“Putting all the ecclesiastical corpses into one graveyard will not bring about a resurrection!
To me one of the major tragedies of the hour, and especially in the realm of the church, is that most of the time seems to be taken up by the leaders in preaching about unity instead of preaching the gospel that alone can produce unity.
If all the churches in the world became amalgamated, it would not make the slightest difference to the man in the street. He is not outside the churches because the churches are disunited; he is outside because he likes his sin, because he is a sinner, because he is ignorant of spiritual realities. He is no more interested in this problem of unity than the man in the moon!” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from Messenger of Grace by Iain Murray
In the prophets of Samaria
I saw an unsavory thing:
they prophesied by Baal
and led my people Israel astray.
But in the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen a horrible thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that no one turns from his evil;
all of them have become like Sodom to me,
and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.
In conversations concerning politics and religion, Americans frequently mention a wall of separation between church and state. That idea was intended by Jefferson as a one way street, yet most people today, ignoring the “Wrong Way” signage, are driving the opposite direction. The phrase was meant, not to keep the church from driving to Washington, but to keep Washington from driving a church—a state church on the republic.
Nevertheless, using my liberty to leverage the phrase in yet another manner, let us pray that the church is truly separate from the state in this—in holiness. Let us pray that there is a wall of separation between the sins of the state and the state of the church. Unfortunately, I believe the reason the state is full of lies is because the church is. The world is dark because the world is dark while the light has been hidden. When the world is rotting without pause, it means that which is posing as salt isn’t salty and therefore good for nothing but to be cast out.
In Israel there was to be no separation of church and state; rather, both were to be separate, set apart unto Yahweh. But both the state, that is the kings, and the church, that is the prophets and priests, had become defiled. In chapters 21–23 Jeremiah first denounces the kings and then the prophets. More time is spent on the kings in these chapters, but it’s highly likely more time is spent on the prophets in the book as a whole. Indeed, Jeremiah speaks concerning false prophets more than any other true prophet.
Whereas the main invective against the kings was their oppressing the poor, that of the prophets was their deceiving the people. The former fleeces the sheep, the latter leads them to destruction. John MacKay comments,
“From the preceding section the impression might readily be gained that the problems facing Jeremiah had to do with the political institutions of Judah and its civil leadership. That unfortunately was true but they were by no means the exclusive source of opposition to him. Both church and state were corrupt in Judah, and in this section he focus is on the religious degeneracy of the land. …it was what they [the prophets] proclaimed in the name of the LORD that set the tone for church and state in Judah, as well as reflecting prevailing sentiment.”
This section is “concerning the prophets,” but yet is speaks of the wickedness of the land. The implication is that the prophets are to blame. Where prophets are false, the church is false. When the church is false, the state of the state is sure to be one full of lies.
Meridian Church · Jeremiah 23:9–40 || Concerning the Prophets || Josh King
This post was originally published on August 11, 2014. It was revised and republished on April 27, 2020.
“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.”
—1 Timothy 3:14–16
The church needs to behave herself; this is why Paul wrote to Timothy. Sadly, many professing Christians aren’t even in a church in which to misbehave. They are intentionally churchless. Occupying the number nine spot in Amazon’s “ecclesiology” category [when this post originally appeared] is Kelly Bean’s How to be a Christian without Going to Church. That’s as comprehensible as a baseball coach offering a clinic, “How to Hit a Home Run without Using a Bat.” Don’t want to use a ball either? Hakuna Matata, baseball leagues are certain to crop up everywhere, all playing the game according to their own desires.
Consider the case of Stott v. Miller and ask yourself which holds up in God’s court. The defendant, Donald Miller, questions himself, “So, do I attend church?” He answers, “Not often, to be honest. Like I said, it’s not how I learn. But I also believe the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.” Before moving on to the prosecution let me interject that one thing that church can teach Miller, and every other soul, is to get over ourselves. The late John Stott then addresses the audience (there is no jury, only the Judge), “I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an un-churched Christian. The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God.”* Unfortunately, the “un-churched Christian” isn’t so much of an anomaly now, and it certainly isn’t thought to be the grotesque thing that it is.
Paul has written “these things” so that the Ephesians Christians will know how to behave themselves in church. “These things” include praying together (2:1–8), which assumes gathering as the church. These things include elders (3:1–7), which necessitates teaching. These things include discipline (1:20), which means membership is necessary. If there is an out, there must be an in. Being part of a local church is necessary and normal—apostolically so.
We live in an age when it is popular, for “Christians,” to belittle or disassociate from the church. Admittedly, there is much to criticize, but tone is crucial. Any criticism we have for the church should sound like a loving and godly father imploring a wayward daughter. We would do well not to speak lightly of that which Jesus has purchased with His blood. Yet, many who are speaking so negatively about “the church,” aren’t speaking about the church at all, and they need to realize it. You can sharply and righteously expose “a church” that is posing, precisely because you love the church. Biting wit and satire can say, “I know the church, and that ain’t her.”
