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Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

by Terry Conley


It is difficult to determine how a young life will be lived.  Who knew that the child who once wrote during family prayers: “There was a mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say his prayers,” would write many years later “See from His head, His hands His feet, Sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown.”

In his later years, Isaac Watts once complained about hymn singing in church “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” 

He had bemoaned such since his late teens.  His father, tired of his complaints, challenged him to write something better. The following week, Isaac presented his first hymn to the church, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb,” based on Revelation 5:6-12.  He was only 15 years old but the career of the “Father of English Hymnody” had begun.  As Scottish Hymnist John Brownlie, D. D., later wrote, “The grey dawn is about to flee before the sunrise. With Isaac Watts the first golden streaks of morn are seen: when a greater than he, Charles Wesley, strikes the harp, day will have been ushered in.

Isaac Watts was born into a Dissenting Nonconformist family in Southampton, July 17, 1674.  He was the eldest of nine children.  Watts was in frail health all of his life, and at only five feet tall, he was not a physically imposing figure.  His father was imprisoned at least twice during Isaac’s infancy for his religious convictions and his public position against the Church of England.  Isaac always remembered and respected his father’s courage.

His abilities became obvious in early childhood.  He was taught Latin at age 4, Greek at age 9, French when he was 12, and Hebrew by the time he was 13.  His obvious abilities led to the offer of education at one of the universities for eventual ordination into the Church of England.  He refused this path and instead entered the Dissenting Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690.  He completed his studies in 1694 and he became a tutor to the family of Sir John Hartopp of Stoke Newington.  That family had long been involved with the Dissenting Nonconformist movement and this placed Watts at the center of religious dissent in the area.  He began preaching occasionally at the Hartopp family chapel  and in 1699, he was appointed assistant to the minister of Mark Lane Independent Chapel.  Mark Lane was then one of the city’s most influential Independent churches.  In March 1702 he became pastor.

Besides writing hymns, Isaac Watts was a theologian and logician, writing books and essays on these subjects.  One of his textbooks on logic was particularly popular.  The full title, Logick, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences was first published in 1724 and went through twenty editions.  It became the standard text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale.  He also wrote educational books on geography, astronomy, grammar, and philosophy.  Yet with all his many accomplishments as an author and a pastor, it is Dr. Watts’s amazing facility with poetry that has left a lasting imprint on history.

After suffering a physical breakdown in his health in 1712, he accepted an invitation to visit Sir Thomas Abney at his residence in Abney Park.  The original invitation was for a few weeks, but this visit extended and for the next 36 years, Abney, then his wife and daughter, kept Watts as guest and friend at their home.  He continued to write and preach as often as his health would permit.

Watts eventually wrote more than 750 hymns including, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed; When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; Am I a Soldier of the Cross; At the Cross; Joy to the World! The Lord is Come;  O God Our Help in Ages Past; We’re Marching to Zion; When I Can Read My Title Clear; Come We That Love The Lord; and I Sing the Mighty Power of God.  His model for the congregational song, the hymn, remains in current use throughout the English-speaking world.

I Sing the Mighty Power of God (Praise for Creation and Providence) appeared in his book Divine Songs attempted in Easy Language, for the Use of Children (1718).  Divine Songs is recorded as the first English hymnal written especially for children.  The song was written to be used to teach Biblical principles about creation to a child.  In this “children’s song” we see many major truths presented about God.  We see His: Creative power (v1), Wisdom (v2), Sovereign authority (v2, 5, 7), Goodness (v3), Wonders (v4), Glory (v5), Omnipresence (v6, 8), Love (v7), Wrath (v8), and Protection (v8).  It is amazing to realize the level of understanding Dr. Watts expected in the young.  In the book’s Preface he writes, “[These songs] will be a constant furniture of the minds of children, that they may have something to think upon when alone, and sing over to themselves. This may sometimes give their thoughts a divine turn, and raise a young meditation. Thus they will not be forced to seek relief for an emptiness of mind, out of the loose and dangerous sonnets of the age.”

Watts wrote hymns that departed from the psalms and included more personal expressions. This did not please everyone.  Some felt his hymns were “too worldly” for the church as they were not based on the Psalms. Yet Watts felt strongly that the Christian church congregation and not just the choir should sing of Christ.  He explained it this way: “Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it.  Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God.  Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory, and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.”  He noted in his Hymns and Spiritual Songs: “While we sing the praises of God in His church, we are employed in that part of worship which of all others is the nearest akin to heaven, and ’tis pity that this of all others should be performed the worst upon earth. That very action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine sensations doth not only flat our devotion but too often awakens our regret and touches all the springs of uneasiness within us.”

Of course, that is still today our command as Christians, especially Christian parents.  “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” (Deut. 6:6-7)

To the extent they accurately reflect what the Bible has to say, the great hymns of the church are a useful tool in this. Whether in the family circle, or the house of God, we are admonished: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16)

It is worthwhile to pause a moment and remember Watts’s words recorded on his deathbed.  They reveal the faith and dedication of this great servant of God:  “If God should raise me up again, I may finish some more of my papers, or God can make use of me to save a soul, and that will be worth living for. If God has no more service for me to do, through grace I am ready; it is a great mercy to me that I have no manner of fear or dread of death….I trust all my sins are pardoned through the blood of Christ….I have no fear of dying.”

Watts died quietly in the afternoon of November 25, 1748, at the Abney’s home in Stoke.  He was buried at Bunhill Fields in London, the Dissenter’s Graveyard.


A Dictionary of Hymnology; John Julian, Dover Publications; 1907

Annotations of the Hymnal; Charles Hutchins, M.A.; 1872.

The Gospel In Hymns;  Albert Edward Bailey, Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1950

The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church Hymnary; John Brownlie, D.D.; Henry Frowde; 1911


Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong

Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong

by Rick Shrader


This 2009 book is done by MacArthur and other staff at Grace Community Church.  I found it to be very helpful in a number of different areas that affect the local church.  It is divided into four sections:  Entertainment and Leisure; Morality and Ethics; Politics and Activism; and Tragedy and Suffering.  I thought it was especially good on areas of abortion (making Biblical arguments for life in the womb), marriage and divorce (MacArthur has always taken the “innocent party” view), homosexuality, euthanasia and suicide, social and political involvment, global warning and environment, and also guidelines for the why and how of suffering.  This is a helpful book for comparing Scripture with Scripture in controversial areas.


David Bebbington

David Bebbington

by Rick Shrader

“That view has normally been sustained down through the centuries, with ultimate responsibility for decisions resting not with pastors or deacons but with the committed church members as a whole.  The churchmanship of the Baptists was not unique, for it was upheld as fully by Independents, but it was an unusual position in Christendom, arising from Baptists’ belief in a regenerate church membership.”

David Bebbington, Baptists Through The Centuries, p. 178.


