So what is church? Part 1 Church, a simple but powerful idea…

Posted by on Jan 19, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

We kicked off this short series on the church by looking at the relatively new but rapidly growing phenomena of churchless faith. I wanted to start with that post because the word church increasingly has a lot of emotional baggage attached to it. For many it smacks of control, abuse of power, manipulation, politics and thought control – a rather alarming set of associations. For others it conjures up images of boring Sundays, or of irrelevance or perhaps of sectarian squabbling. Much more positively, for large numbers the images are of spiritual growth, close community, God encounters, compassion, transforming worship, social relevance, reconciliation, healing, biblical teaching, godly people, inspiration and good news. And for many it has been a mixture of the above. Should we just shrug and say – ‘whatever, sometimes church works well, sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, great, when it doesn’t, stay away. At the end of the day it is Jesus and our relationship with him that matters. So Jesus yes – and church, maybe yes, maybe no, depending on the circumstances.’

I think it helps to dig back into the idea behind church. What is it supposed to be? Why did Jesus launch it ? Is the ideal behind it something we should strive for, or discard as having served its day, or work at amending for a new millennium… and there might be a few other options beside.

I’d like to do this fairly systematically using 5 headings:

  1. Church: A simple concept
  2. Church: A powerful idea
  3. Church: A messy history
  4. Church: A risky enterprise
  5. Church: A still powerful ideal

Let’s begin… and because 5 headings makes for a very long post, I will split it over 2 posts. Today we have Part 1: Church, a simple but powerful idea, and then part 2 (to be posted Friday 22 Jan 2016), will look at Church, a messy, risky but still powerful ideal.

1. Church: A simple concept

So where does the idea church come from?

It could be argued that as Christianity started as an extension of Judaism, the  root idea behind the Christian church lies in the Jewish idea of the synagogue. The Jewish Halakhah holds that communal worship can be held and communal prayers said whenever 10 Jews (a minyan) gather for that purpose. While no building was necessary, it was not unusual for the community that gathered to build a synagogue as a sacred place where the assembly (the word synagogue essentially means assembly) could meet for study, reading of the Torah and worship. So there are some fairly obvious lines of continuity between the Jewish synagogue and the Christian idea of a gathered church community.

Lines of continuity are, however, not the same as being the identical idea. I would argue (and fully realise that there are those who would disagree) that it is best to link the idea (and ideal) of church to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20, ‘where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’ Jesus’ assumption is that people will gather in his name (so not an accidental meeting – an intentional gathering around a commitment to Jesus (in my name)). Furthermore, Jesus promises to be present at such meetings. The number present is not important (though it is not a gathering if it is less than two –  which rules out purely individualistic faith). What is important is the ‘plus one’ factor. Where we intentionally meet together because of Jesus, Jesus is present.

Earlier in Matt 16:18 Jesus had spoken about building his church in the ever controversial words ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.’ Here is not the time to debate whether Peter was the rock on which the church would be built (and thus a justification for some kind of papal system of authority) or if it was Peter’s declaration in v 16 (You are the Christ, the Son of the living God) (with the rock then being the gospel proclamation of Jesus as Messiah and Lord) – or if some other interpretation of that verse should be favoured. All I want us to note is that as we work through the biblical account, the idea that there will be a church to continue the work of Jesus gathers momentum. Jesus spoke about a church that would exist through time and be built in spite of obstacles.  A key role for the church is found in the closing verses of Matthew, chp 28:18-20 ‘Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”‘ Note the reappearance of the promise of the presence of Jesus as they go about the tasks entrusted to those who are the church (making disciples of all nations [and is it disciples of nations, or disciples from all nations? – it does make a difference]; baptizing and teaching obedience to the commands of Jesus).

So how is this for a simple portrait of church… church is a gathering of people (the number really doesn’t matter) who intentionally come together in the name of Jesus, and do so to enable them to make disciples, baptize and teach obedience to the commands of Jesus. All this is done in the conscious awareness of the presence of Jesus in the gathering. The perspective is never narrow nor parochial, for the call is to make disciples of nations, Jesus’ closing words to his disciples in Acts 1:8 casting an expansive horizon, ‘you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ This was a sound rebuke to the disciples last recorded question to Jesus  found in Acts 1:6 ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ They were thinking local – Jesus was thinking global. The reason they were able to make the radical mental shift required is found in Jesus’ promise in the first part of Acts 1:8 ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’.

