Americans in the 21st century are a particular type of beast with a particular type of culture which influences us to think particular thoughts and feel particular feelings about the church.
Do you think that individualism affects how we think about the church? Do you think the predominant idea of having a personal relationship with God affects how we think of the church? Do you think materialism affects how we think about the church? Do you think postmodern and moral relativism affects how we think about the church? Do you think our view of leadership, affects our view of the church? Do you think our hatred of authority affects how we think about the church? Do you think our fixation on entertainment, particularly sports, affects how we think about the church? Do you think technology with her social networking affects how we think about the church? Do you think our fatherlessness affects how we think about the church? Do you think the prominence of parachurch ministries affects how we understand the church? Do you think today’s failures and abuses of the church—different than Martin Luther’s day but equally unbiblical—affect how we think about the church? Do you think our view of male and female, biblical sexuality—affect how we understand the church? Do you think our view of Christian discipleship—it being an individual pursuit (huh?)—affects how we understand the church? Do you think our view of discipline and the spiritual authority of the elder board affects our view of the church? Do you think our view of the Word of God, especially the preached Word, affects our view of the church?
There is a statement by the early church father Cyprian that was echoed by John Calvin. It speaks to the importance and position of the church. A paraphrase would be this: the man who won’t have the Church as his mother may not have God as his Father. Now, why was it important for the early Reformers to hold to such a “high view” of the church? It is Biblical. To an uninformed observer, it may have looked like the Reformers were throwing off the church in breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church. But, they were not throwing off the church; they desired to reform the church, to return the church to her apostolic/Biblical authority. They understood that the church was the “household of God,” “the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
That statement—”the man who won’t have the Church as his mother may not have God as his Father,”—is not very popular today with those who profess to follow Jesus. You often hear people trample on the church who profess faith in Jesus. “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t go for ‘organized religion.’” Have you ever heard anybody say that? Do you know someone who professes to follow Christ but refuses to attend church? He won’t come near a church because he had a “bad experience” at a church or because he lived through a church split that was particularly nasty or because the pastor may have loved him too well, by being concerned for his soul, warning him to start loving his wife, or to stop looking at pornography, or to get a job and provide for his family. That dismissive attitude toward the church is so common.
Even if there was no “bad experience,” the basic understanding of the church today—and many of you believe this to be true though you may not say it—is that the church is not necessary. I was going to say nice but not necessary…but most don’t think it is nice.
We think we can receive everything we receive at church elsewhere. We can sit under the ministry of the Word by reading at home for a few minutes when we are falling asleep. We can fellowship with other believers by meeting them for a meal at Applebee’s. We can tithe by giving our money to missionaries and Radio programs and Campus Crusade and Intervarsity. We can be taught God’s Word by reading all of Tim Keller’s books. We learn God’s Word by purchasing a Gospel Transformation Bible which is chock full of notes from great pastors, wonderful scholars, smart guys with like actually godliness. We can even have accountability with our best friends. We can have mountaintop spiritual experiences by attending retreats at cushy retreat centers. We can have transforming times of devotion by attending conferences where the speakers are eloquent and have Scottish accents. We can hear good preaching by logging on to sermonaudio.com and searching for another one of those good Scottish accents. We can love others by volunteering at the soup kitchen each week. We can sing in our hearts to God with the help of Christian radio stations. We can worship God by taking hikes in nature.
All the spiritual pursuits that are commended in Scripture can be found elsewhere and with none of the baggage of the church. The ministry of the Holy Spirit, we believe, is purer outside the church.
Here’s the problem with all those other pursuits: The Father is not there. The church is His “household” (1 Tim. 3:15). We prefer to be outside the household, orphans without Father or Mother.