The Nature of the Church

TO BELONG to the church of God is a unique and soul-satisfying privilege. It is the divine purpose to gather out a people from the far corners of the earth to bind them into one body, the body of Christ, the church, of which He is the living head. All who are children of God in Christ Jesus are members of this body, and in this relationship they may enjoy fellowship with each other, and fellowship also with their Lord and Master."

-Professor of Theology, Theological Seminary, Andrews University, at the time this article was written

TO BELONG to the church of God is a unique and soul-satisfying privilege. It is the divine purpose to gather out a people from the far corners of the earth to bind them into one body, the body of Christ, the church, of which He is the living head. All who are children of God in Christ Jesus are members of this body, and in this relationship they may enjoy fellowship with each other, and fellowship also with their Lord and Master."

These are the terms in which the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual introduces the subject of the church of God. 1 They come as close as one may wish to a definition of the subject. There is, indeed, no formal Seventh-day Adventist definition of church that may claim to be authoritative. The use of the word in the Church Manual is not an attempt to provide us with an abstract explication. Rather we must go back to the New Testament historical reality of the church as a religious community that, under the power of the Holy Spirit, recognized the Lordship of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Church as a Covenantal Reality

The very use of the Greek word ekklesia to designate the glorious reality to which early Christians belonged seems to suggest on their part a clear conception of what the term meant. This was no new term, to be sure. Used for the popular assemblies in the government of the Greek city-states, it had taken on a religious meaning in the LXX as the "congregation" of Israel, the Jewish theocratic people. This seems to be one of the dominant ideas of the primitive Christian church when it uses the term ekklesia. It considered itself to be "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16), the true continuation of God's elect. Those who lived wholly by faith in God, although not descending biologically from Abra ham as "children of the flesh," had become Abra ham's spiritual descendants, "the children of the promise." 2

God's special work for the salvation of fallen humanity and the beginning of His church are related in the story of the covenant He contracted with Abraham, His servant (see Genesis 17). It was through this alliance with Abraham and his posterity that Israel was brought into a particular relationship with Yahweh, different from the relation existing between God and the heathen. God was still Lord of the uncircumcised, but He was the God of Israel in a unique and special sense. The Biblical religion is plainly a covenantal religion which, in the case of Israel, finds its classical expression in Exodus 19:3-6:

Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now there fore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel" (R.S.V.).

In this passage we are con fronted with the Biblical notion of the church, its mission and its task. God has chosen Israel for salvation, not salvation for Abraham's descendants alone, but salvation for the whole world. Israel is to be a kingdom of priests whose task is to impart the knowledge of God to the whole of mankind. This priestly nation, the church of the Exodus and of the Torah, is, in fact, the light destined to illuminate all men (Isa. 43:10; Zech. 8:23). When he finished reading the commandments of God and the people answered, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex. 24:7), Moses sealed the covenant by throwing the blood of the animal offerings upon the people, declaring, " 'Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words' " (Ex. 24:8, R.S.V.).

A Matter of Continuity

The early Christians claimed to be in continuity with Israel, the people whom God had chosen before the time of Jesus. From the very beginning they understood their Christian existence in the perspective of the Old Testament Messianic announcement and fulfillment. This implied a very definite theology of history: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world" (Heb. 1:1,2, R.S.V.). The days of expectation were over. The day of the Lord had come. For all that, however, the new covenant inaugurated by the Lord Jesus and sealed by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was but the covenant of old, re stored, fulfilled, resumed and renewed. The Christian church identified itself clearly with God's true Israel of which it was the remnant.

This audacious reinterpretation of the plan of salvation revealed in the Old Testament is obviously the result of Jesus' own statement that His life and death were the fulfillment not only of the Old Testament prophecies but also of the whole sacrificial system of Israel. "And he said to them," writes Mark, " 'this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many' " (Mark 14:24, R.S.V.). The expression "blood of the covenant" seems taken directly from Exodus 24:8. According to the Pauline ac count, Jesus declared: " 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood' " (1 Cor. 11:25, R.S.V.), thus explicitly referring to Jeremiah's prophecy regarding the day when the Lord would make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (see Jer. 31:31-33). Thus, in the New Testament the church of Jesus Christ is described as the new Israel established by means of the covenant in the blood of Messiah. The Christian church is the inheritor of the spiritual privileges and responsibilities that once be longed to Israel of old. No doubt with Exodus 19 in mind, Peter could write, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people" (1 Peter 2:9,10, R.S.V.).

