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THE RATIONAL GOD
Does God Make Sense?
by John Clayton
CHAPTER 4: IS THE CHURCH A
RATIONAL CREATION OF GOD?
I am not naive enough to believe that what I have proposed in this discussion so far is going to be accepted by everyone — or even totally accepted by anyone. I know what the challenges are to many of the concepts that have been developed so far. While I believe I could answer a majority of them, that does not mean that you as a reader would be convinced. I would hope you would give serious consideration to the idea that God created the creation for a reason, and that man has a unique role in that reason. We are sentient beings, created in the image of God with the capacity to choose between good and evil.
I would also urge you to realize that the Old Testament was designed for ancient people in a primitive state of development that had fundamental needs which the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets met. As man developed culturally, technologically, and demographically the need for the teachings of Moses decreased and God came to earth as a man to establish a New Testament by which man should live. Jesus Christ was not just a prophet or a great teacher or a healer or a law giver. Jesus embodied all of these and more as he gave mankind the good news that man could be forgiven of sins and restored to God to live in freedom from the catastrophic results of sin and human stupidity. No other religious leader ever did, taught, or lived as Jesus Christ did. He is truly “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Jesus]” (John 14:6).
My experience in the 50 years that I have been presenting evidence for God's existence and trying to convince people about the truth of the Bible, has been that, to some extent or another, most people can buy into the things I have stated above. What people do not tend to buy into is the “church.” I have had the joy of presenting my material several times in Ireland, Scotland, and England. What I have found is that most people in these countries, which have generally rejected religion as a whole, are very interested in what I have to say about apologetics and the validity of the teachings of Jesus. We do fine until I use the word “church.” Most of these folks do not want anything to do with the “church.” In the United States in the first part of the twenty-first century there has been a huge growth in the number of people who say “None” when asked what their religious preference is. A study in 2013 found that 40% of all Americans surveyed indicated that “none” was their preference in a Barna study of religious choices. In Europe what the word “church” brings to people's minds are centuries of war, abuse, immorality, and hypocrisy. People have seen the evils of state religion, and they have seen the corruption of power in the name of God used to control and abuse the common man and to create war and persecution.
All of this is undeniable, but it is also the opposite of everything that Jesus Christ taught and did. The word “church” in the Greek is ekklesia and is defined as “that which is called out.” What Jesus called people out of is everything that was in the last paragraph. The Sermon on the Mount, which we discussed in the last chapter, called people out of war and conflict, and abuse and power, and an entanglement between church and state. The Crusades were in direct opposition to everything Jesus commanded. The “state religion” concept stood in direct opposition to all Jesus commanded about “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's” (Matthew 22:21). The tragedy of Roman Catholicism and the Reformation both is that everything Jesus taught and stood for is contradicted by the conduct of the leaders of these religious movements.
Jesus was not ignorant of the fact that the secular world would engage in these things. In Matthew 24:5 – 7 Jesus tells his followers, “For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah [Christ],’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” Notice that Jesus indicates that the world will continue to struggle because they refuse to embrace his teachings. Mohammed was a great military leader, and there have been religious leaders in the Catholic and Protestant world who have advocated brute force to promote their religious views, but none of this is endorsed by Jesus Christ.
The church that Jesus referred to as “my church” (Matthew 16:18) is made up of “the called” out of the world who believe that Jesus is God's Son and they are called out of the world to serve God. Jesus promised that they would not be left on their own but that the Holy Spirit would come and “guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13). To make the break between the Old Law and the ancient, primitive world that it served, the followers of Jesus would need help. They also would need each other.
