I just returned from thirty hours of meetings. We call it the General Assembly (GA) of the PCA.
In 3 and a half days there were three worship gatherings. There was prayer. I enjoyed meals with friends in Christ. And there were debates and motions for change and votes.
Part of it was joyous. Other parts were tedious. Large parts.
But the tedious was as much the work of Christ as the singing and praying preaching.
I want to respond to the GA but I have to start here: what is the church?
Church as a social institution offering religious meaning?
Modern man believes that all religion is just an expression of humanity’s search for meaning. Most of us have driven by buildings labeled “church.” To a modern person, that particular building is where a particular group of people meet because they find religious meaning in their lives. Most outsiders think of church as an institution which provides emotional support and moral inspiration to its attenders.
Notice, if church is created by people with religious interests, then “church” must be malleable. What its members believe and what morals they advocate can change. If church leaders are primarily moralizers, encouraging people to love, then they should be echoing the ethos of their culture. And that is what we find many groups called “church” now do. They parrot the morality and ideology of the day in order to be relevant.
But what if that is not what church is?.
Church as a place of inspiration and aspiration.
Tthose who know better than what I have just described make another mistake. They think of church is some kind of idealistic way — or they think of church as a place to get inspiration and help to live a better life. When a pastor’s preaching or the musicians quality of play do not measure up, they shop around. Today there is a whole movement of people away from particular churches because churches fail, leaders sin, and hypocrisy prevails. Or, more recently, political allegiance corrupts the pure message about Jesus.
Church as identity.
Church is neither a human institution or a place of moral inspiration. It is the identity of God’s people. We gather and exist in local congregations because that collection of people is our family. And it is our family because we are in Christ.
I have spent months among the churches of Serbia and also visited many other congregations in other countries. There is nothing flashy or “cool” about those congregations. There are no churches to shop for. Those brothers and sisters in Christ gather, become members, honor their elders, listen to average sermons, and forbear with each other — even when there are many faults in the church. Why? They understand it is identity and allegiance to Christ and his people.
Church: created and owned and operated by Christ.
Church is Jesus’ idea. Jesus is the Son of God “fleshified” for us and for our sins. He came on a rescue mission, to do everything needed to rescue us from moral and spiritual darkness. He gave his life to reconcile us to God. Jesus was not a moral teacher. If he was, he was a terrible one. What he demanded as morally acceptable to God and what he promised as the consequence of missing the mark are anything but inspirational. They are crushing.
No, he came as Savior of all people. God says our greatest need is to be reconciled to him, our Creator.
Yet Jesus does more than rescue individuals. He creates a community. He gives to them a new social identity. He calls this the “assembly,” a word which we translate as “church.”
The Bible tells us that Jesus calls the church his bride, his dwelling place, his body, his household. He created and owns us and determines our purpose.
The mission and message of the church.
That means he determines the mission of the church. Our mission is simple: to announce the news of who Jesus is and what he has done — and to call people to trust him. And the same message proclaimed is how he nurtures his people to maturity. Christianity and the church have no separate moral message — we have only a message about a Redeemer.
The life of the church and its members.
Jesus gathers his people into a family, and that family has lots of particular locations. That is what you see when you observe a local congregation.
He places us in families so we can hear the Gospel together. He works the reality of the Gospel into our lives together. I can only grow to full maturity in relationship with others in the family. And they may not like my playlist.
Why dies he do that? because when he kneads the reality of the Gospel into our lives and relationships, it shows Jesus is true. Outsiders should see a local congregation as “real” and “genuine,” even when it is inconsistent.
For forty years, I have seen remarkable freely given service and sacrifice (giving thousands of dollars so someone could have cancer surgery, sheltering an abused woman and her child, surrounding a woman with care when her husband was imprisoned, childcare and meals to a woman who was bed-bound for 6 months of her pregnancy, etc etc etc). I have also seen deep flaws and experienced profound disappointment. But God’s fingerprints are present everywhere.
One man says the church is an embassy of heaven. I like that.
Church members in public life.
God has not called Christians to retreat into their safe spaces. We have callings throughout a society. We are to serve those around us. Generally speaking, people respect those who seek to do good for others.
Christians are not ideologues. We do not try to make a perfect society. Utopianism and the pursuit of perfect equality and justice is contrary to Jesus message. On the other hand, it is good to help make improvements to neighborhoods, cities, courts, and businesses.
The church is one and one over all of time.
I became a Presbyterian 8 years ago. I did it because I was convinced that a church was more than one congregation. It is the people of Christ in all times and places. My convictions teach me to respect all faithful churches, even those who disagree with me on certain things. Not all disagreements are defining.
Believing this calls me to respect the truths that Christians have affirmed for centuries. It calls me to honor statements of belief that were formed by many Christians from diverse denominations. If the church is one over all time, then I have to give a vote to the dead. If not a vote, at least the honor of a voice.
American pastors think they can gather their buddies who think like they do and write statements or form alliances. I appreciate their instinct. But I have no compulsion to subscribe to their assertions. American Christians have become followers of influencers. They quote people with large followings as though they are popes. I will not participate this. I do not care what MacArthur or Mohler or Keller or Piper say. I care what the church has said for 2000 years.
The church is anything but perfect but Jesus still owns her.
Here is the rub: with all that I have said one might think the church is some kind of ideal society. It is not.
The church has always been composed of people who are morally bankrupt, who find in Jesus the sole Savior from sin, and who are in a lifelong process of dying more and more to sin, and living to righteousness. It started in the times of the apostles. Problems are why we have most of the New Testament.
Any fool can find fault with the church. She is always what one man has described as both bride and prostitute. Christ has given to her means to address error and discord and impurity. But it is a relentless process. And she does not always do it well.
Most remarkable to me is this: Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers (Hebrews 2:11). God is not ashamed to be called the God of individuals and the church even when we are “simultaneously righteous and sinners.”
Timeless and timely.
Jesus will measure the church and its leaders with one questions: Were you faithful to my words?
The church represents God’s timeless reality and truth. Of course, we want to do that in timely ways. Timely does not mean modification of truth or change of the moral qualities of being Christ’s people.
There are people who now consider association with a visible local congregation to be a compromise. The church has wounded them. Pastors have disappointed them. I get it.. I assure you I have experienced the church at her best and at her absolute worst.
But I take my cues from Jesus. He still places his name on communities of redeemed sinners. Look at the churches of the apostolic times. All of them were filled with faults and flaws. But he calls all of them saints. I cannot be more particular than he is. Even if I chose to leave one church, I am called to be part of another congregation that is faithful to Christ. Jesus calls me to the same patience and love with others that he shows to me.
Critics of the church and their expectations
20-20 hindsight is all the rage these days. Today we see, to our grief, that the church in our country was, in part, complicit in things like racism and slavery. I say in part because there were also courageous pastors and leaders who spoke out against both. Indeed, it was Christians in their callings who led the way out of these evils.
I am glad to align myself with Jesus and his blemished bride. To treat her as beloved in his eyes, as the object of his redeeming work, is the calling of each Christian.
This is how I participated in a few days of meetings that were tedious and glorious — a part of the work of Christ in the purifying of his people.
the Next, reflections on the General Assembly as the work of the church.