Sunday, December 10, 2006

Really, what is a church?

In my last post I gave a working definition of "church." Modern American Evangelicalism is struggling to live as the church, grow the church and glorify God in the church and I posit that this is because so few really know what it is. I want to look at three pictures of the church that the Word of God gives us and then discuss their application. Again, as I discussed in the last article, there are universal church applications to all these truths but there also must be local church applications.

One Body
The concept of the church as a body is laid out by Paul in the 12th chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians. Paul is speaking here in the context of using spiritual gifts (v. 7). Gifts are given for the common good not to lift up the individual. Then he launches into how that commonality is to work:

12The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
 14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
 21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
 27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But eagerly desire the greater gifts.
Similarly this theme is addressed in Romans 12:4-5 and Ephesians 4: 4-16. A body is an organic unit that works together for a common purpose: the life and growth of the body.

A Holy Temple
In Ephesians 2 Paul uses the body metaphor to teach that Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ and then springs into a new picture.

14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
 19Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
I think that we have to work a little harder than the Ephesians or Corinthians did to understand the temple metaphor. In the ancient world temples were huge, ornate edifices built to honor a deity. Who has not seen the Parthenon and the Pantheon? Who has not heard of the splendor of Solomon's temple? But these building were not places where people gathered to worship like we do on Sunday. There was occult (i.e. hidden, secret) worship that went on inside. But the main religious function that they served was to glorify the deity by simply being there and being beautiful.

A Family
Paul routinely addresses his letters to the "brethren." John speaks to the "fathers." Peter talks about "my son Mark." James not only starts out talking to "brothers," but repeats it throughout. Then we come to 1 Timothy 5.

 1Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, 2older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

Here we have laid out the whole family: mother, father, sister, brother. This is how we are to relate to others. Are we talking about the Universal Church? Surely we are but when do I address an older Chinese man as father? Is this not better understood as how I relate to those with whom I worship on a weekly basis? A family is a group of people uniquely set apart from others to love and grow each other.

A body, a temple, a family. What do we learn from this? The first thing I see is sovereignty. While we all have a responsibility to choose a good assembly of believers with which to associate, it is God who places us into the body; who builds us into the temple; who allows us to be born into a family. In our church people must stand up and give testimony how God has led them to come and join our church. It has always amazed me that after giving testimony to being led to our church people will then turn around and leave quietly citing preaching, youth group, children's ministry, music or some other subjective fault for why they are leaving. If God places us in a church, should we not have a clear call by God to leave the church.

Secondly, I see no place in these three illustrations for entertainment, personal benefit, or other selfish motives in deciding where I will worship and serve God. I think that in exercising my responsibility to find a body of believers to associate with I can use denominational distinctive to assist the choice. I believe that one might grow spiritually to a point where one sees doctrinal error which was not noticed when you came.

So in conclusion I see a scriptural mindset we need to inculcate in ourselves. What is my part in the body? How am I adorning the temple of God? Am I committed to my family even when they are imperfect? This is the point of this teaching in the Word. We are created and saved to the glory of God. And we are to live in the church to this end, not to fulfill some petty personal need.