The life of the church

The following post is excerpted from a lecture by Dr. Michael Morrison, dean of faculty and professor at Grace Communion Seminary.

Church service (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In an earlier post, we saw how the apostle Paul used several metaphors (images) in defining the nature of the church. In this post, we'll see how Paul viewed the life of the church by looking at what he wrote concerning the church's assemblies, membership and discipline.

Church assemblies

Paul understood that Christ does not just call scattered individuals – he calls individuals in order that they meet together. Paul describes those meetings in 1 Corinthians 14. Although the church in Corinth may not be typical, this is the best description we have: 
When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor. 14:26)
Note that the primary purpose here is the building up of the church – helping those who assemble grow in the faith. Paul describes how this is done: 
If anyone speaks in a tongue, someone must interpret, so everyone can understand. If people speak, they should do so one at a time, “so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. (1 Cor. 14:31)
 We thus understand that the primary method of building up the church is speaking, instruction, or teaching. A similar goal is seen in Ephesians chapter 4 – Christ puts leaders in the church 
to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature. (Eph. 4:12-13).
What about worship? Songs and prayers were part of the meetings, even though Paul said that edification was the most important purpose. Worship is something that should be done in all of life, so it will also be part of the assembly: 
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19-20)
The people were worshiping, and they were also teaching one another by doing so.

Is evangelism a purpose of church assemblies? Paul sees the possibility of unbelievers attending the meetings: 
If an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!" (1 Cor. 14:24-25)
This may be an accidental result, or a hypothetical one, rather than a stated purpose of the meeting.

Church membership

In several of his epistles, Paul notes that the new covenant church includes both Jews and Gentiles. He works particularly hard to show that Gentiles are included. In doing so he addresses the basis by which both Jews and Gentiles are considered to be part of the people of God – on the basis of faith (e.g., Rom. 11:20, 23). Paul notes that all who trust in Jesus are part of the church -- considered children of God, in God's household, the people in whom the Holy Spirit lives, the people who constitute the bride of Christ.

At first glance, there seems to be a one-to-one correspondence between believers and members of the church. But it gets more complicated than that, because some people regularly attend the meetings and yet do not believe. Some are infants; others are adults. They are in one sense part of the congregation, but not of The Church. They are listeners, but have not yet given their allegiance to what the meeting is all about. There is an aggregation on a human level, and another assembly that is defined on a spiritual level, and sometimes we are talking about one, and sometimes the other, with the same word “church.” Theologians talk about the visible church and the invisible church. Paul alludes to such a distinction when he refers to false apostles (1 Cor. 11:13) and false adelphoi (1 Cor. 11:26; Gal. 2:4) – people who appear to belong but really don’t.

Church discipline

This leads to a discussion of church discipline: Paul sometimes felt it necessary for the church to exclude a person. This was not necessarily a judgment on the person’s salvation, nor on whether the person really had faith in Christ, but it was a judgment as to whether the person was permitted to meet with the rest of the church. The most famous case is in 1 Cor. 5 – the man who was in a sexual relationship (presumably an ongoing relationship between consenting adults) with his step-mother.

There were many sins going on in the Corinthian church, but this sin was particularly heinous because it was behavior that even the pagans thought was bad. Nevertheless, the congregation was proud (1 Cor. 5:1-2). Perhaps they were proud of their tolerance; perhaps proud of their “knowledge” that sexual sin did not matter because the body would be discarded upon death. No matter what their pride was based on, Paul says that they should put the man out of their fellowship. He should be handed 
over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Cor. 5:5; cf. 1 Tim. 1:20)
In some ways, Paul’s rationale seems close to the Corinthian belief that the body would be eliminated upon death, and only a spirit would survive. But 1 Corinthians chapter 15 shows that Paul does not think that way. What he meant here about Satan may not be clear, and it is not clear who is destroying the flesh, but it is clear that Paul thinks that this discipline may work for the man’s good. Perhaps it would help him realize that the way he was using his body had more in common with the adversary than it did the kingdom of God.

The important point is that Paul thought that the man had a spirit that could be saved on the day of the Lord, and yet he should not assemble with the others. He might be in the family of God, but he was not allowed in the meetings. So it seems that Paul allowed for the possibility of salvation outside of the (visible) church.

Nevertheless, because people nowadays associate “the saved” with “the church,” they tend to drift into one error or another. On one side, people tend to think that there is no salvation outside of the church, and since the person has been put on the outside, he or she is not saved. Equally sincere people see such a person as a dearly loved but prodigal son, one whom the Father would never ostracize, and hence they have a hard time understanding why they should ostracize the person. People who are concerned about behavior probably tend to be harsh, and people who emphasize theory tend to be too lenient.

Personally, we might prefer either one or the other, but we must resist the tendency to make Paul in our own image, and we have to admit that his theology of the church said that blatant and heinous sinners should be ostracized even if they claim to have faith in Christ.  Paul’s approach was not an isolated reaction to a particularly appalling sin in Corinth. He advised church discipline in several church areas:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. (Rom. 16:17) 
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6) 
Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. (2 Thess. 3:14)
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. (Titus 3:10)
Paul is particularly concerned about the sin of causing division. But what other problems warrant discipline? 
You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Cor. 5:11)
This is a lot like the list of sins that won’t be in the kingdom of God. But Paul knows that many members in Corinth used to be in those categories (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Discipline is needed only when people insist that they have a right to continue in those sins. Those who have no intention of quitting need discipline to make the point that such behavior is not acceptable. Those who struggle already know it.

The goal in such discipline is love – love not only for the sinful person, but also for the others:
Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? (1 Cor. 5:6)
Paul is concerned about the domino effect – he does not want other people to catch the same disease. In a small way, church discipline reflects the eschatological tension between the present and the future. The desire to be pure (a category we looked at in the first post in this series on the church) reflects perfection characteristic of the future; the reality of dealing with sin in our midst reflects the “not yet.”