Why Bother With Church?

Why bother with church? Do I really need to attend this Sunday? Do you find yourself asking these question? Sunday rolls around and you can think of ten places you would rather be. For some, this apathy is the result of making church about ourselves, what we get out of it. So when the church service stops delivering we stop attending. I have challenged this consumerist view of church previously (here and here). But the primary reason many of us wonder about the value of attending church is that we have lost sight of God’s purpose for gathering his people, wrongly believing you can be a Christian but not a churchgoer. The problem is that I do not attend church following God’s directives, which is why gathering can feel pointless. In this short post I want to pick out two reasons to bother with your local church, from Hebrews 10.

Empty churchHebrews is one of the more difficult books in the New Testament. There is almost no agreement among scholars about when it was written, who wrote it, why it was written and who it was written to. Aside from the lack of those details crucial for interpretation, Hebrews arguably contains the most technical rhetoric, not to mention a truly bewildering structure. The unfortunate outcome of these challenges to understanding Hebrews is that it receives little airtime, outside of proof texting. Apart from 13:8 — “Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever” — and 1:1, the most quoted lines from Hebrews are, “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good works, not neglecting meeting with each other” (10:24-25). It was actually one of the first sections of Scripture I attempted to memorise. But like many readers of Hebrews today I did not give due consideration to its context.

Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that these verses fall into the fourth and final warning section of the book—the others are 2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 5:11-6:12; possibly 12:25-29. In 10:18 the author concludes the central exhortation of the epistle by emphasising that because of Christ’s singularly effective sacrifice: (a) sin is forgiven, (b) therefore no more sacrifices are necessary. His finished work is the cause of the Christian’s confidence to draw near and worship God (10:19-22), so we read, “Let us draw near” (10:22). But before we get to the verses we are reflecting on in this post we read, “Let us hold to the hope we confess without wavering, for the one who made the promise is faithful” (10:23). After them the author writes, “If we go on sinning deliberately after we have received knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). It is a terrifying warning. It is the negative implication of 10:18. Apart from Christ there is no forgiveness of sins, because no sacrifice for sin remains. It is within this larger section that the imperative to keep meeting together and encouraging each other is located. The day is approaching (10:25), so we cannot give up meeting and reminding each other of that day, urging each other to persevere. Those who turn away from Christ’s sacrifice have nothing but the fearful expectation of judgment (10:27).

Empty churchLinked to the above is the idea that church attendance is active, not passive. The author is not wagging his finger at those who bunk church. He is giving us a purpose for going to church and meeting with other Christians. “Consider how to spur one another on to love and good works…encouraging one another” (10:24-25). We saw above that this encouragement in intended to strengthen faith, helping our brothers and sisters persevere, but is one of your aims when meeting with other Christians to spur them on towards love and good works? I know that I fail on all accounts, regularly. Perhaps it is because the church is rife with consumerism or nominalism. However, the reason it is not true in my own life is simply that I do not obey God’s directive in Hebrews 10. Or, on the other hand, I have grabbed the convenient meaning in these verses — do not skip church — but ignored the responsibility given to me by God to: minister to other Christians. You may think that is the role of the pastor or preacher, but only if you ignore the obvious sense of these verses.

To summarise, we must commit to meeting with our local church for two reasons. Firstly, believers are in danger of giving up. All of us are regularly drawn away from Christ. The Christian life is hard, which is why God provides brothers and sisters to hold us accountable, to spur each other on as the day approaches. Secondly, this is the task given to all believers. If you feel that no one would miss you if you stopped attending your church it is probably because you are not actively ministering to others. We must reclaim God’s vision for church gatherings. Every Christian must remember that the Christian life is fraught with temptations to walk away. So let us consider how to spur one another on.

Doodle: Keep Preaching to the Choir

“Now I know I’m preaching to the choir,” is something I have caught myself saying in the pulpit on numerous occasions, teaching on the importance of belonging to a local church. We say similar things when we discuss passages in small group that emphasise meeting together, encouraging other Christians and living in community. It is a cliché and therefore about as useful as it is original. When we meet together to hear God speak – as the Bible is read, taught, and applied – we may be the metaphorical choir but that does not make us any less in need of being convicted by the Spirit. Imagine a believer in the church who received the letter to the Hebrews shouting, after 10:25 was read, ‘Hey, we’re here; stop preaching to the choir.’ It’s ridiculous because God’s Word gathers us and addresses the gathered. Furthermore, you need only read Hebrews 10:24 to see that merely meeting together is inadequate, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”

ChurchThere is more to being a part of the church than meeting together. We must make no apology when emphasising the value as well as the purpose of meeting together, as if all of those who are gathered are committed to stirring one another up to love and good deeds. The gospel we preach does not simply say, ‘Come to church.’ That is the nominal poison believed and preached in many South African churches, especially among older generations. No, the gospel says that Christ has saved us for himself and to minister to his people. We need to keep preaching to the choir because there are people regularly attending church who play no active role in encouraging others. If people are uncomfortable with the demands of Jesus then it may be because they do not know or love him. Certainly, one of the ways we show our love for Christ is by being concerned for the interests of his people (Philippians 2:19-30). Keep preaching to the choir.