The church that belongs to Jesus Christ began on the day of Pentecost described in Acts 2. Those who chose to obey God and to become a part of the “called out” did so by accepting the new Law of Christ and burying their past life. In Acts 2:38 when Peter was asked by those who were convinced about the gospel message what they should do, his first statement was to repent. That meant to repent of all their sins and to follow God. In Romans 6 the concept of repentance is spelled out by indicating that one turns away from their sinful past. Peter, continuing in Acts, says to “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, … for the forgiveness of your sins.” Baptism is beautifully portrayed in Romans 6:1 – 7 as dying to sin and then being raised as a new creature. The rest of the chapter portrays the joy of being a new creature, free from sin and from the past, and being called out of a destructive, selfish, sinful life of rebellion to God to a life of service to God. Peter also tells the people of that day and of today that when they begin this new life you “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This gift is God's Spirit dwelling in the Christian to assist him in being “called out.” It does not take away man's choice because, man can reject it at any time. There are biblical examples of situations where this happens. In 2 Timothy 4:10 Paul identifies a Christian named Demas who had been mentioned in earlier biblical letters (see Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24) but had chosen to return to the world and reject being called out. Paul even indicated he could choose to reject Christ and be a cast away in 1 Corinthians 9:27.
The gift of the Spirit all Christians receive at baptism is not the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 which involved specific talents or unique abilities; it is the help we receive in our prayer life, it is the gift of spiritual understanding, it is the boost we receive when we have gone as far as we can go. Some religious groups have tried to make this a magic potion or a gateway to miraculous acts, but what we see is a help — a reserve of spiritual power that gives us understanding and helps us to overcome sin. Romans 8 describes this beautifully by saying that the Spirit sets us “free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do …” (verses 2 – 3). Paul goes on in this chapter to talk about how the Spirit dwelling in us frees us from being “carnally minded” (verse 5 – 8, KJV); and says that if God's Spirit is not dwelling in us, we are not called out and do not belong to Jesus (verse 9). The Spirit dwelling in the Christian helps in the Christian's prayer life (verse 26 – 27). The indwelling also makes anything that happens to a Christian have a redeeming value. Something good comes out of our worst experience (verse 28).
The church we read about in the Bible began meeting in Acts 2. The meetings were not massive shows with formal musical presentations and glowing talks by charismatic preachers. Acts 2:42 tells us that they were together to consider the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to eat together, and to pray. Needs of people were addressed both spiritually and physically. Their devotion was so complete, that when necessary, people sold possessions to provide for those who were in need (verse 45). The early church met together on a daily basis. Church was not once a week for an hour on Sunday morning. It is important to understand that this was an unusual situation. There were a lot of visitors in town because people had come to Jerusalem for the Jewish celebration of Pentecost. It is not an example of what should be done by all Christians in all situations, but the message we should take from it is that the needs of people were addressed on a personal level, and fellowship and prayer together were the acts of worship carried on, a world apart from the Jewish ceremonies and ritual of the Old Law.
In a vacuum of authority and with no written set of laws to control what people did, there was an immediate leadership crisis. Anyone could stand up and claim to be speaking for God, and opportunists were everywhere. Much of the problem in Corinth was that men were standing up and claiming to be Apostles. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul devotes a whole chapter to what he calls “false apostles” (verse 13). In the absence of scriptures and authority figures it was necessary for God to provide a way to establish who spoke for God and who did not. This made it necessary for miracles to be used as tools to separate the real apostles from the impostors. In Acts 8 we read of a converted sorcerer named Simon. Simon had made a living practicing sorcery and he had a following, so it was natural that he would desire to be one in authority in the church. The Bible makes it clear that Simon saw what it takes to get the approval of God at that time to be a leader in the church. In Acts 8:18 – 19 we read, “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ ” He was rebuked harshly by Peter.
In Acts 8 we see a preacher named Philip who was honest and doing a great work. In spite of that, he did not have God's authority to direct the church. In Acts 8:14 – 15 we read that Peter and John came to Samaria where Philip was working to establish the authority for action in the Samarian church. Philip moved on to teach the Ethiopian Eunuch and the church continued to grow under the leadership of the apostles who had been given miraculous powers as a sign of their authority to direct what the church did.
Miracles had a specific purpose in the early church; they helped the people know who spoke for God and who was a charlatan (2 Corinthians 12:12). When God's written word was complete, there was no longer a need for individuals to be the source of authority. Using humans is an inferior method of conveying truth, because there is always the problem of impostors and changes in the heart of the individual. What is perfect (complete) is written instructions that do not depend on any one individual, but which anyone can read and understand. In Paul's letter to Timothy this is described beautifully when he says, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16 – 17). Paul indicated that depending upon humans for divine guidance was soon to end in 1 Corinthians 13:8 – 10: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.”