An Assembly Called Together by God

There is no way, outside of faith, of affirming the reality of the church. Faith alone can declare that certain facts proceed from a divine intervention in history and, signifying the presence of God, are constitutive of a specific reality that is called church. Outside of faith, the church is merely an association based on some social instinct, some impulse of mutual affection or any other natural attraction assembling people and binding them together.

The church is a sociological reality, a human society, temporal to be sure, visible, and still "in this world," and in that sense comparable to other groupings of men. But it is more than merely a human community, for it is first of all an assembly called together by God. Those it groups together are believers, people answering God's call, and with whom He re news the covenantal relationship, the original Father-son fellowship. It is the Lord who draws and gathers, Christ indwelling the believer, grafting. him upon Him to make him participant of all His riches. This unique conjunction through which Christ unites Himself to the believer and the believer to Him expresses the convictions of early Christians that the Christian church transcends by far the dimensions of a strictly human society. There exist side by side, we believe, the divine, objective element, and the subjective, human dimension, which must both be recognized in their encounter to give us a correct understanding of the New Testament view of the church.

Images of the Church

The inseparable connection between Christ and the church is ostensibly conveyed to the Christian reader by the different images used in the Bible. Accordingly, the church is variously described, among other things, as a flock, a building, and a bride, as well as the body of Christ.

The first symbol, the pastoral image of the flock of which Christ is the "good shepherd" (John 10:1-16; Luke 12:32),3 still has immediate relevance in an age of industrialization. It reminds us that Christ's disciples are distinct, living individuals, each needing a shepherd's care and protection, which they can have only as they unite and follow Christ.

When the New Testament depicts the church as the "household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:19-21, R.S.V.),4 there is little doubt about the in tended meaning of the metaphor. The church must be, uniquely, the sign of God's presence in history. Ever being built for it is never complete on earth until God's final purpose is consummated Christ holds it together and shapes it.

Few figures can surpass the bride-bridegroom metaphor that so adequately illustrates the actual relationship between Christ and His ekklesia in Ephesians 5: 21-33. The phrase spontaneously calls to mind the marriage intimacy so often used in the Old Testament to represent the covenant relationship existing between God and His people,5 and which Jesus adopted when He referred to Himself as the bridegroom (Mark 2:20). It emphasizes the love of Christ for His church, the love of Christ who sacrificed Himself for the sake of His people, so that they may become "one flesh" with Him. Of at least equal importance, on the other hand, are the implications of obedience, purity, and responding love that Christ's bride ought to possess. Unconditionally subject to her Lord, the church draws her support from Christ alone.

It remains, however, that the concept of the church as the body of Christ, prob ably more than any other symbol, underscores the degree to which Christ fills His ekklesia with the riches of His glory (Eph. 1:18-23).6 He continually distributes in His body gifts of ministries in order that its members might reflect His traits of character in their own lives and work out His purposes of grace (Eph. 4:11-16). Christ is the head of the church insofar as He is the source of its nourishment, growth, direction, and unity. Because Christ is the animating spirit, the life of the church, all members are to be modeled on Him until Christ is formed in them (see Gal. 4:19). There is no room here for division or schism since it is "one body" (Col. 3:15) of which all believers are members.

These diverse images meant for the instruction of the Christian community indicate that for the New Testament writers the church is no more separable from Christ than Christ is separable from God.

The Church and the Spirit

Apart from Christ the Christian ekklesia is no longer the church in any true sense. Neither can it exist without the Holy Spirit. The effective presence of the Spirit is no less essential to the life of the church than the continuing presence of Christ. The very faith that characterizes the believer is, according to the New Testament, the work or gift of the Spirit: "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord!' except under the influence of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3, N.E.B.*). As the Lord promised, the Spirit would "guide you into all truth" (John 16: 13). Without the presence and work of the Holy Spirit the church is inconceivable.

This inseparability of the church and the Spirit is underlined with particular force in the event of Pentecost. The day that marked the actual constitution of the church was also the day when the disciples "were all filled with the Holy Spirit," when the Spirit was poured out on them (Acts 2:4, N.E.B.). Not that there had been no witness to the work of the Spirit in pre-Christian times, but both the testimony of Jesus and the conviction of the apostles tell us in the New Testament that on that day began a new kind of life, which is the Spirit's gift (John 14:16, 17; Acts, passim). This was an actual encounter between man and the divine Spirit.

