By Jeff Faull
One of the most beautiful and reassuring scenes in Scripture is found in the opening pages of Revelation. It focuses on the all-holy, all-seeing, all-powerful Jesus walking among the seven candlesticks or lampstands. And with unmistakable clarity John declares, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20).
Incredible! In all of his love, majesty, and insight, Christ has the church as his overriding concern and passion! He moves among the candlesticks. As church members and church leaders, we frequent this place of beauty—immersed in, obsessed by, and saturated with visions of the church in Scripture.
Some of us have spent decades dreaming, praying, and pondering such questions as these:
What is the church and what should the church look like?
What constitutes the church? When does it cease to be the church?
What does the church do? What should it be? How rigid or flexible is the definition of church?
What’s right with the church? What’s wrong with the church? We think of everything the church is and wants to be.
What are we trying to do? Where are we headed?
As ministries and as leaders, as churches, what are we becoming before God?
What are we really building for God? What kind of “house” should we build for him?
Bill Hybels, pastor with Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois, was recently interviewed live in front of thousands of young leaders. He was asked to offer one word of caution or advice for young leaders and church planters. His answer was simple yet profound: “Make sure that what you are building is really a church.”
But how do we know if we’re building a church or something else? One way is to think about candlesticks. I’ve identified seven of them that give light. These are the concerns that ought to occupy our thoughts and illuminate our hearts and minds when we think about the church.
Unfortunately, many church leaders focus on one or two of these but neglect, or even oppose, the rest of them. But all of them are necessary for a balanced perspective of church.
1. The images of the church
The New Testament does more than merely give a strict technical definition of the church—it gives us pictures we should gaze on often: an active sheepfold, a preparing bride, a burgeoning construction site, a fruitful field, a co-op of fellow workers with God, a healthy functioning body, a united family, an illuminated kingdom, a focused army of believers. There were even some clues given in the Old Testament about what the church would eventually look like.
Though these metaphors are diverse and varied, there are common threads woven through these pictures of the church.
They all have their imperfections. Sheepfolds are odorous, fields have weeds, bodies have ailments, brides have blemishes, construction sites are messy, and families have problems.
But those imperfections are continually being overcome with improvements. The building is being constructed, the bride is being made beautiful, the crop in the field is growing, the body is functioning, the fold is providing safety, and the family is together. All of these improvements require involvement, submission, and effort.
2. The definitions of the church
In his ecclesiology blog, Alan Knox wrote,
Look in an English dictionary under the letter “C,” somewhere between “chocolate” and “cider,” and you’ll find the word “church.” “Church” is an English term that has many different definitions. In that dictionary, you will probably find five or six different definitions for “church.” Many of those words are related, which makes this process even harder.
What process is that? I’m talking about defining the word “church” as it’s used in the New Testament. In other words, I’m trying to answer this question: When we read the New Testament and come across the word “church,” what does this word mean?
The church is called out and called together “the assembly.” Sometimes it is the church throughout the world, sometimes the church throughout a region, and other times, the church in a local city.
This is a discussion far beyond the scope of this article, but it is an avenue worth exploring and pursuing if we are serious about the church. I wonder how many of us who have devoted our lives to planting or building the church would pass the “red-faced” test in a serious conversation about the meaning and the origin of the term “church.”
3. The “templates” of the early church
Historically this is where our Restoration predecessors set up camp. What did the early church do? What decisions did the apostolic leaders make? What guidelines did they provide? Is the book of Acts a rigid blueprint or a flexible example? How much of it and which parts of it are intended as an ongoing model for us? Which pieces simply describe the church in its infancy and what was intended to be the church in perpetuity? What can and cannot change? Which parts are prescriptive and which parts are simply descriptive?
There are conflicts over excessive patternism in theology and practice. That’s often been demonstrated for us. But the overemphasis on patternism is not reason enough for us to err at the opposite end of the spectrum. While there is room for latitude in some things, there are some indicative phrases in Scripture that would lead us to believe God’s picture for the church is a bit more standardized than we would care to admit. Paul uses language like, “as in all the churches,” and the phrase “according to the pattern” or “according to the patterns I made known to you.”
Then there is the obvious reality that God is a God of pattern and order. Perhaps some of us make too much of that characteristic of God, but others completely ignore it. It is true there is room for variety in the structure and methods of the church, yet it is also true that Scripture provides some framework and sets forth some indispensables for the church. The masthead of this magazine reflects this worthy objective. “Devoted to the restoration of New Testament Christianity, its doctrines, its ordinances, and its fruits.”
Simply put, Scripture does not give us an entirely blank slate for church building, nor does it leave us without sufficient design for building God’s church. And even if we disagree on the particulars, we can at least agree that this is a well from which all who love the church should drink deeply.
4. Subsequent glimpses of the church
The churches in Ephesus, Rome, Colossae, Corinth, Thessalonica, and in history all give us clues. We can consider more than just the opening chapters of Acts to paint this picture.
Many years ago my father wrote an imaginary letter to an imaginary preacher without a pulpit.
