WHO IS THE CHURCH?
Written by Doug Ponder on June 16, 2013
Demystifying the Church
The meaning of some words is quite obvious and understood by all. For example, when we hear the word “snow,” we all think of the fluffy, white, cold stuff that falls from the sky. And despite the fact that trees come in all shapes and sizes, when we hear the word “tree” we all think a plant with bark and branches and leaves.
But there are other words which seem to conjure a vast array of differing, even contradictory images in our minds when we hear them. The word “church” is certainly one of those. Some imagine a white clapboard building in the countryside, while others envision a stately cathedral in an ancient European city. Some people hear the word “church” and think of an organized religion with a political agenda, especially one that is judgmental and negative, homophobic, anti-women, and so on. Still others hear the word “church” and think of a place where self-righteous people go to reassure themselves that they are right and everyone else is wrong.
None of these images come from the Scriptures, however, which is precisely where we ought to look if we want to understand who the church is and what the church is like.
Who Is the Church?
The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
As the apostle Peter wrote to one of the churches under his care, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, so that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Or as the apostle Paul says, “In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)
Again Paul writes, ““Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? . . . God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” (2 Cor. 3:16, 17)
Each of these metaphors are word pictures to help us understand who the church is. As the people of God we are reminded that Christians do not “go to church” or “do church.” Rather, Christians are the church. The church is the people, not a building, service, or organization.
As the body of Christ, we are reminded that Christians belong to each other personally. In Christ my life belongs to you, and yours to me. We are so closely connected that if we try to distance ourselves from the rest of the body, we shrivel and die (spiritually speaking) just as if a hand were to be cut off from our physical bodies.
As the temple of the Holy Spirit, we realize that the God who is everywhere has focused his presence in a special way among his people. This means that if we want to know God and worship him truly, we cannot separate ourselves from the people who have been filled with his Spirit, for they are the people in whom God focuses his presence and activity in uniquely saving ways (Rom. 10:14-17).
The Church Is God’s Family
Paul the apostle combines all three metaphors—the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit—into the single image of God’s household, his family.
“You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:19-21)
This is not a broken family like the one you may have come from, it the family you have always wanted but never had—a family with God as your father (Rom. 8:15), Jesus as your brother (Rom. 8:29), and the Spirit as your helper (Rom. 8:26-27).
Seeing the church as a family kills our individualism, because there is no such things as a one-person family. People who say, “It’s just me and Jesus” are wrong, not to mention selfish, about what it means to be part of God’s family. Thus, the church should not be a people who are givers not takers, servants not spectators, fellow citizens not selfish lobbyists, brothers and sisters not business partners.
The church is a family, not a mall where you come and go as you choose to get what you like.
The church is a family, not a show where you watch and or live vicariously through the people on stage.
The church is a family, not a fortress where you go to keep safe until Jesus returns.
The church is a family, not a business with its own self-serving interests and bottom line profits.
The church is a family, not a club where you join with others because of your mutual interests.
How Do We Become Members of God’s Family?
It isn’t automatic. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:10)
We only become children of God by receiving his mercy through saving faith in Jesus. “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” (Gal. 3:26) Through faith we are united to Jesus. His life counts for your life, his death counts for your death, and his resurrection became the basis for your resurrection. Thus, everyone who is truly a Christian is part of God’s family.
What Does God’s Family Look Like?
Since very early in the history of the church, God’s people have recited the Nicene Creed, a statement of faith which says, “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Each of those four descriptions are called “marks” of the church because they help us identity the church by what it looks like, similar to how your fingerprints help to identify you.
1. The church is one family. There is only one people of God, one body of Christ, one temple of the Holy Spirit—one family of God. In other words, the unity of the church is found in Jesus. He is our shared Creator, Lord, and Redeemer. We are one in him.
The unity of the church is not found in mutual interests, having the same skin color, or being in similar life stages or economic classes. So why do so many people belong to churches in which everyone looks exactly like them? This is a tragedy that fails to reflect the real unity that in the midst of diversity, for it makes it seem like something other than Jesus is the cause of our communion.
It’s also important to realize that our unity is not something that we must work to achieve. Jesus’ death has already made us one in him, therefore, we simply need to “act like who we are.” That is, we are a family, so we should act like one. Part of that means not complaining about our family members, and it means taking our relationships with each other seriously.
2. The church is a holy family. To be holy means to be set apart by God. In this case, the church is set apart from sin and evil, and set apart for God’s work. That doesn’t mean the church is free from sinning. Rather, it means the church is forgiven of their sins and made pure and holy through the work of Jesus (Eph. 5:25-27). The church is forgiven and set apart for God’s work, yet sinful at the same time.
This means that claiming the church if fully of hypocrites is half right, but it’s a terrible reason for not joining yourself to God’s people. After all, who among us can say that we never fail to do the things that we know we ought to do? That’s why the message of the church has never been, “We’re right and you’re wrong,” but “Jesus is right and we’re trying to follow him.”
3. The church is a catholic family. The word “catholic” (lower case ‘C’) means universal. It refers to the fact that the church is not limited to a single place, race, country, culture or time period (Acts 10:34-35). It’s what theologians call the “universal church.”
How is a local church related to the universal church? It works like this: your family includes everyone that is related to you by blood. That’s a huge amount of people, if you stop to think about it. But when you say, “I can’t wait to spend time with my family this weekend,” you are not talking about all two hundred of your blood relatives. In fact, you probably don’t even know some of those other people.
It’s the same with the church. Everyone who is part of the people of God is a member of God’s family, which means that Christians on the other side of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s great, but they don’t know you and they certainly can’t be in very close connection with you. That is why we join together in local churches. Our participation in the life of a local church is the sign or the symbol that we are part of the worldwide people of God. (Just as the fact that you belong to your immediate family is a sign that you really do belong to your extended family.)
4. The church is an apostolic family. The word “apostolic” means that the church stands in line with the message that the apostles of Jesus preached and wrote in the Scriptures. (cf. Acts 2:42)
The church is a group of people who believe and live in light of the gospel. They gather together regularly to hear the gospel preached and to celebrate the sacraments. They actually seek to obey the Scriptures, giving to support God’s work in the world, serving together to help the needs of their area, and striving to tell others about Jesus. They are a people organized under qualified leadership (an aspect of church life that occupies more of space than any other element of church life in the New Testament).
What Is the Purpose of the Church?
“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, so that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9)
God has always wanted a people for himself who would declare his praises and, in so doing, find their greatest fulfillment, joy, satisfaction, and happiness in him. The church, therefore, is not an afterthought. In one sense, the church is the end of history. It is the point of the gospel. It is what God has been doing all along. That is why Paul writes, “Jesus gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14)
If the point of the gospel is the creation of the church, then some things have got to change. We must begin to see that active membership in a healthy church is one of the key signs that someone is in right relationship with God. We must see that living together in community to edify each other and to glorify God is not a nice bonus, but the entire point of the Christian life. Finally, we must see that being the church means we are called to live and love and serve others in the world just as Jesus himself would. After all, we are his people, his body, and his temple.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.