The Message of the Church
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The Message of the Church

Assemble The People Before Me

Chris Green

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The Message of the Church

Assemble The People Before Me

Chris Green

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About This Book

The Bible begins and ends with God dwelling with his people, from Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, to the great multitude in the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. At each step, God gathered his people together, to speak to them, hear from them, and change them to be more like him. God assembling his people, whom he loves, is what the Bible calls 'church'.The church should aspire to be a group of vibrant, loving, risk-everything people who are passionately committed to living out the values of God's Word and looking forward to the new creation. Churches and their pastors and leaders need to hear what the Bible says about who they are and what they are to do.Chris Green takes 'the message of the church' to mean, first, that the church has a message, which is that God has saved his people through Christ; second, that the church is the created and saved result of that message; and third, that the church is a message, which is that he has saved broken people like us, and by belonging to his people we are trying to respond to him in the ways he requires. His stimulating and insightful exposition begins with a survey of the church 'from eternity, to Eden, to exodus, to exile, to eternity', and then focuses on various dimensions of the church's life and ministry, including its worship, unity, maturity, servants, gifts, holiness, boundaries and future.

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1. Introducing the church

1. I have a dream...

I have been with fifteen thousand people singing to stunning contemporary rock, and with two people praying in silence. I have heard how Christ transforms lives, and how Christian friends encourage each other along. I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people from thirty-five nations, each in our own language, and discussed with them how the gospel impacts the differences that so recently have led to war. I have met people from countries I could not place on a map, and we have treated each other as we truly are – closer than blood relatives in Christ. Time after time I have thought, ‘I wish every church could be like this’. Often I have thought, ‘I wish our church could be like this’. Perhaps you share that dream as well.
Church is made up of people, and God’s people at that. Indeed, the English word, ‘church’ comes from the Greek word, kyriakon, meaning ‘the Lord’s’.2 The Bible begins and ends with God dwelling with his people, from Adam and Eve in the garden, to untold billions in the great city garden in Revelation. And at each step, God gathered his people together, to speak to them, hear from them, and change them to be more like him.3 Jesus came to gather his reluctant people,4 and one day he will send his angels to gather us all.5 God gathering his people is what the Bible calls ‘church’.
The awful opposite of being gathered as one of God’s people is to be scattered as one of his enemies, lonely, loveless and lost, for ever.6 After people built Babel, ‘the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth’.7 On the Last Day, Jesus will gather one group, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father’, but scatter the other, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed’.8
God loves his gathered people. It was only to form his church that the Father sent the Son, that the Son went to the cross, and that the Father and Son sent the Spirit.9 God wrote the Bible solely to speak to us and bring us to salvation. He warns our leaders that we are ‘the church of God’ (say this slowly) ‘which he bought with his own blood’.10
Whether your church is purpose-driven, Jesus-driven, deliberate or intentional, whether it is contagious, irresistible, unstoppable or provocative, whether it has been recently rediscovered or is only just emerging, whether it is five-star or ‘come as you are’, deep, wide, healthy, organic, equipping, connecting or even unleashed,11 you trust God’s unshakeable plan to make a people for his own possession. Church – a group of vibrant, loving, risk-everything people who are passionately committed to living out the values of God’s word and looking forward to the new creation – that is a plan worthy of God himself.

2....and I have a nightmare

But you and I have also endured the nightmare of dreadful services, deadly meetings, bitter power struggles and lingering hurts. It is easy to agree with our savage critic Friedrich Nietzsche, that ‘They would have to sing better songs to make me believe in their Redeemer; his disciples would have to look more redeemed!’12 Those charged with teaching truth have spread lies, those charged with sharing ministry have hoarded it, the broken have stayed broken and – worst of all – the lost have stayed lost.
Some of us share responsibility for that nightmare. If a church is not functioning properly, and we are that church’s leadership, we know where to begin to place the blame. Repeated surveys report that church is boring, irrelevant and bigoted, and that Christians yearn for what C. S. Lewis called ‘Deep Church’: passionately God-honouring, intimate, truthful, connected around the world and across the centuries.13
We can address all those things if we truly want to, but cheap solutions are as flawed as the problems themselves. Some have insisted on staying comfortably boring because change is painful – and then hinted that those who do adapt have trivialized the faith. A growing church must be a compromised church. Other churches try to make God interesting by making church entertaining, or intellectually relevant, or spiritual, and so the space is filled with lights and smoke machines, or is dark and candlelit, or is empty and Zen-cool – but the Bible is never opened and humbly taught. And so the church remains ignorant about itself.
That is critical. William Gladstone, British prime minister under Queen Victoria, said of his evangelical youth, ‘I had been brought up with no notion of the Church as the Church or body of Christ’.14 He was not the first or last to move to a different tradition of the church because of Evangelical silence on this theme, and was certainly not the last to complain about it.

