Tertullian, the Pope, and the Church

In March, Lord willing, I will be traveling to Zambia to teach a course on the book of Hebrews to sophomores at International Bible College. In the process of preparing materials for the course I was gathering information for a sidebar on Tertullian and read a great summary and evaluation of his life and ministry:

When one only sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others’ weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We, instead, always need forgiveness.[1]

Tertullian’s place in the pantheon of theologians is illustrated by some of the appellations given him: “the father of Latin theology”, “the father of ecclesiastical Latin”, etc. Tertullian gave us the word Trinity. He was the first to use “person” and “substance” in Trinitarian discussion. He was the first to refer to the church as “mother.” On estimate credits him with coining over 900 terms. Humanly speaking, Tertullian provided the language of orthodox.

Yet he left the church. Through a desire for more rigorous holiness, he left the church for the heretical fellowship of the Montanists.

This remains a constant temptation. Man is proud. It is easier to look down on others than to come down to help them. There are some who seem to be always exposing the sin of others or trumpeting their own righteousness. It must be a miserable struggle to decide which sin to engage in today. But take rest troubled soul: exalting in your own righteousness or scorning the sin of others both end at the same destination.

One might say that Tertullian is the Barry Bonds of the church fathers. His theological talent and ability is recognized by all, but is forever marked by an asterisk. Because he was too good for the church, Tertullian was not a great theologian.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, The Fathers of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009), 34-35.

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The Importance of Church Part 7: Who does not go to church & Conclusion

For my final post in “the importance of the church” series, I would like to approach the subject from a somewhat different angle. I thought I would take something of an apophatic approach[1] to the subject via the question, “Who does not go to church?” Perhaps in answering this question, we will also discover the New Testament expectation of who does go to church.

 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. James 5:14

The New Testament does not expect those who are physically unable to attend the normal meetings of the church. This is making an assumption based on James 5:14, but I think it is a pretty safe one. The apostle James instructs those who are sick to call for the elders. This seems to indicate that they sick person is not able to attend the church meetings. The picture this verse clearly presents is elders going to the location of a sick person; not a sick person going to the location of the elders. The Lord is tender and gracious; he remembers our frame, that we are dust. When a case is made for faithful church attendance by Christians, the old and infirm are often put forth as exceptions that are meant to destroy the argument. But those who are legitimately physically unable to attend are not expected to do so.[2]

 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:1-2, 7

A second person who is not expected to go to church is the professing believer who is living in open, flagrant, abhorrent, unconfessed sin. In fact, the apostle Paul goes so far as to command the church at Corinth to not allow such a person to worship with them. The church is given an explicit command to exclude so-called brothers and sisters who are living in open sin. People who call themselves Christians, but continue to live a life dominated by sin do not go to church. In fact, they are not even to be allowed in the church meeting unless it is to repent.[3]

In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul is teaching us that we cannot expect unbelievers to live like Christians, but we must expect Christians to live like Christians. A “Christian” who lives like an unbeliever dishonors the Lord and His church. It is the responsibility of the church to show to the surrounding community that such a person is not accepted as being a true believer.

 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 1 Corinthians 5:11-12

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all… 1 Corinthians 14:23-24

1 Corinthians 5 also offers a third person who does not attend the church assembly: the unbeliever. As he offers his counsel to have nothing to do with so-called believers living in sin, Paul reminds the believers that this does not mean they should not have any contact with unbelievers. Sinning “believers” should be shunned and removed from the church, but sinning unbelievers should be evangelized and brought into the church. Later on in the same book, Paul again indicates that unbelievers are not expected to attend the assembly of the church. Paul’s repeated use of “if” in 1 Cor. 14:23-24 indicate that an unbeliever might come to the church meeting, but it should not be expected.

So from the negative perspective, these people do not go to church: the unable, the unfaithful, and the unbeliever. According to the New Testament, these are three kinds of people who are not expected to be in church on Sunday morning. So, turning this teaching around and looking at it from the opposite perspective; who is expected to be in church every Sunday morning? The able, the faithful, the believer. If “your” church is meeting and you are not there, one of these things must be true about you: you are unable (something in the circumstances of your life has physically prevented you from attending); you are unfaithful; you are an unbeliever.

Conclusion:
In this entire series of posts my design has been to show that true Christians are faithful to attend and serve their local church. It has not been my intention to say that going to church makes someone a Christian. Such a statement has the matter exactly backwards.  If I have ever said that going to church makes someone a Christian I repent in sackcloth and ashes. My point is that Christians go to church. This is the only reality the New Testament recognizes. The New Testament simply does not speak of someone who professes to be saved, is physically able to go to church, yet does not do so, and is still on “good terms” with God. For all intents and purposes we might as well speak of unicorns and centaurs.

