It's Not Your Church!

UnhappyOldCoupleWe often speak of “my church.” That’s a colloquial way of saying, “the congregation of which I’m a member.” We often act, however, as if the church actually belongs to us. One doubts that many people would be willing to admit that they think of the church as “theirs,” but I’m convinced that too many people do think thus because they manifest their thinking by the way they treat the church. Such a way of thinking is unbiblical.

Scripture repeatedly attributes ownership of the visible church to Christ. In 1 Cor 1:2 Paul greets the “church of God” that is in Corinth. He spoke the same way in 2 Cor 1:1. In Eph 5:23 Paul explicitly calls Christ. “the head of the church.” Christ is he who loved the church and gave himself for the church (v. 25). It’s clearly taught in Scripture repeatedly that the church is a divine institution (Matt 16) established by Christ. He founded it. He rules it. He owns it. We work for him. He gave the visible church, his church, several mandates: love one another, preach the gospel, administer discipline.

We sometimes act, however, as if the church exists primarily for our comfort or for our pleasure or for our satisfaction. One way in which this confusion over the ownership of the church manifests itself is the way congregations and their leadership think about the mission of the church. The word “mission” comes from the Latin verb mitto, to send or to throw. Christ’s church has been sent by her Lord “to make disciples of all nations” and to baptize the same in the triune name of God (Matt 28:18-20). Recently I became aware of a situation where a congregation, with the necessary resources, refused an opportunity to extend Christ’s kingdom through planting a church. Why did they refuse? Because they were afraid of losing members to the church plant. They seem to conceive of the church as a zero sum game, as if somehow, if members left “their” congregation that “their” church would be diminished. Their stance toward the church proposal seems to have been: let the outsiders come to us. I’ve seen this phenomenon more than once. The underlying assumption seems to be, “the church exists for us.”

This is fundamentally a confusion of Christ and culture. In such a case, the “family” culture of the church has triumphed over the “kingdom” culture of the church. Yes, the church is a family and it is a body, it is a bread (1 Cor 10:17), but it is also kingdom. Yes, it is painful to say goodbye to friends and loved ones or to see them leave one’s own congregation to plant a new one in another place, but this is why I say that the church does not exist for our comfort. One thinks of Matt 10:37-39, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The kingdom of God, as it is represented by the visible church, has a claim on our loyalties that transcends even basic natural relationships.

Yes, church is a place where we gather but it’s also a place where we send. We must do both. It’s not an either/or proposition. The church is not for us. The church is for Christ’s glory. The fields are white unto harvest. The church is the divinely institution for that harvest. How can we refuse our Lord? How can we refuse to extend his kingdom? Have we talked so much about “this kingdom work” and “that kingdom work” that we’ve forgotten that the church is the ONLY institution to which Christ gave the keys of the kingdom? Wouldn’t it ironic if we were obsessed with extending his kingdom through every institution except the one institution to which he gave the gospel and the sacraments? It would be more than ironic, it would be tragic.

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  1. Another form of shorthand is for ministers to talk about “my elders.” They aren’t “his” elders any more than the church is “his” church (speaking of some members’ attitudes, as Scott did in his post). The elders, of whom the minister is one of their number (I’m a 2-office guy), and the church both belong to our Lord Jesus Christ.

    There was a situation, some years ago in the OPC, where a minister (now with the Lord) was apparently under the impression that his church was “his” church. He refused to retire until his health forced him to. Then, he refused to leave the church and begin worshiping elsewhere (as many, if not most, retired ministers do – and, as he was ultimately “strongly encouraged” to do by his presbytery) so as not to be a “shadow hanging over” the congregation once it had called a new minister. And, not only that, he even refused to stop attending Session meetings, even after a new minister had been called. The new man, completely frustrated, eventually resigned. This congregation is now dead, the members scattered hither and yon. This is an extreme example of what can happen when a minister – not to mention a congregation member – begins to think of a church as “his” personal property.

  2. well said. the church that i attend went through a somewhat similar situation a few years ago. as the outreach of the church changed, so did the non-scriptural aspects of the church. out went the dress requirements, demands upon pastoral speaking style and most importantly, restrictions upon the type of music that was permitted in the worship center.
    our church had but one pastor for nearly three decades and on numerous occasions after his retirement i heard those very words; my church, my church.
    it seemed that the only “real” members of the church were those who had been there from its inception or had attended for a great deal of time. “new” ideas were not welcome.

    • Hi Keith

      Not knowing (and not asking) the particulars I couldn’t comment of course, but I’ve been on both sides of similar struggles. Let me clarify by saying that this post is not a call to introduce novelties into worship (not that you are). I understand that some might use the same sort of rhetoric I’ve used above as pretext for such. No, my hearty interest is in drawing Reformed churches back to our confession. I fear that, in many places, an attempt to re-introduce historic, confessional Reformed worship (such as was practiced when our confessions were written) would result in a riot by those who are devoted to what I must regard as unbiblical and contra-confessional practices.

