By: Neil Cole
I distinctly remember standing up in front of my denomination’s annual gathering giving a report on our church planting efforts. We didn’t plant a single church that year, so I was already uncomfortable. What I could positively report is that we, as a volunteer church planting board, had finally agreed on what a church is.
The person in charge of starting churches wasn’t sure until that moment what a church even is. At least it was honest, so many never really address the issue. Church is one of those things that most people think they understand from their experience. It turns out that defining this entity that has had so many forms and expressions over the centuries is not as easy as it seems. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary definition will include a type of building where Christians meet above all else. The New Testament, however, does not understand church this way. So what is a New Testament understanding of church?
As I mentioned in my previous post, typically a list of ingredients from the New Testament are used to define a church. Here is a typical list:
- A group of believers who gather together regularly to worship.
- …that hear the biblical preaching of God’s word.
- …that consider themselves a church.
- …that have qualified elders.
- …that practice baptism, communion and (some include) church discipline.
- …that have an agreed upon doctrinal foundation.
- …and have an evangelistic purpose.
I already demonstrated that many of the things we put on such a list are not actually as core to a NT understanding of church as we once thought. In this post I want to look at something even more alarming, and that is what we failed to put on such a list. Here are three things not mentioned on the list:
1. The One Anothers. There are close to 60 commands in the NT for Christ-followers that contain the words “one another.” Not a single one made the list. Commands such as “love one another,” “give preference to one another,” “pray for one another,” “confess your sins one to another,” “teach one another,” and “bear one another’s burdens” are throughout the entirety of the New Testament, but not in our definition of church. More alarming is that very few of these important commands can be obeyed at a typical Sunday worship service, yet we all assume that is what church is.
Why are we so quick to include the preaching of a sermon in our definition of church and forego all the activities that we are supposed to do one with another? No wonder the church today appears more like an audience of consumers rather than agents of change in the world. So much responsibility is placed on the shoulders of qualified elders and preachers and so little on the shoulders of God’s people.
2. Godly Character Qualities. There are numerous lists of character qualities that Christians are expected to follow in the NT such as the beatitudes (Matt 5:1-10), the description of love (1 Cor. 13:1-13), the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), qualities to dwell on (Phil 4:8-9), qualities of an elder/deacon (1 Tim 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9), but none make the list of ingredients necessary to be a church. Wouldn’t church be more attractive to the world if we did include such lists as a part of what we are supposed to be when we are together? The only inclination toward these godly characteristics in the definition of church is the description of “qualified elders,” which again means the leaders to do all the heavy lifting, even when it comes to being Christ-like.
3. Jesus. By far the most grievous oversight is that Jesus didn’t make the list! Some have commented that Jesus is assumed, because wherever believers are gathered there he is in their midst. My follow up question is, why then do you simply assume Jesus’ presence but you spell out the need for elders? Which is more important, Jesus or elders?
Is it really important that we include Jesus in our definition of church? Yes, I believe it should not just be one of the ingredients, but the most important element. Is that a Biblical presupposition? Yes, I think so.
In Acts chapter one we find all the previous ingredients present in the upper room. Church didn’t start, however, until Acts 2. What was the added ingredient? The indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ! Church was born when Christ indwelt us. His presence is the only thing that makes church any different from another organization in this world. The ingredients listed above that supposedly make up a NT church can also be used to describe the Kiwanis Club.
Some would like to distinguish Jesus from the church, but I’m not sure that is wise or Biblical. You might as well try and sever your head from your body. Jesus clearly said, “Abide in Me and I in you…for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
Jesus only mentioned church twice in the gospels. In both cases His presence was the key ingredient. In Matthew 16 it is Jesus building His church, not us. In Matthew 18, He is present wherever we gather, even in groups of only two or three.
In Revelation Jesus actually addresses seven churches. Some were healthy, some were not. He warns the Ephesian church that if they do not repent he would remove them from His presence (represented by removing their lampstand), in essence they would cease to be. It is being in the presence of Christ that makes us a church and being removed from His presence that determines our demise as a church.
It is His presence that makes us anything good whatsoever. Why are we so quick to make church about us and not about him? Is it any wonder why the world is just not interested in church? Heck, even Christians are not so interested in church these days.
Imagine, for a moment that these three omissions are actually how we defined church. What if the way we loved one another and the godliness that comes from the indwelling Spirit of Christ was church. I think we would see a lot more people wanting to be a part of that!
Now read that list of seven ingredients above that “defines” church and ask yourself if your neighbors would like to come to that. Imagine you made a glossy flier with those ingredients featured as the attraction and went door-to-door inviting people to come. Who do you think that would interest? Why would anyone who is not a Christian want to go to a place full of Christians to have someone collect money, hear someone preach at them and then sing a bunch of unfamiliar songs in public? This is our strategy to reach the world? Seriously? And we have somehow convinced ourselves that this was God’s plan? Really?
Jesus didn’t say, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, by the preaching of sound doctrines by qualified elders in a weekly worship service followed by eating crackers and a thimble of grape juice.” No. It is by our “love for one another” that we demonstrate we are His disciples.
If you can define church without Jesus you can do church without Jesus. Therein is our greatest shame. Church has become something we do, not what we are because of Christ living within us. I want to be a part of something that only Jesus can do. How about you?
Paul wrote, "Christ in you is the hope of glory." Oh that we would allow that to be our glory rather than all the other stuff we do.
In my next article I will share what my own understanding of church is.