“What is the Church?” “What is a church?” In some ways it’s easier to answer the first question because we can keep it theoretical. The second question is messier. It is more specific and conditioned by our experiences of actual churches. Most of us realize that a church is not the building – though we often reinforce that idea with our careless language. A church is a group of people, not just a group of any people, but a group of selected people. A church is a group of men and women who, having been chosen by God, have been made disciples of Christ and members of the new covenant community. Together these disciples are progressively becoming more like Christ through fellowship with each other and submission to the Word of God and the Spirit of the churches (Acts 2.42; Rev 2.7, 11, et al.). And it’s those people that make our experiences of the Church both messy and edifying. Ironically, it’s the messiness of our sinfulness that gives us both the opportunity and the need to strengthen our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Even as we define those members who form a church, we find ourselves speaking of what those select people do. A church is not a static membership list but a dynamic group of people defined by their interactions with each other. Finding your name on the church membership list is not the end-goal for disciples of Christ. Christ told his disciples that the world would recognize his followers, not by a membership list, but by the love followers of Christ would demonstrate toward one another (John 13.35). This love is no drippy sentimentality, but a gritty, self-sacrificing love which Christ demonstrated for his followers by laying down his life to redeem them. We are a chosen and a redeemed group of people which extends that same self-sacrificing love and forgiveness that we have received to both those within our church and toward our neighbors – those who are outside the household of faith (Lk 10.25-27; Mt 5.14-16; Gal 6.9-10). The parables of Christ, his sermons, and his interaction with others show us many ways in which that love must be expressed. He was the express image of God and as such we see God’s love in human to human interactions. The epistles to the earliest churches give us further examples of what God’s love in action looks like – frequently summarized as the one anothers (Jas 5.16; Rom 12.10, 13, 16; 15.7, 14; 1 Cor 12.25; 2 Cor 13.11-12; Gal 6.2).
When genuine disciples of Christ assemble together, what structure facilitates their efforts to practice this love? God has ordained his Word, his servants, and his sacraments as the means by which his Spirit effects, within the loving, like-minded fellowship of disciples, the increasing conformity of Christ’s followers to the image of their Master. There is a low degree of specificity in the pages of Scripture regarding the structure of our churches and how we are to organize our meetings. But certain patterns are repeated, if not commanded, often enough that those listed above must be key elements in our churches. The role of leadership ought to be the facilitation of our sanctification, becoming more like Christ as we walk in the Spirit, exercising our roles in our churches. Leadership provides wisdom, guidance, and orthodox teaching within a dynamic and active community of the Spirit.
Summarizing the above discussions, we can say genuine churches are those visible, physical groups of disciples of Christ who agree to submit to the authority of Scripture and meet consistently in a particular location. These disciples exercise the gifts God has given them to spur one another to increasing conformity to the image of Christ which will be evident in personal holiness, good works, and making disciples.
During the upcoming Southeast Asia Reformed conference in Cambodia, I look forward to further unpacking these ideas and discussing within our formal and informal groups what these ideas look like in your unique contexts. One of my goals is to distill the theological essence of the Church so that we can discern what are the non-negotiables of healthy, biblical congregations. This will also help us to see what might be culturally determined, but not biblically required, imports which may be frustrating our brothers and sisters in another culture.
To prepare for this conference, I would encourage you to take time to read an epistle a day – focusing your thinking on these questions: What is a church? Who are her members? What do they do? Is there a difference between what a church does and what her individual members do? What is the place of worship in our meetings? And take a few more days to read through Acts with the same questions in mind. Be wary of reading into the passages the patterns you are most comfortable with – try reading them in a translation with which you are less familiar. I hope we can come together and have discussions which are fully informed by fresh readings of God’s Word.