By Billy Graham
In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. --Ephesians 2:22
MAN is a social animal, gregarious by nature, and finds his greatest sense of security and satisfaction in the company of others who share his interests and attitudes. Of all the many groups into which humans have collected themselves, of all the many tribes, clans, organizations, and societies throughout history, none has been so powerful, so far-reaching, or more universal than the church.
In primitive times, men gathered together for mutual protection, and at a far later date they learned to join together for mutual benefit and pleasure. With more advanced civilization, secret societies came into being, to give their members a sense of belonging, a feeling of being "set apart" and therefore distinguished from nonmembers. Special oaths, rituals, and codes were established and given great significance.
Racial and national groups were established with membership restricted to those of similar place of origin, or with allegiance to a common flag. Country clubs, college fraternities, lodges, literary societies, political parties, military organizations -- all of these, from the most select "gentlemen's club" to the high school "gang," represent man's need to find comfort and reassurance in the company of others who approve of his way of life, because their own way of life is similar.
Nowhere, however, has man found this comfort, this reassurance, this peace to the extent that he has found it in the church, for all other groups are obviously man-inspired. They draw artificial boundaries and set up only the illusion of protection; while the church provides a living, vibrant organism that draws its power from God Himself, instead of relying upon outside sources to give it meaning and vitality.
Origin of the Church
The word church is an English translation of the Greek word ecclesia, which means "the called-out ones," or an assembly of people. Although church soon became a distinctively Christian word, it has a pre-Christian history. Throughout the Greek world the word church was the designation of the regular assembly of the whole body of citizens in a free city-state. A group of the citizens would be called out by the herald for the discussion and decision of public business. This same word church was also the Hebrew equivalent in the Old Testament and is translated in English as "congregation" or "community" of Israel in which members were designated as the called-out people of God. Thus we find Stephen in the Book of Acts using it when he describes Moses as "he that was in the church in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38). In the first century, therefore, the word church would suggest to the Greek a self-governing, democratic society; to the Jew, a theocratic society whose members were the subjects of God.
The word church as applied to the Christian society was first used by Jesus Himself when He told Peter, "Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Thus Jesus Christ Himself founded the church. He is the foundation of all Christian experience, and the church is founded upon Him. "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:11). Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the founder of the church, the builder of the church, and the church belongs to Him and to Him alone. He has promised to live with, and in, all those who are members of His church. Here is not only an organization but an organism which is completely unlike anything else that the world has ever known: God Himself living with, and in, ordinary men and women who are members of His church.
Jesus Christ Its Head
The New Testament teaches that while there is actually only one universal church there can be any number of local churches formed into various denominations and societies or councils. These local churches and denominational groups may be divided along national and theological lines, or according to the temperament of their members. However, the New Testament teaches that even though there may be many cleavages and divisions within the structure of the church, yet we have only "one Lord." As the hymn puts it, "The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord."
Jesus Christ is the head of this great universal church. From Him must spring all the activities and teachings of the church, for He is the fountainhead of all Christian experience.
In this day of electronics it is easy to draw a comparison with a far-flung communications system in which there is one central station toward which all light or sound waves converge and from which all connections are made. In a railroad system there is always one central office from which orders governing the operations of all trains originate. In the army, one commanding general issues orders to the many groups under his jurisdiction. His various subordinates may interpret his orders in slightly different ways, but his orders still remain the basis for their conduct.
In relation to the church, Jesus Christ stands in the position of the commanding general. It is upon His orders that the church has its existence. Its very power comes directly from Him, and it is up to every church group to follow His commands as closely as possible. Just as the commanding general expects to have his orders carried out faithfully, so does Jesus expect every branch of the church to abide by His teachings to the fullest.
The church has been widely criticized for many internal squabbles, much hair-splitting and apparent lack of unity. These, however, are superficial things: these are the conflicts that come from the slightly varying interpretations of the general's orders and in no way reflect upon the wisdom of the general or His absolute authority in issuing His orders!
Study the underlying beliefs of the various denominations and you will find that basically and historically they are almost identical. They may differ widely in ritual, they may seem to lock horns over theological technicalities; but fundamentally they all recognize Jesus Christ as God incarnate, who died upon the cross and rose again that man might have salvation -- and that is the all-important fact to all humanity.