Biblical minimalists would like to discredit scripture. Translation problems, canonicity issues, and cultural effects are used by many to suggest that the Bible is insufficient; and Catholicism has long advocated the necessity of papal authority to supplement the Bible and keep it current with the needs of modern man. We would suggest that the spiritual needs of man have not changed and the Bible is, in fact, all that is needed for man to be complete. That would suggest that miracles of the kind described in the New Testament are not needed today and do not happen. That does not mean that God cannot or will not grant miracles on a personal level, but the notion that some individual has the capacity to raise the dead, provide miraculous cures to blindness, deafness, and fatal diseases is not true.
So what did the church of the first century look like? How did it function and why does that make sense? The church described in Acts 2:42 – 47 functioned in easy to understand ways. In verse 42 we learn that they were continual in their attention to spiritual matters and to learning. They ate together and prayed together and shared with one another. If there was a need, they met it — in some cases selling possessions to meet the need (verse 45). They met daily in whatever facility was available to them, the Temple Courts being one of the main places, but they also met in the homes of members (verse 46). Their conduct was such that they won respect from all the people (verse 47).
Nowhere in the New Testament do we see a church building, a huge building, or a shrine; in fact, the church did not own property. Cathedrals and monuments designed for worship were not a part of what the church of the first century was about. There was too much need and too much pain of all kinds to justify spending money on buildings and monuments when that money could be spent securing food and clothing for those who were in need. As the church spread from this beginning, there were changes to accommodate local situations, but there still was not the obsession with structures and religious monuments that came to be a part of the church later. The church of the first century conducted a majority of its worship services in people's homes. In Romans 16:3 – 5 and 1 Corinthians 16:19 Paul writes about “Aquila and Priscilla … the church that meets at their house.” In Colossians 4:15 greetings are sent “to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.”
So what did the worship service of the church we read about in the New Testament look like, and does that picture make sense? We do know from the scriptures that certain activities were carried on in worship. One activity we know was carried on was the collection of money to address specific needs that existed among Christians. There was hunger and financial hardship among Christians in Jerusalem, and in 1 Corinthians 16:2 Paul instructs the congregation in Corinth “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”
It made sense that congregations that had resources would share them with brethren who were going through hard times. As we have seen in Acts 2:45, this was an activity of Christians, but Paul brings it to their worship on the first day of the week. There were no campaigns, bake sales, Bingo games, or any other strong arm tactics to raise necessary funds. Paul's instructions are to individuals who gave because they wanted to give because they “gave themselves first of all to the Lord” (2 Corinthians 8:5). In 2 Corinthians 9 Paul carries on this instruction, telling the Corinthians to give as they wished to, “not reluctantly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” (verse 7). Growing spiritually to the point where we as individuals can give cheerfully and generously brings huge blessings to our lives. It improves our families, our marriages, our friendships, our business activities, our sex lives, and our emotional well being. Church work carried on as Paul instructs is a beautiful blessing to Christians and a good example to the world. The arm twisting and desperate psychological pressure that is used by some in the name of religion today is in direct opposition to what the church was instructed to do.
Another activity which was part of the weekly worship service of the church in the first century was the communion or Lord's Supper. The institution of the Lord's Supper took place in Matthew 26:26 – 28, and that incident is referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23 – 30. Paul indicated in verse 24 that Jesus was instituting the communion as a memorial to him, and in verse 25 as a further remembrance of his blood that was shed for man's sins. Knowing how quickly we forget, we can understand the importance of there being a vehicle to help us remember. In 1 Corinthians 10:15 – 17 Paul indicates the unifying aspect of the communion, saying “we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”
We have pointed out that in Acts 2:42 – 47 the church of the first century met regularly in each others homes sharing their food and eating together. When people came to each other's homes they ate together and had worship time together. In Corinth the meals and the worship service took on a worldly flavor. They ate food, but their eating together got away from sharing. In 1 Corinthians 11:20 – 21 Paul says they had gotten so focused on eating that they lost track of participating in the Lord's Supper, and they were not sharing so that some were hungry. Some were even getting drunk as they succumbed to the social pressures of the world around them. In James 2:2 – 6 James admonishes Christians not to treat anyone with special regard in the worship service. In 1 Corinthians 11:23 – 30 Paul indicates that the communion service was a time of unity, reflection, remembrance, and withdrawal from the cares and problems of the world. Verse 30 tells us that not participating in the communion for these purposes is “why many among you are weak and sick.”
