NOTE: since this is a long blog, conclusions are summarized at the end of this article
“What is church?” my friend Jim asked as he taught a class on Revelations. Jim had been studying the book for 12 years at the time, teaching it to others in both a unique and interesting way as his understanding grew. There are prophecies in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation to the seven churches, and like all prophecies there are many different interpretations. There are various speculations about what these churches could be. But Jim’s question at the time was more generic, and I took his question as a challenge: “Explain to me what church is meant to be.”
Now answering that question is not easy, and while I think most people can come up with a couple quick opinions that reflect their personal experience, those subjective ideas may not line up with God’s plan. Understanding God’s intention for church can be difficult, especially in light of the diverse ways that we have experienced church. Man’s idea of “church” just doesn’t always line up with God’s.
Even more challenging: one man’s idea of “church” may not line up with another’s. The dictionary identifies seventeen definitions for the word “church”. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/church) It is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it is an object, a location, a group of people, a vocation and a combination of each of these. As a verb, it has both positive and negative connotations. For example, to “church” someone is another way of saying you’re going to “discipline” them.
So I’m going to focus on the term church in a slightly different light from any of the dictionary’s definitions. I’ll start by defining it as an aggregated, living entity composed of members dedicated to God. I’ll describe it as I understand it from Scripture and through the filter of my experience. As a living entity, church can be either healthy or unhealthy, so I’ll limit my description to that of a healthy church.
Now a church is more than just group of people, a collection of individuals; it is an entity in itself. And “The Church” is made up of members across all the collection of Christian churches. “The Church” is the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, and while Jesus directly ministers to His Bride as well as to each member of Her Body, He also has a purpose for the Body’s members to minister to each other. It’s God’s purpose that as one body, we are being made into a holy and pure bride for Christ (Ephesians 5:25-33), submitting to Christ’s headship. (Colossians 1:17-18) As members, we are vulnerable with each other, challenge each other and grow together. Two Scripture verses that describe the Body are found in Ephesians 4:15-16.
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him Who is the head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.Ephesians 4:15-16 (NIV)
God has a purpose for His Body as the members interact. The passage above challenges us to speak the truth in love. My experience has shown that a loving confrontation may violate what our society perceives as “nice”. We can be nice without being loving: avoidance, smoothing over the real issues, letting someone else “better equipped” address the issue. But “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17) No, God’s challenge to us is to challenge each other in love, and as the Day of the Lord comes nearer, we need to be intentionally and lovingly challenging each other:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV)
God created us as social beings. “It’s not good for man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) He meant for us to identify with each other, to walk with each other, to work with each other, and to collaborate with each other. He intended for us to “commune” with Him and with each other. The early church understood this so much better than we do. Communion is an important part of the church, to be done frequently and reverently. The reality of our Lord’s Real Presence as we participate in the sacrament of communion is demonstrated in a simple act:
I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
1 Corinthians 10:15-17 (NIV)For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (NIV)
Our communion is more than bread and wine; it is act of worship and a demonstration of unity. When we worship with each other in celebration of Him, we glorify God. As we worship Him, He magnifies us. Our voices joined together in praise become more beautiful than any single voice. Some years ago, I went to a men’s conference in a football stadium and I needed to leave the event early. Outside the stadium, I heard a set of worship songs, sung by thousands of men who were pouring themselves out in worship to the Lord our God… it was beautiful! The worship band couldn’t be distinguished from the voice of Christ’s Body. It was a unique and wonderful experience, one that people inside the stadium couldn’t hear.
