The local church is God’s special provision not only for discipline, but also for exercising spiritual gifts and praising God. In this message, Alistair Begg provides guidelines to help individuals determine their God-given roles in the church and to fulfill those roles to God’s glory so that the body of Christ may be built up. We also learn the characteristics of a biblically sound church, enabling us to be wise in choosing a congregation in which to worship, learn, and serve.
I’d like to read a portion of Scripture as we return to the study of this morning, and this portion of Scripture can be found in the Gospel of Mark and chapter 14, beginning at the first verse of Mark 14:
“Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’
“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly.
“‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’”
Now, if you have come this evening and weren’t present this morning, you need to know that you have arrived well into this morning’s study. We determined that we would look together over a period of time at the issues of basic Christianity, and we asked the question, How does one become a Christian? What does a Christian believe? How should a Christian behave? And we decided that we would take today to look again at the question, Where does a Christian belong?
And what we have said so far—I’ll just give you a brief résumé—we said that there is an important distinction for us to understand, and that important distinction is between the invisible church and the visible church. We are all in Christ placed in an invisible church family in which there is unity and perfection, but in order for the metaphors of the Bible to make sense—all the “one another” passages—it is important for us to be involved in a local church family. And that local church family is the special provision of the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church, for his people, providing within the context of a local church the opportunity for fellowship—a partnership that is grounded in Jesus—the opportunity to receive the instruction of the Bible as it is provided by those who have been given the privilege of being pastor-teachers, and also—and this is where we left it—that in the framework of the body of Christ we would find that this is God’s special provision for the nature of discipline. And we noted that discipline is a vital aspect of the way in which a nuclear family functions; where there is no discipline, then there is chaos. And we reminded ourselves that the Bible continually moves from the physical nuclear family to the church family.
And it is sometime since at a Communion table we have had the sad responsibility of announcing to the church, essentially, the end of a process outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18. Now, I can remind you of it if I read just a flavor of it. Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins against you”—could be your sister as well—“go and show him [or her their] fault, just between the two of you.” In other words, if there is some breakdown, some problem, some disintegration, then the way in which Jesus said that was to be handled was in a one-on-one basis—not the way many of us are tempted to handle it: something is done to offend against us, and instead of dealing with the person directly, we immediately go to somebody else and say, “You won’t believe what she just did to me,” or “You won’t believe what he just said about me.” Jesus said you shouldn’t do that; you should go directly to the person, and if that person listens to you, then you’ve won them over. And, of course, we understand that.
“But if he will not listen, [then] take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ [And] if [they refuse] to listen to [these individuals, then] tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” It’s quite a striking statement, isn’t it? And, of course, how would you treat a pagan or a tax collector? You would treat them the way you would treat anyone who doesn’t profess faith in Jesus: you would seek to reach out to them, you would seek to woo them and win them, hoping that God’s kindness would lead them towards repentance. But you wouldn’t serve Communion to them, because they would eat and drink judgment to themselves, and you wouldn’t put them in positions of leadership in your family, because they would just be a downright nuisance to themselves and everybody else.
And it is in the context of the local church that that kind of discipline is supposed to take place. We have it not only there in the instruction of Jesus, but you have it in the Pastoral Epistles. This is just one subpoint of many, so I won’t belabor it—but, for example, we have to do something with the instruction that Paul gives to Titus in Titus 3 where he says, “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.” He says, “Don’t let your church fellowship become the kind of place where people are always bickering over stuff about which there is no clear statement in the Bible. Teach your people that the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.” And, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. [And] after that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”
Now, those are hard words, are they not? And the only way that you can ever wrestle with them and apply them is within the confident framework of the belonging that exists in a family where you have made a commitment to them and they have made a commitment to you. It is much easier for me to hear a rebuke from Maureen or Kathleen (those are my siblings) than it is to hear a rebuke from somebody that doesn’t really know me from a hole in the ground. It may be a valid rebuke, and it may be a necessary rebuke; I am not denying that. But what I’m saying is, I know without question that Maureen and Kathleen love me with a passion. We come from the same womb. Our hearts beat to the same end. We’re in touch with one another. We care for one another. So I don’t anticipate that my sister will take me aside and drive a knife into me in order to despise me or to do me down. But she may have to stick a dagger in me to wound my foolish pride, or to correct my silly focus, or to remind me of the importance of the commitments that I have made to others within the sphere of my life. It is in the family that it is to take place. And it is in the family that it works.
