As a boy, I loved reading the Encyclopedia Brown mystery novels. It was engaging and stimulating stuff. Sherlock Holmes for us young shorties. (If any of you have any of the stories and you’d like to part with them for a modest fee, please e-mail me).
I still love a great mystery novel or suspense thriller. Mystery creates much of the wonder of life. And because it leaves us in wonder, a kind of admiring awe, mystery creates a godly humility.
Christianity is a mystery from start to finish. Its truths stagger the mind and refresh the soul… One God in three Persons, creation ex nihilo, Perfect Infinity squeezed into the finiteness of a virgin’s womb, sinless perfection, substitution and propitiation, simultaneously just and sinner, resurrection, new birth, and I could go on. These are grand, towering, staggering, “biggie-sized” truths. They are mysterious in the best sense of the word.
But there is at least one other mystery in Christianity. In fact, the Bible itself uses the term “mystery” to describe it. There is the mystery of the church (Eph. 3). The church is the revelation of a mystery hidden in ages past but now revealed by the Spirit of God to His holy apostles and prophets. That mystery is that there is one people of God—Jew and Gentile in one body, heirs together, and partakers together of the promise—and that the intent of God, His eternal purpose, is that the church should reveal His wisdom to heavenly powers (3:10, 11) and be the repository of His glory along with Christ (3:21).
Take that in for a moment….
That makes this next mystery all the more puzzling. It is mysterious to me that the centrality of the church is so little preached today. What explains its absence from the vast majority of sermons, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes? How did it just vanish from the thinking of Christians? It’s a detective mystery worthy of Encyclopedia Brown. And it's a problem that we must fix if we are to ever see our people desire life with all God's people above their own self-interests and affinity groups.
To prevent church splits, we must regain the centrality of the local church in our preaching and practice. We must lay heavy biblical emphasis on the centrality of the people of God throughout redemptive history and in contemporary Christian life. We must preach and emphasize the fact that the church is central to God’s affections, self-identification, and eternal plan. It must, therefore, be central to ours.
The Church: The Center of God’s Affections
The Scripture tells us that earthly marriage is a picture (dim and imperfect, surely) of Christ’s love for the church… again called a “mystery” (Eph. 5:25-32). The church is his bride, which He is purifying and preparing for the consummation. He gave himself for her and is her Savior. In other words, the church is the center of the Savior’s affections. Our preaching must make this plain, and not just from the obvious places like Eph. 5. We must underscore this in all of Scripture which is the story of God creating for himself a people upon whom He sovereignly places His love.
As a preacher, I must work against the strong currents of individualism that reads all of Scripture as a “personal love letter” from Jesus to each individual. As an evangelist, I have to undermine the popular sentiment that says “God has a plan for your (read individual) life” and “you need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Well… God does have a plan for His people and it the center of it is involvement in His church, His body, His royal nation. The emphasis almost everywhere is on plural nouns, not first person singulars. It is vitally important that we make it clear that discipleship by definition includes following Christ in the company of His people, in fact, loving His people.
The Church: Central to Jesus’ Self-Identity
We must also preach and make clear that Christ Jesus strongly identifies with the church. Recall that arresting question He asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Paul’s imprisonment and abuse of Christians was actually done to Christ. All of the body of Christ imagery says nothing if it doesn’t mean that Christ identifies with His people. And throughout the biblical record, the Lord identifies with His chosen, calling them by His name, protecting and providing for them, dwelling in their midst.
We have to teach and preach this so that our people will see the rightness of identifying with Him. Though the Lord saves us individually, Christ identifies fundamentally with the church. And our identification with Him is clearest when we too associate with the church. All of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper) the Lord left us are designed to make this allegiance clear. They say more than this, but not less than this: that we identify with Jesus by identifying with His body, the same body that He identifies with. We must help our folks understand this so that their allegiance to the Lord is expressed in large measure through their allegiance to the church—not the pastor, not the music, not particular church programs, or conveniences like service times. Their allegiance must be raised to the level of Christ, which is an allegiance to the entire people of God.
The Church: Central to God’s Plan of Redemption
We must, finally, help our people see that the church is the center of God’s redeeming and self-glorifying plan in heaven and on earth. That’s what we gather from Eph. 1:10, 22-23; 2:14-22; 3:9-11, 20-21. It’s through the church that the evangelism of the world is carried out. The church reveals God’s wisdom and glory. The church proclaims the defeat of the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Through the church, the Lord will gather all things under His feet.
Our people must know that God has not plan of redemption and no plan for spiritual edification and maturity outside the church. They must know that participation in church is about far more than their individual needs. Participation in the church is essential to advancing the plans of God to bring to himself glory, to redeem humanity, and to bring all things to completion. And they must be taught to prize all of that above their individual selves. We must teach them that if it’s God’s glory they wish to pursue, then one of the easiest things they can do is to join, commit to, and love a local church—which is God’s eternal design for them anyway.
I suspect that if our people are immersed in these truths week to week, taught to read the Scripture with at least one corporate lense, and encouraged to live out the faith with “one another,” we will begin the process of inoculating our churches against the plague of church splits. This I take to be my objective as a pastor.
Next time, Lord willing, we’ll consider the importance of relationships in protecting the church from splits.
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