What is Church?

Following a discussion with a learned friend recently, it became painfully apparent that my personal definition of “Church” was quite different from his.  He challenged me to explore this further, particularly to look at the New Testament to see Biblical evidence of Church.  This document is an analysis of this research, which will hopefully point me towards a Biblical definition that is also culturally relevant and contextual for today.

Personal opinions matter

Since this exploration started with a difference of opinion, I thought it would be worth asking a few more people for their opinions too, to gather as broad a range as possible.  The answers were not intended to be scientific or cleverly thought out, and most people I asked were not given much chance to craft their responses, and that was quite deliberate; what I wanted was people’s gut feel, their immediate impression, a summary of what was most important to them.

Those with theological training (perhaps unsurprisingly) gave the most Biblically-centred answers.  A common point of reference was Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”.  To them, this is Church.

Interestingly, those with a less leadership-oriented perspective came up with very different definitions, centred more around community, family, people, personal experience, and spirituality.  Some highlighted the importance of the mix of believers and unbelievers, showing the importance of mission and being outward focused.  One person quoted Matthew 18:20, where Jesus says “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”.  Another had a more timeless understanding of Church, including all believers throughout time and throughout the world, highlighting the nature of the breadth of corporate worship.

As for me, I had my own opinion too.  I instinctively defined Church as the following:

The Church is the body of believers acting as a community within the community to worship and encounter Jesus.

However, as confident as I was of this definition when I first met with my learned friend, I recognised the importance of looking to the Bible first, and using God’s Word to inform my definition, rather than just finding Bible passages that backed up my opinion.

Methodology

Some people look at the book of Acts and refer to it as the “Early Church”, and some would go as far as to say that the Church as we know it began at Pentecost when the Spirit came upon the disciples in the upper room.  I’m not so sure.  To place such importance on those early days after Jesus ascended is to miss out on the importance of the rest of history in the Church’s formation.  The Church is defined by the Old Testament too, remember, as we have Judasim as our root and beginning.  When Jesus came, he made it quite clear that he intended to fulfil the Law, not replace it, so the teaching of Jesus builds upon the Old Testament and tells us who we should be, as the Church.  Then, once Jesus ascended and the Spirit came in power, we have the first example of how we human-folk interpreted Church; it was raw, powerful, and exciting.  But, with all that power comes corruption, sometimes on purpose and sometimes accidental, and that results in the corrective letters that Paul and others send to the newly-formed Churches.  And history continued, and while it isn’t recorded in the Bible we cannot ignore that the intervening 2000 years have had an impact on our present-day interpretation of what it means to be a Church.

So, I’m going to quickly cast my eye over various parts of the Bible, to see how they might inform who we should be as a Church.  I’m going to look at Moses; Israel decided it couldn’t possibly have a personal experiential relationship with God in the same way as Moses, so they asked him to intercede for them, and God graciously gives them a set of rules to live by to help them get by.  I’m going to look at a broad history of Israel from then on; as the chosen people, this should give us some insight into God’s expectations of us as his Church.  I’m going to look at Jesus; I’ll take Mark’s gospel as a starting point, and see how Jesus describes his intentions for us as citizens of his Kingdom.  I’m going to look at Pentecost and the Early Church in Jerusalem; this is a defining moment, marking a new era, and gives us insight into how people first interpreted Church as a group of Christians.  I’m going to look at some of the letters Paul wrote to the Churches; this will show us how the Early Church failed, and what lessons we can learn about our identity.  Finally, I’m going to look in broad strokes at the history of the Church since then; that’s a lot of history to take in, but there are undoubtedly some key moments that have further defined the Church.

Moses

As a nation, Israel may have been chosen 1, but they certainly weren’t perfect.  But God didn’t give up on them or choose a replacement nation – he rescued them, put up with them, tolerated them, instructed them, was gracious to them.  When God revealed himself to Moses there was smoke and thunder, and Israel decided they weren’t ready for that 2.  They made Moses an intermediary between them and God, because they were afraid of God’s judgement (which they knew would be perfectly justified) and just weren’t up for a personal relationship.  That was never God’s plan, but he is gracious with them, and gives them various commandments 3 to point them in the right direction.  It’s a bit like leaving notes for someone to follow in your absence – it’s not the same as doing it with them, but it’s better than nothing.

The Ten Commandments are where it all starts, and they’re rightly famous.  In summary, they are split into two sections: firstly, we are to serve God and do right by him; secondly, we are to respect each other and live in harmony.

With this perspective, the role of the Church is twofold – worshipping God and serving each other.  How that works out in practice day by day is where it perhaps gets more complicated, but if it’s contrary to either of these two statements then it probably isn’t right.

Israel’s history

It started out pretty simple, but we humans prefer clarity to ambiguity, so further rules are established to add clarification to the Ten Commandments and how they work themselves out in daily living.  The trouble with clarifying what was deliberately ambiguous is that it imposes limits.  Instead of thinking “how can I love God”, Israel’s mindset became more about “what can I get away with before God notices”.  Time and again 4 5, Israel rebels against what it thinks is God’s strict discipline, and ends up in a heap of trouble.  Through various prophets, God tries to show Israel that the discipline has a purpose, and that actually what he wants most is relationship 6.