3. The task

This series studies themes from the central biblical passages which bear upon them, for individual Christians, study groups, a leadership team, or the pastor preparing a sermon. Different churches must apply what they learn in different ways, but God wrote the Bible with your church in mind, and so this book contains an ‘Action and Study Guide’, to encourage your leaders in obedient practice.
But we need to ask whether ‘church’ is the right place to start. Many contemporary writers assume a different perspective, which is that because God is a missionary God, we should begin with his mission, and let our doctrine and practice of the church follow. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch have argued strongly that we think as in the following diagram:15
Christology: The person and work of Jesus - Missiology: The purpose of God and his people - Ecclesiology: The form and function of the church
This is attractive in many ways, and I share much of that passion. But two aspects trouble me. First, Frost and Hirsch are right that God is a missionary God; but he is simultaneously a Trinity of love, expressed in assembling his saved people around him. Since God is not at war with himself, mission and church are not competing for primacy.16 Secondly, where does the Bible fit? How are we to find out the right content of those three boxes? I suggest an alternative might be:
The Trinity: The nature, words and work of God - speaks through - Scripture The purpose of God for his people - co-ordinates - Belief and behaviour: Ecclesiology, missiology, Christology, and all areas
This diagram privileges one God speaking through the Bible, producing a coordinated result among believers. So a biblical theology of mission should shape the form and function of the church – and in the same way a biblical theology of church should shape the form and function of mission.17 For instance, we can say that mission is temporary, but church is eternal. Or, mission is a means, not an end, but church is both means and end. To rephrase John Piper, mission only exists because church doesn’t.18 God coordinates his one truth, so getting one aspect right means getting the others right as well – provided we sit humbly under his word.

4. The plan

God is eternally and infinitely wise, so every doctrine is endless, and interacts with all others ceaselessly. There are almost one hundred biblical images of the church,19 feeding into the doctrinal questions of the past. And the doctrine of the church is not academic: pastors who lead churches, and the churches they lead, need what the Bible says about who they are and what they are to do. And differing publications, conferences, blogs and websites aim to equip pastors to be better at their roles (preachers, leaders, pioneers, prophets, managers, visionaries...), and to equip church members to exercise their ministries (gifts, callings, graces, discipleship...) in their particular kind of church (emerging, emergent, fresh expression, body-life, paleo-orthodox – you get the idea). Every debate in the church touches on some aspect of the doctrine of the church, yet any study has to draw the line somewhere.
One pastor advised me, ‘Whatever you talk about most is your gospel.’ And a scholar said, ‘Students don’t get what you teach, they catch your enthusiasms.’ So we need to agree at the start, that however much we talk about it, and however highly we esteem it, the church is not the gospel. It may be evidence, proof, plausibility, manifest­ation, physical or cultural expression of the gospel, but it is not the gospel.20 So ‘The Message of the Church’, means, or at least I am going to take it to mean, that first, the church has a message, which is that God has saved his people through Christ; second, that the church is the created and saved result of that message, we are a ‘creature of the Word’ as Luther famously put it; 21 and finally the church is a message, which is that God has saved broken people like us, and by belonging to his people we are trying to respond to him in the ways he requires. Theologically, believing comes first, because we cannot be members of Christ’s saved people except by faith, but many people encounter the reality of God’s new community (belonging on a human level) before they have saving faith and living discipleship (believing and belonging on a supernatural level, leading to behaving).
This study describes the main contours of the Bible’s teaching about the church. Sometimes there is a tight focus, occasionally we move around to establish patterns. When choosing ‘key’ passages, the alternatives are usually footnoted. And on some debates I have had to say ‘here is a problem, and you may these books helpful’.22 I have used three principal translations: the ESV, the Holman Christian Standard Bible and the NIV (2011 1st ed.), although other translations appear occasionally as well.
God’s plan for his church should give every congregation its purpose and direction. God said to Moses, ‘Assemble the people before me, to hear my words, so that they may learn to revere me.’ 23 And our prayer and praises echo back: ‘Let the assembled peoples gather round you, while you sit enthroned over them on high.’ 24

2. The church from eternity to Eden

To begin to understand the church we need a well-read Bible, and a long timescale. The word ‘church’ can be quite loose,25 but the biblical equivalent is precise. It did not suddenly appear from nowhere at Pentecost, or in Jesus’ teaching about ‘my church’. God had successively shaped his people through the Old Testament plotline, and the Hebrew word qāhāl, ‘assembly’, repeatedly described his solemn gathering of those people; above all, it summar­ized the Sinai meeting and anticipated a future gathering from exile.26 In its Greek translation, ekklēsia, it therefore became the term Christians reached for to describe their meetings, which were the fulfilment of those promises. But ‘church’ did not really start at Sinai, nor even with sinless people enjoying God’s presence in Eden.27 We must travel into eternity, where God drew his plans, examined the cost, and determined that his church would be his treasure. Ephesians is the book to take us there.
Many early copies of Ephesians have left the destination blank, and perhaps Paul intended his letter to have a wide readership; yet this letter to no-church-in-particular has ‘church’ as its unifying theme. In it, Paul four times describes ‘church’ in the most dazzling language, exploring his vision of its heavenly aspect, which is sometimes called the ‘cosmic’ or ‘invisible’ church. Those four references will give this chapter its structure, and along the way we shall pause to admire Paul’s images of the relationship between Christ and his church. Keep in mind, though, that in among those images and metaphors, ‘church’ stands out because it alone is not a metaphor: the word means what it says, ‘a gathering’.
Paul’s thinking in Ephesians stretches from before the creation of the world (1:4) until when the times will have reached their fulfilment (1:10), and reaches from the lower, earthly realms (4:9) up into the heavenly realms (1:3), and then even higher than all the heavens (4:10). He is painting on a vast canvas, but like all great artists, he relates everything to his one central subject: the Lord Jesus Christ.28 Nineteen times Paul says we are in Christ,29 three times that we are with Christ (2:5, 6, 20); everything exists under Christ (1:10), and we relate to God through Christ (1:5). Our actions show our reverence for Christ (5:21) and we sh...

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