 

Perhaps an illustration is in order. Summer is drawing to a close; autumn is approaching. For many people this can only mean one thing: football. Whether high school on Friday night, college on Saturday, or professional on Sunday; the next 5 months will be marked by football. Millions of people will attend football games. Millions of people will spend millions of dollars to do so. They will cheer, scream, and cry for their team. But they are not football players. Likewise, there are many people who go to church. There are many people who give their money and time to serve the church, but they are not Christians. Not everyone at a game is a football player. Not everyone at church is a Christian.

But let us suppose you were out for a drive some fine fall night when your school was playing and you saw some students who are not at the game. You would know this: they are not football players. Let us suppose you were out shopping some Sunday afternoon when your team was playing and saw a man 6’4” and 320 pounds. You might not know him, but you would know this: he is not a football player. How could you make this judgment? Because a football player would be at the game with his team. Going to a football game does not get you on the team, but if you are on the team you go to the game.

Going to church does not get you into heaven, but if you are going to heaven you will be with everyone else who is going.

NOTE:

For previous posts in this series see:
https://bradkelly.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/is-going-to-church-really-that-important/
https://bradkelly.wordpress.com/2011/08/10/why-is-church-important/
https://bradkelly.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/why-is-the-church-important-part-2/
https://bradkelly.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/why-is-church-important-or-the-trinitarian-heresy-of-not-going-to-church/
https://bradkelly.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/the-importance-of-the-church-part-5-why-should-i-be-faithful-to-the-church/
https://bradkelly.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/the-importance-of-the-church-part-6-how-to-not-live-a-wasted-life/

 

 

 

 


[1] The apophatic method, also known as the via negativa, asserts that positive statements of God’s identity cannot be made. Because God is incomprehensible and beyond our understanding, we cannot say what God is but only what God is not. While such a method is ultimately insufficient, it is a helpful reminder that things that are so can be discovered by knowing things that are not so.

[2] By “physically” I am speaking of the health of the body. But physically could also be applied in the related way of “providentially.” Obviously, it does not have to be sickness that prevents a person from attending the church meeting. I doubt the Lord expects the woman in labor to stop what she is doing so she can sing in the choir. Nor does it necessarily have to involve the health of the body at all. When believers are imprisoned for their faith, whether in Acts or today, they should not expect their captors to release them so that they might go to church. Sometimes, occasionally, things happen that truly prevent us from going to church. The Lord knows.

[3] In 2 Corinthians 2 Paul seems to be addressing this same situation, but after the man in question has repented of sin. Paul commands the church to welcome the man back into the assembly.

The Importance of the Church Part 6: How to not live a wasted life.

(This is the sixth post in a series addressing the importance of the church in the life of the believer. Some time has transpired since the first post, but there have not been many intervening posts: so previous installments should not be too hard for you to find.)

 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw– each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15

 While I have never preached on them myself, these verses strike me as one those “preacher’s texts.” It is a text that is somewhat well-known, has powerful imagery, persuasive in nature, something that a preacher could go to when he wanted to press for a decision. It is a text that I imagine would be popular with evangelists and those preaching revival-type services. Unfortunately, as I have heard it preached, taught, and discussed, the text seldom given the true weight of its context.

 It is easy to just rip these verses out of 1 Corinthians 3 and apply them to the rather general theme of “building one’s life.” They are applied in a moralistic manner of living the Christian life in obedience to the Bible. There is some support for the idea of your life being a building in Jesus’ conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. But this idea is completely missing from 1 Corinthians 3. Paul is not talking about your life as a building, living morally, or getting rewarded for the general way in which you lead your life. Paul’s application is much more specific. In fact, Paul is speaking against building up your own personal life.

 Paul introduces the building thought in verse 9 with the statement that Peter, Paul, Apollos, and any other apostle are only workers for God trying to do their part in the edification of God’s building: the church. The church is God’s building, more than that it is God’s temple (3:9, 16). The Corinthians had fallen prey to the party spirit of exalting men and identifying themselves by their earthly teachers. “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas.” Paul identifies this as foolishness because God is only building one building: his church. Peter, Paul, and Apollos were not cult leaders trying to form their own club. All worked together for the building up of the church.

 After calling the church God’s building in verse 9, Paul continues: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation…” In verse 9 the church is called God’s building. In verse 16 the church is called God’s temple. Verses 10-15 address the subject of rewards for the way one builds. So in the context of 1 Corinthians 3, what is the building being specifically addressed in verses 12-15? Clearly it is the church.

