What did Jesus intend when He founded the church? Is American Christianity “it”?
In this episode Phylicia breaks down chapter seven of Every Woman a Theologian and how the church in Acts functioned – and how that translates to today. We also touch on the need for both reformation and revival and how our relationships with other Christians are a pivotal part of our witness.
Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer and I’m here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey, because every woman is a theologian.
Hello, friends. Today we’re talking about the church, what it is, why it matters, why we should care. Quick little note before we begin, my children are in the other room playing Legos. If you hear a rush of Lego blocks spilling onto the floor that’s what that is. Josh is out shipping your orders from the Every Woman a Theologian shop and so, I am on duty today, and I am going to be sharing with you about theology while living my very real life. [chuckles] When I say every woman is a theologian, I really mean it. It is something we can do in the middle of our everyday normal lives including when Legos are being dumped out next door.
In this episode, we are looking at ecclesiology or the doctrine of the church. This doctrine is in chapter 7 of the book Every Woman a Theologian and obviously it’s one of those giant discussions, especially in today’s culture, that is super hard to condense into one tiny chapter. But we’re going to look at some of the high points of what the church is and how we can be the church in today’s culture. So, to give us a picture for this, I want to describe for you the house that I grew up in. My dad built the house I spent almost all of my childhood in. He was only 28 years old when he and my mom bought this 15-acre farm and that’s where he built the house that we grew up in. There were six of us kids. We grew up on this beautiful Michigan farm and they sold the house when I went off to college in 2008. But dad built the house all at once, but he also built it slowly in the years that passed as we lived there, the 16 years or so, the house became more and more what he originally meant it to be. It never stopped being the thing he built it at the beginning, and yet it also became something intrinsically more. For my parents, the house was never done. It was constantly becoming a better version of what dad had envisioned.
Similarly, when the Holy Spirit draws people to Christ and those people respond, we become part of a new family. Jesus is our cornerstone and we are joined together as a church. This word comes from a Dutch word called Kirk, and that’s descended from the Greek, which simply means Lord’s house. So, the house here in reference, it’s not a building. The house is the people as Ephesians 2 tells us. We are being joined together, built to become a holy temple of the Lord. So, each of us is an individual temple of God being built into this greater temple. Our bodies house the spirit of Christ. His spirit is this advantage to us but his influence isn’t simply for our own self-improvement. It’s to unite us with other believers because Christianity was never meant to be a solitary sport. Our faith is inherently communal and has been from the very beginning in the Old Testament. The corporate mentality that we see in the New Testament is carried over from the Old Testament. The Hebrew word is Kahal, which refers to the assembled people of Israel. Faith is communal and to be a Christian is to be part of that community. Most of the instructions that are given in the New Testament use the plural word for you. You are no longer foreigners and strangers. It refers to you as a collective. So, then ecclesiology based on the Greek word ekklesia is theology of the church.
Now, as I wrote the book, the confusion and hurt over church runs like the scar across Christendom. We’re so confused over what church is, I mean, is it a sermon and a worship service and an altar call? Is it a small group Bible study? This is 12 years ago, I was sitting in class and my professor asked, what is church? One of the students said, “Well, I think this is church.” We’re in a Christian college class. We’re all Christians, to me, this is church. Another one said, I like to just go to a nice big church like on Sundays where I can get in and get out and nobody knows me, and doesn’t try to stop me or talk to me. That’s church to me. I remember even sitting back then, I hadn’t finished my religion degree yet. I thought there’s something wrong with these definitions. First of all, they’re all different. We’re coming up with this on our own. Secondly, there’s something off about just like a gathering of Christians who happen to all be Christian, like, that can’t be church even though we are personally the church, there’s more to it than just existing as followers of Christ.