In Acts 20:7 we see the statement that “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave … .” Some have suggested that this was to eat a meal, but the context does not support that. Paul and his companions had come to them from Troas and stayed there seven days and Paul apparently came to preach. They had “many lights” indicating it was some time after supper and the statement is “when the disciples came together to break bread.” It would seem this was a regularly important time, not a one-time event, and the focus is clearly to “break bread”. A meal would not fit that description. The communion was important to these early Christians, and it is important to Christians today. It makes sense that every Lord's Day Christians everywhere gather together to participate in the Lord's Supper, to remember the sacrifice that was made for us and all that God has done for us and all God has for us to do together.
Another aspect of the worship of the first century church was singing. The Bible makes it clear that Christians were to join together in singing hymns, song, and spiritual songs (see Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; and Colossians 3:16). If you attended a meeting of the church in the first century you would not have found song books, four-part harmony, or theatrical productions. Worship is not a spectator sport and people did not go to worship services to be entertained. Chanting the Psalms seems to have been a main method of singing, and it would not have been inspiring to a visitor who came to hear a quality concert. For the participants however, the singing of praise and supplication to God, uniting voices with others of like faith, was a unifying experience and of vital importance to the participants. In the same way, in the early days of civil rights in America a main method of uniting people and raising the spirits of participants was to sing songs appropriate to the occasion.
A similar part of the corporate worship of the early church was prayer. This too was participatory and provided unity in purpose. The quality of the leader's words was not the issue; the issue was the commonality of expression of things that the early Christians were struggling with. Private prayer is a separate activity and was to be done “in the closet,” meaning a personal communication with God about personal needs, problems, and praise (see Matthew 6:6).
One of the activities that is carried on in the church today that seems to be quite different from the first century church is the duties that a person who is identified as the preacher or minister may do. Many churches have someone who is identified as a “Pastor.” In Ephesians 4:11 the words evangelists and pastors are used in the same verse, so they would seem to be different roles. The word “pastor” literally means “feeder” and is also rendered as shepherd. Most scholars would agree that this description fits a man who is an elder. The word “evangelist” is also used in the Bible and is defined as “one who announces good tidings.” Philip in Acts 8 and Acts 21:8 and Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5 are the main biblical examples. The term “preacher,” meaning a crier or to proclaim as a herald, is used in 1 Timothy 2:7 and in 2 Timothy 1:11 as Paul describes himself.
In today's religious world we seem to have men who have become the head of the congregation. They do the counseling, they do the preaching, they organize the Bible school teaching program, they take care of visitation, they manage the benevolent program, and they manage any special effort that the congregation does; in short, they have the main role as the leader of the congregation. This does not seem to be what God intended for the church to be about when it comes to teaching, preaching, and leading.
It is obvious that we need capable people to teach us. When you read 1 Corinthians 14:26 – 40 you do not get the picture of one man “running the show.” Verse 29 of that passage indicates that more than one person is speaking, and specific roles are identified in conjunction with the worship service. The problem was that there were power struggles going on within the church in Corinth. Chapter 1:10 – 13 indicates that people were identifying their conversion experience in terms of who baptized them. Paul ends all of this discussion saying, “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
So where does all of this take us, and does it make sense? The answer is that it makes perfect sense when you realize the church is world wide and functions in a multiplicity of cultures and traditions. There is no fixed method of teaching, preaching, and leading. Evangelists spoke to the world, to people outside of Christ, and Paul is a classic example of one who was “announcing good tidings.” When there were difficult questions the church had to deal with, another method of teaching was employed. In Acts 15 an issue came up peculiar to places where there were Jewish and Gentile Christians. A council of church leaders met to consider this cultural problem. “After much discussion,” Peter spoke, then Paul and Barnabas, then James spoke to the assembly and a letter was drawn up to instruct congregations facing this issue (see Acts 15).