 Preachers dazzle their crowds with a false hope of receiving  gold, silver, precious stones if they will only live a good Christian life, but that is not at all what Paul is teaching. The basis for rewards in heaven, at least according to this passage, is what one did to build up the church of God. What is the work that is examined on that Great Day (3:13)? It is the work of building (3:14). The work of building what? The work of building God’s building (3:9), God’s temple (3:16): the church of Jesus Christ. The value of your life is determined by what you have spent to build up the church.

 Jesus died for the church. The apostles labored for the church. God rewards labors for the church. In short, the question this text asks is not, “How are you living?” but “What are you doing for the church?” As Gordon Fee comments, “This text has singular relevance to the contemporary church. It is neither a challenge to the individual believer to build his or her life well on the foundation of Christ, nor is it grist for theological debate. Rather, it is one of the most significant passages in the NT that warn—and encourage—those responsible for ‘building’ the church of Christ.”

 If you are not building the church of Christ you are not living well.

 

 

 

Why is Church Important? Or, The Trinitarian heresy of not going to church

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

We began this series with a post on the importance of the church: a number of quotations from early fathers and apologists proclaiming those outside of the church are not and cannot be saved. Then we began seeking Scriptural support for this idea. We saw that Christians must be involved with the church because the church is the body of Christ. Christians must be involved with the church because the church is the building of God. Today we see that Christians must be involved with the church because of the blessing of the Holy Spirit.

Salvation is impossible without the Trinity. While it is true that God is one and wills and accomplishes everything as one, the Bible does present Trinitarian distinctions in the accomplishment of salvation. It is impossible to adequately summarize this in one sentence, but this sentence comes as close as any: “Salvation is thought by the Father, bought by the Son, and wrought by the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit actualizes contemporaneously everything the Father has planned eternally and the Son accomplished historically.

It is the Holy Spirit who immerses believers into the body of Christ and the benefits of his death and resurrection (1 Cor. 12:13; Rom 6:3-6). It is the Holy Spirit who builds believers up into the building of God (Eph. 2:22). But the Bible teaches that this building process is not something that happens apart from the efforts and service of believers themselves.

The church is a building- teaching us that in some sense we are passive and totally under the control of the Builder. But the church is also a body- teaching us in another sense that we must make a personal effort to care, nourish, and provide for it. In 1 Corinthians 12, however, Paul teaches us that even this process of self-care is made possible by God: the Father (12:6); the Son (12:5); and particularly the Spirit (12:4, 7-11). Those abilities we call spiritual gifts must be recognized as Spiritual gifts.

When a person is saved, he is sealed by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30); and he is gifted by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-13). The purpose of these gifts of the Spirit is plain: to serve other Christians.

 1 Cor. 12:7: To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Peter 4:10: As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace…

So when a person is saved he receives the Holy Spirit. When he receives the Holy Spirit he is gifted by the Holy Spirit. When he is gifted by the Holy Spirit he is gifted in order to serve the church. It seems obvious that if he is gifted to serve the church he must be “in the church” to exercise that gift. The Spirit does not gift you for your benefit, but for the benefit of others. If you are not fellowshipping with others, they are not benefitting from your gift. The Bible clearly teaches what the Spirit does (gifts believers) and why he does it (to benefit other believers); so if you are not allowing other believers to benefit from your gift you are not walking in the Spirit.

Taking a step back and considering all these things, the serious nature of not attending church must be recognized for what it is: an attack on the doctrine of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit engrafts believers into the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit builds believers into the building of God. The Holy Spirit gifts believers to serve other believers. For a person to say he is a Christian but to have no interest in faithful, active, church membership is an attack on God himself. Specifically, it is an attack on the Holy Spirit and the unity of the Trinity.

The “stay-at-home” Christian proclaims that the Holy Spirit is in rebellion against the Father and Son. The Father has made complete provision for a holy temple, with all the stones perfectly joined and fit together. But the Holy Spirit is content to leave the rocks in a field. Covered by moss. Surrounded by weeds. The Son has done everything to become the Head of a body fearfully and wonderfully made to accomplish the will of God. The Spirit is content with severed ears and dismembered fingers. The Spirit is a disinterested Dr. Frankenstein with a freakish laboratory with formaldehyde-filled jars of parts. Rather than accomplishing his role of gifting believers to serve, the Spirit has become a stingy Scrooge.

The New Testament presents the actual building up of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit. So if you are able to go to church, but regularly chose not to I can see only two options:

  1. Either you do not have the Holy Spirit. In which case you are not a Christian (Rom. 8:9).
  2. Or, the Holy Spirit has decided to do his own thing. In which case the Trinity is undone.