Today’s Church is constantly battling with itself about how to balance obedience and relationship.  On the one hand, we have a rich and established tradition of ‘how we do Church’, and we want to remain faithful to the teachings that have been handed down to us.  On the other hand, salvation is so simple it can be understood by a child, and doesn’t need bells and smells to be real.  The Old Testament tells us that traditions are there for a reason, but they should never trump a genuine personal relationship with God.

Mark’s gospel

Jesus’ ministry before his crucifixion can be crudely summed up as being about teaching and serving wherever he went.  His model of ministry was deliberately mobile, never staying in one place very long; he didn’t expect people to come to him, he went to them.  He taught them in public 7 about the Kingdom of God, and corrected them privately 8 where necessary.  And whatever situation he found himself in, he served; often this would involve healing people 9, or transforming them in other ways 10.

Being a Church in the light of Jesus’ ministry means to be rooted in teaching and serving in and as a community.  We need to be learning, sharing wisdom, correcting, and helping people to come to a better understanding of God and our place in the Kingdom.  But we are meant to be outward-focused, seeing the needs of others and intervening through love.  As William Temple famously observed, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

But Jesus came to do more than just teaching and serving – he came to do something no one else could have done, and something we as the Church are not expected to duplicate.  Jesus died on a cross 11, taking the punishment that should have been ours, so that our sins could be forgiven.  And, having dealt with our sin, he rose to life again, ready to walk the rest of the journey with us.  Although, for the sake of accuracy, it’s worth noting that Mark’s gospel actually doesn’t talk about this as explicitly as some of the other gospels.

One of our key responsibilities as the Church is to remind people of what Jesus did in that act of grace.  It’s not our place to remind people of their sin (we’re told the Holy Spirit will convict people), but we must provide opportunities for people to recognise what they’ve done.  In part, that’s through teaching people what’s right and wrong as revealed in scripture, but it’s also about moments of experience and reflection, providing methods of confession and assuring people that Jesus graciously offers forgiveness.

The Early Church in Jerusalem

It all starts with the Spirit, coming upon the disciples tangibly 12, transforming them and empowering them 13.  From those humble beginnings the number of followers grows rapidly 14, as the local community accepts the disciples’ testimony.  We hear a lot about the teaching 15, as the disciples seek to realign the Jews’ understanding of the scriptures to be Christ-focused – not abandoning what went before but seeing it in the light of Jesus.  There is a great community feel too, with all the believers looking after each other financially 16, spiritually 17 and practically 18.  They find ways of commemorating Jesus too, by remembering him as they break bread in their own homes 19.  Eventually, though, opposition strikes back and the Early Church is dispersed 20, the result being that the Church reaches even further.

For today’s Church, it’s clear that teaching is essential.  In some contexts that means preaching to large groups of people, while in others it’s more one-to-one (like Phillip and the Ethiopian).  We need to use the right method of communicating to people, and we also need to ensure we are teaching the right message.  Being a community is important too, supporting each other in whatever way we can.  More than that, we are to be part of the wider community too, not isolated.  Communion is mentioned in Acts 2, and again in Acts 20; it’s clearly an integral part of how they are choosing to remember Jesus, alongside singing hymns and praying together, although we don’t hear much about it until we get correction on it from Paul later.

So if we are taking the Early Jerusalem Church as our model, it would be centred around teaching and serving.

Paul’s letters

Acts is the last book we have that gives us a chronological historical account; the rest are letters written to individuals or churches.  And because they are letters, they are typically only one side of the conversation, leaving us to make guesses or assumptions about the situations the writers were addressing.  It’s fairly clear that in some cases the Church was getting things quite wrong, or the very least individual churches were – whether that’s a reflection of the wider Church we don’t know.

Paul in particular gives the Church many useful instructions and clarifications.  He tells them that they should abstain from drunkenness 21 and immorality 22, that they should be orderly in their worship 23, that they should settle quarrels calmly, that they should be respectful of their local communities, that they should support each other as a community, that they should pray individually and corporately, that they should preach the gospel to the nations, that their leaders should be honourable and capable.

This doesn’t necessarily directly teach us how we should ‘do’ Church, but it does tell us about what we should look like.

Christian Church history

As the Church matured, it became more structured and official.  The canon of scripture was cemented, various leadership roles were established, and the foundation of the faith was set out and agreed on in the creeds.  Of course, that’s a very broad set of statements, and were actually the result of much argument and debate over hundreds of years.  There was also division arising from disagreements within the Church, oppression from those outside the Church, political endeavours that misused the Church.  There was much good too, though; theologians unravelled more of the mysteries of God, the Bible was eventually translated into other languages so that it could be read by everyone, countless hymns were composed, and organisations were set up to help the needy.