Now, at that point in my experience, my walk with God, my experience of the church, I had actually been in quite a few denominations. I had been in a charismatic church, I had been in a Southern Baptist church, I was at a Southern Baptist university, and I had been in a home church, and I also visited the Catholic church and some other denominations. So, I probably had a wider range of experience in the church than many of the people in that class and it may be due to that that I was a little disturbed [chuckles] by what I was hearing said. Now, years later, having gone through the study of this topic, I see that my suspicions were at least correct. This can’t be the definition of church. It can’t be a consumer mentality of in and out, I get what I want, I don’t have to invest in anybody else or talk to anybody else. Can’t be that, it also can’t just be, “Hey, I’m sitting in a Christian college classroom and we’re all followers, so this is church, I don’t need anything else.” Because the Book of Acts actually outlines for us what the early church was doing, and we need to look at that in order to understand what church today should look like.
Let’s start with the very first megachurch not really, but kind of Acts 2. Peter is preaching at Pentecost and 3000 people come to know Jesus, 3000. So, many of these people were in Jerusalem and went home after Pentecost, but many would have also stayed and been integrated into the Jerusalem church. Acts 2:42 describes what they did at these meetings of the church, the body of Christ. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, which was expounding on the scriptures, to fellowship, unity with one another, relationship, to the breaking of bread, so this would be the sacraments observing what Jesus instituted before His death and to prayer. These are the four components that should characterize a church gathering in order for it to be called a church. But this wasn’t the only thing that made the church powerful. A sense of awe or reverence fell on the church. There was amazement at the work of Christ. A church full of people in awe of God’s goodness will always have an impact on their world. Here’s the really unique thing about his phrasing here, you cannot be in awe of God and his work in the world and be a consumer. What I mean by that is that the early church is overcome by this reverence for God and they’re gathering to learn from the Word, to break bread together, to live in imperfect fellowship. These people have the same sins and problems that we do today. Read the New Testament, read Corinthians. What is Paul correcting these people for, sexual sin and being completely out of order, and gossip and all of this stuff that we still deal with today. These are imperfect people that are having to walk with one another in the fruits of the spirit.
Today, we often think we have to get the perfect programs and music, and aesthetic to keep people in the church but the draw for these early Christians wasn’t what a church building had to offer. The draw was Jesus. It was the opportunity to learn more about Him and how to walk in his spirit that prompted these Christians to gather together in awe of God. Someone else said this and it was excellent. “I would give credit if I knew who it was.” But how you get somebody into the church is the reason they stay or the reason they go. Whatever it is that sold them on Christianity is what keeps them. If you sell someone on these amazing lights and performances, and music and the megachurch experience, you have to keep that up to keep them there. Whereas if you sell someone, I hate that term on the true gospel in the cost of discipleship, then that’s what they will expect. That’s all you have to provide going forward is continued discipleship and the true gospel and growth into becoming more like Christ.
In America where we have added all of this stuff. I can’t speak for my international listeners. I don’t know what your church culture is and all of the different places that you’re listening from. But in America, there is this just privileged idea that it’s about what the church can give to me. And if you make me uncomfortable or you cross me, or you don’t provide the right programs, then you don’t care about me, and my needs. So, it becomes this consumer mentality where instead of individuals who are being the church to others, individuals who are recognizing needs and going out and giving up their time, the church is responsible to do that. If it does not, the consumer can leave and it’s because that’s the format that we’ve sold people on at the beginning. Come to our franchise location that has these amenities instead of come to Jesus in the true gospel and grow into the image of Christ so you can be his hands and feet in the world. It’s so much simpler, it’s so much simpler and of course that works its way out in certain programs and not against programs. But I am saying if it all becomes too much, can we reduce it back down to the simple gospel? Because that is what the early church was doing. And that is how the early church thrived and didn’t just survive.
Churches are going to enact these four principles of the early church differently. The teaching and the prayer, and the breaking of the bread. It’s going to look different in different denominations and I respect that. But we need to think about what it looked like in that first community. I love this quote that said, “As new members joined the community, they were offered these foundational teachings in order to deepen their understanding of the way of Jesus that they had chosen to follow. The communal life is more than just warm-hearted fellowship among believers. The resurrection has truly transformed the priorities and social arguments of their former status quo.” Here’s maybe why we’re so dissatisfied with this surface fellowship that we see in many churches. Because we lack a change of priority in the church. When individuals don’t reorient their lives around this new family, a new family can’t exist. So, we show up, we eat some refreshments, we listen to a sermon, and we leave, like that guy in my class, but this isn’t how any real or lasting community is built. Families deepen relationships by consistent exposure and vulnerability. Clubs unite around a united vision or goal and the church is so much more than either of those things. It’s a family and cultivating relationship with one another takes more than consuming a Sunday sermon once a week.