Many churches and church substitutes aren’t churches, or, at the least, they’re not behaving like one. They’ve lost their dignity. They behave like a silly tween girl at a faddish boy band concert instead of a queen ready to feast at the banquet hall of the King. The deep joys of reverence for the great I AM have been exchanged for the shallow pleasures of dancing before Baal, and, like Manasseh, they do it in “the house of the Lord.” For instance, recently I saw a video of a local church where, on the stage, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker had a lightsaber duel. Then, out of nowhere, Princess Leia jumped in and they danced to Michael Jackson’s thriller, inappropriate gestures and all.
Much of our problem—and let us not for a minute think we are immune as many have the disease but only mask the symptoms better—much of our problem is that we have forgotten who the church is. The church is the church of the living God. She is the household of God; a pillar and buttress of the truth. We don’t behave because we don’t believe. Theological erosion leads to moral corrosion.
*John Stott, The Living Church (InterVarsity, 2007), p. 19
Meridian Church · 1 Timothy 3:14–16 || The Church and the Mystery || Josh King
“Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish. If we do, we may live, and such a return might have one minor advantage. If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion. While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as ‘vision’, ‘dynamism’, ‘creativity’, and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial—virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill. ‘Vision’ is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.” —C.S. Lewis, from “The Poison of Subjectivism” in C.S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces
Let’s begin with some qualifications, that is, my presuppositions. I’m not wanting to miff everyone at the same time. This particular argument (meant in the old sense of setting forth reasons) is intended for those friends with whom I agree more. It’s worth recalling Chesterton’s observation that, “People generally quarrel because they cannot argue.”
Many pastors, and many of them better than I, have satellite campuses where the sermon is taken in by video. Some refer to these campuses collectively as a church. On a lesser but related level, others live stream their services so that those not present can participate in church. I am not a fan of multisite, multiservice, or multimedia for the purpose of virtual participation as a way of doing “church.” I think these multis contrary to nature of what it means for the church to gather as the church. So before I go on to miff others, to my multiple friends who do multi-church, to you with whom I agree less on this topic, I am not arguing with you here. I want to argue with those with whom I agree more. If you don’t think my premises valid, there’s no point in me pressing you with my conclusion.
Perhaps this quarantine has me itching to make less friends, but I don’t believe that to be my true intent. I don’t want to make less friends; I want to make better friends and I hope my friends will return the favor and seek to make better of me. Lord knows I need it. So then, for you who share my quibbles with the multis, I want to give a word of caution concerning “online church.”
When a father wields the rod, his children shouldn’t stuff their pants. When God disciplines His children, we shouldn’t try to mitigate the pain. In years past, when the saints were incapable of meeting, they sharply felt the loss. Such privation should drive us deeper into lamentation, contrition, and petition for mercy. If God has acted so that the assembly cannot assemble, let us not fool ourselves that we are. Instead, let us feel profoundly the sting.
Dear brothers, with whom I agree more, if you don’t believe church can be done by means of the interwebs, don’t try now. I don’t doubt many of you are better shepherds than I and that your motives are sound and your hearts full of love, but words matter. Use technology to shepherd your flock, but not to redefine. Offer supplements, but not substitutes. If you, as a shepherd, offer something to your scattered flock, don’t give them the impression that they are assembling when they are not. Don’t call non-church “church.”
As there is no substitute this side of glory for the assembly that will then take place, so there is no substitute for the foretaste of it in special work and presence of our Lord when the saints assemble in covenant faithfulness to receive the grace of God by His ordained means of word and sacrament. Corporate worship is a promised anticipation of this future glory. Bonhoeffer realized the glory of this and that it is a glory that some saints longingly go without.
“So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this bless ing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude… to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday’ (Ps. 42:4). But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith.”*
The darkness is meant to create a longing for the light. While it is dark, let us long. When the sun rises, let us sing. In all things, let us express gratitude. Yes, the mature can receive even the rod with thanksgiving, knowing it it the rod of our perfect heavenly Father.
In closing, know this post is intended from one shepherd to other shepherds; but for those sheep listening in, a word of caution: better to submit to your elder across the street than rebel with another across the country. He’s likely a far better shepherd than I. If your conscience is bound as mine is, respectfully and lovingly let him know, and then watch with the acknowledgement that whatever you’re doing, you’re not doing church.
*Bonhoeffer, D. (1978). Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community (pp. 18–19). Harper Collins.