The Church--or Churches?
Now that you have accepted Christ as your Savior and put your trust and confidence in Him, you have already become a member of the great church invisible. You are a member of the household of faith. You are a part of the body of Christ. Now you are called upon to obey Christ, and if you obey Christ, you will follow His example of joining with others in the worship of God. "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the habit of some" (Hebrews 10:25).
It is true that we are now talking about the local church, the one in your own community, of whose many imperfections and shortcomings you may be well aware. But we must remember that perfection does not exist among human beings, and the institutions they create to the greater glory of God are filled with these self-same flaws. Jesus is the only perfect Man who ever lived. The rest of us are at best but repentant sinners, try as we may to follow His magnificent example: and the church is but turning a blind eye toward itself when it claims infallibility or perfection for itself or any of its members.
Samuel Rutherford at one point received a complaint from some church members who were unhappy with their pastor and the local church situation. He wrote them a very stern reply, telling them that they were not responsible for the life of their pastor. But they were responsible to pray for him, and to remain in the church, and to work for the Lord. And that the Lord would honor and bless them for it.
The Tabernacle under Eli had degenerated so terribly that the people despised the sacrifice of the Lord because Eli's "sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them" (1 Samuel 3:13). But little Samuel was left in that environment and grew up to be a great prophet.
In the New Testament, it was the Temple leaders who had Christ crucified, yet after His resurrection and ascension, the disciples were "continually in the temple, praising and blessing God" (Luke 24:53).
When Jesus founded the church, He intended His followers to join it and remain faithful to it. Today, if you are among the more than fifty percent of the population of this country who have no active formal church affiliation, you may stand in bewilderment before the number whose membership is open to you. In selecting one you may well have a natural tendency to return to the church of your childhood, or you may feel you want to make a choice based on your more spiritually mature judgment. A church affiliation is not something to be entered into lightly, for if the church is to be of the greatest service to you, and even more important, if it is to give you the greatest possible opportunity to be of service to others, you must prayerfully select the one where you feel you can be of the most service to God.
A Church for Everyone
Some people find it easier to draw closer to God in magnificent buildings and with some form of ritual. Others find they can seek God only in stark simplicity. Some people find themselves more comfortable with formality, others feel more at home with informality. The important thing is not how we do it, but the sincerity and depth of purpose with which we do it, and we should each find and join the church in which as individuals we can best accomplish this.
Do not make the mistake of attaching yourself to a particular minister rather than to the body of the church itself. The ministry may change -- it is healthy and stimulating that it should -- but the tenets of the church remain the same, and it is to the church and its Christ that you owe allegiance. A stable church is built up when the members of the congregation recognize that it is their mutual love of Jesus Christ and the sincere desire to follow in His steps that hold them together.
The true Christian goes to church not only for what he gets out of it, but also for what he can put into it. He goes to add his prayers to those of others, he goes to add his voice to the other voices raised in praise of the Lord, he goes to add his strength in beseeching the Lord's blessing, he goes to add his weight of testimony to the possibility of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ. He goes to join with others in the worship of God, in the contemplation of His boundless mercy and love. He also goes for the necessary companionship of fellow believers.
Christians who are not actively involved in the life of a local church remind me of what happens when a burning coal is removed from the fire. You've seen it happen. The coal gradually cools and its flame dies, once it is removed from the bed of glowing coals.
In the far west, when the wolves attack a flock of sheep, the first thing they do is try to scatter them, and then they close in for the kill on one of the isolated sheep.
The Church Is a Channel
The church should be the means of channeling your funds for Christian work and the needs of fellow Christians. The Bible teaches tithing. A tithe is one tenth of your net income. That one tenth of your income belongs to the Lord. In addition to your tithe, you should give as the Lord has prospered you. Giving is a Christian grace that should be woven into the fabric of our daily lives until it becomes a part no longer distinguishable from the rest. Generosity should motivate us in all things.
Christ said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). He knew how giving warms the heart and satisfies the soul. He coveted for you that particular blessing. Selfishness is caused by fear -- and a Christian should stand forth unafraid. Jesus stood always with hands that were open -- not with hands that were clenched tight with selfishness and greed. As far as possible, one should give inconspicuously and quietly. Jesus also said that when we are giving, ". . . do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matthew 6:3).