J.M. Frost

J.M. Frost

by Rick Shrader

“If you are not a Christian, you should not be in the church, but if you are, then you will not stay out of the church nor stay away from the church.  Contentment out of church connection is inconsistent with the grace of God in the heart, and will surely discredit all your professions, however sincere they may be.”

J.M. Frost, Baptist Why and Why Not, p. 221.


Rolland McCune

Rolland McCune

by Rick Shrader

“It is assumed in the New Testament that a member of the body of Christ is also a member of a local church.  An unbaptized, unaffiliated Christian is unknown in the New Testament.”

Rolland McCune, Systematic Theology, vol. III, p. 200.


Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

by Rick Shrader

“Modern-day Christians often prefer to meet with people just like themselves in informal settings, disdaining the institutional Church.  This can be a dangerous mistake.  The best safeguard against elitism, which is a sure mark of worldliness, is intense involvement in the local church.”

Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Loving God with all Your Mind, p106.


Who Needs The Local Church?

Who Needs The Local Church?

by Rick Shrader


This is a day of convenience, quick on-line shopping, and instant everything.  It is almost possible for a person to live one’s whole life without leaving the house.  If someone can arrange to work from home, the rest is easy.  You can do all of your banking online, shop for almost anything and have it delivered to the door, order repairs and other services at home, and “attend” hundreds of social networking sites without ever seeing anyone face to face.  It may be that to a person who has never known it any other way, this seems better than  “the good old days,” as their parents described them, and is now just normal life to them.

Many of us were alive before the technological age and could argue that life in general was better when we had to work at it more. At the same time we are very thankful for many of the modern conveniences which we didn’t have in those “good old days.”  Obviously the modern house with indoor plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and electrical appliances is better than the log cabin.  Today’s cars are unbelievable machines compared to just fifty years ago, although it was a fun family project to be able to work on your own car in those days.  There is no comparison between the computer and the old manual typewriter, and how can the post office letter compare to email and texting?

A modern day dilemma surfaces, however, when we apply many Biblical admonitions and commands to today’s conveniences.  There is no electronic way to update prayer for example.  Yes, you might make a prayer list on your smart phone to have with you at all times, or participate on a prayer chain with other believers, but when it comes down to the thing itself, you still have to talk to God.  I don’t think you can record beautiful prayers from preachers online and then have your computer repeat them to God at regular intervals and call that prayer.  Bible reading may have a couple flexibilities in this regard.  We have always been able to listen or read whether a real person is reading or we are listening to a recording.  We can read God’s Word on paper with ink, or we can read an electronic version, yet there can be no alternative for taking in the Words of God which are Scripture.

So what about the local church?  If we were only talking about the building we could argue that some modern conveniences have brought about welcome changes.  Bathrooms, kitchens, air conditioning and heating, comfortable seating, and such things have all made the local gathering of God’s people at least easier (I’m not sure about better).  But the local church is, at the bottom line, the people of God.  Can there be a substitute for face-to-face fellowship?  Can there be a substitute for a speaker and a listener?  Can there be a substitute for corporate prayer, congregational singing, personal fellowship, and face to face preaching?  I am not at all sure there can be.  I would offer three perspectives as to who needs the local church.

The carnal Christian doesn’t.

First let me say that I believe there is such a thing as a carnal Christian (some oppose the idea).  In fact, carnality resides in each of us and we must fight it daily as we practice a progressive sanctification.  I am not trying to say that anyone who disagrees with my view of the local church is carnal.  I am saying that when a believer allows his old nature to rule, there are many avenues open to him that will allow him to disregard the New Testament local church.

A Christian can allow his carnal nature to avoid fellowship with other believers.  Social networking (as it is called) is so pervasive in the electronic world that a person can “network” with hundreds or thousands of people without ever coming in contact with them.  I think carnality would prefer this to eye to eye contact and the actual shaking of another believer’s hands.  No doubt there are many believers who avoid this even in their local congregation, but that is carnality as well.  One error doesn’t excuse the other.  In addition to preferring physical absence there is the danger of hypocrisy.  In a virtual world you can become many things that you really are not.  This is a danger that we have to warn young people about when they are in contact with faceless people who scan the internet for nefarious purposes.

A person can also find teaching of every sort online.  One may have enough discernment to avoid the bad and select the good or one may not, but one thing that will be missing is accountability to a pastor and a congregation.  I’m sure that the carnal Christian likes it that way much better.  In addition, there is no adherence to a doctrinal statement or accountability to a constitution or covenant.  The growing trend of satellite congregations fosters this scenario as well.  If one must go to church only to watch a preacher or teacher broadcast his sermon from another location, why not just stay home and watch who you want without all the effort of getting ready and leaving the house?

Since worship has become an individual’s preference, the internet offers multiple worship venues of choice.  You can participate or sit and watch.  You can stay in your pajamas or get dressed.  You can play the service in the background while multitasking all around the house.  And when it comes to offering time, the trendy thing now is to give online anyway, with no messy checks and envelopes and all that time taken with boring offertories.

The same rules apply to other services of the local church.  Moms and dads can become involved in multiple social networks, some of which may actually offer a meeting time and place which, of course, is not under the scrutiny of any one local church.  No doubt the para-church phenomenon of the past has blossomed on the internet.  Even faithful attenders of local churches may be spending hours upon hours and dollars as well in these “activities.”  Children who grow up very tech savvy will gravitate to online activities rather than be put in some embarrassing face to face group where one has to actually do things.  If one wants to sooth his conscience with social projects, there are also many ways to contact, promote, and “get involved” with things that “make a difference.”  Who knows, your post might go viral, and just think of all the good that will be done then!

So the carnal Christian doesn’t need the local church.  In fact, it is a distraction to him.  His life is easier and more interesting to him than all of that attendance stuff.  He probably even sees himself as better off and more culturally attuned than those people who go to church.  And no doubt he thinks he has avoided so many hypocrites who attend church but don’t actually live out their faith.

The spiritual Christian does.

The New Testament Christian needs the New Testament church.  The primary reason he needs it is because it is what the New Testament is all about.  Jesus trained and prepared the disciples for leadership in the church.  The Holy Spirit filled the first church as they were gathered together in one upper room.  The apostles wrote the epistles of the New Testament to local churches in various localities.  Paul concluded his letter to the church at Thessalonica this way, “I charge you by the Lord, that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren” (1 Thes. 5:27).  They had to be in church to hear the letter read, and that’s partly why they were holy brethren.

Christians need to hear the Word preached from their pastor, and he needs to have the time to speak to them.  This needs to be face to face which is the real avenue for power in speaking.  The apostle John said, “I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full” (2 John 12).  Children need to sit in a classroom and pay attention to a teacher who has prepared a Bible lesson and takes special interest in each child.  They need to learn to interact properly and respectfully with other children as well as with the adults in church.

