God’s Program for Ministry
Copyright © 1997
Indian Hills Community Church
Jesus said, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18). With His death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus Christ laid the foundation for the church that He has been building for the last two thousand years. Among believers, however, there is much confusion concerning the nature of the church and what its role should be in the world today. As Christians, we know of the wonders of God’s salvation in Christ and His infinite grace that saved us from an eternity in hell, yet we have not always been clear on how God is working out His plan of redemption in the world. As we will see, God’s instrument for ministry in this age is the church. That is why it is important that we have a proper understanding of the church and what its purpose in the world is today.
When Did the Church Begin?
To understand the nature of the church, it helps to know when the church began. Did the church exist in the Old Testament, or did it begin shortly after the earthly ministry of Christ? Some Bible teachers hold that the church existed in the Old Testament. Some say it began with Adam, others say it started with Abraham. Yet the New Testament is clear that the church is a New Testament concept and did not exist in the Old Testament.
There are two important reasons for believing that the church began after the earthly ministry of Christ. First, when Jesus said, “I will build My church” in Matthew 16:18, the church was clearly still future. The future tense of “I will build” shows that at the time Jesus spoke these words the church had not yet begun. Second, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 12:13), which is essential to the church’s existence, did not begin until Acts 2. It was not until Acts 2 that the Holy Spirit began His work of baptizing believers into the Body of Christ. In Acts 1:5 Jesus said, “for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” The apostles had ministered with Christ for more than three years and had seen dramatic results from their preaching and miracles, but they still had not been baptized with the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told the disciples, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” This was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. It was on this day that the church began.
Who Makes Up the Church?
Just what is the church? A variety of people may give different answers to
this question. For instance, a person may drive past our building in
The New Testament teaches that on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) a new union
of believers came into existence. Both Jews and Gentiles (all non-Jewish
people) became united in the Body of Christ—the church. This union of Jews and
Gentiles in one body did not exist in the Old Testament era. In the Old
Testament, God primarily worked with the people of
Many of us take this truth for granted today, but the fact that both Jews
and Gentiles are now joined together in one body was not easily understood by
the early Christians. In fact, many Jews in the early church resisted this
idea. This can be seen in Acts 10 and 11 with the story of Peter and Cornelius.
In Acts 10, Peter was sent by the Holy Spirit to a Gentile named Cornelius. As
Peter preached the Gospel, the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles, and they
were baptized in the Holy Spirit. That the Gentiles had truly received the Holy
Spirit was evidenced by the fact that they were “speaking with tongues and
exalting God” (Acts 10:46). This gave evidence that the Gentiles had truly been
saved and had received the Holy Spirit. Later, when Peter was in
"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them [the Gentiles], just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit. ’ If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:15-18).
Peter verified that the Gentiles had received the same Holy Spirit as the Jews. If Peter, an apostle, had not been personally present when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles, the Jews would not have accepted that the Spirit had, indeed, come upon the Gentiles. But that He had could not now be denied.
In the Church Age, then, Jews and Gentiles are joined in the church—the Body of Christ. As Ephesians 2:14 says, “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.” With the baptism of the Spirit came the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21, “that they may all be one.” All who believe in Jesus Christ, no matter what their ethnic background, are part of the church.
The Church: Universal and Local
As we have seen, the church was born on the Day of Pentecost and includes
all those, regardless of nationality, who have trusted in Christ alone for
their salvation. Yet, in the New Testament, the church has two emphases. First,
there is what we call the “universal” or “invisible” church, comprised of all
true believers from the time of Acts 2 onward. It includes all those who are
related to Christ by faith through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. All
believers from around the world make up this universal aspect of the church.
For example, the believer in
Second, the New Testament also refers to what is called the “local church”
or “local churches,” made up of people who are believers in Jesus Christ and who
meet together in a local or specific place. Local churches are not only related
spiritually to Christ but also have a physical and geographical identity. The
seven churches John wrote to in Revelation 2 and 3 were local churches. He
wrote to the churches at
Should local churches be hesitant to call themselves the “
The Parachurch Explosion
Why is this important? One reason is that in Christianity today, the universal church, not the local church, has become the dominant emphasis. This can be seen with the recent development of parachurch ministries. Parachurch organizations are groups that carry out Christian ministries not rooted in a local church. Since the 1940s there has been an explosion of parachurch ministries. This trend is in line with what is known as Neo-evangelicalism. “Neo” means “new.” New evangelicalism is a response against fundamentalism. Many felt that fundamentalism was too narrow-minded and small in focus. But with Neo-evangelicalism, the emphasis became tolerance and unity. E. J. Carnell, a professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote in the late 1940s and early 1950s against divisions among denominations. He said churches needed to overcome their denominational and doctrinal differences. This thinking has influenced the parachurch movement.
