What is Church? Is it a series of theological concepts and rituals, or is it a family of believers walking together in authentic relationships with Christ as their Head.
There is little argument as to what constitutes the church universal, perhaps stated most succinctly in Ephesians 1:22,23: “And God placed all things under his (Christ’s) feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
The Local Church
Defining the local church, however, is a different matter. If we allow scripture to be our guide, we find no support for the common assumptions that church can be defined as a place where people meet to attend a structured program featuring a lecture and song service. Yet even those who have moved past structures and traditions conceived by the human need to control and avoid the unexpected continue to look for a way to meet and function that would result in church that works. The tendency to define and categorize spiritual truth stems from a purely humanistic need to control.
A Holy Spirit Work
Potentially transformative spiritual understanding can only be grasped through the agency of the Spirit of Christ. It is then lived out through an experiential relationship with him. Yet he who is the Truth is left standing outside of the tidy religious box in which truth is reduced to intellectual conjecture where doctrine is concerned and inflexible structure married to predictable routine when applied to his church.
So it is that those who are still trying to get church right will never find the magic recipe. Church is people born and led by the Holy Spirit who is spontaneous and who determines the essence and flexible order of every occasion. It is He who controls the fluid life of the church and makes sure it is unpredictable. If we could always anticipate what he was going to do in the next moment, we would certainly ruin it.
Any expression of genuine church life will spring directly from lives integrally joined with Christ through a process to which the cross is central and where the Holy Spirit is in charge. Why do we attempt to create new wineskins that lend themselves to organic function and growth and then expect God to breath life into them? We are the wineskin in need of having the old wine of selfish ambition squeezed out of us by the loving hands of Father through the work of the cross. Out of that process we can walk in love with others as the Spirit leads and Christ is revealed in his church.
If it is in the Spirit, it will be Like the Wind.
But what if the essence of church life is to be found outside of that which can be organized or defined by meetings or the conventional way we look at teaching, preaching, body ministry, outreach, etc.? What if church is not necessarily always local?
What if it is as fluid and uncontained as a spring brook and just as changeable as the seasons, places and availability changes? Can that which is controlled by man be led by the Spirit? How can inflexible construct be part of “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way?
Jesus compared those who are born again to the wind. He told Nicodemus the Pharisee; “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Wouldn’t that be a pastor’s nightmare! Perhaps the church is more fluid than it is stationary. If so, it could not be defined by gatherings, planned meetings or the presence of designated officials. If it is to fill everything in every way, it must be as flexible and unpredictable as the wind. It would need to be able to blow into any situation with only the smallest opening available. The way church functioned would change and adapt as best fits the needs created by the circumstances, culture, geography, season, etc.
Is there Minimum Quota?
Paul and Silas did have each other in prison, but they certainly lacked what today would be called church. After being beaten, they were thrown into the inner cell reserved for criminals awaiting execution. They were put in stocks so that their legs were spread apart as far as possible, and their wrists were chained to the wall. But the impact of their midnight praise & prayer fest was dynamite. An earthquake shook the walls of the prison, the chains of the prisoners fell off, and the jailer and his family came to Christ. In the city, some of the dead were resurrected and walked about. You couldn’t have more effective church.
John was physically isolated on the island of Patmos. In his case there were not the 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus name, yet he did not lack for revelation of Christ or ability to minister to the body through his writing. He no doubt exampled Christ to his captors and whoever else he had access to. Filled with the Spirit, he was joined with Christ and therefore with Christ’s body throughout the world and so experienced the fullness of Christ. John did not need another sister or brother present in the flesh to “have church.” As he experienced victories, tribulations and growth in his knowledge of Christ, the same was wrought in those he was connected to in the Spirit who yielded to his work within.
Church Function is not necessarily Church Life
Am I suggesting that meetings, teachers and preachers, corporate worship, etc. do not have their place in the church of Jesus Christ? Certainly not. In the proper context, all of these can be very helpful and are a vital part of church function. What I am suggesting is that how, when and to what degree those elements are present should be determined by what Jesus is doing in any specific situation.
Furthermore, they do not equate the essence of church life. It is submission to Christ and sensitivity to the Spirit by those joined together in Him that determines vital church expression. He decides whether it’s just one person and one of those elements or 10,000 people with all of those elements present. See the article https://godsleader.com/wrong-reasons-for-going-to-church/
Sacrificial love; The missing Ingredient
However, as wonderful as it is that those who are joined with Christ are also joined with all who are in him, the church will not move in power without the hard work of developing genuine relationships. The scriptures make it clear that love is the greatest attribute and the very nature of God, and it took the sacrifice of his son to demonstrate what that means. We may be filled with the Spirit, function in all the gifts and know the Bible by heart, yet we’ll accomplish a big zero without love. So, the church can only know the fullness of God and fill all with him if she is built up in sacrificial love.
Does distance Impede Authentic Relationship today?
Can we build up those who we do not meet with face to face?
