March 2, 2015

Can I Call It "My" Church?

“I love my church.” Frequently, those are the first words out of my mouth as I buckle my seat-belt in the car after Lord’s Day worship. Whether it was the hearty singing, or the powerful preaching, or the sweet fellowship—whether it was a hug from a little girl or a smile from an elderly one—I am regularly overwhelmed by the privilege of being a part of this little colony of heaven. I really love my church.

But, this week, I had two different conversations which thoughtfully challenged the use of my in front of church. Our language expresses our theology, and this tiny pronoun is worth some reflection. When I meet people at the next conference or denominational meeting who ask me “How’s your church?” what can I say?

Can I—should I—call it my church?

Let me offer two important clarifications, and then three arguments in favor of saying my:

(1) Not my church: Ownership.

I do not own the church. It’s not my personality or my priorities or my vision that drive it. It’s not my zeal or energies that keep it alive. It’s not my presence that makes it what it is. It is “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28), “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

If I mean to say that I somehow own the bride of Christ, then, no, it’s not my church.

(2) Not my church: Isolation.

In C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the dwarves of Narnia become disillusioned with Aslan and his followers. They (wrongly) suspect that their interests are not being protected, and so they refuse to assist the common cause, separating from the Narnian army while chanting, “The dwarves are for the dwarves! The dwarves are for the dwarves!” Sometimes a declaration about my church can carry the same wrong-headed isolationism.

But I am joined to the church universal—the true church in all ages and places. “All the churches of Christ” (Rom. 1:16) greet one another, “all the churches” (1 Cor. 7:17, 14:33) have a common practice under God’s Word, and “all the churches” (Rom. 16:4) find common reasons for giving thanks.

If I mean to say that my church is the only church--or the only church that matters--or if I mean to say that my connection to the local church annexes me from the wider church, then, no, it’s not my church.

But with that understanding, I still think there are three good reasons to keep calling the local body my church:

(1) My church: Loyalty.

Three times in his Epistles, the Apostle Paul calls the good news of Christ “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16; 16:25; 2 Tim. 2:8).  My gospel?!?!

Paul is not appropriating the gospel under a false sense of ownership. He is not staking a false claim to it as his exclusively. He is declaring his allegiance to it. “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:8-9) The gospel of Christ was Paul’s work, his delight, his life’s cause. And owning this gospel as “mine” had practical ramifications for Paul: because of it, he was suffering and bound in chains as a criminal.

Similarly, I don’t belong to an abstract idea of church. I belong to a local and living body that sometimes demands real sacrifice from me. By saying my church, I declare my loyalty to it: my willingness to be associated with it and even, if necessary, to suffer for it.

(2) My church: Love.

The church is not a physical building; it is the gathered people of God. They are united to Christ, and belong to him as his children (Heb. 2:13). And, because I also am united to Christ, we belong to each other—as members of a body (1 Cor. 12:12), stones in a building (1 Cor. 3:9), and branches on a vine (John 15:5). And I love them.

Regularly, with great tenderness,  the Apostle Paul and the Apostle John called the members of the church “my children” (1 Cor. 4:14-15, Gal. 4:19, I John 2:1, 3 John 1:4). This doesn't deny that those Christians are the Lord's children, but expresses the love the apostles had for them.

The people of this church are so precious to me, so intimately connected to me, that like the lover in Song of Solomon—“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3)—I convey affection by getting in the car on Sunday afternoon and calling the church mine.

(3) My church: Service.

I serve the church because I am closely united to Christ and moved by Christ’s interests. His concerns for the church become my concerns, his desires are my desires, his cause is my cause. And, in that sense, his church is really and truly mine.

Consider this wonderful illustration from C.H. Spurgeon:
In the days when servants used to be servants and were attached to their masters, one of our nobility had with him an old butler who had lived with his father, and was getting grey. The nobleman was often much amused with the way in which the good old man considered everything that was his master’s to be his own. I was not only pleased with the story but it touched my heart when I heard it. His lordship once said to him, ‘John, whose waggon is that which has just come up loaded with goods?’ ‘Oh!’ said he ‘that is ours. Those are goods from our town house.’ His lordship smiled, and as a carriage came up the drive, he said, ‘John, whose coach is that coming into the park?’ ‘Oh!’ said he, that is our carriage.’ ‘But,’ said the master, ‘there are some children in it, John; are they our children?’ ‘Yes, my lord, they are our children, bless them, I will run, and bring them in.’ My Lord Jesus, how dare I have the impertinence to claim anything which is Thine? And yet, when I gaze upon Thy Church, I am so completely Thy servant, and so wholly absorbed in Thee, that I look upon it as mine as well as Thine, and I go to wait upon Thy beloved ones.[1]

Is that my church? Why, yes, it is.

[1] C.H. Spurgeon, “Individuality and Its Opposite” in An All-Round Ministry, 59-88, Repr., 1900 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 88.

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