What is Church?

Note: this blog is a bit longer than normal, you have been warned.

I have the privilege of serving the church daily, which means I have had to take a lot of time in the past year to think about “church”. This season has challenged many of my assumptions about why, how, and where we do “church”. I know I am not the only one having these thoughts, the blogosphere is abuzz in this season with renewed vigour. It’s important, then, to define our terms well so we can navigate this conversation well. When people are talking about “Church”, what do they mean? What does the Bible have in mind when Jesus says “I will build my Church”? I hope what follows will help unify Christians around a common and Biblical definition so we can have better unity around our common beliefs and more loving disagreements on how that plays out in these trying times.

People

And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.
– Acts 14:27

First and foremost, The Church is a people. None of the verses in the New Testament that refer to the Church make any sense if the Church is a building, or even, an organization. Only people can feel fear (Acts 5:11), be persecuted (Acts 8:1), hear (Acts 11:22), and pray (Acts 12:5); to name a few. Even the word “ekklesia” which we translate church in the New Testament means “called out ones”. It refers to people coming together for a common goal based on a common identity. That identity being those redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I have already discussed why the Church has chosen to gather the way it normally has for 2000 years in another post. When we “go to church” we do it to be with the people of the Church united in a common goal to worship God.

Universal

On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
– Matthew 16:18-19

This identity, as the people bought by the blood of Jesus and sealed by the Holy Spirit, is an identity that transcends space and time. The Church is all those bought by the blood of Christ in every nation and in every generation. When we put our faith in Jesus, we join a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) that testify to the joy and power of the God of the Bible from ages past and look forward to the future redemption which God is still accomplishing. Since creation, God has chosen his people and secured their salvation and sanctification. His work to build his Church cannot be thwarted, not even by the forces of hell.

In our current crisis, the universal Church is in no danger. Covid-19 is not a more formidable opponent than the gates of hell. There is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39). Much of our hope in these trying days comes from God’s faithfulness, promises, and power in his Church universal.

Local

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
– Acts 14:23

However, since the church is the people, people in each generation and location need to coordinate, and that is achieved in the context of the local church. People, in the same town, under the same group of elders, who meet for worship, prayer, baptism, fellowship, and the Lord’s Supper. The first chapters of the book of Revelation are addressed to local churches with specific strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, though they also apply to the Church in general. Each of Paul’s letters in the New Testament is addressed to a specific historic church or leader in a specific church. We would have no concept of what the universal Church is supposed to be without the local church filling in those gaps. The local church is where people hear the gospel preached, learn about Jesus and the Bible, get married, get counselling, show hospitality, and, eventually, have their funeral. It is where spiritual gifts are developed and used, and it is where the promises and hope of the universal Church touch down into our everyday lives. This doesn’t mean these activities can only happen in the church “building”, but they do happen within a group of people who are committed to living out Jesus’ commands together.

In this pandemic crisis, it is the local church that has taken the brunt of the damage from restrictions, lockdowns, and week-to-week changes. Local churches are a collection of ordinary people trying to do an extraordinary work. The resilience of the universal Church is not shared by the local church, necessarily. The number of church buildings in our city that have been converted to homes or apartments is enough proof of that. It will take a long time to understand the consequences of this isolation and inconsistent gathering.

In this season, support, unity, love, grace, patience, and boldness are needed by every member of every local church to bring about the identity and witness we need in our community. We will not all agree on every aspect of this situation, but we can agree we are all sinners in need of grace. We agree we have a Holy God worthy of worship. And we agree that every person, from the smallest child, to highest public health official needs to be forgiven by Jesus and transformed by him. That is why we have always gathered to build up and encourage one another, and it is why we are so discontent with the way things are now. It takes much more effort to be a local church in a season where there is not a weekly scheduled event to be together to be reminded and encouraged.

Body

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
– Ephesians 1:22-23

One of the primary terms the Bible uses to describe the Christian Church is “the Body of Christ.” Meaning, we are the physical manifestation of the continued ministry and work of Jesus in this world. He is our head, we are his hands, feet, and vocal chords. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we need each other to fulfill the functions we are not gifted at or capable of doing as an individual. I am humbled to be gifted to preach God’s word to you, but I tend to talk too much and listen too little (I’m working on it). As a body, we must suffer together and celebrate together. When one of us is lonely and sick of isolation, that should make all of us pause and lament. When one of us celebrates the birth of a baby, we all rejoice. When we disagree with one choice or statement another member of the body has made, we deal with those feelings truthfully, lovingly, patiently, and with grace, because, if we harm a part of our body, we are harming ourselves.

