“To me, the least significant of all the saints, this grace was given to declare to the nations the incomprehensible riches of Christ and to give light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God who created all things, in order that the manifold wisdom of God through the church may now also be made known to the authorities in heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord in whom the boldness and freedom to enter with confidence through faith in him.”
How does God make his mystery known to the world? Paul states very clearly that it is “through the church.” How that statement needs to be heard today and echo through the ears and hearts of every believer. Because of the errors the church has made, many have abandoned the church and sought to find their spirituality elsewhere. Yet, that is not Christianity. People will say, “But I don’t need the church to be spiritual.” Indeed, that is true. You can be a new-ager and define your own spirituality outside of the church, but you cannot be a spiritually mature Christian outside of the church. The church is the body of which we are a part and it is the body that is established upon the testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Now mind you, church is not a building nor is it an institution as it is often understood today. Church comes from the word, ἐκκλησία (ekklasia), which refers to an assembled body or gathering of people. By the very definition of the word, it means that we are a people that must gather together. Now, whether we gather with one another in a larger group or in a smaller, house-church model is irrelevant. A gathering is taking place. The gathering, too, shares a common purpose — to be a pillar and buttress of the truth, to tear down the strongholds of hell in our midst, making every thought captive to obey Christ, and to worship. The church gathered is a holy convocation as is often mentioned in the Old Testament.
The challenge today is that too many congregations of people that call themselves Christian churches are not so. That may be a hard word for some to stomach, but it is very much true. Historically, there are three marks that identify the true church from the false church. The first is the “pure doctrine” of the Gospel is preached. If the word of God is watered-down, if it is only taught in part, or if the whole Council of God is ignored (or misapplied for one’s own purposes), then it is not pure. So, ask yourself when you listen to a sermon: “Is the pastor teaching us from the Word of God or is he just talking about his own ideas?”
The second mark of the true church is that the sacraments are administered as instituted by Christ. One must ask, what are the sacraments meant to do and how are they received? Are they seen as a mark of the Covenant of God with the congregation or just something that the congregation does? Books can be and are written on the nature of the Sacraments; the question here is whether they are practiced and understood in a manner faithful to the Scriptures or whether they are being conformed to the ideas and preferences of men.
The third such mark is that church discipline is practiced for the correction of sin. Here’s the rub in many cases. It is not just good enough that the pure doctrine be preached; it must be lived out by the believer. Church discipline is designed to train and encourage people to live out their faith faithfully. If sin is ignored in the life of the church and if some are given a “free pass” due to their money, influence, or family relations, then the church is not a true church. The confessions call upon us to flee such places and to seek out a true church.
The sad reality is that many churches function more like social clubs — an expensive one at that! Churches also tend to exist to meet their own needs rather than to build the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Even the worship of many of these churches is more driven by the whims of men than by the direct command of God. People think that things are open game, so long as they are not overtly sinning, but when it comes to worship, if we do not worship as God tells us to worship, are we not in open disobedience? And is not disobedience another way of talking about sin? God has told you, oh man, what he expects from you… Will you do it? The true church is God’s agent to share the mysteries of God with the world.
“Remember that you were formerly gentiles in the flesh — called the uncircumcision by those called the circumcision in the flesh by hands — that you were at that time without Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and a stranger to the covenant and the promise, being without hope and an atheist in the world.”
One more note before we move to verse 13…what is this language about the citizenship of Israel? Is this a reference to becoming part of national Israel as some would suppose? What is Paul referring to here?
First of all, no. In Romans 9, Paul has already distinguished between national Israel and True Israel, the latter being the children of the promise who are the spiritual children of Israel (Romans 9:6-9). This, in context, is a reference to those God elected to save (Romans 9:10-13). In Galatians 3:29, Paul refers to all of those who are in Christ as the ones who are Abraham’s offspring and thus heirs according to the promise (a.k.a… Children of Promise spoken of in Romans 9). And thus, all of the promises of God to Israel find their fulfillment in Christ and are directed toward the Christian church (2 Corinthians 1:20-22).
So, in the absolute sense, this is not just saying to the gentiles in the church in Ephesus that they were apart from the Jewish nation of Israel; this is saying that they were outside of True Israel and hence they lived amongst the sons of disobedience.
This raises an important point as to the significance of the church. Christians are not called to be “Lone Rangers” as it were; they were called to be part of a unified body with Christ as the head. Any time we are outside of that context, we find ourselves in a place of separation from the covenant and promises of God. Within it, those promises are meaningful and true, belonging to us.
Yet, in the west, we have embraced the notion of rugged individualism. And while that is an admirable thing in secular culture, it is an idea that is alien to Christian living. We have also embraced a form of commercial mentality when it comes to our church attendance. We go here for a while so long as the preaching pleases us and then we go there. That does not mean there is not a right time to leave a church, but leaving should not be predicated by whether you enjoy the preaching or the activities of the larger body. Leaving should be based on the question of whether the church which you are attending is a true church. If it is a true church, remain. If it is not a true church, flee to a true church.
What constitutes the true church? What distinguishes the gathering of the Children of Promise? There are three things found in the Scriptures and laid out for us in the Belgic Confession (Article 29): the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached, the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and church discipline is exercised for the chastening of sin. If the whole council of God is not preached or if the doctrines of men are preached instead of the doctrine of God, then it is a false church. If sacraments are treated casually and not with prayerful introspection and commitment, then it is a false church. If church discipline either is ignored or if it is practiced to create a legalistic caste system in the church, then it is a false church. If the church leadership are confronted with their failure in one or more of these areas and they refuse to repent, then you are in a false church from which you must flee.
They may have good intentions in that false body, but of what value are good intentions when the Apostle Paul condemns that church body as “accursed”? If you graft a healthy body part into a body where the whole of the body is diseased and gangrenous, of what benefit is the healthy part? Will it not too become diseased and gangrenous? If you cling to the doctrines of men, will they save you? Of what hope can they bring?
While it is true that no church is perfect according to the standards of God, the question is, for what are they striving? Will they repent if their error is shown to them or are they committed and bound to human traditions? What is preached? What is taught? What is sung? What is their foundation? Shall it not be God’s word in all of these areas? Shall we set aside Divine Writ in favor for the ways of men? Is this honoring to God? I would say, “no,” and I would say that such an approach betrays the fact that you are committed to being outside of the citizenship of True Israel.
If you are tempted to doubt the concept of True and False churches. Maybe you just see me as a grumpy theologian who prefers to sit in his own corner and grump (sometimes I feel like that anyway), then I ask you to look at what has been held by the church fathers through the ages. You will find that they would speak very much like I have spoken. You will find that this notion of rugged individualism is an anomaly when it comes to the history of the church. Look to the confessions, look to the creeds, look to the ancient councils of the church. Over and again you will find that they proclaim the same message, that in salvation we are bound to a body and that there are things that define a true Christian church body, separating it from the false ones. Sometimes it is a matter of doctrine and sometimes it is a matter of practice. But, believe whatever you want to believe “just so long as you love Jesus,” is a notion alien to the church in history and it ought to be anathematized today.