Suppose a person lives in an isolated area where there is no opportunity to meet with others? Or suppose she has a job that keeps her on the road? Several brothers living in different parts of the US and Canada meet for an hour or more every week on Skype. The opportunity to meet face to face is limited to a couple times a year, and in a couple cases, not at all. Yet our relationship has grown to the extent that we consider one another among our very closest friends. Whether on Skype or by phone, we open our lives to one another, counsel, encourage and teach one another. We’ve seen God move in power when we’ve agreed in prayer for others. We genuinely consider one another as family. We collaborate in writing projects and function as co-workers in the body of Christ. Not one of us have been unable to find the depth of fellowship and strengthening in our local area that we are enjoying with our physically absent brothers and sisters.
Valid use of the Internet Today
I believe that though we may touch many people with the love of Jesus wherever we live and wherever he may send us, there are those who God has ordained to walk together more closely than others. Surely this level of relationship would be foundational to church life. And this is what those of us who Skype together have found as we reach out to those around us and in other parts of the world. A few of us have those that some would call disciples in other nations who, lacking mature believers in their area, have reached out for those who can teach and even father them. In one long standing relationship, it has taken place mostly through email. When finally, able to connect by phone, it seemed as though there was no distance separating the two. And indeed, there is no separation among those who are one in the Spirit who convey all that is lacking as far as physical proximity.
A new Church Movement?
What we’re writing about here is not a movement, unless it’s a moving away from all that deviates from the original purpose. Movements always wane and come to a disappointing end because it’s human nature to answer unsatisfied spiritual hunger with external formulas.
It’s true that “church” structures which fail to facilitate individual giftings and community will hinder the forward movement of those that rely on them to meet their needs. And when church is mis-defined as an organization and/or a place one attends to get their spiritual fix for the week, the problem becomes even more serious. Yet re-designing church to remedy that lack still does not address the root problem.
What is Life in the Kingdom?
Neither Jesus or the writers of the New Testament said much at all about church meetings or how to “do church.” What they focused on was life in the kingdom. That pretty much boiled down to relationship with God and one another and how that would draw others into kingdom life.
But Biblical relationship is costly as it’s based on the kind of love that moves one to lay down his life for another. Most of us are so busy saving our life that the thought of giving it away is consciously avoided. So the foundation necessary for authentic church life is missing.
And this reality pinpoints the fundamental ingredient touched on earlier without which church cannot succeed. It is taken for granted, yet rarely present, and mostly ignored. It is an unpopular subject because few are willing to pay the price for it. In fact, the unwillingness to deal with this irreplaceable foundation stone is the reason that a multitude of pseudo structures, forms and styles of church are invented.
Authentic Relationships at all cost
Yet when all else fails there remains a few who actually intend to be authentic disciples of Christ. They are ready to lose everything to follow him however and wherever he may lead. They no longer hold onto the American Dream and understand that they will share in the sufferings of Christ. Because they don’t fit into the Western style of Christianity, they will be rejected by many who will call them impractical or even heretical. They believe that Jesus meant what he said and intend to obey him at any cost. They have no illusions about themselves and understand that they can’t cause their own death to self; they can only follow their Example. They know that he alone can strip them, preserve them, and shape them until the cross defines the pattern and expression of their lives.
Even the institutional form of church would produce much fruit if it was composed of such. But it could never hold the fruit without spoiling it and would therefore be forced to transform into what has been described earlier. So the lack of sold-out disciples of Jesus Christ remains the elephant in the room. What will we do?
Being Disciples not doing Religious Functions
Will we pretend we can develop a better way of “doing” church without being disciples? For the church is ultimately something we are, not something we do.
What we are will determine what we do. If we are lovers of Christ, we will let go of all else to follow him. If we are lovers of self, we will save our lives and lose our life, which is, of course, the life of the church.
John on Patmos and Paul and Silas were a couple of examples of what church is when one loses his/her life to save it. Their fruit was plentiful and preserved, but Paul and John along with the rest of the 12 lost even their physical lives resulting in even more fruit. One way or both, we are called to be seeds that fall into the ground and die.
So what I am saying is, if we are going to transform this world with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, present church structures maybe insufficient for the task. Nothing less than the love of the Lord Jesus Christ embodied in a sacrificial lifestyle can truly change lives. The methods and how the Holy Spirit will work in us to perform this in the 21st century will require an ability to come out of the box and into what the Lord is doing today.
What is Church to you? Let me know in the comments what you think.
Thanks Dave…So much confusion based upon historical paradigms. It’s like the modern definitions of family which have nothing to do with birth or a shared life (DNA) and inherited characteristics. I like what a friend said, “The church may gather but it is not a gathering, sociologists may say it has institutional form but it is not an institution – the church is the family of God: those born again ones born of the Spirit possessing the life of God through Jesus Christ.” Amen
No matter how good..an imitation is still just that…it is not the real thing. L:et’s stop confusing man’s creation with the true spiritual creation of God.
blessings and thanks
Well said, George. Thanks for your insight.
I totally agree we need genuine love to accept people for who they are The kingdom is more than going to a church service its being the church no matter where we are. Demonstrating Christ like character, love, and power.
Very good article !!
Thanks Julia. Good to know that if we’re truly walking in love, the power is a given.
The love the body of Christ needs is only birth through the Holy Spirit.
So richly, clearly, concisely stated in a very generous and balanced way.
Thanks for the encouragement, Steve.