The Spirit's work, as effected in the Christian community, is of great significance for the church. Being a person, He deals with us as persons. Since His ministry is the continuing sequel to the Incarnation, He illumines man's mind and enables us to recognize the presence of Jesus. Through Him Christ is no longer a figure of the past, nor our knowledge of Him some mere biographical acquaintance, but a deep and actual personal fellowship, a relationship between per son and persons. Christ comes to us daily in the Holy Spirit who calls us not only to faith but to discipleship. "Led by the Spirit of God" (Rom. 8:14) into a filial relationship with God, we are also "called in one body" of Christ (Col. 3:15) where we participate in the koinonia of the Spirit and of Christ.7' It is in this oneness of thought and mind that the life of the Spirit-filled believer bears "the fruit of the Spirit" which, according to the apostle, is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22, 23, R.S.V.).

Besides these attributes of the Christian life which are the "fruit" of the Spirit's work for all who are led by Him, there are particular spiritual gifts, or charismata, which are given to certain members of the church in varying degrees till the end of time. These are special qualities and powers imparted to believers for the service of the church (Rom. 12:6-8). They were provided for the church when Jesus ascended to heaven (Eph. 4:8-14). Described as given by Christ (verse 11) they are also believed to be distributed by the Spirit as the latter sees most needful (1 Cor. 12:11) for the purpose of mending and uniting the saints as well as for preparing the church for the coming of its Lord.

The Church and the Word of God

The church does not exist for its own sake. God acquired it as His own special possession so that it may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called it out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). It exists to accomplish the commission that it was given by Jesus Christ. Just as Christ came to do the work that the Father gave Him, so the church, being "the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (2 Cor. 2:15, R.S.V.), bears the responsibility of spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of God every where.

Constantly confronted by the problem of its authority in the course of carrying out this commission, the Christian church turns and looks to Christ its head, for guidance and direction. In Him, received as the Word of God incarnate and living among men, it finds the only authoritative source of its decisions and choices. Being a Christian means to say Yes to Him and to accept His authority unreservedly.

The Christian religion is not, in the first place, the acceptance of a creed nor the following of a moral code. In its innermost essence it is, as in the case of the apostles, a commitment to a person, to Jesus Christ. As it was with the apostles, it is the same with us. It is Jesus Christ Himself, and not some teaching about Him, who is the Word of God for the church. In order to help us, centuries later, to recognize the Spirit of Christ and to establish with the Lord the kind of personal relationship the apostles experienced, the Word of God comes to us in the form of written or spoken language. The written word of the apostles is not, of course, identical with the divine Word it self, since human language shares in our weakness. But it is the chosen means by which God speaks to us. The only Christ we know is the Christ of the apostles and of their testimony. This does explain, we believe, why the New Testament writers expected those who received their message to recognize it as authoritative, as "the word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13), "a command of the Lord" (1 Cor. 14:37, R.S.V.).

The sincere preaching of the word of God as found in the Scriptures, therefore, is surely no secondary or accidental aspect of the church's life. Here lies its authority. The church stands and falls with the written Word, for these writings are the legible form of the apostolic witness to God's revelation in Jesus Christ, as John underlines when he writes: "That which was from the be ginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life . . . we pro claim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us" (1 John 1:1, 3, R.S.V.). By faith and on the testimony of Christ and the apostles the Christian church accepts Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God. Here is where it can and must, in each generation, so learn to know Christ that it may know with what authority it faces a world that increasingly questions its right to speak.

The Holiness of God's Church

In virtue of the mediatorial righteousness of its Lord, the church whose "fellow ship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3, R.S.V.) is ac counted holy before God. It can truly be called a community of saints. Its members who by faith have been under the benefaction of God's forgiveness have thus re-entered the divine covenant, the divine communion.

This holiness is first of all a holiness of the inner man that finds its expression in one's outer life. But it also carries the notion of separation, of setting apart. This aspect is definitely under lined in Israel of old and retained by the New Testament. God's people cannot be confused with others. Faith always singles out. The church is holy because it is separated from the spirit of the world and is consecrated to God, and it affirms the objective authority of Jesus Christ over all its members.

The Church Is Apostolic

Called by God, nurtured by His Word, and accounted holy before Him, the church would contradict itself, how ever, if it did seclude itself in contemplation, in thanks giving, or even in intercession. The church is also apostolic. It remembers that Jesus, its Lord, called, then sent on a mission, those who learned from Him the mes sage of the gospel. They be came recipients and depositaries of His Word, and His messengers as well. Every where they went they were Christ's envoys or apostles in the basic sense of the New Testament word, His representatives and ambassadors carrying His message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-21). "He who hears you hears me," explained Jesus (Luke 10:16, R.S.V.). The church, therefore, is apostolic since it is Christ's messenger to mankind.

