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The Measure of a Healthy ChurchHow God Defines Greatness in a Church
By Gene A. Getz
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2007 Gene Getz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGOD'S MYSTERY REVEALED
I will never forget that moment, though it happened almost forty years ago. In 1968, during the middle of the Vietnam War and the height of an anti-institutional movement that was complete with hippies, free love, and free speech, I was teaching at Dallas Theological Seminary on the subject of the church.
As normally happens, the larger cultural trend had begun to spill over into the subcultures of our society. To my surprise, what had captured the minds and hearts of many young Americans was now reaching into evangelical Christianity. One seminary student raised the question: "Who needs the church?"
The student then proceeded to answer his own question-at least in part-by saying, "Perhaps God is going to bypass the church in order to carry out the Great Commission." A few of his classmates agreed, especially the relatively new Christians who had become believers on the college campus.
Frankly, I was not only surprised, but rather stunned-though I was able to maintain my composure. I quickly realized that I could not assume a clear understanding of biblical ecclesiology, even in a theological seminary. Consequently I made a decision to do something I had never donebefore nor since. In the middle of the semester, I informed the students that I wanted them to disregard my syllabus that I had prepared for the course-the goals, the basic outline, and the assignments. "We're going back to the syllabus," I said, meaning the New Testament. Beginning with the Great Commission, we began exploring how the disciples of Jesus Christ carried out this command as recorded in the book of Acts and the New Testament letters. More specifically, our goal was to take a fresh look at God's plan for the church-then and now.
This was a life-changing experience for all of us-including the professor. In fact, the decision I made that day eventually led me out of the seminary classroom as a full-time professor to become a church planting pastor.
The Great Mystery: The Church
After nearly four decades starting and pastoring churches, I remain very excited about this great mystery God has revealed: His church. Though the church is "under fire" and is often called irrelevant, just as it was during the "anti-institutional" era in our culture, it is still the essence of the New Testament story. Though what the New Testament identifies as "the church" has often been distorted from the first century until today, the Scriptures declare that this mystery and glorious reality was even in the mind of God before He created the world (see Ephesians 1:4).
To carry out this divine plan within the framework of time, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us with His blood and to forgive our sins (see Ephesians 1:7). As a result, someday-perhaps soon-believers throughout time will be presented to Christ as His perfect bride. What a glorious moment that will be as we celebrate that great event, the wedding of the Lamb (see Revelation 19:7). On that wonderful day we'll be like Christ-"a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish" (Ephesians 5:27).
In the meantime, we live in the here and now. All over the world God has called His sons and daughters to be His "workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Ephesians 2:10). We are to reflect His character, which is His righteousness and holiness.
The Scriptures give us very specific criteria for evaluating the extent that we as His people are growing into "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). This measurement is what our study in this book is all about! Thankfully, the Word of God makes very clear what the image of Christ is, and with God's help we can reflect that image in wonderful ways. The more we understand God's glorious plan for the church and the more we are involved in this process of spiritual growth, the more excited we'll become about the church of Jesus Christ! I know that I am, and I hope that you will be, too!
Defining the Church
Before we unfold God's plan for evaluating the maturity level in a local church, we need to define the term "church." In other words, what are we measuring?
It's my deep personal conviction that the primary sources for gaining this understanding are the books of the New Testament. Therefore, let's take a careful look at this amazing set of historical documents and what they declare about the unique revelation from God that Paul called the "mystery of Christ" (Ephesians 3:4). When Paul wrote "to the saints in Ephesus" (Ephesians 1:1) and the other churches in Asia, he reminded them that this "mystery ... was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:4-5).
What is this mystery? Paul went on to answer this question, especially since some believing Jewish people had difficulty understanding God's divine plan. Perhaps they had trouble comprehending this mystery since the Gentiles were "excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). But now, Paul insisted that both Jews and Gentiles were "members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 3:6; see also 2:13-22).