And the special provision that God has made is the kind of provision that he makes, and in the whole process of discipline, which the writer to the Hebrews say is never a pleasant experience at the time, but always painful, but it “later on,” he says, “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it”—“for those who have been trained by it.” In other words, the exercise of discipline in and of itself is not a magic answer. And we know that as a church family. Because we have had to discipline individuals who have chosen to walk away from Christ, who have chosen to walk away from the Bible, who have chosen to walk away from their spouse and from their children. And instead of the process of discipline producing a repentant heart and bringing about the end of discipline, which is restoration, they have responded to it with a jutting chin and a stiff neck, and they remain today untrained by it. And in our elders’ meetings routinely we pray for those said individuals—we continue to pray for them, that God’s kindness will lead them towards repentance. But as I mentioned this morning, it is not uncommon to find people—members of the family—running away from home so as to avoid the very discipline which God has ordained as the means to repentance and to restoration and to freedom.
It is also God’s special provision so that in the context of the family we might enjoy the privilege of service. It is in the local church that God intends for us to find our place and to discover our spiritual gifts, and it is in the local church that our expressions of spiritual gift may be tested as we contribute to the overall ministry of the body.
It is here and, again, in the confidence of your family that you could perhaps say to your sisters or your brothers—I don’t know who’s in your physical family—you could say to them, “You know, I think that I would like to be an opera singer.” And then your siblings would say, “Well, why don’t we, when we finish the meal this evening, why don’t you just stand up in front of the fireplace and just give us a rendition?” And so, if you’re brave enough, you stand up, and you haven’t got three bars into it when they just heckle you to the ground: “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! Try something else. You’re not supposed to be an opera singer. You’re absolutely dreadful. You’re horrible at it. Please, don’t do yourself a disservice, and don’t throw yourself onto other people with that dreadful singing voice. You’re no good.” Rather painful. You go up to your bedroom, you say, “What a shame,” and you go and get a book and look for other things. You had reached O looking for something you could do in life; now you go to P, and you say, “Well, maybe I’ll be a physician,” and you go on from there. But it’s within the family that you find those helpful responses.
And so, the same is supposed to be true within the church. And if you’ve been here for the twenty-three years, you know that there are young men who have said, “I think that God is calling me to pastoral ministry,” and in the course of their time with us and in the opportunity of their teaching in various places, either God has confirmed that or he has not confirmed that. But again, given the confidence that they have that they’re within the framework of people who love and care for them—namely, the family—then it is far easier for them to respect and respond to what is said.
It is in this context that spiritual gifts should be discovered and exercised. In the matter of spiritual gifts, I’ll say just this: not everybody agrees about everything when it comes to spiritual gifts, but everybody ought to be able to agree with this—that the nature of spiritual gifts as described in the Bible is varied, that the purpose of a spiritual gift is the common good of the family, and that the criterion for evaluating the gifts is the degree to which they build up the church.
It is also within this same context that God has made peculiar provision for the praise of his people. And I have used “praise” here particularly rather than “worship.” We began the day with worship in the sense that we read from Romans 12: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a spiritual sacrifice of praise, which is your spiritual worship.” And the Bible speaks of worship in terms of the totality of our lives—that all of our lives, our work tomorrow, and our reading, and our recreation, as well as our praise, is to be that which is glorifying to God.
And it is, again, in the context of God’s people that we discover the “psalms and the hymns and the spiritual songs,” and that it is within the context of God’s people that we “make melody in our hearts to the Lord.” And it is in the context of God’s people, as we gather in small groups like this, that we begin to put our choirs together as we prepare for the one great choir in which we’re all going to participate when at the marriage supper of the Lamb we fall down before the throne and worship Jesus in all of his splendor. And there is a sense in which, Sunday by Sunday and week by week, as God gives these gifts to the church, he is preparing his people for that ultimate great convocation of praise when, with a number that no one can count, we declare that “salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb who sits on the throne.”
And so, we ask God to fill us with his Spirit, to come and meet with us by his Spirit, to enable us so that we might bring a sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord. “[The] Sacrifice of Praise” is an old song—we used to sing it, I think, when I came here in ’83:
We bring a sacrifice of praise
Into the house of the Lord.
And we offer up to You
The sacrifice of thanksgiving;
And we offer up to You
The sacrifice of praise.
It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “A sacrifice of praise.”
