Three Distinctives of the True Church
© 2009 C. O. Bishop
Last week I mentioned that people in our church are rightfully concerned about current world events and how they may affect the Church. So, as we think about such events and what our response should be, it is appropriate to ask ourselves what God would have us to do. We find the answers to that question, of course, in God’s Word…He is the one to tell us what He wants of us.
As Christians, it matters how we behave. Our salvation is secure in Christ, but He has given us some assignments as well. For example, He says in Acts 1:8 that we are to be witnesses for him in the world. Paul reiterates this, many years later, in 2nd Corinthians 5:18-20, saying that unto us has been given the ministry of reconciliation, and that we are his ambassadors. So how do we carry out that mission? How do we build credibility? What is it about the believers that should convince unbelievers that our message is true?
The Word of God lists three things, all of them behavior-specific, and things we can make a choice about.
- Love (John 13:34, 35) Jesus said “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples…”
- Unity (John 17:21) Jesus said “That the world may know that Thou [God] did send Me…”
- Practical Holiness (Matthew 5:13-15; 2nd Timothy 2:19) Jesus said that if our light shines for others to see, they will glorify the Father. Paul says, “Let every one who names the Name of Christ (calls himself a Christian) depart from iniquity.”
Chronologically speaking, the call to practical holiness (obedience) precedes the command to love one another. But in the economy of God, it can be demonstrated that His Love was extended to us prior to creation, let alone prior to the fall into Sin, or the giving of the Law, etc. The Love and Grace of God were part of the plan, certainly, before the world was created. (Revelation 13:8) But I am personally convinced that God’s Holiness is His primary attribute. (Isaiah 6:1-8) Even His Love is subject to His Holiness.
But, In God’s dealing with the Church He reverses that order, and commands first that Agapé love be the undergirding basis for ALL other principles—why?
Love (John 13:34, 35) (Read this passage)
In the Gospels (Matthew 22:37-40), Jesus revealed to the Jewish lawyer that to “…Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and strength, and to love thy neighbor as thyself…” encapsulated the whole Law. The Pharisees had specialized in the outward compliance to the Law…but Jesus pointed out that the undergirding principle was Love. Romans 13:8 reiterates this principle in the epistles.
Jesus commanded the disciples (John 13:34, 35), saying, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Notice that this is a God-given means by which the World is to judge the Church. This is the way that the World can determine whether you are a real believer. God knows for sure—but if the World does not see this evidence, they are not expected to believe you are a disciple of Jesus Christ.
What do we know about this sort of love? We can see it demonstrated in the life of Christ, and see its characteristics in 1st Corinthians 13. Notice, as we read through 1st Corinthians 13:1-8, that every single characteristic of the Agape love is NOT a feeling, but an action. (Read it) None of them has much (if anything) to do with how I feel. They are directives as to how I am to behave. When God said “For God so loved the world…” it was not saying “God loves you SOOOoo much…” It is saying, “in this manner God loved the World:”. In fact, in Spanish, that is exactly how it is translated: “Porque de tal manera amo Dios al mundo…” in this manner God loved the World.
So…we have been commanded to love one another in the same manner as Jesus did. What exactly did he do? Did he go around feeling tender and mushy all the time? Hardly. When Jesus cleared the temple, he certainly was not feeling or acting tender or mushy…but he was acting in love. Were all the things he said sweet and gentle? Hardly. He called the Pharisees “sons of Hell”, and a “brood of vipers”, and hypocrites and all sorts of other not-so-nice things. Was he being unloving? No! Jesus went on serving, teaching, healing, meeting people’s needs, long after he was exhausted. He met each person at the level they approached him. The weak and poor he received very gently. Toward the rich and powerful he seemed rather cool sometimes, though in one case—the rich young ruler—it specifically states that Jesus loved him…yet he gave him a hard choice, and sent him on his way.
What is the Agape love all about, then? The Agape love can be defined as “that act of the will that moves an individual to do what is in the best interest of the recipient of the action, regardless of how it affects the one who is acting.” It means that to act in Agape love, I have to do what is really best for the other person, even if it does NOT make me comfortable. In some cases it may mean giving what I did not feel comfortable giving. Or, conversely, it may mean that in some cases I may not give at all, because the individual in need intends to misuse the gift…or because he/she is in the predicament because of irresponsibility, and there has been no change of heart, so the gift would be an enablement to commit more sin.