The symbolism of the Church as a “body” does not decrease the importance of gathering together physically, it increases it. A body whose parts are separated for a long period of time will have a hard time getting those parts back together. That is not to say that we cannot survive when we are apart, simply that we must think of ourselves as parts of one body. We share a heart, brain, and blood. We need each other for survival.

During this season of separation, we must put extra effort into being a body that supports the other members. If you are in a small group reach out to one or two other members each week in an email or phone call. If you serve in a ministry, think of someone who you have served with and reach out to them. Keep an ear open for new needs in the announcements and make plans right away to meet those new needs if you have a creative idea. There are many other things we can do that are not a Sunday worship service, but the Sunday worship service made those other body functions easier. Pray that we can be restored to regular body contact as soon as possible.

Temple

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
– Ephesians 2:19–22

As New Testament Gentiles, we are not familiar with temple imagery. Furthermore, as protestants, we do not generally have good categories for sacred things (which is fine, God created all things for our good and his glory). What we might miss from that experience, however, is some of the depth of what it means for the Church to be the temple of God.

The temple in Old Testament, was the one place where God had chosen to dwell in a special, consistent, and powerful way. In the heart of the temple in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant sat in deep darkness, and the cloud of God’s glory descended upon it (2 Chron. 5:13). When the priests worshipped in the temple, they were just feet away from the awesome presence of God. To enter the presence of God in the temple or tabernacle (the mobile precursor to the temple) was deadly (Lev. 10:1-2), and to pray to God in the direction of the temple was salvation (2 Chron. 6:20-21). God was always working outside the temple, but in the temple, God was consistently and especially present.

The last temple where the Jewish religion was practiced was destroyed in 70AD. This side of the cross, with the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the people of God are a new temple. Where God’s people gather to sing, worship, and work for God’s glory and the flourishing of mankind, God can be specially and powerfully found. That reality manifests itself in every Christians life, but is multiplied when the Church is physically gathered. The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples when they were gathered together (Acts 2:1-4), thousands were added to the Church’s number when Peter preached to the crowds (Acts 2:41) and the throne room of heaven is full of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue singing praises (Rev 7:9). The temple reality of the Church cannot be done virtually, and in this season of separation from that reality, the onus is on Christian households to uphold that value.

On Sunday mornings, set the time, attention, and energy aside needed to make “church at home” unique. Put your phone in the other room, put away the toys, stand up, and sing together. You might even want to go as far as swapping your sweatpants for something more formal. None of this will save us or make the power of Jesus truer, but it informs our hearts and our families of the value of intentional corporate worship. The temple was the centre of religious life for the Old Testament people of God. It wasn’t in their tents, but in Jerusalem. They had to leave their homes and cities to worship God in the truest sense. If our homes are to house the “temple of God” for a season let us set a high bar for what that looks like. We are the temple of God. He is with us.

Bride

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
– Ephesians 5:25-27

The image of body and temple are powerful images of what the Church is meant to be, but they could be translated as cold and impersonal. The church as the Bride of Christ, however, is anything but. We are the beloved and prepared reward for the Son of God who gave his life in submission to his Father to purchase our salvation once and for all. We are dressed in pure white, washed clean from our sin and shame (Rev 6:11). We are brought into his family though we are undeserving (1 John 3:1) and Christ’s love for us will never fade. He is faithful to the end. Revelation 21 is a lengthy description of the Church as the bride and it is stunning. I cannot quote it here for sake of space, but I would encourage you to read it and be floored by the vastness of God’s love and provision for you. And not just for you alone, but for all members of the Church. God’s love and work cannot be separated from the “one-another-ness” of the Church. We will enjoy the blessings of being Christ’s bride together for eternity, and we look forward to that togetherness to sustain us now.

Final Thoughts

There is no organization on earth like the Church of Jesus Christ. We were bought to glorify him and enjoy him forever. We declare the truth of who God is and what he has done day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-month. The Church is so much more than a gathering, but it is not less. Please be in prayer for our leaders, volunteers, and the members of Bethel’s family in these hard days. Be praying for unity, that the body would be healthy and not broken; pray for power, that the presence of God would be felt in his temple, and pray for patience and endurance, as we look forward to the wedding day when we will see Christ as he is, perfectly forever. Only in the Church do we have that hope.

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