Like many issues, God does not micromanage how the church is to fulfill its charge to “preach the gospel to every creature.” What God has done is to ascribe leadership of the congregation, not to a young preacher, but to mature elders. It should be obvious that a 24-year-old single preacher should not be counseling a 34-year-old woman who is unhappy in her marriage. I have had the honor and privilege of worshipping with every kind of congregation you can imagine, and probably a few you cannot imagine. There is no “one size fits all” in fulfilling the commands God gave us. What is obvious is that we need teachers of God's Word who can instruct us carefully and accurately, and we need mature leadership that can direct the church in a way that is fruitful and productive. This makes perfect sense, like everything God does, and we have a perfect guide in his Word as to how to accomplish successful worship and leadership in the church.
One of the major issues for people in dealing with the church is the issue of church leadership. God's plan for the leadership of the church is very different than what men have contrived as the structure of church leadership. Modern churches have tended to copy the Roman style of government.
The Roman government had one man who was the ruler of the government — the emperor. Under the emperor were the next in command that answered to the emperor. Each of them had a set of lesser authorities who answered to them. There was a pyramid of power with the common man being at the very bottom of the pyramid. Military units use this command in most countries with generals, colonels, majors, captains, lieutenants on down to privates. This system has been employed by the Roman Catholic church with its supreme leader being the pope, cardinals who answer to him, on down to the common man. This system has worked well in some situations, but it is vulnerable to the weakest link in the chain of command.
In the church of the New Testament the chain of command is directly from Jesus Christ to each member. Each person reads God's Word and responds to it. There is no chain of command and the individual answers directly to God. In the Bible we do not see a supreme human authority. All Christians are ministers (2 Corinthians 5:18 – 20) and Christians have no allegiance to any human on earth. In 1 Corinthians 1:10 – 13 we read of people trying to establish a chain of command. Some of the Corinthians had declared an allegiance to Paul, some to Peter, and some to Apollos. Paul chastises the Corinthians for dividing the church and calls them to follow only Christ.
In the process of trying to establish a pyramid of authority, offices have been created in the church which are not found in the Bible, and the offices that are in the Bible have been altered from their original meaning. There is no chief bishop in the Bible. The word “bishop” in Greek refers to an overseer, a shepherd, a feeder. Each congregation had its own shepherds (at least two and they had to be mature Christians), and they had no authority over other congregations. Deacons were not those in waiting to be elders, but were to minister or serve. There was no preacher or pastor who had authority over everyone else. The word “pastor” means to feed — as a shepherd would feed.
The wisdom of this system in the church should be obvious. If some individual has a sin problem and he is in the position of an elder or deacon or evangelist, he does not take the whole church down with him. An individual preacher cannot lead a whole congregation astray in this system. It is when mankind has altered God's system that problems have arisen. There should never be a power struggle in the church if the church is following the New Testament pattern. If we are serving one another as Jesus instructed, and if we view our opportunities as gifts given by God to each of us to glorify him, we will not envy one another or allow whatever we do to be a source of division.
I want to remind the reader of the title and purpose of this chapter. “Is the Church a Rational Creation of God?” I have attempted to give a very brief, superficial picture of what the Bible tells us the church should be about. When problems arise in the church, they arise because people do not follow the system God has given us. God knew the nature of man, and he gave a plan for the church which will work when it is followed. It is logical and rational. The church does make sense, and the church problems that have driven people away from God have been caused by humans not following God's plan. Yet, even when this happens the church continues to survive and recover. Someone has said that the church has to be from God and has to make sense because what man has done to it would have destroyed it long ago if that was not the case. God is in control and his Word is our only guide. This makes sense.
Continue to the Chapter 5: DO MIRACLES DISCREDIT THE BIBLE?
Return to the Chapter 3: THE COMING OF CHRIST