Being the Church, Not “Doing Church!”
[This is a work in progress. I have a lot of links, and it takes considerable time to finalize. Feel free to read what I’ve posted, so far]
We live in a culture where people often identify themselves by what they do. While this is a problem in itself, it should come as no surprise that people try to understand other people and organizations by what they do, including the Church. As I have worked my way through from “doing worship,” to “doing ministry,” and now “doing church,” I realize I might go on and discuss “doing humanity.” While worship is primarily an attitude of reverence that should fill a believer’s entire life, well beyond Sunday gatherings, and ministry is simply loving God and others by serving them, the Church is an organism, an entity composed of all believers from all times and places, just like a person is an organic entity composed of all his or her gifts, experiences, education, and attitudes; in both cases these living entities are far more than what they do.
The word “church” comes from the Germamic “kirche,” which still shows up in German, and before that the Greek word “kyriakon,” meaning of the Lord. It is the common translation of the Greek word “ecclesia,” which means assembly, even though in English “ecclesiastical” has come to mean “church-related.” I won’t belabor the history here, but if you want a bit of it, check this. We generally recognize the Church as being all believers, often called the “church universal,” while we also use the same word to identify local bodies of believers. Unfortunately, we also call the buildings where we meet “churches,” leading to considerable confusion (not unusual for English!). I try to distinguish the three with Church, congregations, and church buildings, but most Christians tend to use the same word for all three. So, we “go to church,” meaning we go to the building where we “do” church activities such as attending services, worshiping, listening to preachers, having fellowship dinners, and abusing other words with fuzzy usages. The net sense is that “church” is all about Sunday morning and what happens in that building. Even civil laws have come to define and restrict what church may be, do, or not do.
Not surprisingly, the New Testament devotes considerable teaching to the Church. Offices—bishop, elder, deacon, apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher—are gifted to fulfill certain tasks, but clearly not everyone fills one of those roles, though it may be that each believer has certain duties in some of those areas, for clearly all are gifted. Knowing this, it is easy to assume that the Church is an institution or an organization. In recent decades, some have come to deny the value, necessity, or effectiveness of the “organized church.” Yet, the New Testament remains clear that every believer is part of it, and Hebrews 10 warns us “not to forsake our ‘assembling’ together as is the habit of some” (Evidently, disassociating with the Church is not a new problem).
To appreciate the Church, it would be wise to consider the several metaphors that tell us about it. In the New Testament, the Church is called a plant (tree or vine), a body, a building, a family, a community, and a bride. Each analogy or metaphor portrays organism more than organization, shows that believers are joined in relationship where many different individuals become a single, united entity, and indicates that the Church is something that transcends time, space, location, or meeting together on a particular day in a particular building. A little like an iceberg, the Church is far more than what we can see at a given moment or place (though hopefully the Church is considerably warmer!).
Church as Plant
Jesus began by saying, “I am the vine and you are the branches…bear much fruit.” We learn we are to be “rooted and grounded.” We learn in Romans that we are “branches grafted” into the stock that was/is Israel, showing we have some sort of linear connection to the nation of Israel, which preceded the Church historically, and a relational connection to the Jews, at least to Messianic Jews who have become Christ-followers, too. We are connected to Jesus, are to be securely anchored, and must be fruitful. The latter may sound like a task, something we are to “do,” but actually it is merely the end result of being part of the healthy plant which naturally reproduces. We might also note that “the fruit of the Spirit” love, joy, peace, patience, etc.—provide the “seeds” of the gospel which are to be planted in peace. This is a separate but related metaphor, where believers come from individual seeds; perhaps that’s where the grafting becomes necessary. Cultivating the church, incidentally, is not a one-man job, according to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church.
Church as Building
Continuing in I Corinthians 3, Paul shifts metaphors and says he “laid a foundations as a wise builder,” but that foundation ultimately is God and his Word. Here the metaphor flows from the word “edify” which means to “build up,” creating an edifice. Building up refers to both encouragement and godly instruction, both which add to the Church, one might say, brick by brick, referring to individuals securely set upon the foundation. Once again the analogy conveys unity from individual “bricks” creating a single structure, and Paul warns believers not to scrimp on their building. Furthermore, the cornerstone of this edifice is Jesus himself.
What kind of building is the Church? It is a “living temple” for we, the Church, are the place where God’s spirit now dwells. It is a place where we “worship in spirit and in truth,” but this facility is not like the Temple of the Jews, built in Jerusalem, replacing the Tabernacle, and destroyed in 70 A.D. It should be noted (as I didn’t in my prior blog) that worship occurs in this temple, not just in our nearly idolatrous constructions. Believers are connected in this temple 7 days a week, not just on Sundays.