Corporate worship is important.  Congregational singing allows everyone to participate and express their personal praise to God,  “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19).  Public prayer allows a person to lead you in prayer, not to pray for you, and prayer meetings allow “two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20), as they offer their requests to God.  Sitting and listening to the Word of God by a man who knows and loves you and has prepared a message for his people is a biblical charge.  We are not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).  The manner of many these days is to forsake the assembling, and the day of Christ is approaching fast.

As a believer, I need the schedule and discipline in my life that regular church attendance brings.  This includes the preparation and travel time, the greeting and talking with people, the sitting for an extended period of time and learning to concentrate on the subject and text, and the self-examination of the spoken Word to my own heart.  Children need this discipline as well, from nursery level to teenagers.  This not only makes them grow in social maturity but inculcates into their thinking a pattern for life, a pattern which is in obedience to the Word of God.  Eutychus may have fallen asleep in church but he was there (Acts 20:9).

After being in church all of my life, and pastoring for many years, and raising four children in church, all of whom still attend church regularly with their children, my need for the local church becomes more narrow.  I never knew a church smaller than thousands until I was out of college, but my need of church attendance matters none on the size of the church.  I need to worship, and worship with other brothers and sisters who also need to worship.  I need to sing reverent songs that speak to my soul, not dragged out in a funeral dirge but not raced through without thought, and not sung as the world sings.  I need to speak to all who are there, not waiting for someone to approach me, but seeking them out instead.  And though I am almost always the one speaking, I relish the times when I hear a man of God preach the Word with passion to my soul.

I said to our church family the other day, it is better to be bored in church than entertained.  If you have to be entertained, it is like an addiction which can never be fully satisfied.  Boredom, however, can be easily fixed by the filling of the Spirit, a love of the brethren, and a love for the institution Jesus founded.

The lost person does.

Lost people need the local church.  One of the joys of past years in America has been to travel across this great land and see the landmarks.  Besides the natural beauty of the landscape, there are the barns and the windmills, the farms and the fields, the skyscrapers and the neighborhoods. There are also the church steeples rising above the tree tops and pointing their way to the heavens, and in some places the sound of church bells reminding us of time to worship.  I wish the architecture wasn’t changing because I think those physical reminders of God and His house have been good for our communities.

With or without a steeple, the existence of local churches, of Christians moving around on Sunday morning when so many are sleepily at home, of people purposely dressed so as to meet the most important Person in their lives, of neighbors knowing that you have important business today, all are reasons why the lost person needs the local church.

To some this is simply a reminder of the Christian history of our country.  America has been a church-going country, a Christian country.  The Puritan belief of a Sunday Sabbath influenced Sunday activity for centuries.  I can even remember a time when many lost people would dress up and go to church, putting themselves under the sound of the gospel.  And many of them were converted including my parents and grandparents.

To most lost people today, the church doesn’t carry the same weight of testimony it used to carry.  But this is not a good reason to change that scenario; in fact, it is a reason to reinvigorate it.  To many people this is the most important gospel witness in their lives.  You know the feeling of driving off to church on Sunday morning and seeing your neighbors looking the other way.  That’s a good thing!  It brings a needed conviction to them.  Deep down they know that they should be under the sound of God’s Word too.

Churches have tried too hard to keep from offending the sinner when he comes to church.  We all know that we should not be offensive personally, but we also know that there is an offense to the cross which we dare not remove.  The best place for a sinner to be is in church watching Christians do what Christians do.  If the repentance process is going to happen, he must be uncomfortable at some point.  He will probably think of a dozen reasons why he should not be there or why he should leave early.  This is the Holy Spirit speaking to his heart and we dare not short cut that process.  He will look around and imagine seeing hypocrites everywhere; he will think that the preacher is singling him out; he will pretend to be tired or bored and in need of sleep.  All of these are good things and why he has needed the local church for a long time.

We used to say often that the sinner doesn’t want to see worldliness in Christians because he will say, “Well, if that is what Christianity is I don’t want any part of it.”  The truth, however, is that the sinner loves to see hypocrisy and worldliness in believers because that gives him a reason to refuse salvation.  What the church must not do is take away the things that make him uncomfortable.  The church must not say, “Look, being a believer doesn’t cost you anything. We haven’t changed anything in our lives and you don’t have to either.”  I’m not speaking of a work for salvation. I’m speaking of repentance and faith, without which no man will be saved.

The lost person does need the local church.  In fact, it is vital in helping him come to Christ.  As Christians we should be doing the things God wants us to do in church, and let that be a Holy Spirit witness to the unbelieving onlooker.

Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;

Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.

Tell me the story always, if you would really be,

In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

And so . . .

It would be possible today for a carnal Christian to avoid assembling with believers altogether and there are many avenues out there that would substitute for church.  But the local church is still the Biblical example of life for the believer and the believer is commanded to participate in it.  The spiritual believer will desire to assemble in the local church and will be sad when he is not able to attend.  The lost person may not like the church but he needs it very badly.  Let’s do the right thing for all involved and not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.



Local Churches and Their Pastors

Local Churches and Their Pastors

by Rick Shrader


The month of October afforded me a number of opportunities to fellowship with local church pastors from various states and even countries.  Though I have written on the local church a lot this year, I want to relate the blessing that I received from my fellowship with these men and also to enhance our appreciation for the ministry of smaller local churches around us.

I grew up in and around large Baptist churches in the 50s and 60s and I loved everything about them.  I was saved at Lockland Baptist Church in Cincinnati, John Rawlings, pastor, a church of thousands.  In the summers I attended church with my grandparents at High Street Baptist Church in Springfield, MO, Bill Dowell, pastor, and later David Cavin (when it was still on High Street) a church of thousands.  I was saved at 11 years old and baptized when I was 16.  God called me to preach at 18 under the ministry of Dr. Rawlings.  I also served as his youth pastor a couple years after school.  I say this only to relate that I have nothing against large churches and, in fact, am the result of their ministries.  I will also admit that these men were extraordinary men who were gifted in many ways.  Dr. Rawlings still called me from time to time and asked about my family.

Yet my experience in ministry has been with and around churches of hundreds, not thousands, and sometimes with less than a hundred.  I have also noticed that pastors of these smaller churches are usually capable of more responsibility and this is a great advantage for these churches.  This is also an advantage for the pastor if he truly desires and loves to pastor people.  There will always be those extraordinary men whose ministries grow larger scripturally, and may God increase their number.

Smaller local churches are and have been the backbone of our country.  We have all been blessed driving through the country-side or city and seeing the steeples of church buildings rise above the roof tops.  I know that towns often seem crowded with the churches, but, given the denominational differences and the populations, it usually works out fine.  I have known a number of Baptist churches in very small towns whose Sunday attendance exceeded the town’s population, reminding me that there are people living everywhere.  The pastors of these churches are unsung heroes.  They are jewels on the rough edges of our culture.  They are the boots on the ground of ministry.  They and their churches blanket our country with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me tell you about four experiences I have had with small church pastors in the last six months that greatly encouraged me.