While describing this amazing revelation-that is, this "mystery"-Paul maintained a spirit of great humility. He truly considered himself "less than the least of all God's people" (Ephesians 3:8)-because of the way he had persecuted followers of Jesus Christ (see 1 Timothy 1:12-14). Yet God called him "to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Ephesians 3:8). Paul never ceased to be amazed that, by God's grace, he was chosen to proclaim this mystery, which he emphasized was revealed and embodied in the church.
The Ekklesia of God
The Greek term ekklesia appears throughout the New Testament to describe the church. Jesus used the word three times. The other one hundred or so occurrences refer to both Jews and Gentiles who had responded to the gospel and put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal salvation. Furthermore, the term is used to describe both the universal church and the local church. (See appendix A for a complete listing of verses that use the word ekklesia.)
The Universal Church
Biblical authors used ekklesia approximately twenty times to refer to the universal church, which we can describe in two ways:
1. All first-century believers scattered throughout the Roman world.
2. All believers of all time who are members of the body of Christ.
Let me illustrate. When Paul wrote to the Galatians and Corinthians, he confessed that as an unbeliever he had "persecuted the church of God" (Galatians 1:13; see also 1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6). Paul was obviously referring not only to the believers in Jerusalem where he began his attack on the church but to all followers of Christ in the Roman world. In his testimony before King Agrippa, he said that he "even went to foreign cities to persecute" those who had accepted Jesus Christ as the true Messiah (Acts 26:11).
However, Paul did not write exclusively about the first-century church. He also included Christians throughout the ages. In Ephesians, his references to the church certainly include believers who become a part of the body of Christ any time from Pentecost to that moment when the church is removed from the world. For example, he wrote, "And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Ephesians 1:22-23; see also 3:10-11, 20-21; 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32).
The Local Church
Although biblical writers used the term ekklesia to refer to all believers in Jesus Christ, both at a period in time and throughout the church age and into eternity, in most instances (eighty-two to be exact) they used this term to refer to believers who lived in specific geographical locations. In other words, in approximately 80 percent of the time the words "church" or "churches" were selected to refer to what we call "local churches" (see appendix A).
We must not, however, think of these "local churches" in terms of contemporary structural models. In most instances, New Testament passages pertain to all professing believers in a particular city or community. For example, Luke cited "the church at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1) and "the church at Antioch" (Acts 13:1). Describing Paul's first missionary journey, Luke referenced "each church" in "Lystra, Iconium and Antioch [Pisidian]" (Acts 14:21, 23).
On his second missionary journey, Paul wrote to "the church of the Thessalonians" (1 Thessalonians 1:1). However, Paul pluralized this term when he addressed "the churches in Galatia" (Galatians 1:2). In the same letter, he mentioned "the churches of Judea" (Galatians 1:22). And in his first letter to the Corinthians, he sent greetings from "the churches in the province of Asia" (1 Corinthians 16:19). In his second letter to the Corinthians, he used "the Macedonian churches" as an example of generosity (2 Corinthians 8:1).
In each of these verses, the biblical writers named local congregations in various geographical areas-primarily villages, towns, or cities. As it is today, churches in the first century were established in various population centers.
The word ekklesia literally means an "assembly," or "congregation," of people. However, New Testament writers used the word more broadly to describe Christians whether they were gathered together for worship or scattered throughout an area-in their homes, at work, shopping, visiting relatives, or recreating at the local spa. We must also remember that believers in a given city could not gather as one community since they had no facilities to meet in-other than their homes. Yet, they were called a single church in a particular city.
God's Design for Relationships within the Local Church
What kind of relationships should exist among the followers of Jesus Christ? How are we to function? What should we look like to both believers and nonbelievers? What qualities reflect maturity? The answers to these questions will help us reach our goal: discovering the true measure of a healthy local church.