The picture fills out as the church is birthed after the ascension of Jesus. Pentecost seals the idea of church and ensures a ‘no turning back’ point is reached. Soon they were a community which had devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. They met both in the temple courts and in their homes, and their infectious joyous praise saw many converted to the way of Jesus (Acts 2:42-47). When they gathered together, 1 Cor 14:26 suggests that there might have been ‘a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.’ The grid as to what was acceptable was ‘these must be done for the strengthening of the church’.  As the church grew, it started to think about its leadership structures, and basic standards were put in place for those who were elders or deacons in local church communities (see e.g. 1 Timothy 3). Not that these were the only recognised offices in the church, for Paul in Ephesians 4:11 also speaks of those who are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – the APEPT model that Frost and Hirsch speak of so helpfully in their deservedly popular 2004 book The Shaping of Things to Come. Not that ministry lies entirely in their hand, for their primary purpose is ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service’ (Eph 4:12). There is a role for everyone.

Perhaps what was most remarkable about the early church was its composition. In a world that was strongly stratified along ethnic and gender lines, Paul suggests a radical alternative. He sees a community, an ‘in Christ’ community, where the old divides no longer matter. He writes these liberating words (and we still need to discover the full depth of liberation they promise) ‘..all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus'(Galatians 3:27-28).

So what is church? A community of people (unlike the Jewish minyan, it could be as small as 2), who gather in the name and presence of Jesus to spur each other on to greater obedience to the way of Jesus. This community pays little attention to ethnicity, social background or gender – what matters is a common commitment to Jesus.  True, the idea gets more complex as we progress through the biblical material and add in church offices and look at spiritual gifts and then try to figure out how to understand specific instructions given in scripture and to unpack how best to interpret them in a 21st century context, but let’s make sure that the big picture first settles in our mind. And it is not a complicated picture. It is as simple as a group of people who love Jesus gathering together to remember him and to hear from him. Add too much more, and we are in danger of turning something beautifully simple and flexible into a moribund institution.

2 Church:  A powerful idea

We should not underestimate how powerful the idea of church has been through history. In an early blog post on this site I posed the question The Church: Hazard or Witness and argued, (I think convincingly) that despite the church having made some serious mistakes in its history, its overall legacy has been overwhelmingly positive. We can thank the church for the sanctification of human life, the elevation of sexual morality, the championing of the rights of women, the birth of charity and compassion, progress in science, the abolition of slavery and far more beside – but why not pause and take in the enormous significance of the list just given?

If you ask how this incredible contribution was made possible, you come back to the power of the idea and ideals behind church (and of course the empowered behind those ideas, the Holy Spirit).

Why a gathering of people who love Jesus? Because they believe in a God of love who cares for all people – ‘red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight’ as I was taught to sing counter-culturally in apartheid South Africa in my Sunday School days.

And this God who loves all people has a plan for each person, and can be known. And we discover God best in community, for as Paul writes in Ephesians 3:18-19 it is only ‘together with all the saints’ that we begin ‘to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’. ‘All the saints’ can be a messy concept. Scot McKnight’s award winning A Fellowship of Differents explores this well. It means that the church isn’t made up of people who all think alike. When it comes to taste and preference, I should constantly bump into people who embrace fashions I think outrageous – and what is more, I should delight in that (red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight). Yes, the idea might be messy, but in the end it is liberatingly powerful. To be part of a community where each person matters and has a treasured contribution to make – well, it was unheard of in the first century – and is still radically revolutionary in the 21st.

Revolutionary – but really difficult. It is why some churches have succumbed to building little empires for themselves by going the easier route of constructing homogenous churches – where everyone seems to get along because anyone who thinks differently is excluded. It has even been noted that homogenous churches grow faster – and it is true… trouble is, is it really church in the way the biblical authors intended it to be? Probably not… So a simple, powerful but really difficult idea lies behind church. No wonder it sometimes backfires and church becomes so much less than it is meant to be.

Well, we are certainly not through with this post yet – but the word count is telling me I am now over the dreaded 2000 mark – so I will leave the rest until Friday when we will explore The Church: A messy, risky but still powerful ideal.

As always, nice chatting…

One Comment

  1. Great series Brian!

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