What is the Church?

People in America are “joiners.” The majority love being part of clubs, associations, and other organized groups. Hobbyists, collectors, civic clubs, business and trade organizations are examples of this.

One organization that is still going strong is the church. I have read that there are over 350,000 congregations in America. There are more churches than post offices; more churches than McDonald’s restaurants. Approximately 20% of Americans attend worship services weekly.

What distinguishes the church from other associations? What makes the church distinctive? The church is not a building, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may appear. It is not a denomination. The New Testament says nothing about denominations. These are fellowships of churches, and they are not forbidden by the Bible. But neither are they mentioned.

A small prayer or Bible study group may be part of a church, but it is not the same thing. Nor is a large gathering in a stadium or arena for an area-wide evangelistic witness. These are good, but they are not the same as local churches.

The church is not a mission society or para-church ministry. These are ministry structures which are task-oriented and highly selective. They are set up to complement and support the work of local churches, but they are not churches. We may discover a working definition of the church by reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter is addressed to “the church of God in Corinth” (1:2).

An assembly of Christian people

The word “church” means a “called-out assembly.” Paul also called these people at Corinth “saints” because they had put their faith in Jesus as savior. We learn from reading the letter that they were not perfect people. But they were Christian believers, set apart for God.

In geographical proximity to one another

the fact that it was “in Corinth” reminds us that the church is placed in a local context to be a witness. It is true that the New Testament speaks of the church a s universal body of Christ. But the majority of references to the church have to do with specific people gathering in specific local congregations.

United in covenant relationship

This becomes clear when we read the rest of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul gives the reason why he wrote the letter. He wants these believers in Corinth to be unified in their commitment to their doctrinal confession. This confession centered on the gospel, the message of the cross (1 :17, 2:2). This is the basis of the church’s unity. It is the bond which holds the church together, “united in mind and thought.”

Building up one another by the cooperative use of their spiritual gifts

The Corinthians, Paul says, were endowed with spiritual gifts. These gifts were to be used for the building up of the church in knowledge, unity and strength (1 :5-7 and chapters 12-14). Spiritual gifts are divinely-given abilities to minister to the needs of the church, which is Christ’s spiritual body.

For the proclamation of holy scripture

Paul wrote about his preaching. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you  except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but on God’s power” (2:2-5).

For the purposes of worship and witness

The Corinthian church was far from ideal. There were problems that Paul needed to address: controversies, divisions, immorality, and doctrinal errors. Their immaturity and disobedience were hindering both their worship and their witness. So Paul wrote the letter to correct errors  and abuses in both. That is why he clarified his teaching about the ordinances of baptism (1:10-17) and the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). Both of these ordinances given by Jesus are for the church’s worship and witness.

The information we gather from 1 Corinthians helps us to see that a New Testament church is an assembly of Christian people in geographical proximity to one another, united in covenant relationship, to build up one another through the cooperative use of spiritual gifts, for the proclamation of holy scripture, and for the purposes of the worship of God and witness to the world.

African theologian Conrad Mbewe wrote that every Christian should become an active member of a local church. He is right. What about you?

Pastor Randy Faulkner


Zooming to Africa

For the past two weeks I have been teaching in Africa. I didn’t cross the ocean to do this. Instead, through the magic of the internet I was connected to a classroom at the Evangelical Seminary of West Africa where twenty students gathered to study pastoral theology with me for three hours a day.

I am not a professional educator, so I prayed for guidance as I prepared for this. I spent months getting ready for the course, reading and indexing books on pastoral theology, then writing lectures on the science and art of pastoral practice. I’ve been working on this all year long.

It was not easy, but I was glad to do it for these worthy young men who are dedicated servants of the Lord. They are in seminary working on master’s degrees, in addition to holding down jobs and pastoring local churches. It was an unexpected privilege to serve the Lord in this way.