Greetings in him, I heard you were looking for a congregation to whom you may preach and labor with throughout the years. I am well acquainted with your kind of preaching. I commend you for it. We need strong doctrine and preaching on worldliness. However, I hesitate sending you this letter for fear that the church which I am going to refer you to would not appeal to you. You may not even fellowship with them and even less want to go and labor among them.
The church does have its problems. They are quite liberal, although they have had some very powerful preaching from a very dedicated group of preachers. However, this is exactly the problem. Some of the people here like one kind of preaching and another group like another kind of preaching, so they are divided over this.
This church is full of troubles and needs a firm hand to straighten it out. Some of the people do not believe that some of the New Testament books are valid. Some do not believe that there will be a resurrection; and still others believe that it is a sin to eat meat. They all seem to have a perverted view of the Lord’s Supper. These are their doctrinal errors.
Their errors, as far as godly living are concerned, are even worse. One man is living in adultery and no one will condemn him for it. Two of the brethren are going to law with each other over a boundary line. There are a lot of petty jealousies in the church, and some of them are puffed up with pride about their talents. Some of the people are quite snobbish.
But put this all aside and they are a good New Testament church. I do not think we ought to throw them away, do you? They are divided on the name of the church, but they are a church set up after the apostolic order. I fellowship with this church as I expect some of its members to be in Heaven. I’m confident that if you go there, some of the brethren will think that you have backslidden. Some of the “loyal brethren” will not even have fellowship with them.
Now I do not know if they use an instrument or not. I think they use more than one cup at the Communion. I know they contribute money to a common fund for the poor with the other churches in the area.
I hope I have not made the church sound too terrible to you. These brethren need your help. Why don’t you consider going there and laboring among these saints? If you are at all interested, drop them a line and I will forward your letter on to the church at Corinth by Timothy, my son in the faith.
Sincerely, The Apostle Paul
—Written by George Faull
Though imperfect, these New Testament churches help us fill in the blanks in our pursuit of church.
5. Specific purpose statements
Alger Fitch wrote an incredible book called Reading Between the Lines—Discovering the One Purpose Behind the 27 Books of the New Testament. His approach was unique. He divided the New Testament into four sections: the Gospels as missionary sermons, the book of Acts as the missionary records, the Epistles as missionary correspondence, and the book of Revelation as missionary struggles.
His argument is airtight and persuasive. The New Testament is about the church’s primary task of evangelism and missions. He maintains that Scripture was written so that the church might become incurably mission-minded. He wrote, “Whether a letter calls for attention to doctrinal correctness or moral purity, the motivation is to protect the church’s witness on the field. Immoral living contradicts Christian testimony. Heretical teaching turns minds from the gospel.”
John’s picture of the local church is that of a lampstand. Its reason for existence is to let the light of the gospel shine forth from it. It is the nature of light to shine. The church is to be the pillar and support of the truth and to make known the manifold wisdom of God.
6. The actual candlestick statements
The situations with the seven churches in Revelation can also provide some guidance. Two of those churches were very dysfunctional, two of them were relatively healthy and commended, and two of them received mixed reviews. What were they rewarded for? What were they rebuked for? What were they all reminded of?
The church assessments here go way beyond pragmatism. There is a mother lode here for all who care about this thing we call church.
7. Healthy contemporary models
We can certainly learn from contemporary examples of the church. We can look to churches that are successfully modeling what the church is to be.
All seven of these “candlesticks” can shed light on our quest to be the church. A great struggle and tension of ministry and leadership is to discern from Scripture what God wants the church to be. We are continually intrigued by what the New Testament church is supposed to look like.
We know it doesn’t look like some of the anemic, legalistic churches we all have observed, but neither does it look like the
consumer-driven, cookie-cutter churches that are a mile wide and an inch deep. We know true Christianity is not seen in the shibboleth-
pronouncing legalists, nor is it demonstrated by the fad-driven liberals of pop spirituality. God leads us to real devotion and helps us to be the real New Testament church.
Some would dismiss the validity or necessity of this discussion by saying the call for the church is simply to follow Jesus, and though that is true as a summary statement, it is not legitimate when used as a reductionist approach.
Ultimately we want to be devotees and imitators of the architect and builder of the church. We desire to please the One who walks among the candlesticks. We want his stamp, not ours, on the church. Conventional wisdom says a church takes on the personality of its senior leader. We must make sure Jesus is who leads our church.
Our minds are drawn to the powerful conclusion of a sermon Stephen preached that literally cost him his life. He was trying to build something for God, and it cost him everything. Let’s replay the end of that sermon moments before Stephen’s audience murdered him.
Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen. And having received it in their turn, our fathers brought it in with Joshua upon dispossessing the nations whom God drove out before our fathers, until the time of David. David found favor in God’s sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says: “Heaven is My throne, And earth is the footstool of My feet; What kind of house will you build for Me?” says the Lord, “Or what place is there for My repose? Was it not My hand which made all these things?” (Acts 7:44-50, New American Standard Bible).
The question God asks in Scripture could be directed to church leaders today: What kind of a house will you build for me? As the people of God, we are still called to answer that question.
Jeff Faull serves as senior minister with Mount Gilead Church, Mooresville, Indiana.