I would imagine every Christian pastor has had the experience I did last week, and I would imagine that they all have winced, too.
After the funeral, I was approached by a textbook Texan I hadn't met before, not an attender. He seemed like a good guy, and I liked him instantly. He stood maybe 6'4" or 6'5" (well above my 6'), and yes he actually was wearing a cowboy hat and, I believe, boots. His voice was rich and resonant, like well-oiled leather. He had a question:
"Where can I go to smoke?"
By the way, we're not at the cringe-part.
For the ___th time since I'd begun here a week and a half previously, I was being asked a question to which I had no real answer. I chuckled and said I didn't know, anywhere not inside a building should be fine, it didn't really matter to me.
"Well, it's your church," he said. Then I winced.
"Actually, it's God's church," I smiled in response. It felt kind of cliched to say, because I knew what he meant. And yet if I hadn't said it, I would have felt bad all day; and since I don't really like feeling bad all day, I made the point that perhaps didn't need to be made just in case it did need to be made: it isn't my church, it's God's church.
That keeps coming back to me in odd moments. As I've thought of it, I think there are a few things worth saying. Of course, you'll be the judge of that. But it occurs to me that there are some ways in which thinking of Copperfield Bible Church as my church would always be wrong and always be harmful, but also there are some ways in which thinking of CBC as my church are both true and helpful.
Let me 'splain.
It's Christ's church. Frankly, this point is so massive and important that it virtually renders the phrase unusable (Matt. 16:18, etc.). The church is not my church, the elders' church, a denomination's church, the majority's church. It's Christ's church. It was His idea. He created it. He's building it. It is truly and really all about Him (Eph. 4:15). Any mortal who loses sight of that is pretty much lost, period.
The church is constituted by the Holy Spirit. It may and probably should have a Constitution, but the Constituter is the Spirit, by that waterless baptism which both created the church and enrolls members (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 12:13). No mortal does any of that, either.
The church is made up of saints whom I am to serve, and with whom I work for their joy and edification (Rom. 12:4-5; 2 Cor. 1:24). What any leader does must have Christ first in view as He exercises Lordship by His Spirit-breathed inscripturated Word. At the same time, it must have Christ's people in view, and their edification (1 Cor. 14:26b; Eph. 4:11-13). There's no shelter here for a kind of Christ-centeredness that makes no effort actually to pastor the actual people in the actual assembly one serves.
Those are important points. One should never, ever think of a local assembly as "my church," if each of those considerations isn't firmly in place.
But if they are? Is there a useful, even an important and necessary use of the words? I think so:
Christ has entrusted it to me for protection, and I must own that. I am charged with guarding against grievous wolves (Acts 20:28-31). I am charged with preaching healthy doctrine, and decisively refuting and shutting down those who are advocating otherwise (1 Tim. 4:6; Titus 1:9-13; 3:10-11). That's my job. I can't shrug it off by hoping that they buy some professional apologist's materials, listen to the right podcasts, read the right books. They are my charge for my protection.
Christ has entrusted it to me for edification, and I must own that. I am to preach the Word to them no matter what (2 Tim. 4:1-5). I am to work with them for their joy (2 Cor. 1:24). The Word that builds them up is the Word that I am to preach emphatically and wholly (Acts 20:27-28, 32). My ministry should personally encompass every person entrusted to my care, and that's hard work (Col. 1:27-28). I can't hope they read Piper or Spurgeon for their edification. That's my job under God.
Christ will call me to account for how I care for this body of believers, and I must own that. This can be grievous or it can be joyous (and right now, I can't ever remember being happier in what I am doing), but either way, it's down to me under God (Heb. 13:7, 17). They're mine to care for and watch out for, and it's me God is going to take to task for how I do that — not MacArthur, not Sproul, not DeYoung, but me.
I've preached this message along those lines here and at my blog for many years. Now it's me in that office, and everything I said that was true is still true. In other words, all those grand theories and ideas I've had and blogged about? Now's the time, and this is the place, and I am that guy.
So is this church "my church"? In the most important sense — in the sense of who owns it and defines it and possesses it — absolutely and most emphatically NO.
But is it "my church"? In the sense that it is mine to serve, mine to love, mine to care for, mine to protect, mine to nourish and feed and lead, and mine to answer for before God in the Last Day? My responsibility, under God? My charge?
It's hard even to write the words, candidly. But Scripture forces the conclusion.
In that sense, yes.
(Thank God I share the task with good, godly fellow elders!)