Ontario, Canada. 

In July I attended (and brought the evening messages for) a pastors’ retreat called Shepherd’s Camp in Ontario, Canada.  This camp is sponsored by Berean Baptist Church, International Falls, MN, pastor Ross Crowe, and by Victory Baptist Church, Ft. Frances, Ontario, pastor Shane Belding.  The retreat was attended by pastors from Ontario, Minnesota, and Iowa.  I wish I had the space to name all the men and their churches (with all four of my experiences!).  What a blessing it was to interact with these men all week and to hear the stories of their local ministries!   These men pastor in small towns which are filled with difficult challenges concerning drugs, homelessness, single mothers, and more.  I no longer think of small town America as Andy and Barney in Mayberry.  These are rough places to minister and it takes a special kind of person to do it.  The pay is minimal and often demands a bi-vocational situation.  The living situation is tough on families.  There is little to no recognition and yet many of these men spend their whole lives in one church and community.  But the blessing of the week was hearing the many stories of conversions, the rescue of broken homes and lives, and the struggles with a sparse living condition.

It was my second year at this camp.  These guys love to fish and I have gotten my poles wet again for sure.  The eagles fly everywhere.  The camp has no electricity or running water—which tells you why it is a men only camp, although they do youth camps throughout the summer.  Maybe those northern kids are tougher than we know.  My most memorable moment this summer was when a bald eagle dived for a Northern Pike we had thrown out of the boat and splashed in the water 10 feet from the boat!  A spectacular moment for sure!  My reward, however, was getting to know great pastors like these men.  You’ll never hear from them or read about them in the denominational paper.  They will go about their business unsung.  But don’t feel sorry for them.  They are doing the greatest and most rewarding work and the blessing is all theirs.

Smithville, Missouri

I pastor Faith Baptist Church in Smithville, MO, north of Kansas City.  We are four years old this year and had our fourth annual Bible Conference this fall.  This year instead of having a single speaker for the conference, I invited four local pastors from the Kansas City area to speak, one each night, on the four nights of our conference.  As an added bonus for our small church, the men brought special music each evening from their church.  Our church family prepared a meal each evening before the service.  I wanted our folks to get to know the pastors and churches that I know and fellowship with in the area.  It was a great success.

We were privileged to hear pastor Webster Frowner, First Regular Baptist Church, Kansas City, MO; pastor Bruce Anderson, Olivet Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS; pastor Chuck Brocka, missionary pastor at Fair Haven Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS; and pastor Tom Hamilton, Stony Point Baptist Church, Kansas City, KS.  These men pastor average size churches around the KC metropolitan area.  They are not nationally known speakers but they speak as pastors to church people.  They related familiar stories about their ministries that our people understood.  It didn’t have to be professional.  We moved tables and chairs, we had piano and hymn singing, we recorded each sermon and put it on our web site, we greeted and talked late after each service.

Though we have always had wonderful men of God speak to us at our conferences, many of our folks said that this was one of their favorite conferences because it made them realize that there are many other churches like ours which struggle with the same things in the same city-wide area.  Sometimes there are great things in our own back yard.

Wichita, Kansas

I often attend the western Missouri, eastern Kansas Regular Baptist Association meetings.  They (we) have a prayer meeting each month and bi-annual meetings each year.  This fall the conference was in Wichita at Westlink Baptist Church with pastor Dick Smith.  Dick has been there since Noah got off the ark and has a great ministry and is well known in the community.  The conference speaker was pastor Stan Lightfoot from Rustic Hills Baptist Church, Colorado Springs, CO.  I have known Stan for years dating back to my many years in Colorado.  Stan brought timely messages on the homosexual problems that now challenge our churches and communities.  It was very informative and brought us all up to speed on this important issue.

The men who attended this conference were also pastors of small and often rural churches.  One pastor who spoke went to a church of about a dozen people and has seen it grow to over 100.  There are many of these churches around our states that are without pastors and which are looking for men and families who will make the sacrifice to come to a smaller area.  There are retired pastors from the Kansas City area who travel every weekend to assist and preach for these churches.  When these pastors get together they have a great time telling stories, enjoying the meals provided by the church, praying with one another, and learning from one another.  Departing time seems to be sweet sorrow.

Soldotna, Alaska

This last month I was privileged to speak at a men’s retreat at Higher Ground Baptist Bible Camp in Soldotna, Alaska to the men from various churches of the Alaska Baptist Association.  It was a great group of pastors and laymen, some from the local Kenai peninsula, and some from as far north as Fairbanks.  I don’t have to tell you that these men are hunters and fishermen, maybe even mushers.  One afternoon’s enjoyment was skeet shooting which I enjoyed because I don’t do that much in my back yard in Kansas City.  The moose walked all over the camp grounds and the eagles flew over head.

In addition to the activities and sessions, several ladies and young people from the area provided meals which were absolutely delicious.  Many of these young people grow up serving in their churches and in various outreach opportunities. The harsher outdoors culture seems to make them tough but disciplined.  Even younger children (some were my grandchildren) ran around doing chores, often in shirt sleeves in the cold air.

During the week I once again heard stories of great but unknown men and churches.  A few of the older men were virtual pioneers to this “last frontier” state and had seen several generations of pastors and families come and go.  It’s not an easy place to come and stay if you’re not acclimated to the Alaska weather.  These churches have struggles as any other churches:  finances, building issues, shortages of help, discouragement.  But they are more of our great unsung heroes of the faith.

Persuading young men

Perhaps we can persuade more young couples to go to the smaller churches in rural areas or inner cities and accept the smaller works.  It is a tough time.  Our graduates have heavy debt loads, wages in churches are not a lot, there is no notoriety in those places.  But if God has ordered it, He will pay for it, now or in eternity.  Let’s pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.