Giving cannot be measured in dollars and cents, it cannot be measured in boxes of old clothes. Sometimes the greatest gift is the gift of friendship and neighborliness. A kind word, a friendly greeting, an evening spent with someone who is lonely can reap rich harvest for the kingdom of God. It is impossible for you to become a soul winner unless you are prepared to give something of yourself. Not only your money, but your time, your talents, your very self -- everything is to be given to the service of Christ.
The giving of your offering which is above the tithe should not be limited by set rules or organized methods. It should be governed by the need that is brought to your attention according to the rules set down by Christ in Matthew 6:1-4. It might be a neighbor, the newsboy who brings the daily paper, or someone in far-off Africa or South America. Our giving is the expression of our love for God. We give back to Him in return for the great love He has bestowed on us, and in that way we spread His love abroad.
The Christian should also share in community responsibilities as time and money allow. The people to whom the money is given should know that you are giving it in the name of Christ. The letter accompanying the financial gift to the social or charitable organization should say something like, "As a Christian, believing the Lord would have me assist my community as I am able, I send this gift. God bless your efforts."
Be careful that you do not become guilty of the sin of robbing God. The Bible says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it." (Malachi 3:10).
Dr. Louis Evans has said, "the gospel is free, but it costs money to provide the pails in which to carry the water of salvation."
The act of giving is just as much an act of worship as praying or singing. The United Sates Government now allows individuals to give up to fifty percent of adjusted gross income to charitable institutions and up to twenty-five percent to religious organizations. It is deductible from our income tax, and yet it is estimated that less than ten percent of the American people take advantage of this. Corporations are allowed to give up to ten percent and yet only about fifteen percent of them are taking advantage of this provision of the government. Yet even if our government made no such allowance, ten percent still belongs to God.
The Church Spreads the Gospel
The church is for the spreading of the gospel. The church is commanded to "Go into all the world, and preach the gospel," and to baptize those who believe. The basic and primary mission of the church is to proclaim Christ to the lost. The need of the world today is sending forth its S.O.S., asking the church to come to its help. The world is being overwhelmed by social, moral, and economic problems. Its people are going down, swept under the waves of crime and shame. The world needs Christ. The mission of the church is to throw the lifeline to the perishing sinners everywhere.
Jesus said, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses" (Acts 1:8). With the power of the Holy Spirit we can join hands with other Christians to win people to Christ. Sixty-five percent of the world has yet to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this generation we have failed miserably to fulfill our mission to evangelize the world. According to the Wycliffe Bible translators, there are still more than three thousand languages and dialects into which the Bible has not been translated.
The early church had no Bibles, no seminaries, no printing presses, no literature, no educational institutions, no radio, no television, no automobiles, no airplanes; and yet within one generation the gospel had been spread to most of the known world. The secret of the spread of this gospel was the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today in the face of vastly improved methods of communication the power of the Holy Spirit is the same. We need not do things in our own strength, and as a result, fail.
Today the only feet that Christ has are our feet. The only hands, our hands. The only tongues, our tongues. We must use every talent, facility, and method possible to win men to Christ. This is the great mission of the church. Our methods may vary. We may use visitation evangelism, educational evangelism, preaching missions, industrial evangelism, cell evangelism, radio-television evangelism, movie evangelism, or so-called mass evangelism.
I am aware today that in many parts of the world the church is outlawed, discredited, and at times virtually destroyed. Yet again and again it has been proven "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." And God's church is a Bible-centered church, and it grows strong under persecution. "Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them" has become literally true in some parts of the world. In such places where believers in Christ live in abject poverty, they still tithe. And when one member suffers, the others come to that one's aid. Unable to preach openly, they look for opportunities to witness by life. So, for instance, when one is punished harshly for some unjust reason and bears it cheerfully, a curious observer will slip up to him and say, "I saw that. It was unfair. And yet you remain cheerful." And the Christian has the opportunity to share his faith in Christ.
So even where Christ's church suffers, she grows. What a challenge to us to do likewise!