Christ taught that the numerical size of local churches is a fraught statistic, attendance can mean very little. Therefore, just as we do not apologise for preaching Christ and him crucified week after week, we should not baulk at challenging the gathered church about their personal investment in the local church. We preach the gospel Sunday by Sunday because it is a grave mistake to think the church visible is the church invisible. In a similar way, we keep seeking to convict Christians with regards to their love for God’s people, or lack thereof. Just as we keep preaching to spiritual corpses (Ephesians 2:1-3) we must keep preaching to the choir. We must regularly call for faith and repentance, not forgetting that all Christians still have much repenting to do. So keep preaching to the choir.

Since John Calvin kicked off this short series of posts thinking about our gifts and using them to serve the local church, I will quote him as we finish. “And this is the place to upbraid those who, having nothing but the name and badge of Christ, yet wish to call themselves Christians…Either let them cease to boast of what they are not, in contempt of God; or let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ their teacher” (3.6.4).

Why We Don’t Serve in the Church

Last week I wrote a post unpacking part of John Calvin’s Institutes on gifts, the local church, and self-denial. Calvin shows that God is the giver of all that we have, including our gifts. If you are wealthy that is because God has been generous. If you possess a unique skill, your Creator installed it. Whatever you have it is not yours but God’s. Because he is the one who gives us our gifts he determines their end: the good of his church and ultimately his glory. The latter of those ends is impacted by how we use our gifts, our attitude and motivation. God is not glorified when we boast in our gifts—however public or impressive the demonstration. We also fail to give him due glory when we refuse to recognise that he is behind the gifts we see applied in the local church. In short, when we realise that our gifts are from God for service of his church and act accordingly God is worshipped.

Off the back of a few conversations about the previous post I felt the need to write a follow-up, exploring a few of the reasons people do not serve the local church with their gifts. I am sure you will be able to add your own observations to the list below, and I invite you to do so, for mine is certainly is not comprehensive.

We believe that our life is our own

The phrase ‘self-denial’ conjures up images of monastic misery and joyless perseverance. Yet for Calvin it was an unavoidable conclusion of believing the gospel, “We are not our own masters, but belong to God” (3.7.1). Citing both Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 6:19 Calvin argues that God made us his own and therefore we should pursue his glory, indeed this is why he brought us to himself and his people. This truth is the root of self-denial, for if we belong to God we can forget ourselves as we find what God made us for. “Let this therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord” (3.7.1). Perhaps the most serious reason we are slow to serve in the local church is this, and it demands honest self-examination: I still believe that my life is my own. Once we understand that Christ has made us his own (Philippians 3:12), Calvin says seeking the Lord’s will – increasingly, though not always effortlessly – follows and we will serve others for the glory of God (3.7.2). Self-denial is not begrudgingly serving others; it is the glad service for which God made and saved us.

Our view of being gifted is shaped by the world

People are celebrated for being exceptional and we are constantly pointed to the achievements of remarkable people. This has lead to us misunderstanding the word ‘gifted’, limiting it to a small group of hallowed individuals in the local church. But that could not be further from the truth. Passages such as Ephesians 4:7-16 have long been used to perpetuate this error by creating elitism within the local church. Some look at Ephesians 4:11 and believe God is elevating the word or teaching offices above all others. However if you read the very next verse we learn why God gives gifted teachers to his churches: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (4:12). If you spend all your time marvelling at a mouth, discussing the shape of its lips and how straight the teeth are, but never recognise that the mouth is designed for nourishing the body, you will starve. Likewise, the word ministries are not to be marvelled at but put to use, teaching the church how to use their own gifts in service of others and equipping them for ministry.