Observations to be made

  1. Most New Testament churches were small churches. We are never told the actual attendance numbers of the churches in New Testament times but it doesn’t seem to be that they were large churches. The Jerusalem church was the exception.  It started out with about 120 people and grew to 3000, then 5000, and perhaps more.  The reasons for its phenomenal growth, however, were not repeated:  It experienced the day of Pentecost; it had twelve apostles ministering in it; it saw the first great miracles done by the apostles; it was in the religious center of Judeo-Christian activity; and it was the only church in existence at that time.  As the first century progressed and the New Testament was revealed, we see smaller, struggling churches spotted throughout the Roman Empire.
  2. Most churches throughout the age of grace have been small. There were exceptions to this as well, but believers everywhere gathered together on the Lord’s Day wherever they lived with the believers in that area. I have seen the roll of John Bunyan’s and William Carey’s churches in England and they were fewer than 100 people.  I have looked at the history of pastors such as Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliffe, and John Rylands with the same result.  Even in the early days of Spurgeon’s church with famous pastors (Benjamin Keach, John Gill, John Rippon) it was not a large church.  Spurgeon became its notable exception.
  3. Most of our Baptist churches today are relatively small. I have been to many mission fields with missionaries and the great majority of them have been very small churches. There have been more popular times when our churches were larger and maybe they will come again. But noses and nickels are not our objective per se.  We are to be faithful to God, preach the Word, and win souls to Him.  The Bema Seat will reveal “how” not “how much.”  Perhaps we have passed through a time when we only honored success by the size of the ministry and young men get discouraged in lesser works.  Too many seminars teach us to build up, step up, add to, spread out, and increase.  That is all well and good in its place.  But so is faithfulness and godliness with contentment.
  4. Many small churches may do more in a city than one large church. This may depend on a number of factors, but wouldn’t ten locations be better than one? Wouldn’t ten visitation programs be better than one?  Wouldn’t ten youth programs and children’s ministries be better than one?  Wouldn’t a hundred Sunday School teachers be better than ten?  And wouldn’t we teach God’s people more about normal Christianity?  I said in the beginning of this article that I am not opposed to large churches.  Praise God when growth happens.  I am only arguing also for the integrity of the smaller ministry which is the norm for most pastors and churches.
  5. Only the Lord knows the days that are ahead for His churches. We are not the same America of two hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago. We kill human children as soon as they are able to be born, cut them to pieces as one would a chicken, and sell them to the highest bidder.  We teach our children to seek a homosexual and fornicative lifestyle and deny the way God made humans male and female.  We legalize drugs faster than we fight them, and wonder why young criminals are nearly super-human and out of control.  We undress more than we dress up.  We sing profanity more than we learn grammar.  And we have again turned God’s house of prayer into an emporium of selfishness.

I preach the soon return of Jesus Christ for a pretribulational rapture of His church.  If I really believe we could be living in those days, I also must believe that we may see darker days ahead.  If so, we are going to need Christianity and local church life that is serious, reverent, uncompromising, and filled with the joy of the Lord, not the love of the world.  This is going to take churches that are personal, face to face, with pastoral relationships for every member, worship that can appreciate the simple truths of the faith in prayer, song, and sermon.  Our local New Testament Baptist churches are tailor made for that need.  If the local church was the divine instrument for the pagan first century, it is also for the pagan twenty first century.

And so . . .

Charles Ryrie has written, “Indeed, one receives the impression from the New Testament that the Lord preferred to have many smaller congregations rather than one large group in any given place.  And there seemed to be no lack of power that stemmed from lack of bigness.”1

In addition, Rolland McCune has written, “The ‘household of God,’ the ‘church of the living God’ is, in context of the Pastoral Epistles and I Timothy 3, the local church of the New Testament.  It is the ‘pillar  and support of the truth’.  To that institution has been committed the fate of revealed truth in this dispensation.”2

These things being true, our support and involvement in the local churches in our time, not just the larger and well-known ones but the smaller and less-known ones, is a Biblical imperative.


  1. Charles Ryrie, Balancing The Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994) 20.
  2. Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled (Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004) 74-75.



The Local Church of Revelation

The Local Church of Revelation

by Rick Shrader


All conservative scholars agree that Revelation is the last book to be added to the canon of sixty six inspired books and that the apostle John is the author.  John is given his three-fold division of the book as, “the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” (1:19).  The first division contains only chapter one, the things which John was presently seeing.  The second division must be chapters two and three concerning the seven churches of Asia, because the third division is obviously what follows in chapters four to the end, “I will show thee things which must be hereafter” (4:1).

The description of the seven churches of chapters two and three, “the things which are,” constitute the last revelation concerning the New Testament church.  This comprises the church age which will last until the tribulation, described in chapters four to twenty two, begins.  The appearing of Jesus Christ to John on the Isle of Patmos (vs. 9) happens more than sixty years after Christ’s resurrection and ascension back to heaven.  There were many other things happening at that time to which the Lord might have turned John’s attention, but the Lord was supremely interested in seven small local churches in Asia.

The order in which the churches are mentioned has been the source of many interpretations.  The historicists see seven periods within the church age ending with the apostasy of the Laodicean age.  But it is better to see the seven churches as the “things which are” in John’s time.  The order they are mentioned simply corresponds to the circle in which John would have traveled when delivering the letters, starting in Ephesus and ending in Laodicea.

The letters to the seven churches become uniquely important to us because they represent the final form of the local church, churches that were planted most likely by the apostle Paul’s efforts and were now under the direct influence of the apostle John.  Not that there is contradiction in the New Testament but rather a solidification of the doctrines, a settling of the foundation into concrete form.  There are many significant components to the churches in these two chapters.  Here are five which are very important.

Jesus Christ

Jesus is doing the speaking, that is, the revealing to John.  Red letter editions of the Bible use a lot of red ink in these chapters.  In chapter one, verse one, we see that God the Father gave this revelation to Jesus Christ Who gave it to His angel who gave it to John who is now giving it to God’s servants.  John sees Jesus as He is in His post-ascension, glorified body.  Paul confessed earlier that “though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Cor. 5:16).  From now on Jesus will be in the form that flesh takes when it is resurrected and glorified, even as John testified, “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

John describes our Lord in this fashion:

12 And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;  13 And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.  14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;  15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.  16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (1:12-16)

Jesus is walking among the candlesticks which are the seven churches.  He has the angels (pastors) in His right hand.  He says to every church, “I know thy works.”  Each description of Him is applied to one of the churches as it relates to their spiritual condition.  He is the Head of the church; resurrected, glorified, eternal, omnipotent, and Owner of the scroll, the deed to the whole earth.  One by one He will peel off the seals and claim the rightful ownership of His own creation.

The Apostle John

John is the last of the apostles and the last of the inspired writers of Scripture.  There will be many who claim the title: Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and still today we have groups like the New Apostolic Reformation with such well-known men as C. Peter Wagner and Rafael Cruz.1  But they are false apostles about whom John often spoke (1 John 4:1).  No man since John was baptized by John the Baptist or walked with Jesus during His life on earth, nor have they seen Christ after His resurrection as Peter declares, “whom, having not seen, ye love” (1 Pet. 1:8).  True apostles like John suffer and die.  Preachers may make pulpits famous, but apostles and prophets made prisons famous.

