by Dennis W. Costella
Mention the term church to a group of people, and you will receive as many definitions and perceptions of “church” as there are people. Of course, many equate church with religion and pride themselves in their resoluteness to have nothing to do with either. But others will actually claim to be religious and even attend weekly services, albeit sporadically. The reasons given for identifying themselves with a particular religious group and, in turn, their understanding of that group’s function or purpose vary greatly.
Lack of biblical understanding concerning the church today has led to a prevalence of false conceptions and practices. Many consider the church’s role as one of “raising the social consciousness” of the community in which it ministers. Others feel the duty of the church should be primarily one of social action and the furtherance of the “cultural mandate” concept which entails an attempt to Christianize society. Still others view the church as an alternative to other secular institutions that endeavor to meet man’s desire for social activity and the inculcation of moral values. And, religious ceremonies have always appealed to the natural man, as long as they are not coupled with personal accountability to God for the spiritual truth they are meant to convey.
A more prevalent belief, and much more dangerous, is the one in which the member views his particular church as a means of grace, that is, his relationship with God is secured by his name on the membership role. The church is thus seen as the vehicle whereby the individual comes into a right standing before God by way of the sacraments or ordinances. This false confidence amounts to nothing more than salvation by works, which can never be reconciled to the biblical imperative that one must be saved by grace alone through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace alone is efficacious to the saving of the soul (Eph. 2:8-9). The church serves no function in the “new birth” experience. The moment a lost sinner is led by the Holy Spirit of God to hear and believe the pure gospel, he is reconciled to God through saving faith (Jn. 5:24). The Scriptures never describe the church as possessing an intermediary role—a dispenser of grace. God Himself effects the miracle of the new birth apart from any works of men (Acts 10:43-48 cf. Acts 15:7-11).
The New Testament local church is to administer the two God-given ordinances of baptism by immersion, picturing the believer’s new standing in Christ, and the Lord’s Supper, reminding the believer of Christ’s death, resurrection, and imminent return. These ordinances are only to be enjoyed by those who already know Jesus Christ as Savior—those who already possess a relationship with God through saving faith. They do not secure nor add to one’s salvation. The commandments given by the Lord to the born-again believer symbolize what is already a reality in the believer’s life through his indivisible union with the Lord Jesus Christ. So if the church is not a “saving” agent, what is its place and purpose?
Worshipping the Lord
Without exception, each of the aforementioned erroneous concepts of the church reflect what man expects the church to do for himself rather than what God expects of those who possess a relationship with Him, that is, what actually glorifies God. It is self-centered rather than God-centered. The local church is not, however, an end in itself but rather the means to an end. That desired end is to bring glory and honor to God. Once one realizes that the church does not procure salvation but is, rather, a combined ministry of believers who assemble together to worship and serve the Lord, then the true purpose of the church as revealed in the Word of God becomes evident.
The scriptural directive to the church at Ephesus is clear: “Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end” (Eph. 3:21). Notice the emphasis here—God is to be glorified. This can only occur when the eternal Son of God is given His proper place in the church. Jesus Christ must first reign in each heart and then be magnified in every aspect of corporate worship. The church will only be glorious if the people who assemble together on the Lord’s Day are gathered because of their genuine desire to worship and praise their God. If the primary purpose for attending the house of the Lord is anything other than to worship God in the beauty of holiness, then the central point is missed. Unless this primary duty is realized, all other functions of the local church will be of little consequence.
This is why the believer must continually examine himself to determine whether or not his attitude regarding church attendance is truly spiritual. How often we enter a church service with a heart that is not right with the Lord and, in essence, defy anyone—even the Holy Spirit of God—to awaken us out of our spiritual lethargy. The purpose of the church service is not to afford a battlefield whereby the stiff-necked, hardened saint is assailed by the duly burdened pastor, pleading for repentance and revival. On the contrary, the believer should approach the house of the Lord already prepared for worship as his heart is right with God and he is enjoying proper fellowship with Him. If all believers would be ever mindful of this and approach the worship service ready to worship and to expect a blessed time of fellowship around the Word of God, then the pastor and congregation alike could proceed with the business at hand—to render praise and glory to “Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13).