Before we look further, though, at the issue of parachurch groups, a few points of clarification are necessary. First, we will not be singling out any parachurch group in particular. Nor does what we say necessarily apply to every parachurch group or activity. Not every parachurch group has all of the flaws or difficulties that will be mentioned. Also, we are not saying the Bible forbids parachurch groups because it does not. What we will examine, though, is some of the problems inherent with parachurch ministries. Then we will look at God’s plan for ministry as revealed in His Word and how Christians can be as biblical as possible in carrying out that plan.
One danger parachurch organizations must constantly face is the pressure to compromise doctrinally. With certain parachurch groups, some doctrines are purposely avoided to allow for unity between those of different beliefs within the group. I once had the opportunity to visit with a man who helped start a well-known parachurch organization. In our conversation we talked about the role doctrine played within his organization. Interestingly, he said he knew from the group’s beginning that they could not be as narrow in their doctrine as a local church. I have also known people in parachurch ministries who were told certain doctrines must not be discussed. They were told not to bring in certain beliefs their church may hold because those views might be divisive. When it came to doctrine, then, they sought the lowest common denominator of doctrine.
As Christians, though, we only have to be as narrow as the Bible and as broad as the Bible. We do not have to sort through the Bible and say, “Take out page 292. Take out page 315 because it might be divisive and is not really that important to the ministry.” The whole truth lies in the entire Bible. That does not mean we perfectly understand the Bible; but we are to be committed to the Bible in its entirety. Parachurch organizations, by their nature, must be more inclusive and encompassing, looking for the least doctrinal commitment that will be involved or required. It is here that danger lurks. God has called the church to be the “pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The church is to be committed to all biblical truth. The apostle Paul said, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Since all of the Word of God is inspired, we do not have the right to decide which doctrines are important and which ones are not. We cannot decide which parts of God’s revelation are significant and which need not be emphasized.
The structure of leadership used in parachurch organizations deserves closer evaluation. According to the New Testament pattern, the local church is to be governed by elders (see 1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-5; Acts 20:17-35). These godly men have the responsibility of leading the church. They are responsible for the major decisions and the maintaining of doctrinal purity. Because of this great responsibility, there are very high standards for being an elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). In some parachurch groups, though, the leadership does not function according to the New Testament pattern. They do not operate according to the standards and guidelines required of the local church. As a result, the leaders of these groups are often not held accountable in the same way that elders in the local church are to be held accountable.
Another concern with parachurch ministries is that they often draw away resources from the local church. The people, time, effort, and money that could be given to the local church, which is God's plan for ministry, are often poured into parachurch ministries. These parachurch groups are often able to attract and limit themselves to some of the most talented and committed Christian leaders available. As a result, local churches are weakened by the loss of talents and resources.
I once received some Bible study material from a fast-growing parachurch organization. The information was specific on what material would be covered and what days of the week a person could attend Bible study and fellowship groups. When I read this, I wondered, “Where is the local church?” These things are primarily the responsibility of the church. Yet, if one got involved with this program not much time would be left for the local church other than maybe attending on Sunday.
Most parachurch groups have good intentions. I do not doubt the godliness and sincerity of those involved in these groups. They want to see people saved and believers grow in their Christian walks. However, we must take a step back and see if we are carrying out God's work in the way He has prescribed or if we are substituting His plan with our own. God’s work must be done God’s way. Those who raise the issue of defining God’s way for carrying out the ministry are often accused of being against evangelism. In a certain sense, evangelism has become the end, and the means to that end do not matter. There is the idea that we must reach the world; therefore, we cannot be divided over doctrinal issues. While this sounds good, it is not biblical. We must have a passion to reach the lost people of this world, but we must do it with the desire and passion to be biblically correct. The church is to be “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), not the arbitrator of what truth is important and what truth is less important.
