I must admit to being a bit concerned about the state of the Church today. What passes for worship, theology, and general epistemology are reflective of our secular society and its Cultural Marxist values more than any historical or biblical approach to the nature and character of the Christian Church as founded by Christ. The Church founded by Jesus Christ is often looked upon by those given to the ideologies attendant to Modernity as nothing more than just another organization, not unlike other organizations. Thus it is often viewed with the same disdain as the adherent of Modernism might view any government or powerful corporation. This sort of myopic, as well as uninformed, view of the church must be combated at every opportunity, since it is one of the causes for such rapid decline in Church attendance, and thus, morality in culture. Sadly, evangelicals must be willing to admit guilt in the process that brought us here, since the emphasis has far too often been on individual and personal relationships with God, to the near exclusion of the biblical need for a community relationship with God expressed only through the Church.
The Church is in reality a multidimensional institution, founded by the transcendent God, and is far more powerful than any mere human organization. It operates on two levels; the spiritual and the temporal. This can be seen in principle, if not in fact, in Christ's granting of authority to His Church, through His Apostles.
“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”- Matthew 18:18 (ESV)
This multidimensional view of the Church has historically been pictured as two distinct, yet interconnected, organic parts; the Ecclesia Miltans (Church Militant), and the Ecclesia Triumphans (Church Triumphant).
The Church Militant is comprised of Christians living on earth, engaged in the ongoing and ever present battle against Satan and sin.
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, and the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”- Ephesians 6:12 (ESV)
This verse paints a clear picture of the Church as a militant force engaged in combat, while at the same time noting the fact that, though the Church is comprised of people living an earthly existence, they nonetheless interact with, and have an affect on, the spiritual realm.
The Church Triumphant is comprised of the faithful who have gone on to be with our Lord, and await His Second Coming with the Church Militant. These are deemed triumphant because they have persevered in faith, lived holy lives, have been obedient to God and their names have been found in the Lamb's Book of Life. They worship God together with the hosts of heaven.
These two states of the Church are what is meant by the “communion of saints” in the Apostles Creed.
Though we are separated by death from the faithful who have gone on to their eternal reward, we remain united as one Church through Jesus Christ. Together these two states of the Church are known as the mystical Body of Christ.
It is important to note that the Church is universal. That is, it is comprised of faithful believers from every tribe and nation, and in its reach surpasses any denominational structure. This in no way compromises the unity of the Church, since these faithful, though separated by distance or denomination, are not in any sense divided as the mystical Body of Christ. They are the One, True Church of Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
“All the nations that dwell under heaven were called by hearing and believing upon the name of the Son of God. Having, therefore, received the seal, they had one understanding and one mind. And their faith became one, and their love one.”- Hermas
“The pre-eminence of the church is its oneness. It is the basis of union. In this it surpasses all other things and has nothing like or equal to itself.”
- Clement of Alexandria
“There is one God. Furthermore, Christ is one, and there is one Church.”
There are other symbolic titles for the Church, such as Bride of Christ (Romans 12:4), bringing to mind our union with Christ through His death, burial and resurrection, pictured as a marriage.
Additionally, early Christians gave the title of Mother to the Church, picturing the church as a loving mother who nourishes her children.
“Our one Father, God, lives. And so does our mother, the Church.”- Tertullian
The Church as a Symbol of the Kingdom
The Church also fulfills the important role of representing Christ to the world as His mystical Body. It is, philosophically speaking, a symbol of the Kingdom of God. It reflects the kingdom in its adherence to the Law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), its promotion of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Luke 17:20-21; Romans 14:17 Mark 1:14-15; 2 Peter 1:10-11; Acts 8:12), and in its hierarchical structure. This should not be surprising since the Nation of Israel was a type of the Church. (Acts 7:38)
The structure of the Church is a reflection of the future kingdom wherein Christ will rule as Sovereign. As Clement of Alexandria put it,“The earthly church is the image of the heavenly.”