Church as Family
The Church is the family of God. Our heavenly father is our daddy, Jesus our elder brother, and we adopted children are siblings. This is a royal family, so we are princes and princesses. Once adopted, we will never be disowned or disinherited. This is not an opportunity to pretend to be outside the family or to act like scalawags. If a person can do so without guilt or fear, then they may have never truly been accepted into the family, even though “getting adopted” is an act of God’s grace. The Father invites us: “Would you like to become part of our family?” We need only to say, “Yes!” We must also be willing to give up our old way of life (That’s repentance), but like human adoptions, the family will help the new member learn how to live suitably in our new and eternal situation. This description of the Church is so extensively used in the New Testament as to warrant much more than this brief introduction, but it is also perhaps the most familiar to most believers (Notice that I did not refer to being “born again” or John 3:16, which is an alternate way describing entry into the divine family).
Church as Body
One vine, one temple, one family—now consider the Church as one body. This metaphor, more clearly than the others, shows us to be diverse parts of a single organism. Each member has a different role, like feet, hands, lesser parts, and greater parts, all working together toward the purposes of the whole. Christ is the head (Pastors would be wise never to forget that!). This is one body, not many; each individual congregation is not a separate body, not a so-called “local body.” Each is part of the one; so while a “left hand” may do one thing while the “right leg” does something else, we should always see ourselves as part of the whole.
Denominations and associations err mightily in this. I believe it to be supreme arrogance to assume to be “the true church.” Jesus told us specifically not to attempt to try to separate “wheat and chaff” (a metaphor for true believers and false ones) because we are not qualified to judge the difference. We must deal with open sin and separate from those who refuse to stop sinning, but nowhere are we told to separate over differences in doctrine or disagreements about what is or is not truth. As noted previously, love is to be what defines our orthodoxy, not truth claims.
Racial distinctions, traditions, and culture may cause us to prefer one group over another, and I think that may be acceptable, as long as we do not despise those who differ or refuse to associate with them. Those who prefer traditional hymns, organ music, and choirs may enjoy them apart from those who enjoy black gospel music and traditional black preaching; those who find a “house church” more to their liking may do so without demanding that others give up their contemporary worship in a large facility. Sunday, Wednesday, or even Saturday gatherings may all represent the same God as part of the one “body of Christ,” and we all must be willing to accept our fellow members who make such choices.
Of course, we must follow certain belief, attitude, or practice about which we feel strongly and believe to be true. We may not go on to reject those with other views as not part of the body because Jesus told us simply not to do that! The often hostile divisions within the household of faith is a scandal, a widely recognized embarrassment to the One who taught us to love one another, to stand together in unity, and to prepare for the day when he will “marry” his “Bride.”
Church as Fellowship
The Church is a “fellowship,” based on the Greek word “koinonia.” This is so close to the word “ecclesia” that this is only barely a metaphor, if at all. A fellowship is a group who share certain things in common; for the Church of Jesus Christ we share a Savior, Lord, and friend. We have one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4). A number of Greek words begin with “syn, meaning “together with” or “in common,” such as Ephesians 6: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Reminding us of the things that we share or have in common tlls us that “fellowship” is much more than chatting at a church potluck; it is something far deeper, more profound, and extends well beyond our local congregation.
Fellowship is nearly a synonym for community, especially as it has come to be used today. While I believe there should be a place for members of the Church to live in a physical community in close proximity to each other, more broadly we are a community of those who trust Christ as their Savior, who are disciples or followers of our Rabbi Jesus, and who are ourselves disciple-makers. We are not merely a community of faith but a community of peacemakers, who live in peace with each other and make peace among our community members and those outside our community. We should be a community defined by grace and mercy, not be judging or condemning. While loving your neighbor as yourself ought to be the defining quality of believers in our human community, obeying the Great Commandment as identified by our community leader Jesus himself, “in honor preferring one another in love” and “loving one another” is to be the defining characteristic of our Christian community, as also taught by our community leaders Jesus.
So where do “church activities” fit in? “Doing church” has no place at all, if the above requirements are ignored. We have been warned about apostasy or “falling away.” Local groups, such as the Church in Podunk (in other words, that part of the Church universal that meets in a certain place), may exist but become devoid of “light.” I want to be careful when I say, for example, that many “liberal” churches seem to ignore so much of the Word as to make me wonder why they still choose to call themselves a Christian church. I also have my doubts about a group whose focus seems to be “hating.” I am troubled by a group that once not only tolerated slavery but tried to justify it Biblically, and I am not pleased to note that some still discriminate against those former slaves (I actually visited one as a prospective pastoral candidate; they found my lack of racial discrimination a problem). I don’t think God wants us to believe that prosperity is a sign of his blessing, not when he praised a poor widow for her sacrificial gift. It is not my place to say these are not part of the Church; as long as a Bible still finds a home inside, God’s spirit can use it to speak to open a heart, for his “word does not return void.”