Though the Bible does not forbid parachurch organizations, the New Testament reveals that God’s plan for ministry in this age centers in the local church. Strongly believing this, though, often opens one up to being characterized as anti-parachurch. For example, at Indian Hills, our strong emphasis on local church ministry has led to criticism that we are against parachurch ministries. We, however, do not consider ourselves anti-parachurch. What we try to be is pro-local church. We are passionately committed to God’s program as revealed in His Word. The local church is what consumes us and absorbs our time. Some Christians are enthusiastic and passionate, giving their money and time to outside Christian organizations, but share little of that enthusiasm and passion with their local church. The most some Christians do with their local church is show up on Sunday mornings. But why should that be the case? Why can’t the devotion given to parachurch groups be poured into the church, which is God’s plan? Granted, some churches have many problems, but so did the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. Serving in some of those places would have been hard, too. While the work of other organizations may seem more exciting, the church is still God’s plan. Can we say, “Lord, we know the local church is your plan but we have something else that will work better?” I have yet to meet a person who can be passionately and completely committed to two spiritual ministries. Some may be involved with two ministries, but one will consume their life and one will not. Too often the passion is for the parachurch activity, not the local church.
We need to understand what God’s plan in the world is. That plan is the local church. It should not be our desire to be characterized as anti-parachurch. Our goal, hopefully, is that we be known as pro-local church. As a pastor, I want people to know that we are passionately committed to the ministry God has given us in this city. When I talk with people in parachurch ministries, I notice how they are consumed with their ministries and how they think everyone else should be as well. But if we feel that way about our local church we are often seen as narrow. The question we must ask is, “If they can be passionate about their ministries, why can’t we be excited about our ministry as a church?” Churches are often called on to raise money to support the vision of parachurch groups, yet how often do parachurch organizations offer to support the local church? These groups claim they are reaching the world, but so is the church.
Do Churches Need to Get Together?
The dangers of overemphasizing the universal church do not stop with parachurch groups. Another danger exists with the current
pressure for churches to unify regardless of doctrine. I have heard people say,
“If only churches would lay aside their doctrines and come together, think how
we could reach the world for Jesus.” Some even believe that lack of unity among
churches has actually held back the Gospel and has cut down on the number of
people who would otherwise have come to Christ. Certainly, there is an element
of truth to the fact that Bible-believing churches should be supportive of each
another. In the New Testament, individuals from one church were often sent to
another church. Also, there were times when churches helped meet the physical
needs of another. Yet nowhere in the New Testament are churches told to unify.
Though we find some interaction between churches in the New Testament, they are
not told to “get together” or become unified under one centralized authority.
Each church was to fulfill the commission God had given them in their
particular area. Christ had much to say to the seven churches of
How Christians Are to Function
Now we turn our attention to how Christians within the local church are supposed to function. We have shown that the church is God's plan for ministry. Now we will look at how individuals, who make up the church, are supposed to operate. To do this we will look at Paul's instructions to the Corinthians. As we will see, ministry takes place when those who make up the church use the spiritual gifts God has given them.
In 1 Corinthians 12:1 Paul states, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware.” Paul’s topic is the use of spiritual gifts in the context of the local church. He goes on to say,
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons (1 Cor. 12:4-6).
Paul’s point is that there is both diversity and unity in the body of Christ. This diversity can be seen in that there are “varieties of gifts” (v. 4), “varieties of ministries” (v. 5), and “varieties of effects” (v. 6). Different people within the church have different gifts that are manifested in various ways. These gifts can be used in a wide variety of ways. Some have the gift of helps, some have the gift of exhortation, some have the gift of teaching, and so on. The Body of Christ is diverse, yet the church also has unity because it has the “same Spirit” (v. 4), “same Lord” (v. 5), and “same God” (v. 6) who permeates it all and keeps it together.