Any government has leaders who serve under the authority of the State sovereign, and who have the duty to represent their government with honor and loyalty. This is no less true of the Church and future Kingdom of God. Our Lord has established a hierarchy of leadership who represent His Kingdom. Biblically speaking, these are presbyters (elders), bishops (overseers), deacons and deaconesses. Above all of these in order were the Apostles themselves. It is to these men and their successors that Christ granted a derived authority to lead His Church. (Matthew 18:18; John 13:20) This threefold ministry is also found in the witness of the early church.
“There is one bishop, along with the presbyters and deacons, my fellow servants.”- Ignatius of Antioch
“According to my opinion, the grades here in the church, of bishops, presbyters and deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory, and of that arrangement which the scriptures say awaits those who, following in the footsteps of the apostles, have lived in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel.” - Clement of Alexandria
The Hebrew word for 'apostle' is shali' ah, which can be translated as 'emissary'. It is worth noting that in ancient times an emissary was a court official who carried messages from the Sovereign to both the people and other rulers. It was the custom that an emissary was treated with the same respect which would be given to the Sovereign he represented as a matter of courtesy. Jesus seems to have had this concept in mind when He said:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” - John 13:20 (ESV)
Interestingly, medieval law recognized in the Church this special charism and viewed churches as a sort of embassy, wherein one could seek asylum under specific conditions. This “Right of Asylum”, commonly known as sanctuary, sees its first regulations in 600 A.D. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae, writes that by Norman times all churches had a lower level right of sanctuary for petty crime, while the king licensed certain churches with much broader and greater sanctuary authority. It is also worth noting that the Church's recognition as an embassy of sorts was removed in 1623 by James I, a Protestant king.
The Church as an Orderly Organism
The Church, comprised as it is of saints who love here on earth and in the heavenly realm, and as it is ever growing through the message of the Kingdom of God, is an orderly, organic institution. As such it also sends a very clear message that the Church is not simply a gathering of people who have had individual experiences binding them together, but that our experience of Christ is at the same instant corporate, and thus Christianity is best understood as a corporate matter. The New Testament admonishes believers repeatedly not to consider themselves somehow separate from the corporate Body of Christ, nor are we to regard the local church as unnecessary to our spiritual lives.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”- Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
The early Christians took the need for corporate worship very seriously as well.
“He, therefore, who does not assemble with the Church, has even by this displayed his pride, and he has condemned himself.”- Ignatius of Antioch
Beyond the order in hierarchy, the Church displays order in worship. (Ephesians 5:19; Acts 2:42; 1 Timothy 4:13).
“Therefore, let is be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” - Hebrews 12:28-29 (ESV)
This reverence and awe was very early on found in a liturgical form of worship. While many evangelicals deplore any thought of liturgy, it would be wise to remember that liturgical worship is what God established for the Nation of Israel, and from this we understand that, since God cannot establish anything evil or sinful, liturgy is not an evil of itself. Certainly an abuse of it can be, but that in no way renders liturgy itself an evil. One would be hard pressed to define some of the things we see in churches today that are called worship as being either reverent or exemplifying awe.
The early church established the first known liturgy through a document known as the Didache. This document, also known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is dated by the vast majority of scholars to the 1st century A.D., placing it during the lifetime of the Apostles. The Didache details the proper method for baptism, daily prayer, days of fasting, and the celebration of the Eucharist.
We also possess latter era examples of the development of this liturgical worship in the writings of such Church Fathers as Justin the Martyr and Hippolytus of Rome. Sadly there is a knee-jerk negative reaction to liturgy by many evangelicals, most of whom have never really experienced this form of historic worship or simply associate it with the stereotypes they have of Catholic worship as empty, works oriented, and blasphemous.
