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Re-Thinking “Church”

On a day-to-day basis, when assessing this or that church, we should learn to think first in terms of “healthy/ unhealthy,” then “more or less pure,” and only finally in terms of true or false. By employing the healthy/unhealthy metaphor we do fuller justice to the Scripture. The church— a church—is an organism, a living entity in relation to Christ, her head. Now just as a human being may be more or less gifted, more or less healthy, more or less active, so, too, may be a church. We do not regard sick people as non-people. On the contrary, we regard them as being all the more in need of loving care.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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What’s the first thing Reformed people do after meeting other Reformed people?

Try to find something about which they can disagree. A five-gallon howl of alphabet soup would hardly he enough to contain the initials of all the Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the world (rumor has it as just under 400). And each year, even as liberal denominations merge, more acronyms are added because conservatives split. But of all the things which abrade the thin skin of some modern Reformed, the most abrasive seems to be those who come close to them but who refuse to cross their final “t” or dot their proverbial “ i.”

The Divisiveness of Ecclesiology

We have written before of the sublimely ludicrous criteria we’ve heard used by some erstwhile Reformed folk to reject otherwise sound ministers: from the way they waved hello on the road to the “offensive” manner in which they held their Bible when preaching. Sometimes the same spirit ascends to the loftier plane of dogmatic disagreement, as in the matters of lapsarianism, “common grace,” the regulative principle of worship, exclusive psalmody (a subset of the RPW), and matters of ecclesiology. In fact, we’d have a hard time coming up with a topic that creates more bitterness and strife in the church than the doctrine of the church. Isn’t that cozy?

No, it isn’t. In song, we’ll pledge to sacrifice to His blood “all the vain things that charm me most”; but in practice, we reserve quite a bit to ourselves. Among the “orthodox,” this often includes pet—and less than fully Scriptural—notions about the church.

The church, to be sure, is the pillar and ground of the truth, but today it seems that what particular “truth” must be regarded as essential is a matter to be determined by anyone with these qualifications: a narrow tunnel vision which encompasses only their own ecclesiastical tradition, and access to the Internet. Some Reformed folk today are calling others heretical with a speed rivaling Bob Dole’s changes of convictions. If we are to progress beyond this debilitating tendency characteristic of many Reformed, several things are necessary. Allow me to suggest the following as a good start.

True/False Distinction

  • Be slow to use the “true church/false church” metaphor.

The true/false measure, found in Article XXIX of the Belgic Confession, may indeed have been helpful in 1561, but it ceased to be as helpful very shortly thereafter. In 1561, the true church and the false church were said to be “easily known and distinguished from each other.” But as Reformed churches found themselves disagreeing among themselves about this or that matter, the Belgic’s limited conception needed to be expanded. Eighty years later, the Westminster Confession made a vast improvement by noting that “particular churches, which are members (of the universal church), are more or less pure... (Chapter XXV, 4).

Probably owing largely to the relationship of the church to the state, particularly on the continent, believers who found fault with the state church thought it necessary to declare that church “false” in order to justify the existence of a new confessing body. And when, in a generation or a few, other believers found fault with their parent body, they, too, followed the same route: the parent must be called a “false church” in order to justify a new confessional entity. This practice, especially among the Dutch Reformed, has resulted in a state of affairs so bizarre as to make less than funny this old joke: What do you get when you put three Dutch Reformed men in a room? Two new denominations.

Seeing the church only in “true/false” terms has yielded denominations which make the very ridiculous claim of being “the only true church,” and has also hindered many from leaving sinking denominations, such as the Christian Reformed Church. But it is not necessary to declare the CRC false in order to justify departure; it is only necessary to see that it is other than Reformed.

On a day-to-day basis, when assessing this or that church, we should learn to think first in terms of “healthy/ unhealthy,” then “more or less pure,” and only finally in terms of true or false. By employing the healthy/unhealthy metaphor we do fuller justice to the Scripture. The church— a church—is an organism, a living entity in relation to Christ, her head. Now just as a human being may be more or less gifted, more or less healthy, more or less active, so, too, may be a church. We do not regard sick people as non-people. On the contrary, we regard them as being all the more in need of loving care.

Consider the change in attitude such a metaphor-shift would engender if applied to churches. We’d likely be quicker to care and slower to bury.