I have discovered that our human tendency to divide has created some interesting circumstances. When I was part of a peacemaking body, one of our board members was an Episcopal Priest. One Saturday morning (after our 7 a.m. meeting!), he and I had a remarkable conversation where I came to appreciate that we were talking about exactly the same things but referring to entirely different sources, authors, and teachers. Our Christian backgrounds were so divergent that we had read and studied few of that same materials, beyond the Bible. I’m sure that same is likely true between Roman Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and others, black church and white, Pentecostal/Charismatic and traditional, and probably a few others. We really do need to work at breaking down the barriers that divided us, for I think we have much to learn from each other. Mind you, I am not looking for an homogenized church, something I fear the so-called ecumenical movement has produced; I don’t expect a single congregation somehow to absorb all preferences and traditions. I do think we must stop congratulating ourselves in our comfortable traditions and cultural discrimination. Even our commitment to God’s truth must be expressed humbly, less we confuse superiority for correctness. Indeed, how dare we think—we limited, finite humans with our broken, limited capabilities, so easily falling into our sinful weaknesses—have all the right answers or fully comprehend our infinite creator?
Unfortunately, the word “Christian” is far from being an indication of Biblical orthodoxy. Fortunately, John’s First Epistle provides a better guide, the spirit of truth. In other words, God will provide insight to guide us beyond our prejudices so that we may be better able to affirm the One Church of Jesus Christ as we open ourselves to those who are not part of our current circle. Beyond obedience, which is not small thing, I believe we have much to gain. A divided Church is a crippled church, an unhealthy body not fully functioning, a temple of divided worshipers, a vine less fruitful or totally unfruitful, and a family rent asunder, and lacking the power of a single community, left with a bunch of conflicting communities. Broken, we face a world opposed to us without our full strength.
I want to encourage people to break loose from their prejudices and examine their traditions. We need to restore ourselves to a Biblical concept of Church, ministry, and worship, and even of person-hood. It is the way of the enemy and of our own perversity to take what is good and twist it into its polar opposite, to take a living breathing entity and remove everything that gives it life and light. In another post, I talk about the world’s efforts to make us all the same in the name of equality. Too often, Christian groups do that. In our human pride, we prefer those who are like us, think like us, act like us, and agree with us. In choosing that kind of comfort, we reject that far more glorious plan of God. He loves our uniqueness, treasures our individuality, wants us to speak our own minds, worship him in our own creativity, contribute our own harmony to the chorus of worshiping voices. In his plan, we each add our uniquely individual contribution to the work of the whole, thereby getting far more done.
In each area of ministry or service, variety is more effective than a stifling uniformity. The “Romans Road” or “Evangelism Explosion” may be effective tools for some, but outreach should have the ability to adapt to many different kinds and backgrounds of unbelievers for maximum effectiveness. I have already written about diversity in formal worship, but the same applies to disciple-making or training children. Is pulpit preaching the only way to train believers? Or Sunday School? Obviously not! Is there only one way to pray? I know there is more than one way to speak to my mother, and while we may have a consistent pattern, my brothers each have their own. Is there anything more personal or individual than talking with God?
Church as Relational
If there is anything persuasive about this post, I hope it is that Church is relational, not organizational. We are part of a single Church in which each of us believers has a unique part to play, even as we are together still one. The world talks about diversity with little concept of unity, leading to segregation with a potential to become hostile or even dangerous. God’s concept of diversity within unity is made possible by two things, one his holy spirit, and the other agape love. Both are supernatural facilitators. His spirit is a living person who is God, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent; among other things he also prays for us. He is our Helper, Comforter, our “paraclete.” Agape love, the characteristic love of Christ, is sacrificial, unconditional, and compassionate, demonstrated at Calvary. Such love is the “oil” that lubricates our sometimes abrasive interactions, itself supernaturally empowered in our lives in our willingness to love as He has commanded us.