Many Reformers, in their well meaning fervor to return to a simpler expression of the faith they felt more in keeping with Scripture, swept from their churches the altars, the statuary and storied windows, the ceremonies of the sanctuary and the appealing and inspiring tones of plainsong. While one can certainly find problems with the Catholic worship and doctrine of the 16th century and today, this attempt to return to a more Apostolic form of worship failed. Research has shown that the earliest Christians did not worship as we see in many Evangelical churches today, but liturgically.
Sacred Scripture does not forbid worship with all that is beautiful, rich, reverent and inspiring in nature as well as in humanity. Indeed, the arts (music, singing, painting) find their highest expression when they are used to glorify God. In the book of Exodus, we read:
"Moses said to the whole Israelite community, “This is what the Lord has commanded: 5 From what you have, take an offering for the Lord. Everyone who is willing is to bring to the Lord an offering of gold, silver and bronze; 6 blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair;7 ram skins dyed red and another type of durable leather[a]; acacia wood; 8 olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; 9 and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece. 10 “All who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded: 11 the tabernacle with its tent and its covering, clasps, frames, crossbars, posts and bases; 12 the ark with its poles and the atonement cover and the curtain that shields it; 13 the table with its poles and all its articles and the bread of the Presence; 14 the lampstand that is for light with its accessories, lamps and oil for the light; 15 the altar of incense with its poles, the anointing oil and the fragrant incense;the curtain for the doorway at the entrance to the tabernacle; 16 the altar of burnt offering with its bronze grating, its poles and all its utensils; the bronze basin with its stand; 17 the curtains of the courtyard with its posts and bases, and the curtain for the entrance to the courtyard; 18 the tent pegs for the tabernacle and for the courtyard, and their ropes; 19 the woven garments worn for ministering in the sanctuary—both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests.”- Exodus 35:4-19
The entire book of Leviticus is devoted to the careful and minute description of the elaborate ceremonies which were to be observed by priests and people in their approach to their Heavenly Father. And Solomon with divine approval searched the known world of his day to obtain the most precious materials with which to erect the temple he built to the worship of the true and living God. For some reason we Evangelicals seem to think that churches must be bland, plain, and even ugly. We are more concerned with the color of hymnals than we are the beauty with which we worship our Lord. Surely the edifice of Christian Churches should speak of Him more loudly in praise, manifest to Him love deeper and greater, and give such evidence of stronger faith in Him, his divine attributes and his boundless mercies, that whole world might be attracted to know and love and serve Him. Yes, I know our lives are to do this, but why do we emphasize only the witness of our lives and ignore the witness of our worship? Many of us put more beauty into our homes than we do our place of worship- the place where we gather together to glorify, praise and honor the Almighty God of all Creation. What are we saying? That we deserve the best we can afford, while God simply gets what we feel like giving Him? Again, I'm not suggesting that churches need to be as garish as some of the cathedrals of Europe are. We have to maintain a balance between our needs for ministering to those in need in our congregations, our commitment to ministry in our communities, and making our churches places that inspire, encourage, and uplift- not just in our presentation of the Gospel by sermon, but also by the arts and liturgy.
The reaction against liturgy is really a left over of the reaction against the excesses of Roman Catholicism. Just a little reminder here; the 16th century is long gone. We can stop "protesting" things that historically have been mistaken as patented Catholicism- like liturgy. As noted, the early church had several forms of liturgy, from that of Hippolytus, to the more simplistic Eucharistic liturgy of the Didache. And while we are at it, why not bring back our altar? We have an "altar call", but no altar. Again, early Christians did have altars, as is evidenced by the earliest Christian artwork and the catacombs. I realize this article may raise the ire of a few, and I only ask that those who disagree understand my motivation is not to cause unrest, but to bring God glory and to be faithful to the shared heritage of all Christians.
What I believe emerges from a careful study of the Church is that it has been established by Jesus Christ to represent Him faithfully, to spread the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, to operate on both earthly and heavenly levels of influence, and to do so in an orderly, reverent manner.