As the father of five kids, I am always heart-warmed when my sons and daughters are harmonious… when they interact well with each other. When my children work together and in other ways show their love for each other (e.g. - take care of each other, stand up for each other, etc.) I just can’t describe how good I feel! I believe this is a reflection of how God feels when His children minister to each other. I’m confident that He is overjoyed every time we encourage someone else. With smiling eyes, He looks upon us with pride when we build each other up, reflecting the love that He has for us. Demonstrating love for each other in both words and deeds is one of the foundational purposes of church:
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV)
Every member of the Body is different, contributing in diverse ways. Each difference is like a spectrum of colors, coalescing on an ever-changing canvas called “church”. One man’s weakness is another’s strength, so that together we fill-in our gaps.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.Romans 12:3-8 (NIV)
(See also 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 and 1 Corinthians 14:11-13)
Church is a place to learn and be encouraged. It’s a place to minister to God and to others. It’s a place where we are ministered to and a place where we are built up.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Colossians 3:16 (NIV)
Our talents are to be administered to build each other up. These abilities can appear quite ordinary or supernaturally extraordinary. (http://mitchellmalloy.blogspot.com/2011/01/extraordinary-gifts.html) God uses these extraordinary gifts to bring healing to His people and as a witness to the reality of His powerful love. He has intended the leadership of the church to administer healing, to facilitate a safe environment for healing.
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.James 5:14-15 (NIV)
God has always had a heart for the sick, and He desires for His people to share in His ministry to those that are hurting. I believe there are multiple dimensions to health: spiritual, emotional, physical, social, vocational, intellectual, and financial. When we minister to the sick and poor it demonstrates a godly character and reflects God’s love in an often-heartless world.
All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.Galatians 2:10 (NIV)
We are called to reflect God’s character and His love, building others up with our gifts. A healthy church isn’t free from sickness or troubles, but it’s led by people of character. That’s why Paul was so clear in identifying the qualifications of an elder. (See 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) Whether clergy or laity (words I don’t find in the Bible, by the way), church leadership provides spiritual direction for the church, paving a way to spiritual maturity and a growing intimacy with God.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 4:11-13 (NIV)
The role of an elder is to parent the church, and at times, the hard task of parenting children is to apply discipline.
In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’
Matthew 18:14-16 (NIV)
As a young adult, I discovered the difference between punishment and discipline. We all know punishment: the harsh administration of justice in response to our failures. Many people punish themselves daily, and they fearfully expect punishment from an angry God Who sees all their flaws. But discipline is different. Discipline is applied to correct deficiencies in behavior. In the passage from Matthew 18 above, the key message is in verse 14: “not willing that any of these little ones should perish”!
Discipline is administered by loving parents. Discipline is applied to children who can’t exercise the discipline on their own to correct destructive behaviors. It’s not done for the convenience of the parent. In fact, disciplining children is much more difficult than punishing. Punishment comes from selfish desires to make others conform to an ideal, but discipline gently corrects, seeking creative ways to lead children into maturity.
A spiritual leader is called to be a loving parent who applies disciplines and exercises wise judgment.
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?
1 Corinthians 6:3-5 (NIV)
“Judgment” has become synonymous with “judgmental” in our society. But they are two very different things. To exercise judgment is a display of wisdom. It assesses a situation and determines the appropriate action for the benefit of the family. If a family member creates an unsafe environment, the parent needs to take action to protect the family.
But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?
1 Corinthians 5:11-12 (NIV)
It is the right and responsibility of leadership to promote an environment that will facilitate spiritual growth. Leaders typically grow up from within the church, but at times the Father adopts a foreigner into the family to remind us of who we are meant to be: an Abraham, a Ruth, or a Paul. He is constantly working to bring us up in maturity, both as individuals and as a family.
So as I best understand it, these are the foundations of church, the essence of what church is meant to be:
- To share Communion in Christ with each other
- To meet frequently, encouraging each other to love and do good
- To provide biblically sound, spiritual direction
- To use our different giftings in ministry to each other
- To offer healing and minister to the sick and poor
- To administer discipline and facilitate safe environments
- To be known for our love for each other
This last point is essential for a healthy church and it’s crucial to successful outreach. There’s no more effective evangelism tool than authentic love. That isn’t to say that other tools are wrong (e.g. – tracts, outreach events, etc.). But without genuine love, it’s nothing more than a manipulation technique. A church that is known by its love for one another naturally draws others into the family.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.John 13:34-36 (NIV)
copyright ©2012 Mitchell Malloy (http://mitchellmalloyblogspot.com/)