I have spent my whole life in Baptist churches. My dad started as a full-time Music Minister in 1949. Although long retired, he is still leading music part-time. I was first enrolled in Sunday School on the “Cradle Roll” – back before the earth cooled. I cannot remember a time when I was not involved in a church.
I have been a full-time minister for over 25 years. The 3 churches I served for the majority of those 25+ years are very different. The last 2 churches (including North Side) have built major buildings while I was on staff. The last church I served voted to relocate about a mile from where they were – and then didn’t relocate. North Side went through a major constitutional change. Relocation and constitutional change are major transitions in a church’s life. Those changes reveal the hearts and minds of church members. As different perspectives are expressed, truth, convictions and preferences all come to the surface. A lot of things are discovered – and it can be interesting how vastly different the opinions of people who are all supposed to be members of the same family can be.
If members of a church belong to the same family, and we all belong to Jesus, how can it be that church members have wildly different ideas of what church should be? How can we have church “life”? How can a church be vital and refreshing and joyful?
Where Do We Start?
The starting point for church life is that church members should be Christians. The earliest definition of a church that I was taught was that a church was a “group of baptized believers.” It may seem obvious to make that kind of statement about a church, but there is great concern being expressed these days about how many people understand what the gospel really is.
I have heard several testimonies of people who said similar things – “When I was a child, I felt like I needed to do something after the preaching, so I went down to the front to talk. The preacher led me in a prayer and I got baptized after a couple of weeks. Later, I realized that I had not understood very much. Then, I confessed to Jesus that I was a sinner in need of His salvation. I started living with God in mind rather than myself. That’s when I started growing. That’s when I became a Christian.”
I must confess that stories like that one are very scary to me. I hope that I have never inadvertently caused someone to believe that they were saved when they were not. That kind of story boils down to the fact that someone considered to be a spiritual authority told that person that they were saved. By God’s grace, they became aware of the need to confess and repent. At that point, they became new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Because the phenomenon of people thinking they are saved when they are not is more common than we may think, it’s possible that there are many people on church rolls who do not have the Holy Spirit guiding them and revealing Christ’s mind to them. They may be in church every Sunday, but they show no evidence of spiritual maturity Monday through Saturday.
As much as possible, we must be sure that we understand the gospel message. We must understand that, without Christ, we are dead in our sins and transgressions (Ephesians 2:1). Because we are sinful and we fall short of God’s glory (Romans 6:23), we are also in danger of God’s wrath (Romans 5:9) and we are enemies of God (Romans 5:10). Because of His grace (His good will toward us that we do not deserve), He sent Jesus (Romans 6:23). Jesus took the punishment, the wrath that we deserved (Isaiah 53:5). We are made righteous through Christ (Romans 5:19). We were reconciled to God through Jesus (Romans 5:11). We have eternal life (John 17:3). We are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). We die to sin and are born in Christ (Romans 6:1-8). We are sealed by the Holy Spirit who guarantees our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).
A person who understands the gospel and has been changed by it is going to be different from a person who has not been changed by it. Some conflict in churches is caused by a natural difference in perspective between people who are new creatures in Christ and those who are still lost in sin.
Another Source of Tension
Church members may find themselves in conflict because they are not all born again. They may also find themselves in conflict because there are varying degrees of maturity among those people who have been born again. Jim Putman described 4 stages of Christian maturity in his book Real-Life Discipleship.
The first stage is spiritual infancy. A spiritual infant has just been born into the family of God and, like a physical infant, needs everything. Spiritual infants have no knowledge other than the very basic elements of the gospel. They have to be taught everything. They may be excited about their faith because they understand they have life in Christ, but they need help in turning all aspects of their lives over to God.
The second stage of maturity is the young child stage. The young child has begun to understand a few things about God, but he is still very self-centered. He may be excited and eager to help in ministry, but he can be fragile if something goes differently from his expectations.
Spiritual young adults are more mature than spiritual children. They have a good bit of knowledge and they have applied their knowledge. They still struggle with their sinful nature but they are motivated by a desire to glorify God and to love others as themselves. They may attempt great things, but they may not realize how crafty the Enemy is. They need guidance and support.
Spiritual adults, or parents, are the most mature believers. They are intentional, strategic, self-feeding, mission-minded, team-minded, and dependable. They have a lot of spiritual knowledge and they are also filled with the Holy Spirit. They have mastered the basics and then some. They are equipped to help others grow. They are equipped to lead.
In any church, there are believers at all of those different stages. People at different stages of growth have different perspectives. Tension can arise among people who see things differently. They can have different desires and expectations. Trying to get a diverse group of people on the same page can be a challenge.
