I'm going to lead off with my goofy analogy so that when I invoke it in the post, below, I hope you'll have had time to, um, digest it and not be distracted by it. That should make Phil happier about my distracting analogies, anyway.
Think about Jello for a minute. Jello looks a lot like dust when you open the packet, and if you blow on it, it will dust up your kitchen real good. And just like it is, Jello out of the packet is not good for much. It's a lousy dessert that way, even if you have room for it.
But Jello is a colloid -- a substance that consists of particles dispersed throughout another substance which are too small for resolution with an ordinary light microscope but are incapable of passing through a semipermeable membrane. In English, that means that Jello plus water equals something which is solid enough to be called a solid without actually being a solid.
Jello plus water hangs together. In order to actually be Jello, it has to do what Jello does. If it's just a lot of dust in a bowl, nobody's going to want to add fruit to it. Nobody's going to say, "dude, that would be great with some whip cream". Nobody's going to layer it into a fluted glass with pudding and try to dress it up for a fancy party. Jello not hanging together in water is just sweet-smelling dust. It's only good for the trash.
Whew. I feel better already.
Yesterday's post lifted from Mark Dever is actually part of my series on how to read the Bible, but only as an example of what happens when you do such a thing. You know: because the question will now come up, "hey: why make such a fuss out of church membership? Jesus didn’t keep a roll for the Disciples; the early church didn’t keep a roll. Aren’t you demanding something extra-biblical when you say that people ought to have their names on a list someplace?"
It is extra-biblical – but by that I mean "has more than the average amount of Bible in it" rather than "it doesn’t appear in the Bible".
The reason is simple, people, but you have to do more than roll out of bed to take a stab at it. The modern method of church membership may be more, um, modern than what we read in the book of Acts, or in Titus, or in Timothy, or in either letter to the Corinthians, but the intention -- especially as spelled out by Dr. Dever – is clearly the same intention of the NT. That is, to keep the faithful together, in doctrine and in relationship, in order to demonstrate something which is called out of the world.
Now, honestly: not a lot of churches are doing this. That's why 9Marks exists -- to exhort the local church to be a church and not a club or a civic organization. But why all the fuss? Isn't it OK for people to like Jesus and all that and then have a place where they do daycare or have parties or whatever? Can’t the church just be nice and that be enough? And can't I just have a church in my house with my wife and kids and call it even?
Um ... no.
The reason is that we must not only read our Bibles, and then understand our Bibles: the reason is that we have to do what our Bibles say to do. The Bible is not an ornament for the Christian life. Carrying one in your purse or on your PDA or whatever is not some kind of passport or shibboleth. That does not make you a Christian. The Bible is something that we are given in order that we become a people who have something much more than a secret.
And this church thing is a great example of this matter. I have an internet nemesis who has a propensity for hacking at Baptists unfairly (and he shall remain nameless to reduce the number of controversies in one post), but he makes one good point even if he takes it too far: what Christ calls us to do through the Bible – particularly through the New Testament – is not to be a church of one, or even of one family. The Bible tells us explicitly that we are to be joined together to other believers, even when there is some controversy involved.
If you want examples, look at Acts 2 for a starter:
"Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."The example here is what I would call the seminal example – the one which is the first of the kind.
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
And here, people are not just saved and then run off, or saved and handed a scroll like they just got their wish fulfilled by the Wizard of Oz. These people are joined together and added to the number and had all things in common.
"That's all well and good, cent," says the guy who left his church because his pastor was preaching from the Gospel of Jabez, "But after all, these people were following the Apostles who were writing Scripture and prolly weren't all that confused over what the Gospel was or was not. My pastor was preaching from the Gospel of Jabez, and I tried to tell him, but he didn' wanna listen to me."
Indeed. Let me say that you are right to leave a place where the Gospel is not only not welcome but is actively being stoned when people bring it up. But you are not free to be a Christian without the church. See: one grain of Jello makes a lousy dessert, and one lone Christian can make no witness of the church at all. One grain of jello in a dessert cup full of water can never be Jello per se, and one Christian hunkered down against the forces of all the worldly evils is not a church or part of such a thing.
In the Book of Acts, we have so many examples of the church coming to grips with the fact that people don't always agree. Take this for example:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.Now, think on this: the apostles were saying, in effect, that they were simply not going to wait tables. They were not going to take on food distribution rather than the ministry of God's word. So their solution was to establish some guys who would make sure that those who could not stand up for themselves would have someone to stand up for them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Which seems pretty good, right? But what happened in the first place happened while apostles were running the church. Injustice was happening in the church when the guys Jesus chose to be his witnesses were left to run things in what seems to be the first pass at this church stuff.
Listen: if the apostles could have a church where people were treated badly, you probably will, too. The question is if that's enough to go shop around for someone you like better, or can you meet with the leaders of your church to seek a resolution to the problem?
And there are other examples in Acts – Acts, people! The first 30 years of the church! Think about the council at Jerusalem (isn’t eating meat offered to idols idolatry?), or the controversy over Paul's conversion (can we let a man who was a murderer and a blasphemer evangelize gentiles?), or the controversy over evangelizing gentiles (has Peter lost it? These people are unclean!). And the one example where two church guys separate in a tiff – Paul and Barnabas (Barnabas who was his only friend to start with; Paul the guy writing the NT through the Holy Spirit) – we can deduce from the rest of Paul's writings that he regretting this in the end, and thought he did wrong by Barnabas and Mark.
None of these things caused splits in the church – and even worse things, like the Galatian controversy, or what was going on in Corinth after Paul established that church, were not subject to the admonition, "brethren dude: get out of Dodge. That place has gone belly-up."
The admonition is stay and contend for the truth with the whole Gospel, both doctrine and life. And if we are honest with ourselves, that's the admonition we receive in Scripture about our lousy churches in America and we ignore it for a self-righteous choice to stay at home.
If you want to know how to read Scripture, the last step is implement what you find there. Do the doing. A faith without works is a dead faith – and that includes your faith, if it is without the works of faith.
Don't "yeah but" me: there's a vast difference – an ocean-sized difference – between being in a church that suddenly ordains a [place the disqualifying sin here], redefines sin and denies God's wrath, and being in a church where the pastor with a hard heart would rather preach about the "end times" as they are unfolding in Iraq instead of Christ as Victorious Lord of Lords and Worthy lamb upon the Throne. The latter may be watering down lime jello to try to stretch it out, but the former places rat poison in cherry jello and calls it fruit cocktail.
Know the difference. Read your Bible in order to obey the whole thing, or stop kidding yourself and just join a club where the reading isn't so invasive.