      Corruptions and resistance to real, genuine reformation back to the Scriptures as confessed by our churches, comes both the “left” and “the right.”

  3. This also takes the form of people in congregation “owning” their pew seats. I was at a church recently where the person sitting behind me tapped my shoulder to warn me that the person who normally sits there gets very upset when someone takes “his” spot.

    I suspect that this person would have asked our Lord himself to move out of his spot if he were to sit there!

  4. Sadly, I’ve seen this “ownership” be true of pastors serving in a particular congregation, as well. The last, and most infamous, instance of this took place a few years ago when a very popular pastor in a local church (not necessarily faithful to preaching the Gospel by any means, just “popular” because of the drama with which he delivered sermons) decided that he had fulfilled his calling in that community and took another position elsewhere. After having made the announcement that he was moving on after a Sunday service, one woman was overheard to remark that she felt as if “she had just been stabbed through the heart with a dagger.” His replacement, following a lengthy interim search period, is now struggling through an undercurrent of whining about how he doesn’t measure up to his predecessor.

    Since when is the effectiveness Gospel message dependent upon the popularity or pulpit antics of a particular preacher? And how is it that this man is “their” pastor any more than it’s “their church.” If the people in congregations such as this one have to be fulfilled in a particular way a message is delivered then they’re seeking entertainment, not the truth; the most popular celebrity wins the contest. [Granted, there are poor preachers who are earnest in their in intentions, but who are probably not very well suited to their positions – much of which probably has to do with how they perceive themselves as having been “called” into the ministry in the first place. But that’s a matter discussed previously by Dr. Clark in his “The Secret of Knowing God’s Will” series]

    Even Paul had this problem with some congregations in Asia Minor, the Corinthians being one of the worst – his second letter to them being rife with examples – 2Cor11:6 (ESV) “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.”

  5. This kind of belongs to another topic, but one portion of this post (with a slight rephrase) struck me due to my current situation.

    “Yes, the church is a family and it is a body, it is a bread (1 Cor 10:17), but it is also kingdom. Yes, it is painful to say goodbye to friends and loved ones or to see them leave one’s own congregation to [join another due to doctrinal convictions], but this is why I say that the church does not exist for our comfort.”

    I’m in the process of leaving a baptistic church to join a reformed one and many people talk as if the fellowship is the determining factor when both places “preach Christ.” They act as if other doctrines are unimportant, like one can decide not to have their child baptized because the baptistic church has “such sweet fellowship.”

    This seems to be another way that the family aspect overrides the kingdom aspect and our comfort overrides God’s truth.

    • This is a good point. We live in an age where the “relational” trumps all else, whether those other things be the doctrines of the atonement, baptism or justification.

  6. as a English major I try not to get too hung up on semantics, but look to the heart as Jesus would. When I say my family, I know they don’t belong to me (I am like Hannah in that regard). When I say my church (Christ’s universal church) I know who owns it; but I am so glad I am family, a joint-heir, fellow-prisoner. God’s truth must always prevail and He should be at the heart of our every action.

    • Hi,

      The point is not so much how we speak (that’s just an indicator) but what we do and how we act. The concern is that we treat the visible church as if it were our personal enterprise rather than the divinely authorized manifestation of the kingdom of God on the earth.

  7. I spent three years with the leadership of the church on the matter of the mission of campus multiplication. We are a regional church and given this reality the idea of becoming “one-church in more than one location” seemed obvious. It also seemed obvious because missions is part of the culture of our church. We give annually about 42% of our tithes and offerings to missionary endeavor. What also seemed obvious was that I had about 8 families committed to a second site, over $30,000.00 in funding and a location that would cost us about $100.00 per month. The church when given an opportunity to expand the kingdom of Jesus said no – or at least a large enough percentage so those in favor of campus multiplication were not able to move forward. The reason – protect ourselves, let people drive here, if people want to start another church let them go and do it but don’t mess with things here.
    Wait there is more to the story. The decade prior to the multi-campus discussion this church embarked on a faith venture expansion. Within eight years the first stage, a 10,000 sq. ft. facility was completed debt free ($1.5 million was the final cost. God supernaturally provided all we needed. Yet somehow that same faith could not be translated into expanding the kingdom – instead the remaining two stages of expansion should be the priority even though everyone knows the most effective way to see non-Christians reached with the gospel is through church multiplication.
    It is sad to see provincialism and protectionism bring an ingrown attitude to this congregation. Perhaps all is not lost because last time I checked (to quote Piper) “Jesus is up to more than we can see.”

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