The Role Of Love
People can be united by love – but it has to be the right kind of love. When Jesus was asked by a person who lived by rules and regulations about the greatest command, He answered with “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37). Our love for God is the starting point. We have to value our relationship with God more than anything else – more than our desires, tastes, preferences and comfort. We have to love the Lord enough to obey His commands. We have to love the Lord enough to obey His commands when it cost us something to do so. We have to love the Lord enough to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
When we are that committed to loving and following the Lord, we are equipped to function as church members, even among spiritual brothers and sisters of different maturity. Jesus’ twelve disciples were at different stages of maturity or intimacy with Him. There was the so-called “Inner Circle” of Peter, James, and John who spent the most time with Jesus. There were eight other disciples about whom we know little. And there was Judas – a lost person. (It is interesting that the other disciples traveled with Judas for three years without realizing that he was not really a follower of Jesus.)
During the Last Supper, Jesus tried to prepare the disciples for life without Him. Among many things He taught them that night, He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). To emphasize the point even more, He told them that their love for each other would identify them as belonging to Him. “By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
If we’re going to be the people we should be, we have to love each other. That does not mean that we have to agree on everything – it is unrealistic to assume that we could. When we disagree, we love each other. We work out our issues in a God-honoring way. As Jesus said, that is how the world knows that we are His.
Paul’s Practical Instruction
Love for God and love for Christian brothers and sisters make up the foundation for vital church life. Love provides the “want to” for pleasing God and living peacefully and triumphantly with our Christian brothers and sisters. With our hearts and desires aligned with God, we are ready to begin the process of day-to-day living.
Paul wrote 13 or 14 of the books of the New Testament (depending on whether you think he wrote Hebrews or not). The book of Ephesians was probably circulated among a group of churches in Asia Minor. In Ephesians, Paul taught a lot about effective church life. The following are his teachings from chapters 4 and 5, with a few comments.
Chapter 4 — “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called ; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
God chose us and called to be His children. Our lives should be the best possible representation of our relationship with him. We should be humble, gentle, patient, and peace-loving.
Paul emphasized unity – one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Unity is a prime value among the people of God.
A leader at a marriage retreat once told this story: “A man came to me and described a situation between him and his wife. When he finished describing the problem, he asked, ‘Well, I’m right, aren’t I?’
“I said, ‘You might be, but let me ask you something. Are you more interested in being right than you are interested in the relationship? It might be better for you to focus on how you can work through the situation than whether or not you’re right.’”
Verse 11 – “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
The fact that we are unified does not mean that we lose our individuality. Each member is given a gift or gifts for the benefit of the body. When each member uses his or her gifts to build up the church, God is glorified, unity is enhanced and people grow more mature in their faith.
The natural result of the church being built up by each member’s gifts is spiritual maturity. Members more readily identify and dismiss false teaching. They embrace truth and encourage it, to the extent that they can speak truth into each others’ lives in a graceful and loving way.
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6).
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
Is there someone you trust enough to allow them to ask you tough questions?
Do you love someone enough to speak truth with grace?
Verse 17 – “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Followers of Jesus are different from people who are not followers of Jesus. That does not mean they are perfect – it means that they are listening to God on a regular basis and submitting their lives to His will. God changes them a little at a time. One of the best illustrations of how God works is a sculptor. He chips away a little at a time, causing the believer to look more and more like Jesus.
The Holy Spirit changes the heart, but the believer is not passive. A Christian should be consistently identifying old attitudes and thought patterns and putting them off.” He should put on new attitudes and new thoughts as he is led and empowered by God.
Verse 25 – “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 ‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Lying is destructive. It obliterates trust. It drives wedges in relationships. Don’t lie – be honest.
Paul quotes the Psalms when he wrote, “In your anger do not sin.” A Christian will get angry. The problem comes when he allows anger to take control. The believer should resolve his anger through healthy communication – speaking the truth in love. Unity should be maintained even in disagreement.
Someone has said that bitterness is the only poison we drink hoping it will harm someone else. Get rid of it.
Treat your brothers and sisters the way Christ treated you, with kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and grace.”
Chapter 5, Verse 1 – “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Jesus is our example. We should go beyond affection to sacrificial service.
Verse 3 – “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater —has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.”
There is more sexual immorality and temptation around us today than there was in Jesus’ day. We need to keep ourselves pure so that, as much as possible, there is never any question about our character or motivation.
We are not to withdraw ourselves from society – we are called to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). We cannot allow ourselves, however, to be drawn away from God by the wisdom or the treasures of the world. We must follow God and submit our lives to His teachings.
Verse 15 – “Be very careful, then, how you live —not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul challenged the Ephesian believers to live exemplary, God-pleasing lives. Our Christian brothers and sisters are depending on us and the world is watching.
Every action of a Christian should be influenced by the Holy Spirit. Everything we do should be characterized by joy, gratitude, encouragement, and consideration of others.
How can a church be vital and refreshing and joyful?
- By realizing that it is made up of a variety of people.
- By proclaiming the gospel and doing everything possible to make sure that all members understand it.
- By following God consistently.
- By putting off sinful behaviors and putting on godly behaviors.
- By following Christ’s example.
- And by being filled with the Holy Spirit.