Of course, there may come a time when a particular body not only embraces impurity, but becomes committed to spreading it to its constituent parts. Believers are under no obligation to expose themselves and their children to infection. But their departure from the host need not be accompanied by a declaration that the former host is dead, or false.

Church/Covenant Distinction

2) Understand that the covenant is more comprehensive than the church.

In a particular locale, the church must see herself as servant to God and covenant (not a provincial covenant, but Christ’s own covenant. His entire Word).

By regarding Christ’s claims as no broader than the church it becomes easy to develop a “circle-the-wagons!” mentality. But if Christ’s claims are truly as wide as the Reformed claim (and they are), then the church must regard herself as an “in-order-to” institution.

In regard to worship, people come to (or are brought to) Christ and thereby enter the church. Church is a place where Christ’s own come to worship. But what about when they leave the Lord’s Day assembly?

Ah, that is when their calling as Levites kicks into gear. Our High Priest in heaven has charged us with fulfilling the twin Levitical functions of teaching and healing. People come to Christ and thus enter the church. They come to church in order to be made more fit to serve God outside the church.

She is an equipper. She is not Lord, but servant; not husband, but bride. She has unique—even awe-inspiring— privileges and attributes; she is the special beneficiary of Christ’s Headship (Eph. 1:22-23), but her sphere is not the sole subject of Christ’s concerns. There is the family, the school, the state, the arts and more. He is Lord of all, not the church, even though our destiny is to reign with Him. The Proverbs 31 wife brings honor to her husband by what she does and what she enables others to do. So should we.

Thus there is room for a multitude of ministries and agencies and entities to serve Christ, both through and apart from the local church. Yes, all ought to be solidly rooted in Scripture, even in confessional Reformed truth. But we ought to be slow to snidely dismiss entities other than the church as “parachurch,” by which we often mean pariah, if they are truly subordinated to Christ’s covenant claims. Christ’s dear ones can learn the what, why and how of Christian philanthropy, for example, in the church (and must practice such at home and church); but they ought to encouraged, not discouraged, to bring what they’ve learned to bear in wider covenant spheres outside the local church.

Church as Christ’s Synagogue

3) We should labor to understand more fully the idea of the church as the synagogue of Christ.

Before attacking this, let’s do a quick review. We need, Numero Uno, to advance beyond the unbiblical straitjacket wherein we feel compelled to decide whether each church is true or false. That ought to be a last resort coming way after more or less pure, then more or less healthy. Numero Dos, we must bear in mind that the covenant is more comprehensive than the church. The covenant serves the church in many respects, it is true; but the covenant regulates all areas wherein God is to be served through Christ, while the church, however influential, is always a servant of the covenant.

We now come to Numero Tres: the proposition that the church is the synagogue of Christ.

We concede that the New Testament idea of the church is not exhausted by the synagogue model. Still, the confessing church so obviously grows out of the synagogue pattern that it behooves us at least to be familiar with its history. Though its origins are often said to be obscure, we suggest that they are to be discovered in the Law of the Lord at Leviticus 23:3. There God commanded, “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a day of sacred assembly [holy convocation].... Wherever you live [in all your dwellings], it is a Sabbath to the LORD.”

After the settlement of the promised land, three times a year all males were required to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem. Every Sabbath Day, however, all Israelite males were commanded to meet in sacred assemblies wherever they lived. What positive Scripture regulation is there to govern those assemblies? Well, if we discount the notion of the authority of the so-called Oral Law (which purportedly came to be written, in part, in the Talmud, and which the Jews hold to be equally necessary with the Torah), we are left to conclude that these weekly gatherings were virtually unregulated by divine precept. The sacrificial worship in Jerusalem, on the other hand, was meticulously regulated.

It is generally acknowledged that the organization of the synagogue progressed greatly at the time of the Babylonian Captivity. A most significant aspect of that development was that dispersed Jews would, of necessity, meet for worship without and apart from the Temple, i.e., they met for “pure” worship, without sacrifice (sacrifice not being possible with the Temple destroyed and the Jews being largely scattered far away from Jerusalem). This was an anticipation of the church’s worship, after Christ would enter the true Holy of Holies in the heavens (see the Book of Hebrews).

