What Is the Church?

What is the church? When we hear that word, we typically think of a place we go to sing songs, listen to a speaker, and maybe give a little money. Church, particularly in the American west, is run like a business where the pastor serves more like the CEO of a corporation, and the congregation is a membership. When we think of church, we think of “going to church,” and strategies for “getting people to church.” Church is about buildings, budgets, and butts is the seats and these are the metrics we often use to measure the growth and success of the church. Church comes in different brands (e.g. Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic) and these, and even the churches within them, seem to be in competition with everyone else. Denominations were never God’s idea for His Church. They are great for birds of a feather to flock together, but they do more for dividing the body of Christ. Denominations identify groups of believers based on what separates them from other groups of believers. We are quicker to judge and divide over non-essential, debatable issues that we are to stand together on those essential truths on which we all agree and have in common–salvific matters. So what is the church? Our word “church” comes from the German word “kirche,” which specifically refers to the building. The Greek word that Jesus and his disciples would use is “ecclesia.” Ecclesia is not a religious word, it was commonly used in Greek culture to describe a group or community of people called out of their homes, an assembly, a gathering. It was this word Jesus used when he told Peter that on the rock of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he would build his “church.” The church, then, is a gathering/assembly/community of people who have heeded the call to come out of sin and darkness and to follow Jesus into his kingdom and family. The church is the people of God, together. There are many local churches around the world, but there is only one Church. Christ has a bride, not a harem; he has a body, not a morgue full of parts. That body–all of us together–is inhabited by his Spirit and should be responsive when his Spirit moves. We aren’t building our church, and we aren’t building a church for Jesus. He is building his church, and we are invited into that work. As we work in concert together with Jesus, we are living out the mission of his Church. Local fellowships come in all shapes and sizes. There are myriad religious traditions intended to help us express our faith and walk in obedience to Christ. These are tools to serve us, not standards to enslave us or by which we judge other followers of Jesus. The differences, in regard to non-essential issues, are meant to deepen, enrich, and edify us, not divide us. We follow Jesus, his example and instruction, in our daily lives, as we live alongside our family, friends, and neighbors, and point others to Jesus along the way both with what we say and how we live. None of us completely understands the mystery of the Gospel, and none of us has it all together which is why we need a “kingdom of priests,” a community and congregation of people all moving in the same direction, because only all of us together can present a clearer picture of what the kingdom of God looks like. We can’t love one another without “one another.” We can’t show mercy unless there is an offender. We can’t extend grace unless there is weakness. We can’t receive any of this if there is no one to offer it… and we can’t give what we haven’t received from God. “Honor one another above yourselves.” “Accept the one whose faith is weak.” “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of a lower position.” “As I (Jesus) have loved you, so must you love one another.” “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” “Encourage one another and build each other up.” All of these “one another” statements are directed at followers of Jesus… the Church. This is what the church is: a group of people called out of their old lives, and into this new life. If we simply set our hearts and minds to obey these commands, we’d see a lot more unity in the Church, and a lot more power through the Church.