The two passages of Scripture that have most significantly shaped my thinking about the church are these: first the apostle Paul’s teaching about the body of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians; and second the description Luke gives us of the early believers after the day of Pentecost being “devoted to the apostles teaching and fellowship” (Acts 2:42). For all the years of my ministry these have spurred me on as a leader in the church. But some time ago, while teaching about Christian marriage, I was stunned to see the apostle offhandedly refer to the relationship between submission in marriage and the way “the church submits to Christ.” (Eph 5:21)
Why was I stunned? Because all my experience was of a church that was generally submitted to other things. A church that maintained traditions, even when they were clearly ineffective in spreading the kingdom of God. A church that maintained organizational control at the expense of gospel liberty. A church that was led by many who seemed to seek the chief seat rather than the towel of the servant. A church that habitually put buildings and grounds ahead of global mission, indeed any gospel mission. A church racked with power struggles and conflict over points of doctrine and order that seemed not central at all to the gospel preached by the Lord Jesus. A church dedicated to the latest fads or programs but which didn’t seem to want to restructure to live under the authority of the Scripture.
Paul experienced the church differently. He experienced her as submitted to Christ. When and how did this experience come to him? Presumably it must have come to him in the very first days of his Christian life. He was led to the Lord by an obedient disciple of the church in Damascus. He then spent nearly three years as part of that church. Though the text is silent, I have no doubt that his years in Tarsus were similarly lived in a community of believers there. When he was called to accompany Barnabas to Antioch everything he already knew must have been deeply reinforced by his years in that glorious local body. When the two of them set out on the missionary journey recorded by Luke, they were helping to plant churches that submitted to Christ because that was the only church that was the church. Can the experience of those days be seen again? There is little argument that many would doubt it. But does the Lord of the church?
A central doctrine of the Scriptures, emerging from the experience of the historic community of faith, is that while God’s purposes remain unfulfilled, he will never cease to call his people back to faithfulness. There will come a day when the last of the elect will come in, and then the end will unfold. But until that day, there is time to repent and amend our ways. But who will hear this cry, and who will pay the price? For surely, to begin again to be a “submitted to Christ” church will require sacrifice in the face of a hostile world.
Next Week: Cultural Seduction