Ignorance is not an excuse to reject the Church; the New Testament’s teaching is quite straightforward. Fear is not a reason not to love one another, for “perfect love casts out fear.” Prejudice and tradition are inadequate justifications for maintaining the status quo; our growing in Christ is all about transformation. The American church is no more the universal standard than is the American lifestyle; in some ways, both are clearly inferior. As to the Church, it transcends culture or border, and Christians in the Church ought to be part of creating a true “Christian culture,” something that draws from many cultures but adds dimensions that are uniquely of the body of Christ, the true vine, the temple of God, the bride of Christ, and the true and ultimate holy family. This is the Church, and this is our identity and the basis of our relationships. This is far more than what we do as a Church; but, as it defines what we are, it leads to those activities suitable for one of our God’s most truly unique creations.
Addendum: Church as Truth Proclaimer
I think I have written in the past—I have certainly preached—about believers as disciples or learners. I plan to revisit this subject soon. From my youth, I have had a strong commitment to truth, absolute truth that comes from God; it is his very nature. In our era of relativism and moral laxness, in a culture where many freely lie, distort the truth, and equivocate, I have often challenged people to be honesty and value truth, keep their promises, and strive to know what is true.
It’s not hard to see that “truth” and “love” seem to be in conflict among Christians; some very unloving arguments lasting generations have been characterized far more by hatred than by love. Unresolved disagreements about doctrine, and even more about practices, have divided what God created to be one; Jesus prayed for us to be unified.
I have been committed to these two critical concepts—truth and love—nearly all of my life. I have been bothers by incidents where love between or among Christians has failed. I have long struggled with why the Church is divided, but how, as I thought of it, “godly Christians disagree.” That was an area that I needed to resolve before I could move on from the church background in which I grew up to my adult choices. I felt the need to resolve in my own mind doctrinal issues, especially baptism, to feel right about joining the congregation I attended during college. By the time I accepted a call to ministry and went to seminary, I had begun to question certain aspects of the association of which both that local body and seminary were a part. Later, when I was pastor of my own congregation, I shared an article I had written with my favorite pastor and seminary adviser in which I said, “Love is more important than truth.” He disagreed with me, and I fear he lost a measure of respect, too. For years, I intended to try to clarify but waited too long; with the Lord now, I’m sure he understands far better than I.
I chose my words poorly, but my intent was correct. Paul plainly urges that communication among believers be “speaking the truth in love.” Clearly, in God’s economy, two essential concepts cannot be ranked in importance, and I’m thrilled to know that my life-time preoccupation with both is valid. As I wrote last time, nothing done without love has any value. It is almost equally clear that living in ignorance or rejection of truth is unwise, to say the least, and insane to say the most! Try ignoring or rejecting gravity, and see how that works out.
I have enjoyed fantasy and science fiction since high school, and over the years I’ve read more than I could count. Lately I’ve been re-reading from my library. I enjoy imaginative stories that conceive of other worlds, but I enjoy best those that also explore the human condition. In placing humans in these alternate universes, authors often explore societies and relationships based on notions very different that what is familiar. That not only stretches the mind, but it opens up ideas from a different viewpoint.
I believe God who is holy and wholly different from us less than holy humans wants us to discover new ways to operate than those we’ve made for ourselves, often based on or influenced by sinful attitudes and desires. I expect when we follow his direction, we will find, not something totally alien, for we are created in his image; yet, freed from our sinful condition by his wisdom, I imagine we will enjoy what will be both new and yet ideally suited to our true divine-image-bearing natures.
From time to time, someone will observe, “You know the church should be run like a business. It’s God’s business, after all.” Churches are often set up like corporations with a CEO, board of directors, and share holders. Given present conditions, I would love to see our national government operating a bit more like a business. Of course, there is just one problem; that’s not one of God’s models for his Church. American congregations have modeled their structures and methods democratically, with everything decided by a vote and officers and pastor elected. As an American, I am comfortable with that model, but it isn’t from God either, built on only the barest of hints in the New Testament. Many of our congregational practices are based on long tradition, and many of us are comfortable with them. Of course, young people tend to react to what is old, established, and often dull in its comfort and seek new and fresh approaches, closer to their own generational preferences. Again, in neither case is there Biblical foundation, although in both we find relational needs that are legitimate.
I would like to challenge “church folks” to open themselves to exploring more of the Biblical models and to measuring our authenticity and effectiveness by them. I was interim pastor for a little church, for a time, that was comparatively new and non-traditional; I knew their founder and former pastor, and I liked what he had begun. After a time, however, I noticed two things: first, that people liked anything new that required less time, energy, or money; second, that people often suggested adding features, not from considering the Biblical models, but from favorite aspects of their prior church experiences. Here, then, is the barrier that Biblical Church ministry and worship must pass; it is the selfish desire for what we do to please us, rather than the God whose Church it is.