God’s plan for the local church
The Irish Biblical Reformation Conference was held on 3 November 2007 at Edenmore Golf Club. The guest speaker was Stephen Rees, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport, and his subject was, ‘God’s plan for the local church’.
He asked the question: ‘What is the local church?’ We were reminded that the word ‘church’ simply means an assembly or a gathering. In the New Testament it can be used to mean the whole company of God’s elect, or to mean the believers who actually gather in a specific place.
Pillar and ground
Stephen argued that the New Testament gives us a very high view of the importance of local churches. He reminded us of Paul’s words: ‘I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’.
The local church, functioning according to God’s plan, is the great safeguard for truth in the world. Nothing can fill the gap if this pillar is removed. The New Testament knows of no Christian institution other than local churches. The apostles saw no need for any other agencies – they simply planted, taught and encouraged churches.
Stephen went on to give us a brief historical survey of the evangelical tradition. He argued that true Evangelicals, from the Protestant Reformers through to the 19th century, had always stressed the importance of building biblical churches. However, the growth of revivalism under Moody brought a fatal shift.
The emphasis was placed on winning converts in revival meetings rather than on building up local churches. A new phenomenon was born – a caste of travelling evangelists working outside the structures of local churches.
They neither belonged to nor understood the local church. Alongside this, parachurch organisations proliferated, absorbing the resources and time of Christians. This has continued to be true right up to the present.
Stephen spoke of attempts to challenge this trend. He reminded us that Dr Lloyd-Jones was first and foremost a local church pastor. The Doctor was not at all hostile to parachurch activities but saw them as auxiliary to the work of local churches.
The Doctor set a pattern for the evangelical constituency, calling for a new Reformation. Many paid the cost by secession from comfortable situations and large denominations, or by painfully working to reform existing churches. This vision is still needed today – a vision to build truly biblical churches, whatever the cost.
The gospel church
In the second conference session, Stephen proceeded to give an eight-point profile for healthy local churches.
Firstly, local churches should be gospel churches. Our goal is to build churches where every member understands, loves and can communicate the real gospel. What is this gospel?
It is a message about God. He made us, he owns us, and he has supreme rights over us. It is a message about sin. We have offended and angered God. We are by nature under his righteous judgement.
It is a message about Jesus Christ – his person and his work for sinners. Salvation is through Christ alone.
It is a message about repentance and faith. Men are called to turn from sin to God through Christ.
These are the key dimensions of the gospel message. Many who claim to be evangelicals communicate a false gospel. But churches where this gospel is central will be marked by the fear of God, the wonder of who Jesus is, and the urgency of running to him and believing in him alone. If we fail to communicate the gospel truly, we rob God of his deserved glory.
The Bible church
Secondly, local churches should be Bible churches. We are Bible people! Stephen took us through Paul’s description of the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:15-17. They are God-breathed – true and authoritative in every part. We must build churches which submit totally to the authority of Scripture. ‘It is written’ settles every question.
The Scriptures are sufficient. Armed with them, the ‘man of God’ can be complete, equipped for every good work.
They are powerful – ‘able to make you wise for salvation’.
They are holy. Paul is careful to speak of them as the Holy Scriptures. To ‘tremble at the Word’ is a mark of the true believer. Reading and hearing Scripture ought to be the highest and holiest point in all our worship.
Stephen highlighted ways in which this view of the Bible has been undermined even among many churches which call themselves evangelical. Unbelief has undermined confidence in Scripture’s authority. The charismatic movement has undermined confidence in Scripture’s sufficiency. Entertainment evangelism has undermined confidence in Scripture’s power to awaken and save sinners. Worldliness has undermined the awareness of the holiness of Scripture. How our churches need to be Bible churches!
The doctrinal church
Thirdly, local churches should be doctrinal churches. If we believe the Bible is God’s Word, we will believe that everything the Bible says is true and consistent. We will want to understand how all the truths found in the Bible fit together.
If we love God, we will want to under-stand everything that he has revealed about himself. Especially we will want to understand the plan of salvation. We love the doctrines of grace because they give all the glory to God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Stephen spoke warmly of the great creeds, confessions and catechisms. We use them as maps that help us explore the vast truth of God’s grace.
The historically literate church
Fourthly, local churches should be conscious of history. We live in a deeply ‘anti-history’ society. We, however, are interested in history. Why? Because it is the record of what God has done in the past.
We read biographies of believers of past ages. We sing hymns that have been sung by generations before us. We are conscious that we share the experience of a historical yet living faith. The Hebrew Christians were told to ‘Remember your leaders who spoke – in the past – the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith’.
The church with leadership
Fifthly, local churches should have true biblical leadership. We live in a democratically-minded age. Yet the Bible speaks of leaders among God’s people. The terms used – pastors, elders, overseers – all convey the same idea that these men have authority to lead. They do it on the one hand by preaching and teaching, and on the other by ruling – not domineering or tyrannising but guiding as a shepherd guides the flock.
What sort of men ought they to be? Men of transparent godliness. Men who are set apart for the ministry of the word and prayer. Where such leaders lead, the church follows.
The devoted church
Sixthly, local churches should have a devoted membership. Stephen took us through Acts 2:37-42. People hear and are convicted. They accept the message and are baptised and then added to the church.
These then devote themselves to learning together, sharing together, breaking bread together and praying together. The idea of unbaptised believers was foreign to the New Testament. The idea of baptised believers who were not added to the church as members was unknown. The idea of members who were not devoted to the life of the church was unthinkable.
The holy church
Seventhly, local churches should be holy churches – reserved for God alone. Churches are separated from the world for God. We were warned to beware of lowering standards to meet the prevailing culture. Romans 12 calls us not to be conformed but to be transformed!
We are to be visibly different. Our calling is to challenge the prevailing norms of society. Our holy conduct is to expose its false gods of money, pleasure and individual ‘rights’ for what they are. We must build churches of sinners but churches where sin is intolerable!
The Spirit-filled church
Eighthly, local churches should be Spirit filled churches, drenched with the Spirit of God. The church is God’s dwelling place, his temple. So we long for God’s manifest presence in our midst.
Paul pictures what the gathering of every local church should be – a meeting where even unbelievers are confronted by the reality of God and fall on their faces, crying ‘God is among you!’ (1 Corinthians 14:25). Our greatest need in our churches today is to know more of the presence of God. The Lord Jesus has promised that the Father will give us the Holy Spirit if we ask. Should we accept less?
The conference was greatly appreciated by the many who attended. Next year we are looking forward, God willing, to ministry from Dr Jim Renihan from the Reformed Baptist Seminary, at Westminster West, Escondido, California.
Dundalk Baptist Church, Ireland