It seems futile to labor the fact that truthfulness to the gospel of Christ implies, concretely, fidelity to the apostolic writings. To be "apostolic" also signifies devoting oneself "to the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (Acts 2:42, R.S.V.). The church will be apostolic to the extent that it will be listening to the apostles' teaching as committed to the Scriptures, which to begin with is the condition on which Christ's authority will exercise itself upon it.

The Church, Visible and Invisible

Membership in the church is always the response to a divine invitation. Men are drawn to the church because they are haunted by the figure of Jesus Christ who invites them to share the task of giving explicit witness to what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in history. Inasmuch as only God knows those who have answered, He alone knows the limits of the church.

All is not Israel that is called Israel, testifies the apostle, neither is true circumcision a mere mark in the flesh (see Rom. 2:25- 29). All men knew that Nathanael was an Israelite; the Lord alone knew with certainty that he was one in whom there was no guile. By speaking of a visible and an invisible church, Seventh-day Adventists do not refer to two different churches, but to two aspects of the one church of Christ. As it exists on earth the church is both visible and invisible. It is said to be invisible because its spiritual nature is perceptible only by faith, also be cause it is impossible to determine infallibly who does and who does not belong to it. The church invisible on earth is that company of people who belong to the covenant of grace, have received the Holy Spirit, and are members of the body of Christ.

The idea of invisibility, therefore, while expressing the transcendence and unity of the church, is no attempt on our part to disparage the temporal reality and life of the church. The invisible church assumes a visible form in an external organization through which it expresses itself. The church becomes visible in Christian profession and conduct, in the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments, as well as in external organization and government.

Seventh-day Adventists sincerely acknowledge that Christ is working in and through all Christian churches. They hold that God has earnest followers in all Christian communions and even beyond the walls of Christianity. At the same time, however, they continue to claim that among the Christian churches the Seventh-day Adventist Church holds a unique position. They understand themselves as a people of prophecy. They believe that God prophetically ordained—as expressed in Revelation 14: 6-12—that in the last days there would arise a religious movement that would warn the world about the imminence of Christ's second coming and seek to prepare men for the day of God by turning them to paths of full conformity to the teachings of the Scriptures. As God's people in ancient times were called to flee from literal Babylon (see Isa. 48:20; Jer. 50:8; 51:6, 45) in order that they might return to Jerusalem, so His people today are called out of mystical Babylon in order that they may not receive of her plagues (see Rev. 18:4) but may be accounted worthy to enter the New Jerusalem. Pseud-epigraphic and early Christian writers identified mystical Babylon as Rome of the Caesars. Two centuries be fore the Reformation some began to apply the metaphor to papal Rome. The time is not yet, but Adventists understand that immediately prior to the eschaton, this metaphor will include all nominal Christians whose commitment to human traditions and to the world takes priority over their commitment to Christ—as measured by their way of life. The proclamation to leave Babylon will bring out a company of committed Christians— sometimes referred to as the "remnant church"—of whom it is said, "Here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus" (Rev. 14:12). This claim does not mean that Seventh-day Adventists consider themselves better Christians than others. It has to do with the Adventist Church as a prophetic movement entrusted with a prophetic message to the whole world.

The Church and the Sacraments

From the foregoing exposition it should be rather clear that Seventh-day Adventists consider the church as a fellowship of men who, called through the Holy Spirit, are bound in living faith and obedience to the divine Word. This church is universal for it is not the church of a particular country, generation, or culture. It transcends all its local and temporal realizations, which are only provisional forms till the glorious day of its Lord's return.

Baptism is the sign of entrance to the church, confirming one's spiritual birth into the family of God. Christian baptism is not a baptism of water alone, but also a baptism of the Spirit. There is an indissoluble link between Christian baptism and the gift of the Spirit. It is a sign not only of repentance and forgiveness, of dying and rising with Christ (Rom. 6:3-11) but also of receiving the Holy Spirit(1 Cor. 12:3). Whoever is baptized belongs no longer to the world and is no longer subject to it. He wishes to be acknowledged as under the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. He belongs to Christ alone and relates himself to the world only through Christ.

If baptism is the visible sign of our entrance into God's family, the Lord's Supper, preceded by the foot washing, represents all that God has done for us, is doing, and will yet do at the end of the age. By partaking of the broken bread and the fruit of the vine we show forth the Lord's death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

Baptism, the Lord's Sup per, and the preaching of the Word are closely related as expressions of true Christian worship. Worship is not something man does for God but rather the response man makes to what God has already done for him. Here the family of God gathers in His presence to glorify Him. Although one's relation to Christ involves personal decision, yet to be saved means to be saved in community rather than in solitude. To be saved means to belong to the company of the saved, to the church, where in the early days of Christianity, as the apostle says, "all who believed were together" (Acts 2:44, R.S.V.).