Some of the people who are kind of trying to dismantle institutional Christianity will often say, like, “Church isn’t just showing up once a week.” It’s not just showing up and sitting, and they’re right about that. The problem is when they take that as the reason to just abandon church completely, it is a problem in the church. People who come and show up and are a warm body and don’t do anything else, that’s a problem. But the solution isn’t to abandon the idea of gathering for teaching and sacraments and discipleship. Because often what happens is we have this pendulum swing where people say, “Well, I’m not just going to be a warm body in the church the way the American culture does it so bye, bye church, I’m done.” That’s not the answer, because now you’re flying in the face of everything scripture teaches about the church. Now you’re accountable to no one. You’re deciding what authority you’re under. You’re not being taught by someone who knows the Word, you’re out freewheeling. So, what do we do in that situation?
Now, I’m not talking about being in between churches, not talking about having a period of time where your church hunting or church hopping or you went through spiritual abuse, and you’re taking time off as you seek a healthy body. Not talking about that, I’m talking about dismissal of the church because you don’t like what you see in American culture. Now, I understand [chuckles] the frustration with American culture, but also having been in over ten denominations in my life, I can assure you that healthy churches do exist. It is possible to find one that honors God and people and further, as someone in ministry who constantly receives criticism and negative feedback and even malicious attacks and assumptions. I can also assure you I have been hurt by church people more than anybody else in this world.
Church people are the people who have been the meanest to me. All I do is work with church people. I understand they shouldn’t be that way, but they choose to because they’re sinners and they need Christ. And some of them don’t even know the Lord, and some of them think that they’re God’s bulldogs. It’s frustrating no matter what way it looks and yet, if Christ saw fit to forgive me, He has called me to do the same. If those people came to me tomorrow and said they were sorry. That they had repented to the Lord and that they wanted to repent to me, I would welcome them back in. I would be so happy to have them in my community, or at least to have resolved that issue. If that doesn’t happen, I can still forgive them. I can still release them to God’s justice. I think this understanding of forgiveness not as complete acceptance or reconciliation, like, we’re not letting people necessarily back into our lives with no boundaries. But this idea of releasing people to God’s justice and understanding that there will be no church on this planet that doesn’t have flawed and sinful people in it.
Most of all, recognizing our own sinful choices and habits and how we hurt people will help us to give grace for the flawed and sinful people we find in the church. I think we’re really quick to hold people to a Christian standard that we ourselves don’t adhere to. That makes any kind of relationship very difficult. It makes any kind of church experience very difficult because we have this checklist of things that we want to have there in a church, and when it’s not there, we say, “Well, there’s no church good enough for me.” Sometimes you have to be willing to give grace on a few of those things. We’ve had to do that in different areas of the country we’ve lived that haven’t had many church options that we would want to be a part of. That’s when we have to give grace and understand that there are people on a journey. Obviously not in cases of spiritual abuse or malicious manipulation or cover ups, I would not be endorsing any of those.
If someone asked you to explain the gospel, could you do it? If your co-worker came to you with questions about why Jesus had to die or your child asked you to define the Trinity, could you provide an answer? Regardless of whether or not we are in formal ministry, all of us are called to be witnesses for Christ. If you’re nervous, you’re not alone. The ministry of Every Woman a Theologian exists to equip you for this task. Now, we have a cornerstone resource to make that happen. My brand-new book and video study is available for preorder January 9th. Every Woman a Theologian: Know What You Believe. Live It Confidently. Communicate It Graciously is almost here. This book is everything you need to know in order to share your faith without anxiety in today’s world. I wrote this to equip you with a confident and educated faith. The workbook and eight-week video study will also be available, and you can preorder through Christian Book, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local Indie Bookstore and lock in the lowest launch price. We are the generation that will stand on both conviction and love because we know what we believe, and why we believe it, and how to explain it well to the world. Join me this spring by ordering, Every Woman a Theologian at bookstores near you.