Later in 1 Corinthians 12:14– 18, Paul will use the example of a physical body to illustrate the diversity and unity within the local church. We know that a person has one body and that within the one body are many parts—feet, hands, ears, eyes, nose and many others. But these parts do not operate independently. They are under the control of one mind. The same is true with Christ’s spiritual body—the church. Within the Body of Christ there are not only “varieties of gifts” but verse five also says there are “varieties of ministries.” Within the church there are many ways to serve the Lord, but there is still only one “Lord.” Every person is to use his or her spiritual gift for serving Him. That is how God is carrying out His work in the world today. He does it through His people that He has brought together as His church. They do His work in serving Him by exercising the gifts that He has given them to do. It is a simple plan.
Gifts Given to "Each One"
Next, Paul states, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The emphasis in this verse is on “each one.” Put simply, every believer is given a spiritual gift by God. No one is left out. I have known Christians who say, “I don’t have a spiritual gift.” But that is not what verse seven says. It is a denial of Scripture for any believer to claim that God has not enabled him or her to contribute to His body.
Another excuse sometimes given for not serving is that the church a person attends is too big or that they are not needed. Yet that is not true. God brings every part of His body together for a purpose. If God has placed a believer in a local church, He has a part for that believer to play which will enable the body to function more effectively.
Gifts—An Evidence of God's Presence
Notice also that Paul in verse seven refers to the “manifestation of the Spirit.” Whenever a believer uses his spiritual gift, the Holy Spirit's presence in his life is made manifest. We may not physically see the Holy Spirit, but we do notice His presence when a person uses his or her spiritual gift. Unfortunately, some people attend church for a long time without ever getting involved and ever exercising a spiritual gift. Some leave churches complaining that they do not fit in. Perhaps some who have this attitude are not truly born again. That may sound strong, but the ability to function as a vital part of the Body of Christ is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in a person’s life. When a person does not contribute to the ministry we are not able to see the Holy Spirit working in his life. But when someone is submissive to the Spirit, we can see the power of God in his life.
Spiritual Gifts or Natural Talents?
Spiritual gifts are given by God for the work of ministry. A believer receives his or her spiritual gift( s) when he or she believes in Christ and is placed by the Holy Spirit into the church. But is there any connection between the natural talents a person has as an unbeliever and the spiritual gifts he has as a believer? The answer is not always clear. God, in His sovereignty, can bestow on an unsaved person natural talents that can be used effectively for service after that person becomes a believer. But it is not correct to say that natural abilities and spiritual gifts are the same. A person may be a teacher in a school but that does not mean he has the gift of teaching. A talented but unbelieving musician can perform music in a church, but that person would not be able to build up the church through his music like a believer could. We all have natural abilities, but when a person becomes saved and is placed into the church, he is then gifted by God to be able to serve the body. Natural abilities, then, are different from spiritual gifts.
Spiritual Gifts for the Common Good
Who are spiritual gifts for? Notice that the manifestation of the Spirit, through the use of spiritual gifts, is “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). It is very important to realize that the purpose of spiritual gifts is for the benefit of the body. Spiritual gifts are not for self-edification but for others. If Christians understood this basic purpose of spiritual gifts much of the confusion today concerning the gift of tongues would be cleared up. Many in the charismatic movement believe that the gift of tongues is a private prayer language used for personal edification. Yet, Scripture makes clear that no gifts are given for personal benefit. They are given “for the common good.” On occasion, as part of my preparation, I will preach aloud to myself in my study. But as I teach alone in my study, I am not exercising my spiritual gift because my gift is not meant to be used on me or for my own good. Using a spiritual gift for oneself is not a valid use of the gift. My gift was not given for me. It was given to serve those in the body. Thus, all the gifts that God gives us are to be used for the common good of the church.
The Distribution of Spiritual Gifts
How do Christians receive their spiritual gifts? 1 Corinthians 12:11 states, “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” God is sovereign in the distribution of spiritual gifts. People do not receive these gifts because they prayed more or were more faithful than someone else. They received them because God sovereignly bestowed them with that gift. That is why it is a “grace gift.” God decides which gifts believers will have and where they will fit in His body. Some people may not like where they have been placed in the body and complain about it. But what if our toes told us they did not like the role they played in our body? Would we cut them off and stick them to the side of our head and pretend they are an ear? Of course that is foolish. Toes were born in the body as toes. Talk to someone who has lost a toe and they will tell you how difficult walking without a toe really is. Toes may not get much glory, but like any other body part they are very important. Without them the body does not function as it should. This is what Paul meant when he said:
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired (1 Cor. 12:14-18).