New Testament writers most frequently described local church participants as disciples, brothers, and saints (see appendix B). As with ekklesia, each functional definition gives fresh insight as to why these terms were selected. Clearly the church is made up of people who are followers of Jesus Christ, who have deep relationships with one another, and who increasingly reflect who God is as they manifest the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
The word "disciple" appears thirty times in Acts. In each occurrence, it describes true followers of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, when Luke identified believers as disciples, he did so only in the context of local churches-not the universal church (see appendix A). In fact, he used the term "disciples" interchangeably with the term "churches." For example, when Paul left on his second missionary journey, we read that "he [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches" (Acts 15:41). When he left on his third journey, Luke recorded that he "traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples" (Acts 18:23). In other words, in Paul's mind, "churches" were "disciples." They were one and the same.
The Gospel Records
When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John penned the Gospels, they identified disciples as all who followed Jesus and listened to His teachings. The basic Greek word for "disciple," mathetes, literally means "a learner." That is why the term is used to describe the "disciples of John the Baptist" (Matthew 9:14 NLT), the "disciples of the Pharisees" (Mark 2:18), and the "disciples of Moses" (John 9:28). Those who followed and listened to Jesus' teaching were also identified as "disciples of Jesus."
Although a large number of people claimed to be Jesus' learners, many of these so-called disciples turned their backs on the Savior when His demands became too great. For example, after Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fish for the huge crowd that had followed Him to the far shore of Galilee, He challenged a smaller group to accept Him as the Bread of Life. Not everyone welcomed the news. Some of the people became confused and disillusioned. John recorded that "many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (John 6:66).
Clearly then, when we look carefully at the disciples of Jesus in the Gospel records, we discover people who were never fully committed to Christ. In fact, most were disciples in name only. Even all of the twelve disciples (the apostles) eventually deserted Jesus. Judas, of course, betrayed the Lord, but the others were also disloyal-they fled when Christ was arrested (see Matthew 26:56).
The Book of Acts
When we encounter those who are called "disciples" in Acts, the term takes on a much broader and deeper meaning-and for two very important and related reasons.
First, these disciples had experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. As Luke picks up the rest of the story in Acts, Jesus had completed His redemptive plan. Yet many of His followers thought that as the Messiah, Jesus would establish an earthly kingdom in Israel. In fact, just before Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives, some asked, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6).
Their limited knowledge about Jesus was about to change. Once the Lord had ascended, His disciples-numbering approximately 120-obeyed Jesus' command to wait in Jerusalem (see Acts 1:4, 13-14). Then, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on them with power.
This relatively small group formed the core of a rapidly growing church. As with all true believers, they became members of the universal church-the body of Christ.
"John baptized with water, but in a few days," Jesus had told them, they would "be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5). When this supernatural event took place, they began to understand why Jesus had really come into this world.
Second, these disciples had a born-again experience. Following Christ's ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and the other believers in Jerusalem understood much more clearly what they had heard from the lips of Jesus. At that point, He wasn't only their teacher and they His learners, but He was also their Lord and Savior. They became His disciples in a new and much more meaningful way. That small band of born-again believers soon multiplied many times when three thousand listeners accepted Peter's message on the day of Pentecost. They put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and were baptized (see Acts 2:41).
Don't misunderstand. Not all who joined this expanding group of disciples suddenly became paragons of faith, virtue, and holiness. But even then, as in every church today, some of these disciples matured quickly. Others took a longer period of time before they were able to truly "live a life worthy of the calling [that they had] received" (Ephesians 4:1). This is why Jesus commissioned the apostles not only to "make disciples" (secure true professions of faith) but also to teach these disciples everything He had taught them (see Matthew 28:19-20). In other words, it takes time and effort to produce mature, dedicated, and committed disciples who measure up to God's standards individually and corporately as husband and wives, as whole households, and as a local fellowship of believers. This is certainly evident in Luke's history of the church as recorded in Acts.
As the apostles began to take the Great Commission seriously, a different word was used to characterize these followers of Jesus Christ. In addition to being called "disciples," they were also called "brothers'-a concept that the authors of the New Testament turned to more frequently than any other when writing about those who became a part of the ekklesia of God (see Acts 20:28).
Excerpted from The Measure of a Healthy Church by Gene A. Getz Copyright © 2007 by Gene Getz. Excerpted by permission.
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