Okay, so to continue this train of thought, let’s think about this transformative Christian experience in the church. These people were united. They were holy, they were growing, and they weren’t always growing in numbers, but they definitely were growing in maturity. That was evident. They were gathering in this lifestyle of love and from that basis that anchor, they were ministering to the world. Their ministry and evangelism were birthed out of this healthy relationship with fellow Christians and people who were holding them accountable and were teaching them the gospel, and teaching them discipleship, and teaching them how to walk as holy people. This is important. Now, this is perhaps a characteristic of the Wesleyan theology that I hold to but personal holiness, my friends, is a huge witness to our world. We’re all going to be flawed as I just said, “We’re flawed people who need Christ.” We should be evidencing more and more holiness as we grow. It should be evident that we are living in conviction and leading of the Holy Spirit as people. That, in turn, will motivate our evangelism and our relationships with one another in the church, should be a light to the world.
I believe that the American church, at the very least, is on the cusp of a massive reformation and a revival. I think right now we’re in the reformation stage. What I mean by reformation is there’s a winnowing happening. There’s a winnowing of these people who have sought platform, who have sought notoriety, who sought money and fame, and who have fallen for all of these unholy behaviors, and these unholy choices. We’ve seen the dismantling of the mega church model. We’ve seen how it leads to compromise theologically like Andy Stanley. We’ve seen how it leads to pride or spiritual abuse like Mark Driscoll. We’re watching this happen and we’re going, “Okay, something has to change, and something’s changing.” I think we’re seeing a lot changing and that’s really exciting to me. So that’s the reformation, we’re reforming the church. Even if we lose a lot of people who weren’t truly saved at all or who walk away from Christianity, I believe those that remain are going to be the kinds of people who love the Lord, their God with all their heart, and soul, and mind, and strength and love their neighbor as themselves, and they will be changing this culture. So that leads me to the revival. Francis Schaeffer, said that “If you only have a reformation, you only have a change of the system, but no revival of the Spirit, no spiritual change in a person.”
That system is only as good as the people that are in it and it will peter out. If the system is changed, the institution is transformed, you need to have people whose hearts are transformed. You need to have a revival. I do believe that a revival is coming to the United States. I think it might be among a small faction, but I think that it will create a faction of people who are so sold out for the gospel and for God’s people that they can’t help but transform their cities and their streets and their homes. That’s why I always say every woman has to be a theologian, every woman has to be an apologist, and a minister of the gospel, because we need every single voice. There are people who will only be reached by you, only be reached because they trust you and they know you, and they can look at your relationships, your church relationships with other people in the body of Christ and say, “Wow, you guys aren’t jealous, you aren’t bitter, you aren’t biting each other and gossiping, you aren’t criticizing each other, you aren’t fake, you’re real.” That’s what I want to experience.
We can say, yes, you can experience that too, you can experience that in the body of Jesus Christ as people who are flawed, but who are being made new and built up into a temple to the Lord, our God because remember at the beginning of this episode I said, we’re all little temples, little temples of the Holy Spirit, but we’re being built together into this greater temple. So, when people look to us; they see the living God that’s what it means to be Christ on earth to point people’s attention to God, and how look, through this one God, it’s possible to have love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and all of these wonderful things. It’s possible to live that way and when we don’t live that way, we can repent and get up and be empowered to do better. That’s the hope we should offer through the church. That’s the hope we should be living. That means that certain churches will have to be reformed and changed and it will be a winnowing. That certain individual, as in all of us, will have to be revived by the Holy Spirit to do the right thing in following Jesus and having him be the center of our lives and when revival and reformation happen together, that’s when we truly are a city on a hill and a light to the world.
Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, would you take the time to leave us a review? It helps so many other women around the world find out about Verity and about Every Woman a Theologian, as a ministry and a shop. We appreciate you and I hope you’ll be back next week as we continue to go deeper into God’s Word and the heart of Jesus Christ.