What is “Church“? Who is Church for? The lost? The disciple? What are Sundays for?

Many pastors jump right to the Great Commission and define “Church” through the lens of a “heaven and hell” crisis. The church invariable gets defined by what it does or what it ought to be doing. But with God, identity precedes activity. Adam and Eve were made in God’s image before they were given a vocation. So, we need to ask what Church is…or more precisely, who Church is.

Before we can begin to properly wrestle with this question, we need to zoom out all the way out and ask who Jesus is. How we think about Jesus and the salvation He brings affects the way you think of Church and our mission.

To say it in theological language:

Our Christology shapes our Soteriology;

Our Soteriology shapes our Ecclesiology;

Our Ecclesiology shapes our Missiology.

Or in a series of questions:

  • Who is JESUS? (Christology)
  • What is SALVATION? (Soteriology)
  • Who is CHURCH? (Ecclesiology)
  • What is MISSION? (Missiology) 

——————–

THIS IS HOW WE TEND TO THINK THROUGH THE LIST:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior
  • Salvation = forgiveness of sins and a ticket to heaven
  • Church = a collection of saved individuals who pass time in the meantime
  • Mission = optional extra credit

OR:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior 
  • Salvation = an escape from Hell
  • Church = a lifeboat (functionally: God’s sales and marketing team)
  • Mission = a mandate to rescue lost souls 

What results is an often frenetic pace of ministry, where the whole focus is on getting people to come to church or get saved. Songs and sermons are aimed at going “wide” on Sundays, while other “environments” are created for going “deep.”

But imagine if you ran your home this way: What if you were constantly telling your kids to keep the house clean because guests were coming over? What if you told them to eat on their own time or in the back room? Eventully, the house would cease to be a home; it would be a showroom. The children would stop being family and would become housemaids. This is, in fact, how so many staff members at many churches feel. Everything  is geared for the “outsider.”

[The rebuttal is often, “But we do a mid-week service for believers…Sundays are for the unsaved or unchurched.” I hope to address this in the next post…but my short answer is, our practices are formative. What you do when you gather becomes what you are. This is perhaps most true of our most prominent gatherings: the weekend service. One might say, “What you do with the most people becomes who you most are.”]

——————–

THIS IS WHAT WE SEE IN THE BOOK OF ACTS:

  • Jesus = “Lord” (YHWH & Caesar– King of Creation & of the nations) and “Christ” (Promised Savior)
    Acts 2:36 (ESV)
    “ ‘Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ ”

It is not untrue to call Jesus our personal Lord and Savior– the Triune God is deeply personal. But the Lordship of Christ is not, as Leslie Newbigin reminded us, a private opinion but a public truth. The rulers of Rome wouldn’t have trembled if the Apostles preached Jesus as their personal Lord who was living in their heart. No– Herod and Caesar and all the other “powers” trembled because these Christians were announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the Cosmos. For them, the resurrection and ascension were not “Jesus going home” (as though He were ET!)…but Jesus being enthroned!

  • Salvation = God working within His world to redeem and restore all things
    Acts 3:21 (ESV)
    “…until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

By the same token, salvation is much more than the forgiveness of sins. It is the setting right of all  that is broken in the world. At the heart of what is broken is the human; and he must be set right with God. So, it is not wrong to emphasize the forgiveness of sins. It’s just not the whole Story.

  • Church = the Kingdom community, formed by the Spirit, living now as it will be then.
    Acts 2:42 (ESV)
    “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Church becomes not a collection of saved individuals but a new community. The first priority of the eleven apostles in Acts 1 is to replace Judas. Why? Because 12 was a significant number– it signified the Church as the new Covenant People. The Church is a sign of the Kingdom– a people who live as if Jesus is King now, and whose very love for one another point to the Future that Christ is bringing.

  • Mission =to announce Christ as King here and now and to anticipate the Kingdom
    Acts 8:6-8 (ESV) “And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.”

We are not told to build the Kingdom. We are not called to expand it. Rather, Paul tells us to build for the Kingdom (1 Cor. 15), to do things here in Christ. So, we announce Christ as King– we preach the Gospel– and we live in anticipation of His Kingdom arriving in fullness. This idea of anticipation is how N. T. Wright frames works of justice and restoration done in Jesus’s name. We are beginning to live now as it will be then. In living this way, the Gospel is both seen and heard.

——————–

There are many more questions to be wrestled with regarding church, not least of which is how we ought to think about our gatherings. I hope to address that in the next post.

But for now, how does this broader framework change your understanding of Who Church is?

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4 thoughts on “Who Is “Church”? Pt. 1

  1. We could go even a step further back and say that Christology is shaped by Theology. How we think about God affects the way we think about Christ. If we think of God as merely a “Law-giver” who judges us by our acts of righteousness and grants us salvation by satisfying the requirements of the Law, than there really is no need for a Savior (Christ), at least a Savior who redeems us from our sins. Jesus than is relegated to being not much more than a good moral example of selfless living. But if we think of God as the God of grace we realize that not one of us can satisfy the requirements of the Law, because of sin, and thus, we are in need of a Savior (Christ), who Himself both satisfied the requirements of the Law and still paid the penalty for all of us Law-breakers. The God of grace sets everything in motion and keeps everything in motion. Ephesians 2:8-9.

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  2. Glenn,
    You simplify this so well. Here are my two cents to the discussion.
    You nailed it when you said “Church is the Kingdom community of the Spirit filled believers”. Shouldn’t it also be expressed as the “Bride of Christ” as The Bridegroom Himself has called it so. Isn’t this expression and title the most important one? Yes, because it is the true expression of us individually and the whole body in this sacred secret place of awe/wonder/holy fear all wrapped in the intimacy of Love. You and I are part of this glorious being, entity what He call us as His bride, His beloved – His Church! I know expert in all the ologies….but I see this in the picture of Queen Esther and the Mary Magdalene as she applied the perfumes on our Savior’s body. The Church’s position is that in its expression, personality and its form of worship towards the Beloved One!!
    Thanks again for brilliant thinking and sharing!!

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  3. This David Hayward cartoon today made me think of sustainability and how I’m tongue-in-cheeck glad that the historic Four Marks of the Church don’t include “inflatability.”
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nakedpastor/2013/04/keeping-the-church-inflated/
    Perhaps a good thread running from Christ, of Salvation, through the Church, and unto the world is this:
    He said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

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