I am struggling. My question is: What is real church?
Your question can be asked another way, “What does God want the local church to be like?”
What Should It Be Like?
Our God never expected the church to be perfect because He knows that we are sinners, and sinners always mess things up. Yet, He has told us what He expects the church to be like. God has given His church spiritually gifted men who are to lead by godly example. He has given the members of the church spiritual gifts so that they can minister to one another. He has also given Christians His Holy Spirit so that they can grow spiritually from little children in the faith into spiritual fathers.
God’s key leaders are elders. They are the key to the health of the church. God expects them to function as pastors to the church. Now it is important to understand that elders include full-time ministers and laymen. “Who are elders?” God assumes that some laymen in the church will be elders. These men along with the man we often call the “pastor” are supposed to be the pastors of the church. All of the elders are to function as pastors. All of the elders are to be recognized as pastors. They are to shepherd the flock together as a team. There are several previous questions about church leadership that will help to answer the questions “Who are elders?” and “What are the qualifications of an elder?” “What are the duties of a pastor?”
God has also given every Christian spiritual gifts. He wants us to use them to minister to one another, give to one another, teach one another, and to encourage one another. He has given us elders and teachers to teach God’s Word. He has given us spiritual fathers to show us how to live the Christian life. He has given us one another to encourage us, to provoke us to love and good deeds, and to fellowship.
What Is The Actual Church Like?
Some churches around us are disappointing to God. In Revelation 2-3 God speaks to seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. God has some good and some bad things to say to them. These churches are examples of our churches today. If we look closely at what God said to these churches, we find that there were only two of the seven that were good. There is something wrong with the other five. It is sad. The five churches either 1) did not love God as they should, 2) tolerated sexual sin in their lives, 3) allowed false doctrine to be taught, 4) did not care about God, or 5) were indifferent to Him. We see the same problems in our churches today. We will now look at some of the issues that exist in our churches. Lord willing, this will help us understand what God wants His church to look like.
First, the character of an elder is more important than how many people are attending the church, how many programs the church has, or how wonderful the worship is. The spiritual condition of the church is determined by the spiritual health of the elders and not the reverse.
And it will be, like people, like priest . . . (NASB) Hosea 4:9
For those who guide this people are leading them astray; And those who are guided by them are brought to confusion. (NASB) Isaiah 9:16
If these elders are not right before God, their teaching of God’s Word will be weak and their ministry will lack power. God wants only qualified men to be His elders. The qualifications are the first step in making sure the right men are leading the church. Gene Getz says, “the most important criterion for selecting local leadership is spiritual qualifications.” (Getz, G. A., Sharpening The Focus of the Church, Moody Press., 1974, p. 105.) Why? The answer is, “The quality of the elders makes or breaks the church.”
An Elder’s Passion
In a surprising magazine article many years ago Mike Yaconelli wrote about the type of pastor churches want. His comments are true in many churches.
We don’t want ministers anymore; we want CEOs. We don’t want prophets, we want politicians. We don’t want godliness, we want experience. We don’t want spirituality, we want efficiency. We don’t want humility, we want charisma. We don’t want godly authority, we want relational skills. As a result, we have thousands and thousands of churches in this country whose ministers are very qualified to do what the church has asked of them, but the one thing that hasn’t been asked of them is to love Jesus.”
Some leaders have little desire to know Jesus in a deeper, more personal way. It only comes through a serious study of God’s Word week-by-week. There are pastors who do not want to do that. Such men do not have a desire to really know God. It is obvious to those sitting in their congregations who hunger to learn something new about God and yet they hear the same old truths, the same illustrations, and passionless messages. Such pastors and elders are not growing spiritually. So when looking for a church, look for a teaching elder (a pastor) who is teaching through the Bible and who appears to be growing as a Christian.
