Have you heard someone say that? “Jesus, yes! Church, no!” It is so easy to be impressed by Jesus, so difficult, sometimes, to be impressed by his followers. “Call themselves Christian!” people say when they see us fall short, sometimes spectacularly, of their expectations.
When you hang out your shingle you can expect the world to be watching. That’s why its important for us to be humble, to be seen to to acknowledge our failings (repent) and to demonstrate integrity even when we fail. We also need to be able to deal with people’s misconceptions about church, what it is and why it is less than perfect.
Church must be one of the most controversial and divisive doctrines in the Christian faith. Perhaps that is why so many avoid the subject, except when they speak of it in the most general terms. Most Christians are quite comfortable with the idea of the church triumphant, the final and complete picture of the church in heaven. However the idea of the church militant, the church as it is now on earth, presents apparently insuperable problems.
So we fudge the issue and settle for the idea of the church invisible, that is all Christians in all places and at all times whether here or gone to glory and, most importantly, known only to God. Of course this is a good definition. The church certainly comprises all, whenever or wherever, who have and will yet put their trust in Christ and become born again into his kingdom. However, it will not do simply to think of "you in your small corner, and me in mine". Scripture teaches that "Christ loved the church and gave his life for it" (Eph.5:25) We should be able to define and describe the object of his love and invite people to enter with us into that love.
Not a Building
Christ did not die for a building. We have so often heard it said that the church is the people and not the building (see my last post) and we believe that. Yet we still refer to "the church on the corner" and speak of "going to church". These conventions, not to mention buildings, are useful as long as we don't allow them to mislead us and, more importantly, mislead those to whom we have a responsibility to give a clear witness.
Neither did Christ die for an institution. Christians, of necessity, need to organise themselves and so we have church organisations. We need to have some form of government and order so we choose leaders, hopefully by inspiration of the Spirit, who will teach and counsel (1 Tim.3:2-3:8.c.f.) It is worth noting that church leaders are servants, not bosses! Inevitably out of this organising activity institutions grow, which is good and helpful so long as the institution serves the church and not the church the institution.
The Christian life begins with a change in our relationship with the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christian baptism is into God and not into an organisation. At Pentecost, when the conscience-struck people cried, "Brothers, what shall we do?", Peter replied, "Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38). Repentance is a turning to God in genuine sorrow for sin, baptism is into, or "in the name of" Christ, who is God.
After listing, in Ephesians 1, all the marvellous spiritual blessings we enjoy in Christ, the apostle Paul wrote, "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…" (V.13). Everyone sealed this way is added to the number of believers, those who are being saved (Acts 2:47)
The Church is…
This "number of believers" is the church which is made up of "living stones" for, "As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him - you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…" (1 Peter 2:4-5). Paul also reminds us that we are "God's building"; that we are "God's temple, and that God's Spirit lives in [us]" (1 Cor. 3:9 & 16) All these references are plural by the way. There is no place in the body of Christ for lone believers.
Church is not an organisation but an organism; not a structure but a body; not marked by offices and hierarchies but by the life of the Spirit in true believers. An obvious question is, Why don't we see in the church the fruits of such an intimate relationship? In his book I Believe in the Church David Watson wrote, "Those who have recently declared that…the church is redundant…must know little of the God of history, the God who raised Jesus back to life, and the God who is able to work through human suffering and sin to reveal his reality to the world".
In Ephesians we read:
"And he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers to prepare God's people to works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we 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" (Eph.4:11-14)
Now what will the church look like "until we reach a unity in the faith…and become mature?” Unity is not something that falls out of heaven into our laps. It is something that develops as we give ourselves to "works of service" and apply ourselves to the apostle's teaching (Acts 2:42) "so that the body of Christ (the church) may be built up until we all reach a unity of the faith".
Of course there is no room for complacency and every Christian seeks that maturity in the church. But since the church is living stones and not Portland stone, and since we are " being built into a spiritual house" there is need for grace as we become what we are destined to be.
There is a biblical precedent for such a view of the church - Israel, God's chosen people in the Old Testament. When you read the account of God's dealings with them they often looked like anything but the elect of God. Consider the account at the time of the judges when "everyone did as he saw fit". (Judges 21:25)
Or the time when Eli's sons showed contempt for the Lord's offering (1 Samuel 2) Or the times when Israel had to be punished for following other gods and worshipping in the high places (Ezekiel 20) Think of Samson who went straight from a brothel to do the work of a judge amongst God's people (Judges 16:1)
Or Saul who, with bitterness in his heart and evil intent, nevertheless could not help but prophecy along with the prophets of Israel (1 Samuel 19) Consider further the dividing of the kingdom and the warring factions within Israel. Good times, bad times, Israel never stopped being Israel - and the church never stops being the church.
Archbishop William Temple observed:
"What we must completely get away from is the notion that the world as it now exists is a rational whole; we must think of its unity not by the analogy of a picture, of which all parts exist at once, but by the analogy of a drama, where, if it is good enough, the full meaning of the first scene only becomes apparent with the final curtain; and we are in the middle of this. Consequently the world as we see it is strictly unintelligible. We can only have faith that it will become intelligible when the divine purpose, which is the explanation of it, is accomplished." ( F. A. Iremonger, William Temple [London, 1948], p.22)
The church is also in the middle of the drama. What a great picture! It is a drama, in process, and the full meaning will indeed become apparent with the final curtain. Meanwhile we must recognise what we are in the middle of, and to what end it is taking us. Times test us and prove us and the world see this. Much is not right and we need to be vigilant in declaring truth, correcting error, seeking to know more intimately the mind and will of God, and becoming what we ought.
For this we have scripture and, "all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim.3:16), W have the indwelling Spirit who gives life (2 Cor.3:6); helps us in our weakness (Rom.8:26); helps us bear fruit (Gal.5:22); and will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
But we must trust that the building work continues and that God's plan for his church, despite the dire pronouncements of those who would write us off and start afresh, continues apace. For it is his church and his work and "He who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philip.1:6).