It means that I am not free to shoot off my mouth and be rude. It means I cannot be self-centered. It means I am not necessarily going to be on the receiving end of relationships. It means humility when self-will seems the order of the day. It means not paying back evil done to me. It means considering others better than myself (Philippians 2:1-7; Romans 13:10), and seeing their needs as taking priority over my own. It frequently means deliberately taking a “back seat”, so to speak. Jesus taught this principle over and over. This is NOT an easy assignment. In fact, my guess is that is so entirely contrary to human nature that it is only possible via the indwelling Holy Spirit. The Agapé love seems to only be possible when God loves through us. Otherwise it seems too likely to be contaminated by human weakness and sin.
Unity (John 17:21) (read this)
What about unity? What does it mean? Are we all to be in “lockstep” about everything? All believe precisely the same set of dogma—chant our catechism in unison? Memorize our creed, and quote it word for word at every opportunity?
Got a bad secret for you…. The teachers in your church do not all agree about every detail of doctrine. We do have unity in all the essentials and far beyond. We practice forbearance in things not essential to the faith. And Love is the undergirding factor that makes it all possible.
- Unity is not achieved by abandoning truth. The Ecumenical movement has sought to create “unity” by abandoning doctrine…by saying “Oh, let’s not fight over what the Bible does or doesn’t say! Let’s just love one another and praise God!” That may sound good, but Jesus stated that His Word would never pass away, and that whoever ignored it and taught others to do the same was in deep trouble!
- Union and unity are not the same. Workers in two companies that have gone through a merger may be unified in their plight, but they are anything but united in spirit or purpose, as all of them individually are primarily concerned whether they will have a job, and be left in peace to do it.
Unity means “no fighting”—it does not mean “carbon copy Christians”. There are some essential unities listed in Ephesians 4:1-6 (read it) … notice that we do not create the unity of the Spirit. We are called upon to maintain it, in the bond of peace. We are told to respond to one another in humility, in longsuffering, in meekness. We are told to forbear one another in love. (Forbearance means “putting up with each other.”)
- One Body—one true church—not supposed to be splintered and fighting amongst ourselves. (This is the body of Christ at large…not a denomination.)
- One Spirit—the Holy Spirit. Third Member of the Godhead. God.
- One Hope of your calling. In this age, we are all called to a single hope…the assurance in faith that by Jesus’ propitiating blood at the Cross, we will be with Him, cleansed, safe, secure, and His forever.
- One Lord—The Lord Jesus Christ is not divided. There isn’t one Jesus for one denomination, and one for another.
- One Faith—the saving faith in the character, person and work of Christ.
- One Baptism—the Baptism by the Holy Spirit into the One Body of Christ (1st Corinthians 12:13). This has nothing to do with water, by the way, and happens at the moment of salvation.
- One God and Father—it is interesting that the simple belief that “there is one God” does not produce unity—Jews, Muslims and Christians share this belief, but utterly lack unity. And even among those who claim Jesus as their savior, there is very little unity. Why?
What did Jesus say would occur if the church had unity? He prayed that we would have Divine Unity, so that “the World may know that” Jesus was sent by God. So…when we do not have unity, what should we expect the result to be? I believe the result will be that the world will conclude that Jesus was not who he said he was, and that God did not send him. Is that a serious enough consequence? Do you think it may already have happened?
What is real unity? How do we avoid disunity? Sound teaching in God’s Word helps. We can agree upon those seven truths that Paul laid out as being essential…but usually we go beyond. We want the other guy to agree with us on every last detail of what we believe. From what I see in scripture, that is not called for…and maybe not possible. But forbearance is possible.