Elders As Servants
An elder’s responsibility in the body of Christ is first and foremost one of servitude. Elders dare not view individual ministry responsibilities as acquisition of power or influence! Christ did not intend the eldership to be a position of personal honor, prestige or glory. Jesus’ instruction to His disciples was that their role was one of service (being a servant) and slaving for others. The congregation should be at the top of the church’s organization chart with the elders at the bottom and not the reverse. Jesus in speaking of the Gentiles in Matthew 20:25-27 said,
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you . . . just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve . . . (NASB) Matthew 20:25-27
Every Christian leader, including the elders, must strive to keep his people from becoming overly dependent upon him. He must seek to ‘equip the saints’ to minister to each other and to keep their primary loyalty centered and focused on Christ. Unfortunately, Christian leaders are human beings. To be honored and respected – both biblical injunctions – is highly satisfying. Ego-building is a pleasant experience. It is tragic when spiritual and emotional immaturity causes an elder or elders to build a work around himself or themselves and not around the body of Christ, and particularly its Head – Jesus Christ. The work is destined for trouble, no matter how large it grows. Spiritual maturity is the goal and nothing else. That is the depth of the ministry.
People tend to extol human leaders, to put them on a pedestal, and – to make this item very personal and relevant – in a sense to become ‘pastor-worshippers [or elder-worshippers].’ Most Christians would be horrified at this accusation. But, unfortunately, it cannot be denied.
All Christian leaders must remind themselves that they are but ‘human means’ to achieve ‘divine ends.’ The true test of our success lies not in numbers, activities, or loyalties. We are successful only as we are used of God ‘to equip the saints’ to function in the body. We are successful only when the body grows and develops and ultimately manifests the ‘more excellent way’ – the way of love and unity – followed by a strong faith and a steadfast hope. Success is faithfulness to God (2 Tim. 2:20; 2 Tim. 4:7).
Eldership should be ministering together as a team. The responsibilities of the ministry are to be shared, the burdens of time, grief, agony and leadership. The ministry is one of responding to the needs of the flock. The burdens elders carry and the time they give should be one of service to Christ – not to the eldership – not to the flock. I do not mean there is an indifference to the congregation, but a personal focus and eagerness that says “I will please Christ in my service to His flock”.
An elder’s service should be one of making disciples: not just any disciples, but disciples who can eventually replace him, just as Jesus trained His disciples to be His ministers after He left. He needs someone into whom he can pour his life. Each elder should be viewed as a member of a team whose collective goal is to minister, to shepherd the flock personally (including the lay elders) in addition to any other personal ministries in the church. A true elder will seek the expansion of Christ’s kingdom even at the cost of his own “glory or fame.” If he craves to be first amongst the elders, then he will not be “first in the kingdom.” Every elder, pastoral or lay, must minister together as a team. Some will excel in teaching and others in ruling. In the Spirit’s great plan, each elder complements the leadership team. Every elder should have the support and the respect of the other elders, just as the congregation is encouraged to honor their elders. The elders should hold each other accountable for a holy walk with Christ and the performance of their ministry responsibilities. This means that we need to pray our leaders so that they give the credit to God for the “successes in the ministry.”
In recent history, the pendulum of the pulpit has been swinging from an emphasis on doctrine (in some cases without love) to an over-emphasis on love (without doctrine). The swinging pendulum may be symptomatic of a search for meaning, commitment and obedience in the Christian life. We are affected by a humanistic society without moral absolutes when we consider love to be supreme and down play doctrine. I Cor 13:1, Eph. 4:12 and 2 Tim. 2:15 are in harmony with each other; they go together. Some have forgotten that both solid Bible teaching and love go together! Without doctrine we are “tossed here and there” (Eph 4:14) and without love we are in sin (James 2:8-9). Spiritual maturity is to obey Him and to know Him (2 Tim 3:17; I John 2:14) and to love all men (Gal. 6:10). We need more loving Marys who want to feed on Jesus’ words at His feet.
