One of the most tragic changes Christianity has experienced in the last 50 years is the minimizing of the centrality of the local church in the life of believers. The Lord’s Day used to be considered sacred. It was dedicated to the worship and service of God, but now it’s treated like any other day. And local church life, which was once considered indispensable to the Christian life, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential part of our spiritual formation.
In his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes presents six images describing today’s “de-churching” trends—trends that are held even by those who wish to retain some sort of connection to the historic Christian faith:
Cafeteria (or Consumer) Christianity
It’s hard to square these images with the lofty vision of the church found in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:4-12, for example, the Apostle Peter sets his sights extremely high. He writes to 1st-century believers about their continued need for Jesus, their continued need for each other, and their continued need for a genuine spiritual commitment. He knows they won’t make it or be effective in this world without these three things. In this message, we learn that the people of God are living stones being built together by Jesus Christ to reverse a crumbling world. Masonry imagery is used to describe both Christ and the church he is building:
Jesus is the living stone. (4a)
Jesus is the rejected stone. (4b, 7a)
Jesus is the chosen stone. (4c, 6a)
Jesus is the precious stone. (4d, 6a)
Jesus is the cornerstone. (6a, 7a)
Jesus is the capstone. (7b)
Jesus is the stumbling stone. (8)
Jesus is the coming stone. (12)
To the masonry image, Peter adds the temple and priesthood metaphor in his description of the church:
We are living stones. (5a)
We are a spiritual house in progress. (5b)
We are worshippers with direct access to God. (5c)
We are a chosen people. (9a)
We are a royal priesthood. (9b)
We are a holy nation. (9c)
We are a people belonging to God. (9d)
We are a people of praise. (9e)
We are a people called out of darkness into light. (9f)
We are the recipients of divine mercy. (10)
We are aliens and strangers in the world. (12)
Peter cites numerous Old Testament passages to make his case. He calls the people of God to live good lives and subdue the war around us (v. 12). But for that to happen, the church must also live godly lives and subdue the war within us (v. 11). The challenge is great, which is why drive-through Christianity doesn’t cut it.
Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.
In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning.
How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).
Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).
The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.
That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.
What on earth is the church, and why are we here? All authoritative answers to these questions must begin with Jesus, who said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Since the church is his church, and he is building it, there’s no better place to begin our inquiry than Christ himself. Therefore, in part 1 of this series, we focus on Jesus’ two uses of the word “church” in the Gospel of Matthew, along with its Old Testament background. His first reference speaks of “the Church Universal,” and his second reference speaks of “the Church Local.” What do these expressions mean, and how do they relate?
Quite significantly, the Hebrew word qahal denotes an assembly of Israelites, especially when gathered before the Lord as a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people. When the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) translates qahal, it uses the word ekklesia, which means “group,” “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” In secular usage, it meant the gathering of people at a town hall meeting. In sacred usage, it meant the gathering of believers for worship, prayer, and mission.
In our day, the word ekklesia comes into English as “church,” which always refers in Scripture to a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people, never to a building. Let that sink in for a moment. The church of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is a people, not a building. It is people that Christ is building.
As suggested by Jesus’ two uses of the word ekklesia, “the Church Universal” refers to the community of all true believers in every age and in every place. By contrast, “the Church Local” is a community of professing believers at a certain time and in a certain place. The rest of the New Testament bears out this important distinction.
At its most basic level, then, the church of Jesus Christ is a community of believers rescued from sin and released for service. It’s God’s new society. And it’s still very much alive around the world today. No, it’s not yet perfect, but it is perfectible, and it will be perfect when Christ has finished his building.
Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)
Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?
And the answer is not without grace.
Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.
Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.
Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)
Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.
It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.
Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.
Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.
• “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
• “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”
• “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”
• “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”
• “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
• “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
• “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”
• “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
• “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”
When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?
The Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle (1 + 1 + 1 = 1), it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
In polytheism, there are many gods and many persons (or personalities), but they all have different wills. Sometimes those wills are in competition with each other. Sometimes they even fight for supremacy. They have different desires and different agendas. So, in polytheism, we have a lot of diversity but no unity. It’s a loose community with hostile communication.
On the other hand, in strict monotheism, there is only one god and only one person (or personality). In this view, from eternity past, the solitary god was all by himself until he began to create angels, humans, animals, and any other sentient beings in the seen and unseen realms. (Only after he created these other beings did he begin to have a relationship with them.) So, in strict monotheism, we have a lot of unity but no diversity. There is no community and no communication.
The Divine Trinity
In Christian theology, of course, we do not have many gods and many persons (or personalities). We do not have one god and only one person (or personality). We have one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we may struggle to understand that conceptually, we know intuitively that if that were not the case, then God is not (and cannot be) love. Twice in 1 John we read that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). That can only be true if God is personal community in some way, as we cannot have shared love without more than one person. We cannot have relationship without more than one person.