Today’s Church cannot afford to ignore the rich history behind it, but it also needs to keep it firmly in perspective.  The past has given us much good, but also much bad, and we must be wise in discerning which is which.  Certain traditions are far removed from the simplicity of the Early Church in Jerusalem, but that does not make them intrinsically wrong.  At the same time, there are other traditions that we have grown used to which are either unnecessary or unhelpful, and we need to address those carefully and sensitively.  What I think we can learn, though, is that structure and tradition is something inherent in any long-standing organisation, and is needed for accountability and consistency.  But the Church’s history also teaches us that change happens, and resisting it sometimes causes more harm than good.

Another observation, which some friends pointed out to me, is that some things are intrinsic to the identity of individual denominations, over and above the global Christian faith.  For example, Anglicans generally place a high importance on the sacraments, Baptists root their identity in their understanding of baptism, and certain charismatic denominations are characterised by their emphasis on spiritual gifts.

Conclusion

So, with that whistle-stop tour of the Bible and the history of the Church, can we arrive at a new definition of what the Church should be?  There are certainly some common threads that come through all the examples.  Jesus is paramount, naturally, and the worship and study of God should be central.  Community is clearly important too, both being a community of believers but also engaging with and serving the local community.

There are also certain things that the Church should ‘do’, as distinct from what the Church should ‘be’.  Celebrating communion and singing hymns are important, but perhaps less intrinsic Biblically, though they are certainly part of the established identity of particular denominations of the Church.  Conversely, serving people is far more prominent in Biblical teaching than is typically represented in the modern Church.

Coming back to my starting point, my instinctive definition probably isn’t too far off, though clearly not a perfect match for what the Bible teaches.  So let’s see if we can revise it:

The Church is the community of those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God.  The Church worships God, learns about God, and encourages members and non-members to develop a personal relationship with God.  The Church serves the wider community, both practically and spiritually.

That probably works as a definition for the global Church, but individual denominations probably need their own sub-clauses to reflect the particular idiosyncrasies of their identity.

What do you think?  Have I hit the nail on the head, or have I lost the plot entirely?  How would you define Church?  Leave your comments below!

Footnotes

  1. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7, NIV
  2. When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not let God speak to us or we will die.’ Exodus 20:18-19, NIV
  3. Exodus 20:1-17
  4. When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’” Exodus 32:1, NIV
  5. But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their ancestors, who did not trust in the Lord their God.” 2 Kings 17:14, NIV
  6. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6, NIV
  7. Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake” Mark 4:1, NIV
  8. They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.” Mark 9:30-31, NIV
  9. And wherever he went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed those who were ill in the market-places. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.” Mark 6:56, NIV
  10. ‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” Mark 1:25, NIV
  11. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.” Mark 15:37, NIV
  12. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” Acts 2:3, NIV
  13. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” Acts 2:4, NIV
  14. Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” Acts 2:41, NIV
  15. Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd” Acts 2:14, NIV
  16. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” Acts 2:45, NIV
  17. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God” Acts 4:24, NIV
  18. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” Acts 4:32, NIV
  19. “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” Acts 2:46, NIV
  20. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” Acts 8:1, NIV
  21. “Do not get drunk on wine” Ephesians 5:18, NIV
  22. “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity” Ephesians 5:3, NIV
  23. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” 1 Corinthians 14:39-40, NIV

One thought on “What is Church?

  1. Hi Matthew,

    Apologies that I’m coming at this a few days late, I haven’t had a chance to look at it before but I’ve been meaning to. You’ve done some hard work here I can tell! My general feel is that I think you’re pretty much on the right lines but I wonder if some of your analysis could be sharpened up a bit.

    So, for example: “if we are taking the Early Jerusalem Church as our model, it would be centred around teaching and serving.” Would it? I’m not sure I would restrict it to those two things!

    Your conclusion: “There are also certain things that the Church should ‘do’, as distinct from what the Church should ‘be’. Celebrating communion and singing hymns are important, but perhaps less intrinsic Biblically, though they are certainly part of the established identity of particular denominations of the Church. Conversely, serving people is far more prominent in Biblical teaching than is typically represented in the modern Church.”

    Celebrating communion is less intrinsically ‘Biblical’ – really? Given that it is indeed a command of the Lord Jesus? This is actually a real issue given that the Salvation Army do not do baptism and communion – so are they a proper ‘church’. I’d say baptism and communion were essential to any definition of the church. There is clear Biblical mandate for singing hymns also – Col 3:16, Eph 5:19 – although I’m not sure whether I would include that in my overview of ‘church’.

    If you wanted to continue your reading and research I’d suggest something like ‘The Church’ by Edmund Clowney, or part of a systematic theology such as Louis Berkhof’s (available free online – see section 5 for the information on the church). What you are attempting to do here is basically systematic theology (putting the whole Bible together to see what it teaches about something), and I think it’s helpful to see how other systematic theologians have done the same. You won’t agree with everything but they’re worth reading. Anyway, good work 🙂

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