The Unity of the Church

Christian worship and sacraments are also outward signs of the rediscovered unity of the people of God, a unity recovered in Jesus Christ. Dispersed and op posed to one another by all that sin adds to men's natural idiosyncrasies, which it converts into divisions and hostilities, men through their faith in Christ recover the unity of their origin and of their destiny. By faith they are one, for they are now partakers of the one and unique Son of God who gave Himself to save them and to found the church. This unity is clearly pointed out by Jesus' high-priestly intercession, wherein He prayed for His people "that they may be one, even as we are one,.. . even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:11, 21, R.S.V.). The very nature of the church demands this, as Paul indicates in his Epistle to the Philippians (Phil. 4: 4-6).

Seventh-day Adventists deplore the divisions of the household of God. They do not profess that the unity of the church is of such a spiritual, invisible nature that the divisions that lacerate Christ's body are to be considered as of no importance. Christian unity to be sure, does not mean uniformity to us. Christian unity involves diversity, such as variations in worship as well as informs of organization. This very diversity adds interest and beauty to the life of the body. At the same time, how ever, we hold that Jesus' re quest "as we are" calls for a fellowship in spirit, mind, and character in which Christians are to be one in their major beliefs, one in the fundamental truths of God's Word. Faith alone in Jesus Christ does not express the fullness of Christian unity that, we think, is connected with both faith and knowledge (Eph. 4:13). One cannot isolate the question of unity from the question of truth. The two are inseparably bound together since Christian unity is essential not only to provide convincing evidence that Christ's claim concerning Himself was true (John 17:21) but to make possible the fulfillment of the gospel commission "throughout the whole world" (Matthew 24:14, R.S.V.).

Ecclesiology and Eschatology

God's church does not derive from below but from above. It is a divine creation. Formed in history as God called and entered into communion with a remnant, Israel, through which all peoples were to be blessed, it was given a new form in Jesus Christ. In the power of the Holy Spirit, He gathered up and reconstructed the one people of God in His person so that the Christian community might play a central role in the history of salvation. It is yet to take on a final and eternal form when Christ comes again to renew His creation. Then His church will be manifested "in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing" (Eph. 5:27, R.S.V.).

The imminent second coming of Christ is a most prominent belief of the Adventist faith, as our denominational name indicates. It seems that the distinctive fact that has set Seventh-day Adventists apart from other Christians has been their conviction that the Christian understanding of individual redemption through Christ includes the fulfillment and perfecting of God's people within God's eschatological kingdom. This kingdom, to be sure, is both present and future: present in Jesus and in His church, where it is "beginning," future in the final act that God will per form at the end of history when it is "completed." God's will and work will be consummated.

The church arose as a result of the Incarnation. It has since then served as a bridge, a living link between Christ's resurrection and His coming again. It lives between the "already" of the first and the "not yet" of the second. Between the sowing time and the time of harvest, be tween the time of the suffering Messiah and the day of His glorious appearing, the church is a pilgrim, never all that it has been nor all that it will be. It encompasses a reality whose past and present expressions can give us only an imperfect idea, subjected as it is to the limitations of creation. It is en route toward a real kingdom of unity and love wherein "in that day" the full meaning of life, which was disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth, shall be wholly realized. In the meantime, enfeebled and defective as it may be, it remains, on earth, the object of the Lord's supreme regard, looking forward in hope for the ultimate perfecting when God's purpose in electing it will be fully manifest.


REFERENCES

1. Issued by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1971, p. 25.

2. See Rom. 4:12; 9:8. Cf. Phil. 3:3; 1 Peter 2:9.

3. See also Acts 20:28, 29; Heb. 13:20; 1 Peter 5:2-4; Rev. 7:17.

4. See also Matt. 16:18; 21:42; 1 Cor. 3:9-14; 1 Peter 2:6, 7.

5. See Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; Eze. 16:8-14; Hosea 2:19.

6. See Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 6:15; 12:12-27; Col. 1:18, 24; 2:19.

7. See 2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1; 1 Cor. 1:9.

* Texts in this article credited to N.E.B. are from The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970. Reprinted by permission.


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-Professor of Theology, Theological Seminary, Andrews University, at the time this article was written

July 1972

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