Over the years, pastors have expressed concern and even wondered why believers in their church were spiritually immature. This exists in part because our congregations are being provided milk or “watered down theology” and not solid biblical content (Heb. 5:12-14). 1 John 2:12-14 indicates spiritual maturity is knowing Him. This comes through a personal walk and a strong knowledge of His Word resulting in stability in the believer’s life (Eph 4:12-14). This includes systematic teaching of His Word both topically and book-by-book. We also need to teach systematic theology from a biblical basis and not from a historical discourse of the councils. A chapter-and-verse understanding of systematic theology is an absolute must. We must become students of the text first and foremost (we need to be Bereans). Most Christians need a systemized understanding of scripture. For many, their understanding is in bits and pieces.
Some Christians would be too embarrassed to take a course on doctrine. Others would mistakenly believe they know it all. Unfortunately, what the congregation believe they need is not always an indication of what they actually need. The writer of the Book of Hebrews told his readers that they were not growing. Why? They were not getting solid food. The baseball or basketball stadiums can be filled with “people who ‘know’ what they need and want.” Churches can be filled with unbelievers, the uncommitted and the misdirected. The need for spiritual maturity is the reason leaders are given to the church (Eph. 4:11-12).
Just as with the Old Testament priests, some leaders today do not really understand what is needed in their church or they are too weary in well doing. There are leaders who are tossed to and fro with every wind of “pop” doctrine. Some men believe that a basic theology is all that is needed. What is usually missing is a solid knowledge of the Bible. They do not know the Bible. They basically know a system of theology and not the Bible, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees did.
Some churches are preoccupied with providing a church that meets the personal needs of those attending their church. There are two concerns with this sentence. The first concern is the phrase “their church.” The church does not belong to the leaders. They may think and act as it does, but, it is the Lord’s church, first and last. The second concern is that members are increasingly coming to church “seeking a blessing,” “to be encouraged,” “to be strengthened for the week,” or “to meet friends.” Are we consumed with ourselves or our Lord? Has the worship of God become secondary? Are we increasingly self-preoccupied with our brother and sister in Christ? Are we ignoring the lost world? We should be consumed with Jesus and others. There is no room for a church which is preoccupied with itself, or is a social club, or just an intellectual library; there must only be room for following Jesus (Eccl. 12:13). This is a mark of an inward focused church. They have lost their first love.
Like Priest, Like People
The major reason churches are suffering is the quality of their leadership. Leaders can lead and teach, but they cannot make anyone grow spiritually. It has been interesting to visit different churches and to observe the similarities between the flock and its leadership. The spiritual health of a congregation is limited by the spiritual health of its leadership. Matt 10:24-25 summarizes this point,
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and a slave as his master. (NASB) Matt 10:24-25
The point is, a congregation needs spiritual fathers in the faith who are still growing in their walk with God. A barometer of the quality of the leadership is the spiritual condition of the congregation. 1 Peter 5:3 says elders are to be examples or models to the flock. Church leaders often forget that they are examples even if they do not want to be. Leaders set the tone. Elders must not forget: they are the examples! True examples are individuals who are examples on Sunday AND when no one else is with them to observe if they are the same in private as they are in public. In reality it is his public and his private conduct that defines a man’s spiritual character. That is the reason the standards Christ set for leaders are so high.
We trust that this helps to answer your question. We have explored some common problems in the church today. Lord willing, these words will give you some things to think about as to God’s design and pattern for the church. We must remember that no church is perfect, but some are better than others. Our Lord Jesus warned us in the book of Revelation that many churches have serious problems. But that is not true of all of them. How can we know which church is the best? A previous question and answer entitled “How do I know which church to attend?” provides some guidelines for selecting a good church. There is also a previous question and answer which provides for leaving a church. May the Lord Jesus richly bless you!
1. The Door, Jan./Feb. 1992.
2. Getz, G. A., Sharpening The Focus of the Church, Moody Press., 1974, p. 105.
Should I leave this church?
How do I know which church to attend?
Who are the elders? Are they pastors?
I need help teaching the congregation about leadership.
What are the pastor’s duties to a church?
God’s Great Passion
A Call: Teach The Bible
God’s Design For The Church
Marks of Spiritual Maturity
Recovering the Pattern of Biblical Leadership
Sinning Pastors/Leaders: What to Do?
Thoughts On Selecting A Pastor
Women In The Church