Is a faithful church one that has found the pattern in the New Testament and copied it?
Is a faithful church one that has apostolic succession back to the first century?
Is a faithful church one that is filled with the Holy Spirit?
Is a faithful church one that is on mission for Jesus?
What is a faithful church?
The answer I heard for most of my life was that a faithful church was one that took the New Testament seriously and had copied the five acts of worship, actively practiced the five steps to salvation, and had biblical church governance (autonomous and led by local elders).
The problem wasn’t that those things lacked biblical precedent but that in practice it sometimes lacked being biblically informed. For instance, the instructions on worship were straight from the Bible. The rules around those five acts of worship were not straight from the Bible. For instance, all five are in the New Testament but the idea that all five must be done on that hour on Sunday to be scriptural is not in the Bible. All five are in the Bible but the rule that you must do them one at a time was not in the Bible. Or take governance. Autonomy is implied and local elders are taught in the New Testament but they are also to be installed through fasting and should also be teachers. None of that was ever emphasized. So did we really take these things seriously or just take tradition-influenced forms of biblical things seriously?
Are these things really what makes a faithful church? One that gets the rules and traditions around the rules that are also viewed as rules right? You can do all of that and not be faithful, correct? You can do all of that and not be Spirit-filled and not produce the fruit of the Spirit, correct?
So what is a faithful church?
The Bible never sets this out in one concise location. So whatever answer we come up with is going to require some picking and choosing to the best of our ability and we probably won’t agree on every detail.
Let me start answering the question by asking questions and then let’s look at an answer.
Can you be a faithful church if you ignore what Jesus said? How much can you ignore before it is a problem? Jesus taught on fasting. Most churches don’t. Jesus commissioned us to make disciples, few churches are doing that in a significant way. Is that a problem? Can you be a faithful church and ignore what Jesus said in these areas? Can you nail worship but neglect mission and still be a faithful church?
Clearly, we already see the need for grace in this equation. I believe in principle a faithful church is a church on mission in obedience to Jesus’ instruction and the example of the church in Acts. How much mission? What % of your church must be involved? There are lots of questions here on where the lines are with any degree of precision.
Can you be a faithful church and not only ignore but deny the work of the Holy Spirit? If the Spirit is our guarantee of what is to come and our deposit…do we have a guarantee or deposit if we say the Spirit stopped working? Guarantee and deposit sounds like the Spirit is still working. What if you nail the steps of salvation but don’t give a hoot about the Holy Spirit? Can you be a faithful church?
What about giving to the poor? Can you be a faithful church without giving to the poor on some level? Can you be a faithful Christian without giving to the poor on a personal level?
Now we switch from interrogative to declarative.
There are a few things that I am certain of when it comes to faithfulness.
1 – Christ is 100% faithful and we are not.
2 – A faithful church is a church that is following Jesus.
3 – A faithful church is one that shares Jesus with the world in word and deed.
4 – A faithful church teaches the core doctrines and by core I don’t mean what we say is core but what the Bible makes core.
5 – A faithful church lives out the principles of New Testament practices.
6 – A faithful church embraces the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
It starts with Jesus. He was faithful. The only reason we have salvation is because he was faithful. His faithfulness calls on us to follow Him (to be disciples). That means we give Christ our allegiance (faith) and learn His ways to live (obedience) and share His ways with the world (evangelism/making disciples).
A faithful church adheres to New Testament doctrine recognizing that some doctrines are more prevalent, directly stated and easily ascertained than other doctrines. The doctrine of the trinity is a bit more tricky than the Lordship of Christ. We recognize per Romans 14 and 1 Cor 15:1-8 that not all doctrines are of the same level of importance. We must use scriptures to figure out which doctrines are core and which are peripheral. Those two levels must be separated from what is conjecture and tradition. Conjecture and tradition cannot hold the same elevated status as core doctrine (at a bare minimum 1 Cor 15:3-4). This is why it is very important to look at what we do and note the cultural and traditional influences that have influenced our practices over the years. Church doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It adapts and changes slowly over time…so slowly that we might think that “this is that” – that what we do now is a mirror image of what they did then.
A faithful church has faithful principles that are put into practice. Not every practice of the New Testament church must be imitated today to be faithful. We don’t have to meet in upper rooms or give holy kisses to be faithful. But the principles are still in play to be faithful – we must meet and we should welcome each other kindly.
Then there is the Holy Spirit. I believe God can and will save cessationists but I believe that their path forward is an unnecessarily difficult one per what I already said above. I believe the Spirit can produce the fruit of the Spirit in a Christian who doesn’t understand that is where the fruit comes from. I don’t believe having a specific view of the work of the Spirit is necessary for salvation. I do believe a faithful church would want to embrace the work of the Spirit. I know that is inconsistent because the saved are the church…I don’t know any other way to emphasize both points! I am still working on that one.
Maybe the bigger point is this – God saves an imperfect church, not a perfect one if perfection is based on us getting and doing everything right. God doesn’t save a faithful church until and unless he (not us) makes it faithful.
The only faithful church is the one God makes faithful, not the one we make faithful.
Last point – to the churches that pride themselves on faithfulness because they have it on lock down in one or two areas, I hope you will consider the bigger picture. I hope that those who want to be faithful will turn to making disciples and an acknowledgment of the work of the Holy Spirit. I hope those who emphasize the Spirit but neglect the doctrine will wake up. It seems to me that those who most pride themselves on faithfulness are often lacking in these areas. At least I know I was! The good news is point #1 – Jesus is faithful without that we’re toast!