John declares himself as the last biblical writer:

18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:  19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (22:18-19)

The Bible is a canonized collection of 66 books of which Revelation is the last.  To a train of 66 cars, one can only take the last one off or put one more on.  That is why this statement is properly placed here.  This is the last one to be put on.  Matthew Henry so eloquently said, “This sanction is like a flaming sword, to guard the canon of the scripture from profane hands.  Such a fence as this God set about the law (Deut. 4:2), and the whole Old Testament (Mal. 4:2), and now in the most solemn manner about the whole Bible, assuring us that it is a book of the most sacred nature, divine authority, and of the last importance, and therefore the peculiar care of the great God.”2  No one ought to assume himself a Bible writer, or even claim that “God told me,” who does not also claim for himself the wrath of God mentioned in these verses.

The Seven Churches

Jesus stood in the midst of seven golden lamp stands and declared, “the seven candlesticks are the seven churches” (1:20).  They are golden because they are most precious in His sight.  Jesus could have appeared in Jerusalem and instructed the scattered Jewish nation or in Rome and corrected the great world power.  But “the things which are” concern God’s primary agency in this age of grace, the New Testament local church.  He walks among them and holds their messengers in His right hand.  He knows them intimately, encouraging or correcting where necessary.

Churches aren’t perfect as these seven churches demonstrate and serve as examples for all churches to come.  Five of the seven receive severe reprimand but all hear words such as, “I know thy works,” and “nevertheless I have somewhat against thee,” and “be thou faithful unto death,” and “that which ye have already, hold fast till I come.”  The command to “repent” is given to five of the seven churches and the admonition to “overcome” to all.  The same could be and should be said to all churches throughout the age.

The letters to the churches are natural and interesting to read.  The New Testament was largely written to churches, even though those churches may have had apostles, prophets, pastors, and teachers in them.  These seven letters, like the earlier epistles, were addressed to believers at specific locales.  Though believers today comprise the universal church, or body of Christ, every believer ought to be a baptized member of a local church.  This is the organization that Christ loves and to which He writes letters.  As Paul finished his first epistle to the Thessalonians he wrote, “I charge you by the Lord, that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren” (1 Thes. 5:27).  As he finished his epistle to the Colossians he wrote, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16).  This is most natural because that is where the believers would be.  As John was finishing this book of Revelation, the Lord said, “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches” (22:16).  John would faithfully make the circle from Ephesus to Laodicea, delivering the letters and later the whole book to seven local churches.  Why?  Because that is where the “holy brethren” would be gathered.  John also received this revelation on “the Lord’s day” (1:10), “the first day of the week” (1 Cor. 16:2), as in Troas, “when the disciples came together” (Acts 20:7).

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit baptized the believers into the body of Christ on the day of Pentecost.  When Jesus ascended back to the Father’s right hand, the Holy Spirit descended and began His office work in the age of grace, the church age.  He is the Baptizer, the Sealer, the Withholder, the Convicter, the Empowerer, the Inspirer.  The Holy Spirit dwells on the earth only through regenerate people.  “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16).  “In whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).  Some may build a habitat for humanity, but we are a habitat for divinity!

The book of Revelation contains one of the most unusual descriptions of the Holy Spirit in all of Scripture.  In 1:4 He is described as the “seven Spirits which are before His throne.”  In 3:1, “These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God.”  In 4:5 John sees, “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”  Then in 5:6 John sees the Lamb slain Who has “seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”   Some see this as a reference back to Isaiah 11:2 where the Spirit is described with seven attributes. Walter Scott says of John’s description, “The plenitude of His power and diversified activity are expressed in the term of ‘seven Spirits,’ the fullness of spiritual activity.”3 Joseph Weiss wrote, “Seven is the number of dispensational fullness and perfection, and as there are seven churches, making the one Church, so there are ‘the seven Spirits of God,’ making up the completeness of the one gracious administration of the Holy Ghost.”4  It would be safe to say that the Holy Spirit does a mighty and complete work in every believer, hence every church, throughout this age.  He will be removed only when the church herself is removed (2 Thes. 2:6-7.

The Angels of the Churches

Pastors described as angels is also a unique but not unheard of description in the Scripture.  We know that the word angelos means a messenger, and that is what pastors are to their churches.  It is not unusual either for demons to be called “angels” or “stars” (see 12:4, 7, 9).  David was said to be “as an angel of God” to Achish (1 Sam. 29:9) and Mephibosheth said to David, “My lord the king is an angel of God” (2 Sam. 19:27).  Old Testament priests were “messengers of the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).  In the New Testament John the Baptist was “my messenger” (Mk. 1:2) and his disciples were called “messengers” (Lk. 7:24).  Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7).  All these are translations of angelos.  In 19:10 an angel will say to John, “I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren” meaning that angels and church leaders have very similar functions as messengers.

The angels, or messengers, of the churches were seen in the Lord’s right hand, as if He walked with them through their church saying “I know thy works . . .”  It is not out of order to notice the singularity of pastors in these churches.  Though a church may have more than one pastor serving the church, it cannot have less than one.  And in these cases that one is uniquely important.  Whereas, however, each letter starts out with Jesus addressing the pastor and walking and talking with him, each letter also gives way to the Holy Spirit working in the entire congregation with the repeated phrase, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”  The pastoral responsibility gives way to the congregational responsibility.

And so . . . .

The local churches in various cities and countries are seen to be the primary focus of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, the pastors, and the congregations in this age of grace.  The world will never understand how such seemingly powerless entities can affect great things for God.  But we should never despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10).  “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Cor. 1:27).  It was to the poor and little church of Smyrna that the Lord said, “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich)” (2:9). “Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?” (Jas. 2:5).

Our reward is in heaven.  The book of Revelation doesn’t end with chapter three.  The church is raptured out during the seven terrible years of tribulation, never to be seen or mentioned as on the earth.  During the first scene in heaven (chapter 4) the saints receive their crowns and cast them down at Jesus’ feet.  Then (chapter 5) the saints from every kindred and tribe sing upon the crystal sea, “Thou art worthy” to the Lamb.  In chapter 19 the church returns from heaven with Christ on white horses and then reigns with Him for a thousand years.  The last two chapters, 21 & 22, describe the beautiful city, which is our abode eternally, coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband, as the church, the bride of Christ, is adorned for her husband, the Son of God.

Until then, let us be doing what John writes, “The Spirit and the bride say, Come.  And let him that heareth say, Come.  And let him that is athirst come.  And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (22:17).  Amen.  Even so, come , Lord Jesus.


  1. See, “Deception in the Church,”
  2. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol vi. (Old Tappan: Fleming He. Revell Co., nd) 1188.
  3. Walter Scott, Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982) 24.
  4. Joseph Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (New York: Cosimo, 1900) 27.



Borders, Language, and Culture

Borders, Language, and Culture

by Rick Shrader


           41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.  42And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.  43And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.  44And all that believed were together, and had all things common;  45And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.  46And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,  47Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.                                                                  (Acts 2:41-47)

“Borders, Language, and Culture” are terms that we hear repeated a lot during a national election year.  I very much agree with the intended meaning in the triple description of the nation’s needs.  All nations have borders.  That is the normal way of saying where the territory starts and stops and also of declaring who is allowed in and who is not.  It is like the property line of your home or the title on your car or the lock on your front door.  As individuals have a natural right to property, so a nation has also.