That, incidentally, is why I read from Mark 14 and the story of the lady with the alabaster jar. If I go to it now, it’ll become a sermon all of its own, and then I won’t be able to finish this, and I’ll be frustrated, and you’ll be annoyed. But I want you to read that story again for your homework this week. And I want you to notice that what that lady did was unique in its thoughtfulness. It was costly. Women did not walk around with those jars of perfume routinely. That perfume would have been part of her dowry for marriage, or it would have been perhaps even a family heirloom as to be used as an anointing for her burial. And what she determined to do was to take something that was costly to her, that represented her future, either in the joy of marriage or in the eventuality of death, and she took that and she broke it in order that she might say to the watching world that she loved Jesus, and she loved him in an unashamed way, and she loved him with a passionate love.
And that outworking of her sacrifice evoked criticism, didn’t it? The people were harsh with her. They said, “What a waste of perfume!” And Jesus has to say, “Why are you even asking these questions? Why are you saying these things about her? She has done a beautiful thing. She has done all that she could. There won’t be a place in the world where the gospel is preached where this lady isn’t mentioned.”
Can you imagine walking in one of those streets in the evening with a friend and saying, “Are there magnolia trees here, or…? What is the… what is the fragrance on the air this evening?” And then suddenly realizing, “It’s that lady! Man, she must have put a lot of perfume on.” Oh, she did, actually—but not on herself. She sacrificed it.
Let me ask you just a little question: Have you ever consciously brought a sacrifice of praise? Can you remember one moment in your entire praising life where you were prepared to risk everything—the criticism of friends and family and work colleagues—and you said, “I don’t care. I love Jesus this much, and I am prepared to let the whole world know. I come, and I bring a sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord.” Of course, you see, there’s great comfort in doing it in the family, ’cause your family are able to say, “Well, that’s just him. He’s like that sometimes, but he’s okay. She’s all right. She’s a little crazy, but we love her.”
I have one other question, and it’s this. It’s a personal question that we need each to ask, and I’m going to answer it for you as briefly as I can. And the question is, “If this nature of belonging is as crucial as it is, what part should I play in the local church?” It seems to me to be an obvious question. “What part should I play in the local church?” I’m going to give these to you, and I’m not going to expand on them; otherwise we’ll be here all night.
Number one: I should determine to discover and fulfill my God-given role. I should determine to discover and fulfill my God-given role. I’m only one; I’m not beyond one. I can’t do everything; I can do something. What I can do I ought to do, and what I ought to do with God’s help I will do. And as Colossians 3 says, “Whatever you do, [just] work at it with all your heart.”
Now, those of you who have a factory… and I use this illustration all the time, having worked in a factory. I’ve worked most places; I crammed many, many work careers into a short period of time so that I would understand the nature of things. But it is a wonderful thing if you come on the factory floor and you find that two or three of the young interns or the people that are working for the summer have actually started to do something worthwhile—just anything. In fact, you’re prepared to forgive them if they move everything to the wrong side of the place, just because you’re so excited that they could take the initiative and do something, as opposed to three characters standing like this. “What do you… what do you want us to do?” “I want you to go home and never come back.”
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart.” Don’t spend your whole life trying to figure out what it is. Do something. One of your brothers or sisters’ll tell you if you shouldn’t be an opera singer. Don’t worry about that. The corrective balance will take place.
Secondly, keep yourselves spiritually fit. The fitness of a team—the fitness of a sport team—is directly related to its weakest member. If you’re not fit, you shouldn’t go out on the field. It is imperative to keep yourself spiritually fit—1 Timothy 4:7—because the overall health of the body is the sum of the individual parts. If you’re healthy, then your health will express itself in caring for the well-being of others. Healthy Christians are on the lookout for the fringe people, healthy Christians are ready to volunteer and help, healthy Christians are involved without being asked , and so on.
Thirdly, give regularly and generously and systematically to God through the local church. This is a whole sermon on its own, but I won’t make it one. Some people say, “Well, we look at the balance sheet of the church, and if it doesn’t look like it needs any money then we just don’t give.” I’m not making that up. That’s actually what some people say. Well, this is what you need to do: you need to see your local church as your first place for giving. And if you want to give beyond that then you should. But you should bring your money, as it were, and lay it at the elders’ feet. We all do that; I do that, my wife does that. I don’t give in order to achieve a certain end, but I give as systematically and consistently as I’m able to do in order that, like you and along with you, I might see the gospel extended in the community and beyond—and, indeed, around the world—in order that I might have the joy of seeing that people with material needs have their needs met, in order that we might have the privilege of developing and maintaining the things that God has given us.