The Scriptures reveal a God who is three Persons and one essence—all working together for the salvation of humanity. “For through him [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). It’s a conspiracy of love by the divine Trinity, whose members seek to bring unity out of the myriad and conflicted diversities of a fallen world broken by sin.
The Divine Team
Likewise, God’s church in essence is community—a people bearing the marks of unity and diversity. The church is not simply an aggregation of people; it is ideally a tight community of love, truth, communication, and mission because that’s who God is. When people become baptized followers of Christ, they are vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to the Triune God. They are also vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to each other. Being the church, then, is simply living out the image of God corporately as the people of God. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate in his new community, the church.
The Divine Image
The New Testament speaks of the church—the company of Christ followers down through the centuries—in a variety of ways. It is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the household of faith, the new creation, the royal priesthood, etc. Minear numbers these images at more than 80, and he suggests that the list swells to over 100 if each Greek word is counted separately. The basic function of these images, says Minear, “is to relate the contemporary Christian generation to that historic community whose origin stemmed from God’s covenant promises.”
While many theologians regard “the body of Christ” as the most important image, Küng holds that “the people of God” is primary. I concur. As people are on the move in this world, so God’s people are also on the move, taking their gifts and graces into whatever situation they find themselves. They have something good to give to the world, and many good things to receive from the world as well. Indeed, the blessings of a “ministry of presence” can flow both ways—from the servant to the recipient, and from the recipient to the servant. People made in God’s image can bless each other whether they live in a state of redemptive grace or not. (Cyrus the Persian comes to mind in this regard.) As Niringiye has said:
“Mission strategy must first and foremost be about listening to the Holy Spirit to discover what he is doing, and then in obedience following. After all, it is the Holy Spirit in whom we live and he in us. . . . [But] mission strategy should also be about listening to those among whom the Lord takes us. Philip did not only listen to the Holy Spirit; he also listened to the eunuch.”
While God’s “church on the move” can be used by God for the sake of mission, her presence on earth is more than just instrumental; it is sacramental and—by necessity—communal. Believers, for example, cannot baptize themselves into the church; another believer must do that for them. Quite significantly, then, in the very act of entering the church through baptism (symbolically in some traditions, efficaciously in others), an enacted statement is made that believers are putting themselves in each other’s hands as well as Christ’s.
What is enacted at the entry is then reinforced by “the meal of sustaining,” when believers gather together for Holy Communion. Moreover, whenever the church gathers and prays together, the prayer is directed to “our Father.” As Volf writes:
“Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. One cannot, however, have a self-enclosed communion with the Triune God—a ‘foursome,’ as it were—for the Christian God is not a private deity. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God.”
The Divine Mandate
Together as believers—that is, the people of God “on the move” beyond the weekly worship gatherings—mission takes place. Very often it takes place among “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). In Christian theology, these “least” matter to the church because they are persons who have life. It is life given to them by God, who has graciously given his Son to all. As Gushee has said:
“Every life means every life, without exception. That includes two-month-along developing human beings in the womb, poor babies in Bangladesh, impoverished children in ghettos, abused wives and children, civilians in war zones, wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, imprisoned detainees in the war on terror, aging people in nursing homes, mentally handicapped people, people convicted of heinous crimes. Everyone.”
Here, then, is the church’s mission, broadly conceived. God’s work of resurrection—of new creation—begins in a wounded world. Whatever the hereafter may hold (and we have hints in Scripture that it is going to be amazing), the here and now holds great significance, too. Jesus was fond enough of this world to linger in it forty days after his resurrection before his ascension back to the Father. During that time, he helped his friends believe in him, and he gave them strength and hope for the journey. By God’s grace, we will do the same in our day. But that will take a concerted effort at working toward internal unity and the reconciliation necessary to realize that unity.
The Divine Prayer
A unified church is a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prayed to his Father that his church would be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Has Jesus’ prayer ever been answered?
Some years ago a magazine carried a series of pictures depicting a tragic story. The first picture was of a vast wheat field in western Kansas. The second showed a distressed mother sitting in a farmhouse in the center of that field. The accompanying story explained how her four-year-old son had wandered away from the house and into the field when she was not looking. The mother and father searched all day long, but the child was too short to be seen over the tall wheat stalks.
The third picture showed dozens of friends and neighbors who heard of the boy’s plight and had joined hands the next morning to make a long human chain. Together they “combed” the field, searching intently for the lost boy. The final picture was of a heartbroken father holding his lifeless son who was found too late, having just died of exposure. The caption underneath read, “O God, if only we had joined hands sooner.”
Jesus continues to intercede for his church (Heb 7:25). I suspect he prays especially for our hands.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; pexels.com.
 Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 28.