Building, social club, God's exclusive in-group, ...

What Is "The Church"?

James F. McBride: The media persistently knocks "the Church". What is it? Will it survive?

"Church attendance under a million" screams the headline, referring to the Church of England. Dismal reading, for Christians. Yet even regular attendance for all Christian churches - generally under 10% in Britain - in uninspiring. Is the Church failing? If so - then why?

First, let's understand what we mean by "church". Most folk immediately picture that big old building with a `steeple' on the corner, open only one day a week. Or the picturesque country church set snugly behind a graveyard and guarded by ancient yews. Many church buildings are, Sunday by Sunday, almost deserted having a mere handful of faithful parishioners. Others seem to be bursting at the seams and full of energetic worshippers - vast megabuck enterprises. And there are still many millions of enthusiastic "evangelicals" around the world.

Founded By Jesus

Is there a common theme that links all of them? Globally, around two billion claim to be "Christian", the largest single world faith. Yet apart from some mention of Jesus of Nazareth the denominational variety would suggest myriad different religions! Their names are legion, their doctrinal statements in conflict, their worship kaleidoscopic. Yet all claim to be representative of Jesus Christ who founded "the church".

Jesus stated: "I will build my church", and asserted it would persist through time. Did he intend such confusing variety? When he prayed for unity - what did he mean?

Called By God

Christians "go to church", but it is now widely understood that "church" signifies far more than the complex of buildings in which the congregation worships and often plays. The real church is the assembly of Christians whether they meet under a tree, in a home or in a cathedral. They are "called out" (Gk., ekklesia, which means "public assembly", translated in the New Testament as church) from the population at large by the Father: "No one comes to me", said Jesus, "except the Father who sent me draw him" (John 6:44).

A couple of times the word is applied to a secular assembly. But elsewhere in the New Testament (112 times), it refers to the body of Christians - in general, in an area, in their local assembly, and once refers to all Christians from all time (Hebrews 12:23). Nowhere is it applied to a building.

Who Belongs?

Not everyone who occupies a church pew, however, is a `Christian', and part of the church of God. All clubs have `membership rules'. The church is no different.

The church is formed from those who have been drawn by God to Jesus Christ largely by the work of existing members. They have on mature reflection wholeheartedly turned from disobedience to God and been forgiven past sin ("transgression of the law" - I John 3:4) through the sacrifice of Jesus. Having been baptized they are given the Holy Spirit which makes them children of God - part of the family of God. [see Should You Be Baptized?]

A New Creature

As in any human family, the new Christian is to "grow up". Our baptism is symbolic of the death of our former self - we are in Christ a new creature. As a "babe in Christ" (I Cor. 3:1, I Peter 2:2), the new Christian, embraced in the bosom of the church, embarks on a life-long learning curve that affects every aspect of life. Hence the admonition to Christians: "... not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together" (Hebrews 10:25).

True conversion works inwardly. God, the master Potter, takes each Christian in hand to fashion into a mature reflection of His own perfect character - into the image of Jesus.

His Spirit in us seeks to stimulate a hunger and thirst for God's Word. It's in the Scriptures that we are confronted with the values God cherishes, and enjoined to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:1ff).

As we voluntarily yield to God we begin to express the very character of our Father - summed up as "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, temperance self-control" (Galatians 5:22). Character traits not common to human nature!

As we submit to the Word of God much else changes. Our attitude to family and friends and colleagues improves. What we eat, how we dress and look, our personal grooming - all must come to reflect the high standards set by the Scriptures. We evolve towards a mature human being respected in the world. We abandon odd-ball life-styles. We develop towards the common example set by Jesus, yet retaining our unique individuality. How and when we worship, too, reflects the Scriptural pattern. [See Day To Remember].

Being a `church member', then, goes far beyond warming a pew!

The Church Family

The church is usually referred to in Scripture as "the church of God". It's a `family'. Christians are `children of God' who is our `Father', "of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named" (Ephesians 3:15). It is unified in the sense that all Christians are members of one "Body". All who "have the Spirit of Christ" (Romans 8:9) are part of that Body, and each Christian is personally responsible to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Body.

Yet the church universal is diverse in the sense that each Christian is, after Christ, loyal to his or her local assembly. Within that assembly mingle spiritual brothers and sisters at all levels of Christian maturity. Just as in any family, the new Christian - the `babe in Christ' - grows up under the tutelage of the more mature members of the family.

To promote and oversee this personal growth, God has determined that able Christians (`elders') be appointed to oversee each local assembly. They are not 'priests' who stand between you and God, but 'shepherds of the flock' (I Peter 5:3) and 'helpers of your joy' (II Cor. 1:24) charged with the responsibility of promoting the spiritual growth of that assembly, and guarding it from the ravages of spiritual 'wolves'.

Said the apostle Paul to the Ephesian leadership: "...take heed to yourselves and to all the flock among whom the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).

A Narrow Way

Throughout the two thousand year history of the church of God ambitious and greedy men and women have sought to subvert it. As Paul said to the same men, "...for I know this that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch..." (Acts 20:28-30).

The onslaughts of such, coupled with false demonic teachings (see I Timothy 4:1, "doctrines of demons"), has served to limit the growth of the church. Jesus knew that the church he is building would face fiery persecution, that the life of faith would be hazardous, that "there are few who will find [the narrow way]" (Matthew 7:13-15).

`Church' is not a Sunday-go-to-meeting experience. It's a challenging and often uncomfortable way of life that demands total commitment day in and day out to Jesus Christ and to his commands. Become a Christian, a `member' of the church, and you embark on a lifetime of constant personal change, frequent opposition - and the loving personal care and correction of our heavenly Father and our Savior.

Only those who do so will live eternally in God's Kingdom.

To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.

For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Volume 4 Issue 2, March/April 2000. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.

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