The body is not made up of just one part. An eye does not make a body. An
ear does not make a body. A body properly functions when all the parts work
together. The same is true with the Body of Christ. Christ’s body—the church,
functions best when all its members are functioning within the gifts God has
given them. That is when true ministry takes place. One of the problems with
the church at
Finding Your Spiritual Gift
Believers are to be active parts of Christ’s body and that involves using their spiritual gifts. But what if you do not know what your spiritual gift is? How do you find out? The answer is to start looking for opportunities to serve. Look for areas in the church that need help and do something about it. Perhaps the church needs upkeep in a certain area. Get involved with that. Maybe more help is needed in the nursery. Get involved there. Maybe the children's ministry needs help. Perhaps people are needed for visitation or evangelism. Perhaps that is where the Lord would have you serve. What interests do you have? Maybe there is an area suited to your interests where you can help out. The point is to start doing something. Find something you can do. You can be involved in a variety of things. Perhaps it will become clear where you can be especially effective in service. You may not find where you are gifted right away but eventually you will find where you are gifted to serve. You can do the work of an evangelist without being an evangelist. You can show mercy even if you do not have the gift of mercy. Give even if giving is not your gift. As you begin serving you will become more focused on developing the ministry and less concerned with what is wrong with it. You can help to make things right. You will find that there are areas where you will be more effective than others. This will become clear as you serve. Others will see your effectiveness and affirm where you are gifted.
Every believer fits into the body of Christ. As a pastor of a church I have
a very visible role, but I realize that I am just part of the Body.
People sometimes ask me what will happen to
God’s plan is simple. As people are saved in this age, they become part of Christ’s body—the church. The church has organization, structure and leaders. It carries out the ministry God has given it. Responsibility is placed upon the church leaders to be doctrinally pure and functioning as they should. We are to carry out the ministry by being a part of His church. That is where our passion should be. All our gifts, abilities, energy and money ought to be committed to it. Organizations may come to us for time and money, but our first priority is to the area God has given us as a church. They may have great plans but we are to be passionately involved with the Body of Christ as the New Testament presents it.
Is the church the most important thing in your life? Let’s not wait for others to come and lay out a vision of how we can get the job done. God has already done that. We cannot start our own plan and expect God to bless it. He already has His plan working, and He privileges us to be a part of it. Let us make sure we are doing His work according to His way.
The Church: God’s Program for Ministry
Copyright © 1997
First Printing: April 1997 (3,000 copies)
Published by Indian Hills Community Church
Systematically Teaching the Word
1000 South 84th Street, Lincoln, Nebraska 68510-4499
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977. All quotations used by permission.
Other Books by Gil Rugh
Assurance: Our Seal and Pledge
Baptism: Truth or Tradition
Bible Study Tools for the Layman
(The) Bible Workbook: What Is It All About?
By Faith: Abraham
By Faith: Noah
Calvinism & Arminianism
(The) Church: God’s Program for Ministry
Church Discipline—An Evidence of Christian Love
Demonization of the Believer: An Unbiblical Teaching Exposed
(A) Different Gospel: An Evaluation of the Teachings of Robert Schuller
Division & Diversion
Divorce on Trial
Election: Whose Choice?
Endurance: Standing Firm in a Throw-Away World
Evangelism: Treading the Roman Road
Freedom From Addiction
Giving: A Result of Grace
Homosexuality: A Biblical Perspective
Instruction to Husbands, Fathers & Their Wives
Instruction to Wives, Mothers & Their Husbands
Living the Life
Marks of the True Believer
Promise Keepers and the Rising Tide of Ecumenism
Prophecy Update 1996
Provision or Penalty
Psychology: The Trojan Horse
Rendering to Caesar
Reversing the Reformation
Revival and Revival Meetings
Statement of Faith and Constitution
To Earth With Love: A Study of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ
To Tie the Knot or Not: A Biblical Study of Marriage and the Single Life
When the Bible Doesn’t Say
Willing to Pay the Price
Other Tracts and Brochures by Gil Rugh
How To Study Your Bible
Lordship Question: What Does a True Believer Believe?
Pare! Y Piense A Donde Va (Spanish tract)
Statement of Faith
Stop! And Think About Where You Are Going
What About Tongues?
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