We think too narrowly about gifts

This is linked with the previous point, for it is also an aspect of churches drawn to exceptional gifts but indifferent to the more mundane expressions of love and service. This was at least part of the problem Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Without entering the debate about the continuation of gifts such as tongues and healing – you can read some exploration of prophecy here, and here – let us note something undeniable: Paul does not limit gifts to the ‘spiritual’ set. He reminds the church that the Spirit apportions many gifts to create a body where each member has a valuable role (12:11-26). There is no place for division, instead we should honour the less impressive members and gifts in Christ’s church (12:21-25). Another point often overlooked in churches that boast the more spectacular gifts and manifestations is 12:31-13:13. Though Paul does call on Christians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” he speaks of a “more excellent way” (12:31; also see 14:1). What is that? Love. Sacrificial service of God’s people using the gifts God gave you, regardless of being noticed for it. Unfortunately 1 Corinthians 13 has been misappropriated by so many lazy wedding preachers meaning that when we read 13:4-7 we forget that Paul is referring to relationships in the local church. Love shown practically in God’s church is a gift, one that surpasses the powerful and ostentatious ‘spiritual’ gifts.

We are not encouraged to discover our gifts

servingIn 1 Corinthians 12:11 Paul says that the Spirit has diversely apportioned gifts to everyone in the local church (also see Romans 12:6). We may not believe that, because few of us feel exceptionally gifted, like the powerful preacher in the pulpit, and we cannot speak in tongues or heal the sick. But listen to the apostle Peter, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Now while Peter’s list does include the more public gifts such as speaking the oracles of God he includes serving in the same sentence (4:11). Peter also mentions loving one another (4:8) and hospitality (4:9). I will admit that I have given too little thought to the gift lists in the New Testament, but I also wonder if most of us have failed to give enough thought to God’s varied grace so that we might serve his body. In many churches today it feels like you are either a minister of the word (in home groups, church meetings, or evangelism) or you serve tea. But surely Christ did not give the former group to equip us to serve tea (Ephesians 4:11-12). God has gifted each member of his body for purpose. Discover your gifts and use them in service of your brothers and sisters, to the glory of our heavenly Father.

John Calvin: Our Gifts and the Church

Though wisdom and my recent less than prodigious blogging record suggests that I should not commit to any sort of writing project, with this post I am setting out on series of articles reflecting on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Reading through his tremendous work in 2017 proved to me the practical value of solid systematic theology, as I found myself drawing on it in pastoral situations as well as for preaching. In writing these posts I hope to impress that value upon my readers.

Under the headings below I have summarised part of Calvin’s teaching on the use of our gifts in the local church, which is strikingly embedded in a section on self-denial. The setting of gifts under the heading of self-denial will seem strange to many Christians today, since gifts are usually paraded about, elevating individuals in the believing community. This creates an ungodly discontentment with the gifts God has equipped us, along with an unhealthy elitism, both of which are unbiblical and far from the mind of Christ.

Our gifts are from God (3.7.4)

Calvin notes that God calls us to esteem others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4), applying ourselves to doing them good. God calls us to this because naturally we are only concerned for ourselves (Philippians 2:21). Furthermore, Calvin says, we long to tower over others, which we accomplish through unfair comparisons and self-flattery. We all serve the “kingdom in our breast.” Ironically we attempt this self-aggrandisement through the things we have received from God, the abilities that might set us apart from others. Therefore, alluding to 1 Corinthians 4:7, Calvin writes, “We are instructed to remember that those talents which God has bestowed upon us are not our own goods but the free gifts of God; and any person who become proud of them show their ungratefulness.” Calvin frequently picks this theme up throughout his Institutes, quoting Cyprian elsewhere, ‘We ought to glory in nothing, because noting is ours’ (2.2.9).

Our gifts are for others (3.7.5)

Because the gifts we have are not ours, Calvin writes, “Whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church.” Our talents, abilities, wealth, skills, and time do not ultimately belong to us; they are given by God for his church. Calvin discusses our gifts under self-denial because without renouncing ourselves we will never give wholly to others, doing Christ’s works of love. “We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbour, and are required to render account of our stewardship.” God has been generous to every one of his children in the church, both saving them and equipping them with gifts (respectively Ephesians 2:8-10 and 4:11-16). So we must remember that we are accountable for what we do with what God has given us, all of it. It is to this point that Jesus told his parable of the tenants (Luke 19:11-27).

Our hearts determines the value of our gifts (3.7.7)

Under 3.7.6 Calvin touches on the image of God to convict us when we are slow to use God’s gifts in service of others. If we deem someone unworthy of our efforts, “the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” This, Calvin argues, means that the love we must show others requires that we look first to God, paradoxically, and not people. If we love him then we ought to love and serve those made in his image. This brings Calvin to a conclusion, in 3.7.7, dealing with our attitude as we serve others, not forgetting the two points above. There can be no pride when it comes to our gifts, nor arrogance in our use of them. Once we have properly understood that all gifts we possess are from God for others we should learn to give freely, not under compulsion. When we serve others we must refuse to consider those helped as indebted to us, since we are merely being generous with what God has given us (1 Peter 4:11). Finally, what limits should be set on service and the sharing of God’s gifts? Calvin says only the end of our resources and the rule of love.