The synagogue established itself forever as an integral part of the covenant community in the Diaspora, but by the time of Ezra/Nehemiah it was also established in Judea, even in Jerusalem, and even after the Temple was rebuilt. Therefore, in both Zion and among the widely scattered sons of Abraham, it became a fixed institution which paved the way for the establishment and organization of the Synagogue of Christ. “It has been estimated that approximately four million Jews of the Diaspora had more than a thousand synagogues by the time the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70.... During the Second Commonwealth there were hundreds of synagogues in Jerusalem and the rural towns of Eretz Yisrael” (Dr. Philip Birnhaum).

Our Lord Jesus the Messiah “always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together” (Jn. 18:20). Luke records the pregnant fact that Jesus, “on the Sabbath Day... went into the synagogue, as was His custom” (4:16). He announced His Messiahship under the declaration of the true Year of Jubilee, in the synagogue (4:16-21). He taught in the synagogue, cast demons out of victims in the synagogue, and “kept on preaching in the synagogues” (4:3Iff; 44). It should be kept in mind that Jesus fully participated in an institution which had the most vague of all possible links with the express command of God. The institution itself could discover only implicit warrant in the Law (though that is no small bananas); and the elements and order of service were without Torah explication altogether. Yet, Jesus seemed “at home” there (the unbelief of the worshipers aside!).

It should appear obvious at this point that if the so-called regulative principle of worship (viz., that it is unlawful to do in worship anything which God has not expressly commanded: if it is not commanded, it is forbidden) was to be applied to the synagogue wherein our Lord Himself worshiped, there could be no worship at all! Since the Law contains no liturgical injunctions or guidance for the weekly sacred assemblies outside the Temple. The true regulative principle, then, was Temple-centric. Hence, it guarded, not worship per se, but that sacrificial and “ceremonial” worship which was the revealed truth concerning the Person and Saving Work of Jesus Christ, i.e., the Gospel. And it is to that truth (that is, the Gospel), and not to worship per se, that the regulative principle is to be applied in the New administration of the covenant. You therefore find Paul “cursing” distorters of the message (Gal. 1, etc), but “arguing and reasoning” about matters of worship.

Now the critical moments wherein Christ is discovered establishing the church as His synagogue come in John 9 and Matthew 16ff. In the Johannine passage the parents of the healed blind man are exceedingly reluctant to testify before the unbelieving Jewish leaders because “the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed that [Jesus] was the Messiah, he would he put out of the synagogue” (v. 22). In Matthew, Jesus had made that very criterion the basis for admission into His synagogue, which is, for the first time in the New Testament, called “the church” (Mt. 16:16-18). Here the two synagogues diverge, with the synagogue of unbelief eventually being accorded the title “the synagogue of Satan” in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9. What must be stressed at this point is that Christ Himself, and the confession of Him as Lord and Messiah (the confession traceable to the Father and the Spirit) is the fundamental dividing point between the two synagogues: not church government, not the regulative principle, not a proper apprehension of covenant, important as these all may be in their place. It is the Spirit-prompted acknowledgment and confession of Him as Lord which marks the separation. To place anything else in this position is functional idolatry, for it removes our Lord Jesus Himself from the position of Cornerstone (cf. Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Eph. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:4-10).


Of course, there is much more to be said, but for now we will simply note the following:

  • The synagogue, an institution designed to glorify God, aid His people, and serve the covenant community, has particular functions within that community. This is suggested by the various titles by which it has been known: house of prayer, house of study, assembly house, people’s house, little sanctuary (the last traced by many to Ezekiel 11:16see KJV, NKJV; not NIV). The synagogue of Christ, therefore, to understand itself, must think in terms of Christian confession and covenant function.

2) The functions of the synagogue are, a: worship; b: instruction; c: adjudication (within limits—the Beth Din [House of Judgment], of which there were different forms at the time of our Lord, generally exercised an authority wider in scope than particular congregations; this fact should hearten some Presbyterians!).

3) The link between the functions of the synagogue and the functions of various other covenant institutions is the Law of God. A glory belonging to the church, therefore, is its primacy in providing instruction in the Law as it is in Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15-16).

4) The synagogue is, in origin and development, inescapably a decentralized institution. If it is not local, it is not.

5) The local synagogue is not a pure democracy: it is ruled by elders. On the other hand, it is congregational rather than hierarchical—e.g., no “higher” assembly or prelate authenticates its officers (this should hearten Independents and historic Congregationalists!).

Why not chew on the above for awhile? And if you’d like a tape in which these and related ideas are discussed, send a huge donation to Messiah’s Congregation and ask for the sermon, “In the Synagogues.”

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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