My good friend Dr. Rick Calenberg is president of the seminary. He retired as head of the missions department at Dallas Theological Seminary and promptly went back to Africa to invest in the lives of Liberian pastors and leaders. When he invited me to teach this course, I could not say no.

Because of COVID-related complications that arose back in the summer, we decided that it would be best for me to try to teach through a Zoom connection. The system worked fine, despite a few glitches along the way, due to my clumsiness with technology. Teaching through my laptop required intense concentration, but it was good to interact, back and forth, with these men of God.

The main source of authority for this course was the Bible. It is as theologian Thomas Oden wrote, “Scripture is the primary basis for understanding the pastoral office and its functions. … Pastoral theology lives out of scripture.” Among my first classes was an expository survey of 1 Timothy, a pastoral epistle.

I wanted to convey the joys as well as the responsibilities, of being a pastor. I taught lessons on the calling, duties, and character of the pastor. There were other lessons on worship, church officers (elders and deacons), the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the priority of preaching. I emphasized pastoral care, discipleship training, and leadership, among other subjects. The last lessons were about the pastor’s family life and self-care and personal renewal.

I hope this training helped shape the thinking of these good men. I hope it strengthened them professionally, emotionally, and spiritually. I  hope it was an eternal investment in their lives, but I also hope that it was an investment in their churches, and their families. I hope it was an investment in the spiritual life of the West African nation of Liberia, for God’s glory.

Pastor Randy Faulkner


Living Life Under the Threat of Terrorism

The daily newspaper and television documentaries have been reminding me that we are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our nation. Newscasters have been interviewing survivors and family members of those who were killed. They are reliving before the cameras the terrible events of that September day in 2001.

Some of them fought back tears as they remembered fellow first responders, family members and co-workers who had died. Some testified to the new lease on life they had been given as survivors. Some shared deeply moving stories of their struggles with permanent injuries and PTSD.

Like you, I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when news of the destruction of the World Trade Center reached me. I was at Glen Eyrie, the home of the Navigators in Colorado Springs, attending meetings of a mission board. Flying home was out of the question. All commercial airlines were grounded for several days afterward. I remained at Glen Eyrie until I could get a flight home to Oklahoma City three days later.

Tomorrow we will remember the tragic events of September 11, the porous airports, the hi-jacked airliners, the heroism of the passengers on United Flight 93, the crash into the Pentagon, the rush to protect government officials, the confusion in the streets of New York City. We also recognize the profound changes to American life that have ensued, especially the willingness of Americans to trade privacy and personal freedom for increased security.

The precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Afganistan and the subsequent resurgence of the Taliban, has thoughtful people speculating about the possibility of new terrorist organizations emerging to threaten the United States of America. Some say that there have been “sleeper cells” of terrorists in our country all along, awaiting the opportunity to strike again with renewed confidence and deadly force. Is their signal to strike the anniversary we commemorate tomorrow?

What should we do? Should we close our borders and close our hearts? Should we load up on guns and ammo  and fuel our passions with suspicion, fear and prejudice? Should we hunker down and hide out until the second coming? What is our duty to one another, to ourselves, and to God as we seek to live healthy lives in a dangerous world?

You and I are not the first ones to ask such questions. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Oxford University scholar C.S. Lewis was invited to give a sermon at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford. This was occasioned by the uncertainty caused to Oxford undergraduates by the coming war with Germany. Lewis, himself a veteran of World War I, was asked to put world events into perspective for the young men of the university. How could they continue with their studies when war was imminent?

What Lewis said to those students about the war in Europe could apply as well to us living under the threat of terrorism. Permit me to extract just a few of the points he made. (To read his address in its entirety, you may find it online, or you may order the book of Lewis’s addresses edited by Walter Hooper, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.)

Lewis said we must remember that the world has always been a dangerous place. Life has never really been “normal.” The war (or terrorism) “creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” We must accept it.