Let’s move on to the third distinctive:
Practical Holiness (Matthew 5:13-15; 2nd Timothy 2:19)
Jesus told his disciples that they should let their lives be a beacon to God…lights in a dark world…that others should see their righteous lives, and glorify the Father. He also said that they were to have a practical usefulness in the world… one was to be a light—shedding the light of the truth of God’s Word in practical ways. The other was to be the Salt of the earth…having the effect of preservation… and purification. He says that if salt has lost its primary function, then it is useless on an earthly basis, and MEN will trample it underfoot. God will never forget who you are, but the world will always think, “What have you done for us lately?” So if we lose the primary value we have in the world of setting a good standard, and taking a stand for morality, etc., then, as far as they are concerned, we are useless.
Paul reiterated this principle, saying “…let every one who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” Any questions about that? Do you have any doubts what constitutes “iniquity?” Then grab your Bible and start reading. God says to flee temptations, but to resist Satan. It is not OK for us to continue in sin. We are told to knock it off; Period.
Now, let’s talk about that for a moment. Quite frankly, I don’t think I can just “knock it off”. I am a sinner. Yes, I am saved— I have a new nature— but I still have my old sin nature too. The only way I can see from scripture that I can live the Christian life is if God lives it through me. Galatians 5:16 says “if ye walk in the Spirit, ye will not fulfil the lusts of the flesh”…and as far as I know, that is the only way it can be done.
You see, part of the problem is the fact that some sins are inside. God says our thoughts can be an abomination to him. He says we can look good on the outside, but be full of sin inside. Let’s see what he said to the Pharisees: (We just love the Pharisees! They were so bad, they make us feel good about ourselves! In reality, they were the best of the best at the time—and very proud of it.) Jesus said (Matthew 23:25, 26) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup, and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.” (Really? What does a cupful of extortion look like? Jesus was referring to the people, not their dishes.) In verse 28, he says “Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are filled with hypocrisy and iniquity.”
That’s pretty rough talk… harsh judgment! The Pharisees were the “Christian Businessmen” of their day…and the city council, and the church board, and school board, and everything else. They were important guys, and upstanding beyond measure. But Jesus could see what was inside, and knew of the secret dealings. He knew what they were really like. And when he pointed it out, they did not want to repent, and be cleansed—they wanted to kill Jesus.
They obeyed every little command, from a human perspective. Matthew 23:23 says “…you tithe mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not left the other undone.” In other words, the Pharisees had reversed the order of God’s priority, because the outward form of righteousness they thought they could manage on their own (at least well enough to convince themselves and others that they were pretty good.) But the first priority should have been the inward things, so that the outward things would follow as a matter of course.
We can easily fall into the same trap…looking good on the outside, but harboring sin inside. God says the priority is to Love the Lord thy God, and to love they neighbor as thyself…and that was before there was such a thing as a “Christian”. Jesus told his disciples (that includes you and me, by the way) that the greatest commandment was love, and that his NEW commandment was that his disciples were to love one another as He loved them. Laying down their lives for one another, in a practical day-by-day manifestation of God’s love. Setting aside self, in favor of a brother or sister.
If we learn to express that kind of agapé love in our actions, the unity will be easier to maintain, and the outward trappings of righteousness easier to achieve, as well, since usually the roots of disunity and every kind of sin are found in self-will. Agapé love cannot co-exist with self-will.
This message is only a quick look at the three things God has given by which the world is free to judge the Church. On the basis of these three things, how do you think the world ought to feel about the Church, as a whole, today?
What are you personally willing to do to reverse that trend? It all comes down to each Christian asking, “Is it I, Lord?” and going back to 1st John 1:9, confessing our sin, and beginning to walk again.
I want to be the kind of Christian that Jesus wants me to be. I want to love the way he says to love, even when it doesn’t feel good. I want to be one who helps to maintain the real unity created by the Holy Spirit…not looking for ways to break away from fellowship. I want to live in such a way that other humans, believers or unbelievers, can look and see the hand of God in my life, and give glory to Him, not me. My hope is that you want to live this way, too. We’ll discuss these things in more depth in the coming weeks. But for now, let’s meditate on what we have learned regarding our own behavior and choices, and ask the Lord to reveal what needs to change.
Lord Jesus, once again, we ask that you turn our eyes to the mirror of God’s Word and allow us to examine ourselves in the light of what we see there. Bring conviction where it is appropriate, and comfort where it is needed. Re-mold us into your own likeness, and to your glory.