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Friday, January 12, 2007

Church Membership: The Word in the Mouth of Our Brother

Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; Having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

Phil 1:27-30 (KJV)

Why do the Philippians need to hear this word from Paul? In the age immediately following the resurrection and the ascension, it is the New Testament church, the church many denomination claim to hold true to, the church that is supposed to be as good at it gets…yet the Philippians need to be told to hold true to the gospel. This isn’t due to external persecution, but internal strife!

In fact, this is not a rare occurrence in the New Testament. Galatians, 1st Corinthians and 1 John speak of the strife in the church, as do other passages. The church has false converts, heretics, confused Christians, weak Christians, arrogant Christians, and sin-laden Christians in it, yet the Philippians are not told to abandon the church because of its problems. Instead, they are told to stand firm. There is a very good reason for this.

The death and the life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources; rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from the outside, in God’s word to him. The Reformers expressed it this way: our righteousness is an “alien righteousness,” a righteousness that comes from outside of us. They were stating that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him. He is pointed outward, to the Word that comes to him. The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ. If somebody asks him, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? He can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him salvation and righteousness. He is as alert as possible to the Word. Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he daily desires the redeeming Word. And it can only come from the outside. In himself he is destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes daily anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

The Philippians, and all Christians, need the righteousness of Christ. Even when we are at our best, we are still sinful. It is Christ that saved and Christ that drives us in sanctification, not ourselves. We become disgusted at our brethren, yet were we not them at some point? We need the Word, but because we are sinners, we need it to come from outside of ourselves.

God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.

The very best person to bring the Word of God to use in a pure application is anyone but ourselves. Placing ourselves in a box where we will take in and interpret how we wish is not the design of God for the church universal – it is the church local that provides the mechanism for growth. When we are faced with the pettiness of many of our churches and in our churches, we need to review one of the hard sayings of Scripture in Philippians 2:

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.  Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of  others.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Philippians 2:1-8 (NKJV)

The humility exhibited by Christ is the humility we are to demonstrate. Calling the sinfulness of our brother a justification for separating ourselves is pride resisting the call of the Spirit to humility. You are no better than they, and neither am I. Abstention not only denies us the benefits of receiving the Word from our brother, it denies them the blessing of receiving the Word from us. Whatever justification you may use, humility and placing others above ourselves are no part of it.

So why does God place us in churches that so often get broken? That is the subject of the next post.


  • God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.

    Hammer, I was with you until you veered off into novel territory. For the life of me, I can’t see how you go from “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” to ”The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”

    Are suggesting that Christ’s relationship with the members of His body is essentially collective, rather than individual first, with each forming the parts of a whole? Do you not relate individually to your kids?

    This is by far your weakest argument of the series to date (I say this in love, of course).

    By Blogger Robert, at 1/13/2007 04:07:00 PM  

  • Robert,
    Well, I suppose we start first with looking at where these two passages come from. The second passage follows the first in the letter to the Philippians. We "stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the gospel" by "be[ing] like minded" and "esteem[ing] others better than yourself" qand to look out for the interests of others. The Scriptures emphasize that if there be any full joy, we find it in community with the Father and with each other (1 John 1:1-4).

    How do we "submit ye one to another" if we do not assemble? How do we "confess your sins to one another"? When we read James 5, we read it knowing already that if we confess our sins to God himself that he is faithful to forgive us, yet we are still told to confess to one another!

    Our esteem of our brother above ourselves is not to assume that he is more educated, theologically sound, godly, passionate about the gospel, or discerning than we are. The esteem of each other above ourselves is to realize that my heart is wicked, so much so that I cannot know its designs, and that my brother, though he be as sinful as I, does not have the wickedness of MY heart clouding HIS judgment. That is how iron sharpen iron in the body - there will always be things I learn from my Christian brothers and sisters because they have different temptations, are deceived differently, and have, of special note, different gifts.

    Does that make more sense? It means that when I consider Wesley and Whitefield, that I must consider both a step ahead, not just Whitefield because I think he is more correct. It means I must listen with open ears to my fellow church members, even on issues I think I have it all wrapped up.

    That is why the Word in the mouth of my brother is more sure, especially as it regards sin in my life. My brother is not justifying my sins like I do, and thus is a more sure judge of my error.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/15/2007 01:31:00 PM  

  • Sorry, I didn't directly answer! No, the relationship is not essentially collective, but it is inclusively connective. God speaks to us through our brethren, and he does so because we often won't listen another way. Outside the body of the local church we rot in our misconceptions and personal philosophies.

    can God break through without the church? Of course - yet he has prescribed that we must come together, submit, confess and encourage, among the rest of the list in the last post's comments.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/15/2007 01:34:00 PM  

  • I appreciate the clarification; I hoped that you weren’t insisting that one may only hear from God through the voice of another.

    Nevertheless, there remains the issue of which assembly one ought to fellowship with and who one’s brothers are. My position is not abstention for its own sake; but rather, I have and do abstain because—being fairly well-acquainted with the major sects—the idea of settling for what I characterize as contrived is unappealing, to say the least.

    I understand that you disagree; that you’re more tolerant of the man-made elements (my words) of the modern church. You obviously feel strongly about this, as evidenced by your advocacy on this blog, as well as your current vocation. However, I’ve not been similarly convicted; my mind is subject to the will of God…as is yours and everyone else’s. ;-)

    [p.s. I’m enjoying Edwards’s treatise on the Will…thanks for the tip]

    By Blogger Robert, at 1/15/2007 07:00:00 PM  

  • Good! I'm glad I was more clear this time.

    I am a big fan of Edwards. Most people only think of "Sinner In the Hands of an Angry God" when they hear his name (if they think of anything at all!), but his sermons on the religious affections, Christian charity, and the Holy Spirit I have really enjoyed. One of these days I'll put the points of Edwards' "Sinners" sermon out there in bullet form and demonstrate that the man had it right!

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 1/21/2007 05:05:00 PM  

  • Hammer,
    "the relationship is not essentially collective, but it is inclusively connective"

    Excellent phrase, I think. We are individuals, but without other people we cannot even be that.

    (Oh, and I'd love to see your interpretation of Edwards because, as you know, I profoundly disagree with the emphasis of much of his preaching. In particular, the idea that God is primarily "an Angry God" seems to me incompatible with the life and teachings of Christ - and if we are not centred on Christ, we are not Christian.)

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 1/25/2007 06:42:00 AM  

  • Holy cow, John! Did I just see you make a judgement call as to how one qualifies as "Christian"? ;)

    By Blogger Rightthinker2, at 1/25/2007 10:58:00 AM  

  • LOL, RT.

    But I've always been pretty firm that "Christian" means "one who follows Christ". The point is that it's not defined by membership of a particular party or meeting or denomination, nor by assent to particular theologies.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 1/25/2007 01:32:00 PM  

  • We are individuals, but without other people we cannot even be that.

    How so?

    By Blogger Robert, at 1/27/2007 01:34:00 PM  

  • Robert,
    The concept of "the individual" only exists as set against "the community". Without the idea of a community, we can have no idea of the individual.

    Similarly, unless we exist in community, we cannot truly exist as individuals - cutting ourselves off (in theory or in practice) from other people doesn't make us individuals. It just makes us less than human.

    And, again, if we try to frame salvation as being about the individual only, we lose the most important parts of what the Bible teaches, which are about how the individual should relate to other people and God (the community). Although salvation involves individuals, it is (to use Hammer's phrase) inclusively connective - it involves the connections between people and their inclusion in God's plan just as much as (no less than) it does those individuals themselves.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 1/27/2007 01:44:00 PM  

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