Preaching the Word
Another privilege and duty of the church is to edify, or build up, the saints. The apostle Paul declared to the elders of the church at Ephesus that he had “not shunned to declare unto [them] all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). This was his testimony to them, and it was to be their responsibility as well to watch over the flock the Lord had entrusted to their care. They were to feed the sheep in like manner. This is why God saw fit to institute the under-shepherd role of “pastor-teacher.” These men are given to the church “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” so believers will grow up unto Him in all things (Eph. 4:11-16). Unless a local church is known for its sound Bible teaching and preaching, this essential duty and purpose can never be fully realized. The Bible-preaching church will produce Bible-taught, mature, spiritually-minded Christian workers. It is strange indeed, and certainly unbiblical, for any Christian to discount his need for this vital ministry.
The apostle Paul preached Jesus Christ to the Colossian church for the express purpose “that we may present every man perfect [complete] in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28). Personal Bible study is indispensable in the Christian life. Yet, God has also ordained the preaching and teaching of the Word to the assembly of believers as a means of their being built up in the most holy faith. This will doubtless be the case when a faithful, Christ-honoring man of God gives a thorough exposition of the whole of Scripture in its proper dispensational context. The growth experienced by believers meeting together to hear the Word of God thus proclaimed, and the edification resulting from such Christian fellowship, must not be neglected (Heb. 10:25). Believers who fail to avail themselves of this God-given avenue of spiritual growth are robbing themselves of rich spiritual blessing (and, in turn, are robbing fellow brothers and sisters in Christ of their own personal fellowship and gifts to be used for God’s glory). God has prescribed His method of nurturing and caring for the sheep—it is the local church.
Proclaiming the Gospel
Evangelization of a world “dead in trespasses and sins” is an integral part of every church that is true to the Word of God. The church with an incessant burden for the lost is one where the mind of Christ is evidenced and the Holy Spirit is at work. Prior to His ascension, Jesus commanded His disciples to “go ye therefore, and teach [disciple] all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20) and to “be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We are to go, therefore, faithfully proclaiming the one, true gospel message to the lost. The burden of witness, however, should not fall exclusively on the pastor’s shoulders nor on the gospel presentation in the weekly church service. In the early church, the saints met together for fellowship and exhortation and instruction in the Word and then went forth into the world filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking the Word of God with all boldness (Acts 4:31).
The directive to the church following the reception of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was that it be a witness “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The church must ever be mindful of its solemn obligation to a lost and dying world. Missionaries are sent by the Lord into all the world, and the church’s prayers and sacrificial support must go with them (Acts 13:1-4). Yet, this does not relieve the responsibility of each member of the church to be a faithful witness wherever he or she is. Every believer is an “ambassador for Christ,” and 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 plainly states that every ambassador has a message to present—the saving gospel of the grace of God. And, for that matter, every follower of Christ who goes forth from the local assembly proclaiming this message is, in reality, a “foreign missionary.” The world in which he sows the seed of the gospel is not his home; his citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21). He is an ambassador on foreign soil representing his Lord in glory. Christ is returning to take him home, but until that blessed day, he is to “occupy (or do business—the Lord’s business) till He (Jesus Christ) come” (Lk. 19:13).
Contending for the Faith
The church of Jesus Christ also has the crucial duty to present a consistent testimony of obedience to Christ and to His Word before an unbelieving world. First Timothy 3:15 declares that the saint should know how to behave himself in the house of God, “which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Truth must be tenaciously embraced and consistently demonstrated in a believer’s life. The local assembly not only must proclaim the Word of God but also faithfully live the same. An effective testimony for the truth is one in which no false doctrine is tolerated within its ranks and no member is allowed to continue in flagrant sin before an ever-watching community. A pure church is a powerful church and one that practices church discipline when necessary (Eph. 5:26-27; 1 Cor. 5:6-8). Errant behavior and belief must be dealt with, or the leaven will spread.