All nations have a language.  It doesn’t mean that there aren’t also other languages spoken there, or that the citizens don’t work hard at learning other languages.  I found this out by marrying into an immigrant family of Russian/Ukrainians who had immigrated to Brazil and Argentina before immigrating to the United States.  But even then, when they came to the U.S. they gladly learned the native tongue one more time because English would be necessary to communicate with their new neighbors.

All nations have a culture.  This is one of the fun and educational experiences of travel to foreign countries.  We never totally lose our native culture even though we work hard at adapting to a new one.  We’ve all had the enjoyable experience of eating at a Mexican or Italian restaurant, or at the myriad of other cultural “islands” within our own country.  But to be a real country even immigrants blend into their new homeland and become one with many others who add and contribute to the unity of the country.

The more insecure the world becomes the more these three things are important.  If every country would do right by these, all countries would benefit.  When a country ignores these, the rogue countries of the world flood in to take control and conquer.

The local church of the New Testament also has borders, language, and culture.  Every individual church ought to feel that they are the best church and that the environment which they have created is the best place for any other person to be.  They ought to believe that the border they have, the language they speak, and the culture they create are all as Biblical as can be.

The New Testament is full of passages that speak about the borders, language, and culture of the church.  Acts 2:41-47 is the first picture we have of a church and it is plain enough to see these principles displayed from the very first days of the gospel era.

Borders:  the need for membership in the church.

Just as an immigrant desires to become a citizen of a country, so a believer ought to desire to become a member of a local church.  A country has a line defined by its constitution which are requirements that must be met.  Borders aren’t meant to enslave a nation’s citizens but act as a protection against dangerous intruders and give definition to the procedure for entrance.  Church membership can’t forbid a person to leave but it can prohibit a person from coming in who does not agree with the language and culture of the church.

Salvation.  “Then they that gladly received his word” (Acts 2:41).  The first part of the border of the church is that a person knows Jesus Christ as Savior.  Here that is described as “receiving the word.”  The book of Acts has many other descriptions of the same thing:  repent (38), believe (44), be saved (47), be converted (3:19), hear (3:22), turn (3:26), be obedient (6:7), follow (13:23), and attend to (16:14).  The local church is commissioned to take the gospel to the whole world and persuade people to believe, to put their trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Then we direct them to the church.  In other words, we are ambassadors who are recruiting members to come within our borders by these qualifications.

The New Testament doesn’t take this lightly and neither should we.  It is a tragedy when a local church is filled with unconverted members.  How can they walk in the Spirit?  How can they pray?  How can they seek God’s will?  How can they vote on spiritual matters?  How can they evangelize others?  We cannot be more interested in the quantity of our membership than in the specific quality of it.  Let visitors be visitors and welcome them gladly, just as a country welcomes visitors, but a citizen must have a change of status.  The sinner must be converted.  “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).

Baptism.  “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41).  Every convert in the book of Acts was baptized.  In fact, as  F.F. Bruce wrote, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the NT.”1  Baptism is not part of salvation, that is, the forgiveness of sins, but “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21).  In the initial commission to the church, they were to baptize the disciples which were made (Matt. 28:19-20).  These instructions have never been rescinded.

Baptism has both a proper motive and mode.  It is a public profession of the person’s salvation experience.  It boldly proclaims and pictures the person’s faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The text says, “THEN they that gladly received his word were baptized.”  When the eunuch asked to be baptized Philip replied, “If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest” (Acts 8:37).  When Peter saw many converted in Caesarea he asked, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost?” (Acts 10:47).

The mode of baptism must be immersion as the Greek word baptizō only means.  This is the only valid picture of death, burial, and resurrection.  Philip and the eunuch “went down both into the water” and came “up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39).  The ancient meaning of the word has been well established throughout the history of the church.

Whether a local church makes baptism “the door of the church” or makes it “stand at the door” of the church,2 the principle is that it is part of the border, or port of entry, into the church.  To skip this requirement, or to lessen its inconvenience, would be both unbiblical and detrimental to the strength of the church.  It is a person’s personal testimony that he has been saved and is qualified to enter.

Agreement.  “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42).  No one should become an American citizen who does not believe in its Constitution and who does not intend to uphold it.  Not every saved and baptized person should join a particular church but only those who are also in agreement with its beliefs and practices.

Though it would be a great thing if all local churches in the world believed the same thing about the New Testament, but they don’t.  We can’t change that on this side of glory.  Denominational distinctions have been a good thing for this reason.  A believer should desire to practice his/her faith with like-minded believers.  Just as a country is glad for other countries, churches do not forbid other churches that differ, but rather are glad for the freedom to practice as they feel they must. It is a wonderful fellowship of believers who share salvation, baptism, and agreement as the basis for their common worship.

Language:  the understanding of like-minded faith in the church.

“And all that believed were together, and had all things common”  (Acts 2:44).  Just as a common language allows the citizens of a country to communicate with one another, so like-minded faith allows the members of a local church to fellowship with one another.  Common language is the ability to hear, speak, and nuance specific communication.  Like-minded faith is the ability to talk, listen, and comprehend in a common biblical terminology.

Church documents.  All churches have official founding documents.  Though we have the Bible as our basis for faith and practice, we also have learned the need to specify how we understand the Bible, both for those who want to join with us and for those who want to know about us.  Usually these are divided into the doctrinal statement (a statement of what we believe) and by-laws (a description of how we practice).  Many churches also have a church covenant which is a statement of agreed intentions of how we will live as members together in the church.  In addition, the church documents will include Articles of Incorporation, which are legal statements that satisfy the state of residence for specific things, especially if the church is a registered non-profit organization.

Above, when I pointed out “agreement” as a border to the church, I mentioned all of these as a “Constitution.”  These documents are not just ancillary paperwork but are the very language that the members of a particular church speak.  We will carry on the business of the church by this language.  We will show proper recognition for our leadership by this language.  We will vote and abide by the majority of Spirit-filled people because we know the syntax and speak the language of the church.

Church worship.  “And they, continuing daily with one accord” (Acts 2:46).  “They lifted up their voice to God with one accord” (Acts 4:24).  Worship in the local church has become a “style.”  We have this worship style and that worship style.  It is true that churches behave differently during their services, but why and how we do this is more important than a mere style.  The clothes I wear may be a style, or the car I drive to church may show a style, but how we fellowship, sing, pray, and preach are what we believe about worship.

“Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).  “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name.  But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well-pleased” (Heb. 13:15-16).