“Let these and similar answers (if any fuller and fitter answers can be found) be given to their enemies by the redeemed family of the Lord Christ, and by the pilgrim city of King Christ. But let this city bear in mind, that among her enemies lie hid those who are destined to be fellow citizens, that she may not think it a fruitless labor to bear what they inflict as enemies until they become confessors of the faith. So, too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theatres with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effect their separation.” —Augustine, The City of God
“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”
“A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” —1 Peter 2:4–10 (ESV)
Who are you?
How did you answer that question? With your name? Your vocation? Your heritage? Your ethnicity? Your nationality? Your alma mater?
There are multiple ways this question could be rightly answered. Context will determine much. In the workplace you won’t answer by explaining who your great uncle is. At the family reunion you will not reply with your job title. But in a vague context, where your mind goes first can be revealing. When you think about who you are, do you ever think “saint” or “child of God?” Beyond this, do you find yourself only thinking in individualistic rather than corporate categories?
Ours is an age that emphasizes the individual at the expense of any corporate identities. Yet we wonder why we’re so lonely, detached, and isolated and we continue to gasp at rampant consumerism and selfishness. Church, Peter’s aim in these verses is clear. He wants us to know who we are. Being a Christian has implications for each of us individually, but you cannot think of who you are as a saint independently, apart from the body of Christ.
While it is clear that Peter wants us to know who we are, what is less clear is why? Why does Peter want us to know who? Peter doesn’t spell this out, but I think we all realize something of why as we look at who, and it is that who speaks to why. Who determines purpose. When your identity consists of being “elect exiles” (1:1) this has radical implications for why and how you live.
How many of the church’s problems stem from a failure to understand who she is? She is full of people acting like individuals, approaching church and spirituality as consumers looking to fill their personal needs. The church corporately responds to this by marketing herself to this individualism. How often do you get the sense that what really makes a church tick is the desire to express her individualism? It is not enough to simply be the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We must be a unique one.
Jesus has adorned the church. She doesn’t need to doll herself up. Any such effort won’t be an improvement. The church’s make-up identity skills suck. She hamfistedly globs on the mascara trying to attract the wrong kind of guy. What the church needs is to realize who she is in Christ and act accordingly. Instead of behaving as a prostitute whoring after the world, let us strive to be faithful to the one who has loved us into beauty. In Him we are a temple, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a treasured possession. If we realized this, we’d quit trying to tout our uniqueness and start offering up spiritual sacrifices acceptable in Christ. We’d start declaring the glories of Him who called us out of darkness and into His light.
[From a sermon on Matthew 18:20]
There are also people who have such esteem for numbers that the will deign to patronize the exercises of worship only where crowds congregate. It is easy to discover the measure of such calculation. They have greater regard for the presence of people than for the Lord’s presence. If we make numbers the criterion of the Lord’s presence, then we miss entirely the purport of our Lord in this text. If only two came to a meeting for the worship of God, it would be offering grave insult to the Lord of glory to suspend the service because of the fewness of those in attendance. Where there are two met in Jesus’ name, there are always three, and the third is the Lord of glory. And where there ire three there are always four. —John Murray, Christ in All the Assemblies of His People
The New Testament institution is not, as we have seen, a pure democracy. Neither is it an autocracy. It is the simple truth that singularity has no place in the government of Christ’s church. In every case the singularity exemplified in diocesan episcopacy, whether it be in the most extreme form of the papacy, or in the most restricted application of local diocesan bishops, is a patent deviation from, indeed presumptuous contradiction of the institution of Christ. Plurality is written in the boldest letters in the pages of the New Testament, and singularity bears the hallmark of despite to Christ’s institution.
It is not for us to question the institution of Christ even when we are unable to discover the reasons for it. But in this instance it is not difficult to see the wisdom and grace of the head of the church. Plurality is a safeguard against the arrogance and tyranny to which man has the most characteristic proclivity. And plurality in this sphere always differentiates the singularity that belongs to Christ and to him alone. It is no wonder that failure to adhere to the plurality that must be maintained in the government of the church has, by logical steps, resulted in what on all accounts is the greatest travesty ever witnessed in the history of Christendom, namely, the pretensions and blasphemies of the Roman see. —John Murray, “The Form of Government“
Perhaps no doctrine of the New Testament offers more sanctity to this fact than that the church is the body of Christ which he has purchased with his own blood. That which elders or bishops rule is the blood-purchased possession of Christ, that which cost the agony of Gethsemane and the blood of Calvary’s accursed tree. It was that which was captive to sin, Satan, and death, and Christ redeemed it as his own precious possession. It is now his body, and he is the head. How shall we dare to handle that body, how shall we dare to direct its affairs, except as we can plead the authority of Christ? The church as the body of Christ is not to be ruled according to human wisdom and expediency but according to the prescriptions of him in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” —John Murray, Government in the Church of Christ.