I recently had a conversation with a friend about someone who had “believed” in Jesus but did not feel it important to belong to the church. My friend, confident in his theology, told me he reassured this person that church membership was not such a vital thing because after all she is the church. But my question is, is that true?
I’m afraid that in our effort to help people see that church is not a building, we’ve fallen off the other side of the proverbial horse. As pastor and writer Kevin DeYoung puts it, many Christians now think that church is simply plural for Christian. So is two or three brothers in Christ talking about the Bible (or “Lord Of The Rings”) in a coffee shop “church”? I don’t think so. In order for us to think correctly about the church, we have to understand that the church is both a “what” as well as a “who” and you can’t have one without the other.
The “What” of The Church
The church, in the sense of “what”, is a gathering in real space and time of baptized believers led by biblically qualified leadership.
Now let’s take this piece by piece. First the church is a gathering. The Greek word for church, Ekklesia, is the same word used for “assembly”. The idea here goes well beyond a couple of guys meeting in a coffee shop.
Second, it gathers in real space and time. Many today love the notion of the universal church, but despise the local church. However, it may be helpful to realize that most New Testament letters are written to local gatherings of churches. For example, 1 Corinthians was written to a group of believers who met together regularly in Corinth. The same is true for Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, etc.
Third, it is a group of baptized believers. Now, that is not to say that all visitors must be baptized believers. But that is to say that those who call themselves legitimate followers of Christ will obey His command to be baptized as well as be deeply committed to His church.
And finally, it is led by biblically qualified leadership. Put simply, the Bible is clear that the church is to have pastors/elders and deacons who have met certain qualifications in order to lead (see 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5). And churches who claim the Bible as the sole authority for their rule and faith, will align themselves with these commands. Here’s where I feel many in the house church movement have gone wrong. They think and act as though anything formal, like leaders with titles, only hinders people’s growth. But let us be reminded that Paul says church leaders are Christ’s gifts to the Church (Ephesians 4), and let us also stay mindful of the fact that Paul and others commonly addressed themselves by their title (see the greeting from any of Paul’s letters and you’ll see that he unashamedly claims his title of apostle…Peter does the same with addressing himself as an elder in 1 Peter 5).
Put simply, organization and clearly identified leadership are not annoyances to be avoided, but gifts to be embraced. Formal/planned does not necessarily = carnal and… spontaneity does not necessarily = spiritual (actually 1 Corinthians 14 gives the opposite impression). So now let’s turn to the “who”.
The “Who” of The Church
The Church, in the universal sense, is the sum total of all believers in Christ which transcends culture, time, and space. That’s the picture we get in Revelation 7 of the day when all who have trusted in Jesus will together worship Him in glory. But notice that these believers have been gathered from every tribe, people, and language. This is a collective total of the redeemed to be revealed at the consummation of all things. Before they stood before the throne though, they lived in real space and time and gathered together with their real local churches.
You can’t have the “who” without the “what”. So am I saying that we shouldn’t live our lives with Gospel intentionality? That we shouldn’t gather with other brothers and sisters in our homes for encouragement and prayer? Absolutely not! We should definitely be about sharing the Gospel and making disciples outside of the “four walls”. And yes! Let’s get together regularly with our brothers and sisters for dinner or coffee. But no, let’s not take these good activities and elevate them to the level of church. To do so, I fear, would be in direct contradiction to Scripture.
Below I’ve included a video by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck on their book “Why We Love The Church” as well as an abstract from early church leader and apologist Justin Martyr dating to the year 150 A.D. Though not Scripture, it does give us a key insight into the life of the early church and how they conducted themselves. Hope you enjoy both. Grace and Peace.
And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.
For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.