Characteristics of a godly congregation
Children are born into families whose goal is to raise them to maturity. As Christians, God has placed believers in a spiritual family which will last forever. Let’s look at some key goals for our spiritual family, the local church.
The Greek word “ekklesia”, which means a “calling out”, is used in the Bible to describe a gathering, meeting or congregation. It has also been translated as a “church” or “assembly”. This word is used in the New Testament to describe Christians in either a global or a local sense. This article focuses on the local church, which is comprised of believers in a particular region who meet together regularly. For example, Paul begins his letters “To the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2 TNIV); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1); “To the churches in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2).
When He was here, the Lord promised “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). The church began on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Lord’s followers (Acts 2). So, don’t look in the Old Testament to learn about the church, because it was unknown in those times.
The Church Revealed to Paul
God used Paul to bring us the most complete revelation about the church by revealing a new truth, which was unknown to previous generations (Eph. 3:2-12). The Greek word for mystery, “musterion” occurs three times in this passage (v.3, 5, 9) and means a secret, which in this case was made known by divine revelation at a time appointed by God. It has been referred to as, “The mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:26).
What was this new truth? “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). The church was to be comprised of Jews and Gentiles who followed the Lord. This truth was also revealed by the Holy Spirit to other New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). The gospel message that Christ as the Son of God offered up His life to enable a company of forgiven people to become members of the church was the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; 1 Cor. 3:11).
Before this time, the world was divided into two classes of people: Jew and Gentile. But Jesus introduced a third class: the Christian church (1 Cor. 10:32). All Christians are equal before God and have equal access to God because the distinctions between people under the Old Testament law have been abolished: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
One of God’s goals is to show the angels His manifold wisdom through the church (Eph. 3:10-11). They see how a loving God triumphed over sin by offering His Son so that sinners of all races and nations could have a heavenly inheritance of eternal life. They see the church as being part of God’s new creation.
Churches in the New Testament
Before He ascended back to heaven, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
On the day of Pentecost, the first church was formed at Jerusalem. Later when the church was persecuted, Christians were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) and churches were established. Then they travelled to Phoenica, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19) and churches were established. Later Paul in a series of missionary journeys established churches in Galatia (now part of Turkey), Asia (now part of western Turkey; this is where the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 were located); Macedonia (now part of Greece), Achaia (now part of Greece), and a church was established in Rome before Paul was taken there. So, churches were established across the known world around the Mediterranean Sea.
Since that time missionaries have travelled across the earth and churches have been established in all countries.
The believers at Thessalonica became a model to all the believers in Greece (1 Th. 1:7). The reason given by Paul for this was, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Th. 1:6). In the context of seeking the good of others, Paul wrote “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Also, in the context of being kind, compassionate and forgiving, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2). Two characteristics are mentioned here: love and sacrifice. We will look at the topic of “love” shortly. Christ sacrificed His life for us; He gave up His life. That’s an example for the church to follow.
One of the metaphors of the church is a body, with Christ as the head. This illustrates the close connection between Christ and the church. As a head directs its body via the nervous system, the church should be directed by Christ. That’s why an essential goal of the local church is to imitate the Lord. After all, it’s His representative on earth. So, the local church is to be Christlike and godly.
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). The word “Christian” means “follower of Christ”. Although probably originally used in a derogatory sense, it took over from the term “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22).
So the saying “What would Jesus do?” is a good one when looking at goals for the local church. The best way to find Christ’s example is to see how the apostles wrote about this between Acts and Revelation, because these letters were written to the church. We can also learn from the Gospels, but we need to realise that, although they were written after the day of Pentecost, they record what happened when Jesus came as Messiah to the Jews. They fill the gap between the Old Testament and the church, describing what happened while Christ was on earth before the church commenced.
Faith, Hope and Love
Paul commended the Thessalonians for “your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Later he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet” (1 Th. 5:8). They were motivated by faith, love and hope. These are the characteristics of a godly life: dependence on God, love for the Lord and for one another, and the hope of Christ’s return. They are often mentioned together in the New Testament and we will look briefly at each of these.
The Greek word for faith, “pistis”, means a spiritual conviction. It is used in the New Testament to describe: trust, trustworthiness and by metonymy (a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for another associated with it), what is trusted (“the faith”). Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit that accompanies salvation (Gal. 5:22-23).
This word is used to describe living by faith; “… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-24). We trust in God because He gave Christ as our Saviour. He is “faithful”; He keeps His promises. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, their faith in God became known everywhere (1 Th. 1:8).