He reminds us that the great Christians of the past “thought it is good for us to be always aware of our mortality. … We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.”

Just as Lewis  believed the allied cause was just and that serving one’s country in the military was a legitimate duty, so it follows that he would agree that to oppose terrorism is a righteous cause. That said, it does not excuse or endorse every strategy, political, military, or covert that has been used in the war on terror. Those are prudential judgments to be made by the wisest of leaders under the guidance of God.

Ordinary people are not to suspend the ordinary course of life on account of the fear of terrorism. To the students living under the threat of war Lewis said that they should consider their work as scholars as work done for the glory of God. “The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.'”

Just as we are not to live in fear, we are not to give in to futility and frustration with the thought that life is so tentative and uncertain that there is no use pursuing one’s dreams and goals, marriage, children, career, serving God. No!

C.S. Lewis wrote, “A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to him or not. … Happy work is best done by the (person) who takes his/her long-term view somewhat lightly  and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’ It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”

” Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that they may go to dinner parties, even dinner parties given by pagans. … Under the aegis of his church and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution to this paradox is, of course, well known to you . ‘Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do , do all to the glory of God.'”

One thing I noticed in the interviews with survivors of 9/11 is that they did not stop living. Nor were they living in fear. The were determined not to be defeated by the threat of terrorism. They embraced the gift of life.

Pastor Randy Faulkner


Is God Judging America?

I have heard the question raised, “Is God judging America for our national sins? How else are we to explain natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and plagues?” I do not know how to answer that question other than to turn to scripture, which is the final authority.

What comes to mind is Abraham’s intercession for the city of Sodom. Genesis 18:20-33 records how the Lord met with Abraham on his way to investigate the grievous sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham proceeded to negotiate with the Lord on behalf of any righteous people he might find in Sodom: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”

What about fifty? Forty-five? Will you spare the city if you can find forty righteous people? What about thirty? Twenty? Then Abraham reached out in audacious faith, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

The Lord agreed to withhold judgment for the sake of ten righteous people if they could be found in Sodom. “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” Unfortunately, there were not even ten and Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire.

This true story teaches . . .

  1. God is holy and his judgments are legitimate. Divine patience has a breaking point (Genesis 15:16). Abraham knew this as he was praying for Sodom, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” Earlier events in Genesis reveal God’s willingness to exercise righteous judgment against entire civilizations.
  2. The Lord reveals his plans to his people. Just as he spoke to Abraham about what he intended to do, so he has given repeated warnings in scripture for us to read today. I think that is why God-fearing people suspect strongly that God is acting in judgment, warning our nation about the consequences of sin. The danger to America is only going to get worse if we do not repent in humility before God.
  3. God’s people are called to pray for the nation (Jeremiah 29:7; 1 Timothy 2:1-3). Abraham was convinced there were righteous people in Sodom, and so he appealed for the city on the basis of God’s justice. Those who were connected to the Lord by faith, as Abraham was, were considered “righteous” throughout the Old Testament. Those who rejected the will and word of God were called “wicked.”
  4. The implication in Abraham’s prayer and the Lord’s response is that the righteous remnant have a preserving effect upon society. They do this by living righteously and teaching their children to do the same (v. 19).
  5. God’s judgment of Sodom teaches us that social evils bring social consequences. Entire populations suffer for the evils that are tolerated by a society.
  6. God is willing to withhold judgment. The God of justice is also a God of mercy. He always does what is right. If he judges a nation for its hubris and arrogant unbelief, he is just. If he withholds judgment, for the sake of a believing remnant, he is just. If he rescues that remnant just before judgment falls, he is just.
  7. The righteous will ultimately be saved. The twin themes of Genesis 19 are destruction and deliverance. Lot was rescued just ahead of the destruction that fell upon his city. The fact that a man of Lot’s dubious character would be delivered, magnifies the grace of God in the rescue of sinners (2 Peter 2:7-9).

Pastor Randy Faulkner