If a testimony is to be consistent, the church must also practice the biblical doctrine of separation. The apostle Paul found it necessary to warn the church at Ephesus night and day with tears concerning the wolves which would creep in from outside the fold as well as from within to spoil the flock. Therefore, it is likewise essential for faithful churches today to warn against and then separate completely from any identification with apostasy and unbelief (2 Cor. 6:14-18; Eph. 5:11). A bold, stalwart witness for the truth requires not only the belief of sound doctrine but also the exposure of and opposition to doctrinal error. False doctrine must never be tolerated nor entangling alliances be permitted with those who deny the eternal truths of the Word.
And not only must believers individually and the church collectively separate from outright apostasy (blatant unbelief), but the Bible also requires separation from disobedient brethren. Often, such a position is thought to be unloving, but in reality, the opposite is true. If the Bible-believing church genuinely desires to be of help to a brother who is moving along a path of disobedience or compromise, then the most loving act it can do toward the errant brother is to raise a biblical standard before him. Fellowship that overlooks doctrinal error or inconsistency is not fellowship based upon love for the truth or love for the errant brother—it is, rather, pious sentimentality!
The love of God manifested in a consistent, separated testimony will be an admonition to the disorderly brother to consider his position in the light of Scripture and to return to a biblical position and to a right fellowship with God and with his fellow brethren (2 Thess. 3:14-15). Unless a brother is walking in obedience to the Word and will of God, fellowship involving joint service or ministry endeavor is forbidden by God (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6-7). The desired end of required separation from the errant is for his own restitution (Gal. 6:1). Failure to practice biblical separation from a disobedient brother or sister in Christ is not loving at all, for it neglects God’s remedy for sin in the believer’s walk as well as the divine safeguard God has given to stem the leavening or spreading effect of sin within a local church testimony (Rom. 16:17; Eph. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:33).
The church is facing a great battle today, and the great and tenacious foe of the faith—Satan himself—is unrelenting in his efforts to destroy faithful ministries and ministers in these perilous last days. The church’s duty is to unceasingly defend the truth which necessarily requires earnestly contending against every enemy of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Until that glorious day when Jesus Christ returns to catch away His own, the church must press forward in the raging battle for truth as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. God’s marching orders for His church have not changed (2 Tim. 4:1-8).
Looking Unto Jesus
The true church of Jesus Christ must continually keep its eyes upon its risen Savior (Heb. 12:1-3). Too many believers today have their eyes upon themselves or others, thus missing the joy, blessing, and strength of looking only to Jesus, the “author and finisher of our faith.” Furthermore, a great need exists today for believers to live daily with the imminent return of Christ in their minds, hearts and plans. For all who are in Christ, the future is indeed bright—the Blessed Hope of Christ’s return could become a reality at any moment.
God’s church is a remnant church. But, praise God, it is on the side of victory (1 Jn. 5:4; Rev. 19:7). Daily victory is assured when all in the church are genuinely yielded to the work of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18-19). The saints who comprise the triumphant church will be eager to spend time together in prayer, for fervent, intercessory prayer accomplishes the Father’s will. They will also rely upon the power of God to do His work in and through them rather than trusting the arm of the flesh (Heb. 4:15-16; Acts 4:23-33).
The “blessed hope” is the glorious expectation for the true church that faithfully labors until that day when the bride is caught up to meet her Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The future has never been brighter, for that blessed day is coming when all saints will see their Savior face to face. Until then, every true Christian must faithfully press on in the Lord’s work. Who needs the church? The Lord, the believer, and the world!
— Dennis W. Costella (1948-2011). Reproduced from Foundation magazine.