Douglas Groothuis wrote, “Most of the skills we learn in order to get along successfully in this life will be of no use in heaven…But when we invest ourselves in learning to worship, we are making an investment in a skill that will be essential throughout eternity.”3  Worship is an essential language both in this life and in the life to come.

Jesus said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).  John Flavel, a fifteenth century Puritan, said, “Carnal men rejoice carnally, and spiritual men rejoice spiritually.”4  A believer cannot forsake the assembling together with other believers (Heb. 10:25) and when he assembles he must be able to approach God in a clear conscience with his heart and mind in a humble and reverent attitude.  We want to do this with other believers who are speaking this same language.

Church doctrine.  “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42).  Paul admonished Timothy, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4:16).  As with our agreement about like-minded faith, and the language of our documents, our doctrine becomes everyday language at church and at home.  We will hear it from the pulpit and in Bible study. We will teach it to our children and to our new converts.  We will use this language in the fellowship halls and homes of our members.  We agreed to speak this language when we joined the church.

Our day has also seen a certain downplaying of doctrine when it comes to church fellowship.  We think we can remain in fellowship though we believe differently in major areas of doctrine.  In America we are witnessing vastly opposing points of view, almost as if we have two countries within a country.  It is obvious that this cannot last for long.  Neither can it last within a church.  Like a nation’s Constitution, a church’s doctrinal statement is its lowest common denominator.  A church’s doctrine is both broad and narrow:  it is broad enough that there is room for difference on minor things, and it is narrow enough that it at least says something specific.  This makes church fellowship and worship comfortable and safe.  We all know what we have in common.

There should be no stealth applications for membership in a nation or in a church.  No one should come in who plans to fundamentally change the nation or church.  Rather, find a nation or church with which you agree and live there happily.  Nor should a pastor seek to be called to a church who plans from the beginning to change the church into something contrary to its constitution.  This would be dishonest.  Agreement in faith and practice is vital to citizenship and membership.

Culture:  the life-style of Christians living within the church.

“And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:46).  Our country is facing the problem of becoming a hobo stew rather than a melting pot.  Immigrants should come into a country and blend with its culture and become one of them.  My in-laws, though bringing multiple cultures with them, were anxious to become Americans.  Sure, they retained many cultural things, things that one cannot discard very quickly such as an accent, or a facial look, or a taste for certain foods.  But these are harmless when the great desire is to be a part of the new culture.

Life-style convictions.   I doubt that cannibalism would fit very well into American society.  Polygamy has also been banned except in rare places.  It was a better day when bootlegging, gangs, prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, and the like were also unacceptable in a civilized society.  God’s people who join local churches know that the Bible describes the life-style of a believer.  There have always been and there will always be differences as to how we apply these teachings to our own time.  But a believer must live by his conscience in the culture in which he lives.  There are certain things he cannot do.  That may be some language, or matters of modesty, or certain beverages, or various places of entertainment.  His attitude toward these is a Biblical thing to him, and his church is a big part of his life within that culture.

Just as a citizen of a country will choose to live or not live in certain localities, or will choose to work or not work in certain occupations, or will choose to participate or not participate in various cultural mores, so the Christian will choose a church that fits his Christian cultural convictions.  A Christian cannot live contrary to those convictions.  Carl Trueman wrote, “The frothy entertainment culture in which we live is a narcotic: not only is it addictive, so that we always want more; it also eats away at us, skewing our priorities, rotting our values as surely as too much sugar rots our teeth.”5 The local church is the most important culture a Christian has.

John wrote, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.  They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.  We are of God”  (1 John 4:4-6).  It doesn’t affect us what the world does outside the church, but it greatly affects us what the culture is inside the church.

Loving the brethren.  Immediately upon receiving Christ we become brothers or sisters to other believers.  We are part of the family, we are joint heirs together with Christ and all Christians.  Just as a legal immigrant is pronounced a citizen at a legal ceremony and is immediately given all rights as a citizen, so the believer in Christ receives all the rights of a child of God.

We are obligated as believers to “love the brethren.”  We now see all believers as God sees them, special objects of His grace.  In fact, we now see all people as potential objects of His grace.  We can no longer curse someone who we understand bears the image of God in his/her very makeup (Jas. 3:8-10).  It is a terrible thing to see believers with hatred toward other believers.  We might as well have hatred toward Christ our brother.

Mortals join this happy chorus

Which the morning stars began;

Father love is reigning o’er us,

Brother love binds man to man.

Thou our Father, Christ our Brother,

All who live in love are Thine;

Teach us how to love each other,

Lift us to the Joy divine.6

In a country we can become very partial in our loves and likes, and even bigoted or racist.  But in the church all human distinctions are removed—the only place on earth where these distinctions are truly removed.  The biggest struggle that I observe is the difficulty in loving and respecting our elders.  We live in a youth-oriented time.  As a pastor of wonderful older people I can truly say that they possess the wisdom, the servant attitude, the toughness, the faithfulness, the humor, and the love that is characteristic of Christians.  “Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger women as sisters, with all purity.  Honor widows that are widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:1-3).

Local church life.  “And all that believed had all things common. . . And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:44, 47).  Multi-Culturalism is tearing our country apart.  It seems like a good thing but in reality it divides rather than unifies.  It is the American culture that has made America great.  George Washington said, “The nation which indulges toward another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.”7   The local church should be one culture.  Yes, we bring our earthly baggage with us, but we check it at the door as best we can.

Besides the borders, the language, and various elements of culture, the point of most of this article has been the life of the local church.  Among the myriad other things we must do in life, nothing is more precious to the believer than the local church.  We are pilgrims and strangers on this earth and the local church is the rest area for travelers.  It is made up of homeless people.  Peter writes to us as,  “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11).  “Stranger” literally means “without a house,” and “pilgrim” literally means “without kin.”  Yet we are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

If we would love the church more than the world, the church would again have power in the world.  It is that power we need to be witnesses in a dark world.  “Save yourselves from this ontoward generation” Peter preached at the beginning of our text (Acts 2:40).  We do that through sustained life in the body of Christ, through a Christian culture.

And So . . .

A nation needs definite borders, one language, and a unifying culture.  So does a church.  A church should have a high wall of salvation, baptism, and agreement.  It should speak the same language of by-laws, worship, and doctrine.  It should also live a common life-style of conviction, love, and church life.

“Now unto him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end.  Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).


  1. F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 77.
  2. Edward Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1894 to 1970) describes both methods for Baptist churches. Pages 77 & 121.
  3. Douglas Groothuis, Christianity That Counts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 75.
  4. John Flavel, “From A Coronation Sermon,” A Collection of Orations from Homer to McKinley, vol. 4 (New York: Collier and Son, 1902) 1599.
  5. Carl Trueman, Reformation: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, Kindle, 1416, p. 111.
  6. Henry Van Dyke, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. A mixture of verses 3 and 4.
  7. George Washington, “Farewell Address,” Orations, 2526.