This word is also used to describe the truth we trust: “dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (Jude 20-21). Here the faith is the truth of the gospel and the doctrine of the New Testament. The church is built up by studying and obeying the Bible. In the case of the believers in Thessalonica, they shared the gospel with their neighbours and friends—“The Lord’s message rang out from you” (1 Th. 1:8).
The Greek word for hope, “elpis”, means favourable and confident expectation. It is something that is certain, not something that is doubtful.
In the context of waiting eagerly for the resurrection of our bodies, Paul wrote, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope accompanies salvation. It involves the future, “what we do not yet have”.
The believers in Thessalonica had “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” and waited “for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:3, 10). Despite severe suffering, they had an attitude of joy. They saw the big picture that God was in control of their circumstances and their eternal destiny was secure. (1 Th. 1:6)
We have the hope of eternal life in heaven. It’s a part of the gospel. This hope is a reason to be faithful and loving: “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all His people—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard in the true word of the gospel that has come to you” (Col. 1:3-6).
Our hope comes from God: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). “Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pt. 1:21). Because He is the Son God who died for our sin, Christ is our only hope of getting to heaven: “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1).
As a church we need to be optimistic, not pessimistic. We may experience disappointment and hardships, but God is working towards the time when we will be taken to be with Him in heaven where we will be like the Lord. This will be a great celebration, like a wedding feast where the Lord will be the groom and we will be the bride.
One of the Greek words for love, “agape”, means God’s deep and constant love of sinful humanity (seen in the gift of His Son) that fosters a reverential love in them towards God and a practical love towards others.
In all His actions, God is loving: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). His plan of salvation through Christ was an act of love that should cause us to love one another: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:9-11).
Love accompanies salvation; it is a fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we experience the Lord’s amazing love, it causes us to respond by loving Him and others. This love distinguishes Christians who comprise the church. Jesus told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). Also, “He has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another” (1 Jn. 4:21).
In 1 Corinthians 13, “love” is mentioned 7 times in 13 verses and Paul emphasises that everything must be done in a spirit of love. This love is a selfless concern for the welfare of others. It concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”. One of the reasons for this is that love is eternal.
With regard to the church Paul wrote “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:15-16). The truth must be taught in a loving manner if we are to become more Christ-like. Like a human body, the church should develop with time so that it matures and becomes more loving as it carries out its functions.
The Thessalonicans service for God was motivated by love to the Lord; in their “labour prompted by love”, they served “the living and true God” (1 Th. 1:3, 9).
Initially the church in Jerusalem and Judea was Jewish, but then God showed Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18), Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:19-24) that Gentiles could now also be a part of God’s people. Combining such people with different cultures and traditions together in the church was one of the biggest issues in the early years of the church. Firstly, some Jewish believers went from Judea to Antioch teaching that the male Gentile believers needed to be circumcised as the Jews were in the Old Testament times (Acts 15). Some likeminded Christians in Jerusalem were teaching that the Gentiles were also required to keep the law of Moses. This matter was discussed and resolved amongst the church at Jerusalem who then informed those who had been affected by this controversy.
Paul also told those at Corinth to stop following different leaders because this was divisive, but to have unity instead (1 Cor 1:10-13; 3:1-9). In the letter to the churches at Galatia, he opposed legalism because it divided the church. In Romans he dealt with tensions between Jewish and Gentile believers over eating meat that had been offered to idols and over Jewish festivals (Rom. 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor. 8).
The church in Ephesus was told that the Jewish and Gentile believers were “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household” (Eph. 2:19). Consequently the hostility between them was to be replaced with peace (Eph. 2:14-18). They were to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6). While it takes an effort to promote unity, all these spiritual things we have in common are powerful unifying forces in the church.
Lessons for us
As a congregation are we imitating Christ? What are we willing to give up to follow the Lord’s example? The local church depends on people giving up their time, resources, abilities and energy. When we make corporate decisions we should include the question, “What Would Jesus Do”?
What about the core qualities of faith, hope and love? If our faithfulness is strong, we will witness for Christ. If our hope is strong, we will be encouraging and optimistic about what God is doing. If our love is strong, we will be humble and compassionate.
Are we faithful in studying and obeying the Bible as a congregation? Are we sharing our faith in the gospel message? Are we optimistically looking forward to being with the Lord? Are we joyful to be a part of His new creation? Are we known for our love for one another? Does an attitude of love permeate all we do in word and deed?
If we imitate Christ and strengthen our faith, hope and love, surely we will have unity. Nevertheless, we need to be reminded as a congregation of the many spiritual things which we have in common, and which are more important than our differences.
Let’s be more Christ-like, faithful, hopeful, loving and united and develop these goals to become the congregation that God wants us to be.
Written, November 2007