Fourthly, establish your priorities and be prepared to reevaluate them as time passes. In other words, work out sensibly your level of involvement. Find out what’s right for you at this stage in your life. If you’re a young parent with little ones you’re going to operate differently from those who are empty nesters. But my encouragement to you (I think it is valid) is to make fixpoints and then work around them and be in a position to make exceptions—fixpoints, work around them, and be prepared to make exceptions. I think we model that in relationship to Sunday nights. I never thought about it until I wrote that sentence, but on Sunday nights we routinely meet for worship, don’t we? It’s a fixpoint. It’s not a fixpoint in everyone in our church’s life; otherwise we would have two evening services at least. But it is a fixpoint as a church. But we are prepared to make exceptions. And when you think about the responsibilities of home, and family, and studies, and so on, and as your circumstances change, then you recheck your priorities and the practical outworking of them.
Fifthly, cultivate the habit of thinking about giving, not getting, of serving rather than being served.
Sixthly, respect, pray for, and support your spiritual leaders. Respect, pray for, and support your spiritual leaders.
Well, the important distinction was between the visible and the invisible. And then there was this question, and then there was another point in the middle that I’ve already forgotten. It was the second main heading. What was that second main heading? An Important Distinction and A Special Provision. Okay, good. Thank you. Just three people still awake. An Important Distinction, A Special Provision, and A Personal Question, and… (I hate this thing. I don’t know why I would ever use it.) Take Action.
Now, my action is to stop, and I’m about to employ that action, but here’s the deal: look for a local church that is marked by the teaching of the Bible in a way that isn’t gibberish, in a way that isn’t legalistic, in a way that isn’t confusing, in a way that is clear, and in a way that suggests that the persons who are teaching the Bible are being taught by the very Bible they’re teaching. Where there is prayer taking place. (We had a wonderful prayer time Saturday morning with our leaders, and we had a wonderful prayer time a few Saturday mornings ago under the direction of some of our seniors here in the church. They took the initiative, they did us a great service.) A church where there is worshipping taking place—the worship of work well done, the worship of the consecration of our lives and our careers to God, and in the midst of that worship, the reality of praise. A local church where there is genuine care amongst the members. And a local church that is engaged in an ongoing endeavor to see unbelieving people become committed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because those who are committed to Jesus will be committed to others who love Jesus, and they will then in turn want to see other people attached to Jesus . And when that happens, then the body is built up, the church family is strengthened, and we’re better equipped to serve God in the routine of our daily experience.
And as I said this morning, of about four and a half thousand people that come around Parkside, only some fifteen hundred are members of the church. So, even with my dim mathematical capacity I recognize that there is a significant area in which growth could take place. We are not concerned one iota for the adding of names to a list. We have actually just culled our list. We had over ten thousand names on the list and in our computer programs of folks who have come around Parkside. It’s not to do with numbers at all. It has to do with teaching what the Bible says, of saying to one another, “You really have no reliable basis upon which to stand back from your commitment to a local fellowship, this one or another one. And therefore, in a spirit of obedience and out of a desire to offer yourself up to your brothers and sisters in Christ, we would encourage you to at least consider the possibility of identifying yourself in a fuller way with our church family.”
The only coda to that is, in an evening congregation like this, numbers of you have come from other church families, and there is no sense at any point in which what I am saying is, “We want you to be here in membership rather than there in membership.” Our desire is to see men and women attached to the Lord Jesus Christ and attached to local congregations that represent the Lord Jesus Christ. And if that is here, then we will be thankful. If it is there, then we will learn to rejoice in that as well. So, please, in case there’s any misunderstanding there at all.
Father, thank you again for the Bible, and thank you that these pointers at least set our minds in the right direction, teaching us what it is to learn, to be instructed, to care, to discover our place, to play our part, to offer our lives to you, to offer our gifts to you. And even as we bring our evening offerings we pray that it may be in some measure a sacrificial gesture—that we might give not out of our largesse, but that we might give in such a way that we express to you our overwhelming desire to make much of Christ, for we pray in his precious name. Amen.
 Matthew 18:16–17 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 11:29 (paraphrased).
 Titus 3:9 (NIV 1984).
 Titus 3:10–11 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 12:11 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 12:1 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 5:19 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 7:10 (paraphrased).
 Kirk and Deby Dearman, “We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise” (1984). Paraphrased.
 Colossians 3:23 (NIV 1984).