. His speech was “of no account” (II Cor. 10:10). He was though “rude of speech” (II Cor. 11:6) and inferior because he could speak with the gift of tongues (I Cor. 7:40; 14:18). Some went to the extreme of accusing Paul of walking “according to the flesh” (II Cor. 10:2). They denied that his teaching and writing was the will of Christ (I Cor. 14:37; 15:9).
These Christians were rejecting Christ’s ordained method of working out God’s program of salvation. It was them, and is today, Christ’s good pleasure to impart salvation and build his Church through the service of earthen vessels. By rejecting the service of the ordained minister some Corinthian Christians were rejecting Christ himself. They were in danger of losing “the simplicity and the purity that is toward Christ” (II Cor. 11:3). Paul worked hard to fight the error of underevaluating and rejecting Christ’s ordinances and ecclesiastical offices. Here again his task was to keep the Church a Church and so to honor Christ and win the world of sinners.
In this congregation there was more that needed Paul’s best energies, his clearest insights, his pastoral heart. Various members of the congregation were becoming wise according to the wisdom of this world. They were cultivating a fascination for new insights, a delight in intellectual achievement which raised them above the level of ordinary Church members. They were nurturing a type of wisdom which supplanted faith in the crucified and risen Christ, who was “made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30). They were seeking a wisdom about God rather than the wisdom from God. They loved to theologize about God rather than live in love unto God. Trained in the broad stream of Greek civilization, many Christians delighted in manipulating new concepts, playing with clever syllogisms, and operating with abstractions about God. Their joy was no longer the mystery of grace in Christ, but rather religious and ethical ideas about a new way of life. Their focus shifted from a personal knowledge of and trust in Jesus Christ to an objectified wisdom and knowledge about the Savior. Some Corinthians Christians were busy articulating intellectual abstractions which divorced them from the will of God and Christ. Paul had to write “that ye might learn not to go beyond the things that are written” (I Cor. 4:6). The intellectuals toyed with a wisdom of words, a wisdom of the world which could make void the cross of Christ. In the pagan, carnal, greedy harbor city of Corinth, Paul worked long and hard to correct the Corinthian congregation. The Church could never help heal the sick slaves of sin in Corinth unless they removed the infection of spurious wisdom and detached intellectualism.
The wisdom of various Corinthian Christians became a handy tool to bring the world into the congregation. Clever argumentations, calculating usages of the syllogism led to pride. It was a proverb in this Church to say, when trying to solve the complex questions of godly conduct, “We know that we all have knowledge” (I Cor. 8:1). Some were puffed up against the others (I Cor. 4:8). There was knowledge without love, and that is sin. These wisdom spinners made Christian liberty the basic principle. “All things are lawful for me” (I Cor. 6:12; 10:23) was their slogan. It is interesting to observe that the word exousia is found 10 times in I Corinthians and 18 times in all the other epistles The Biblical teaching of Christian liberty, when abstracted from the context of love and exalted as the governing principle of life, can lead to many sins. Such was the case in the Corinthian congregation.
In Corinth the worldlywise church member thought he had the spiritual right or competence to break his marriage vows (I Cor. 7:2ff). Incest, the likes of which was condemned by pagans, occurred in the congregation, and, says Paul, “ye are puffed up and did not rather mourn” (I Cor. 5:2). Apparently the free intellectualist thought he could consort with prostitutes (I Cor. 6:15). Even some women, once initiated into the new wisdom, threw propriety aside. Exercising their “freedom” they appeared in public without proper head dress (I Cor. 11:2–16). Pride arose as they vied with each other in cultivating their own religious welfare of the Body of Christ. There was depreciation of ecclesiastical discipline (I Cor. 5). They argued about the resurrection of the dead (I Cor. 15), and preferred the judgment of unbelievers to the judgment of those who were members of the Body of Christ (I Cor. 6).
Paul spent a great deal of energy on these and other practical problems in the local congregation. He never allowed the acute and glaring needs of a dying world in sin to curb his energies in making the Church a Church. His task was within the Church. As the Church developed into the Body of Christ, Paul knew that the Church could help the world. This was his task, and it is ours! His letters to Timothy and Titus, his counsel to the congregation at Thessalonica, his epistle to the Church at Colosse, show the same pastoral concern for the Churches. With obvious and desperate needs raising their ugly heads outside the congregation, Paul never allowed himself to shift focus. He worked for Christ to build congregations, and so the Churches could be the Body of Christ working in a sick, sinful world.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
Since the times and tasks of the apostolic ministers in the early Churches, history records the same story. Insidious infections subtly drain off the vitality of the Churches. Not the demonic powers outside the Church, but camouflaged sin in the congregations constitutes the greatest shame to the name of God and the gravest menace to the welfare of our world. In the Old Testament it was not the paganized Canaanite outside the house of Israel, but the Canaanized worship of Yahweh within the house of Israel which presented the biggest roadblock to God’s redemptive purposes. It was the task within which demanded the energies, the lives of men like Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the others. It was not the noted philosophies of the Platonists, Aristotelians and Stoics which paralyzed the old catholic Churches. Rather, it was the Christianized synthesis with Platonism, Aristotelism and Stoicism which robbed the Churches of their strength and service. During Reformation times it was not the naturalistic vitality of the Renaissance which stopped the Church’s mission; rather, it was a Christianized form of compromise within the bosom of the Churches which was the unseen, most effective enemy of the Lord. So it is today. The noted Communist with his avowed atheism and proposed economic determination is less of a threat in our twilight struggle for the freedom of mankind than is the Christianized Communist and pink who sits in high places within Church boards and councils in our land. To ignore the task within the Churches. to shift our focus away from God’s congregations. is to play right into the hands of the great deceiver, to allow mankind to live in slavery unto death, is to bring shame and dishonor to our God who wills to save our world.
OUR TASK TODAY
The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. The important truths have been confessed in our Creeds. We must constantly examine ourselves whether the truths we confess are truly functioning in our lives. Are they molding our decisions, fortifying our conduct in every way? Paul writing to the Thessalonian congregation, thanked God that they accepted the truths which he taught as the Word of God “which also worketh in you that believe” (I Thess. 2:13). The question we face is not merely; Do we believe in the truths which are confessed in the historic Creeds of Christendom? The question is this; Do these truths function dynamically in our programing and speaking as a Church? To assume naively that such is always the case is to deny the existence of sin within our own bosom. What we need today is thinking. praying. hard-studying men and women of God who above all want to keep the Church a Church. A Church patterned according to Scriptural truth is the only hope for our broken. dying world. A true Church is the only Church which Christ uses and he alone is the hope of mankind. Pray that we all may be set to work by him within his Church.
*This significant article is the address which Dr. De Jong delivered at the beginning of the Reformed Fellowship Inc., on October 26, 1962.