Church. A short word, a simple word. Yet it can conjure up all manner of ideas, emotions and imagery. There are book length treatments on the church so today I just want to focus on some simple basics—what the church is. It can be easy to think of church as a building, a religious service, a denomination or formalized institution but the biblical definition of church is a bit simpler and a bit more wonderful. The basic word for church in the New Testament is ekklesia, which simply means an assembly of people. So this gives our first little hint in our exploration. Namely, the church is a group of people gathering together for something…or someone.
In this essay we will only attempt to answer a few questions about church. First, we will look at the nature of the church as a community of people called by Jesus through the gospel. Second, we’ll track a little about this community living with Jesus as a people being transformed to be more like him. Third, we will look at how this community is a sent people into the world with message and mission. Finally, we close by seeing the church as a community that represents and reflects something about the goodness and glory of God.
The Church— A Community Called by Jesus
The first thing we learn in the book of Ephesians is that the church is made up of people who have been called by God through the gospel. God purposed before the world began to save his people and adopt them as his children. This would be accomplished by redeeming a people for himself by the work of Jesus on a cross. This would be a people called by Jesus, given a promise in the Holy Spirit and an inheritance with God forever. The church is reminded that prior to Jesus saving them they were dead in sin, separated from God and under his wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). Furthermore, they were separated from the promises of God that came through Israel and described as without hope and without God. Yet, in his grace God saves them, Jew and Gentile and makes them into a new community of people. Steve Timmis and Tim Chester describe this well:
We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died. 1
The book of Hebrews also describes these people as those whom God has made a “new covenant” with through Jesus Christ. They become a community of faith comprised of worshippers that the Father has sought out and saved (see John 4). They will worship God together in gratitude because of his great mercy and love for them (Ephesians 2:4). Yet the church is more than just a forgiven people called together by the gospel to sit in seats on Sunday mornings. The church is called together to live life with Jesus and see our lives changed by Him and sent to be active players in his mission and purposes on the earth.
The Church— A Community Together with Jesus
One of the most amazing metaphors in Scripture for the church is that we are the body of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4:12; 5:23, Colossians 3:15). We live in relational union with Jesus as he works in us to transform us throughout our lives. Ephesians 2:22 talks about us being joined together and growing as the people of God. We are being changed, we are being set apart by God (sanctified) to be made more like Jesus. The biblical doctrine of sanctification is that we are now being changed and conformed into the image of Jesus Christ. This transformation happens as he works in us and as we obediently follow him. We repent of sin, love others, fight temptation, grow in humility, walk in friendship in the church and follow God’s word together.
Furthermore, our the church is shaped by spiritual practices that Jesus left for us as means of his grace and transformation. The church therefore hears the Bible and heeds it together. It reads, studies, preaches , meditates upon God’s holy Scriptures. New members of the family are united with Jesus and his church by the outward sign of baptism and the church continues in fellowship with God and one another at the Lord’s table. The church prays together, sings together, serves together and as she sins—the church repents together. Jesus has given us the Scriptures, spiritual practices and life together to shape us into different people. The church is a transformational community of grace due to its union together as the body of Christ.
Accordingly, the church is a people both saved by the gospel and changed by the gospel and it is also a people sent into the world on gospel mission. To this “sentness” of the church we now turn.
The Church— A Community Sent by Jesus
All too often the church can simply remain a group of huddle followers of Jesus who are AWOL from his mission in the world. The church is not a religious club or cloister but rather a sent people in the world so the world might hear and see the gospel through their lives together. Furthermore, many Christians see “the church” as a dispenser of religious goods and services that accessorize their lives and even shop for these services. Rather than asking “what does this church have to give me” we ought to ask how we might be sent together on Jesus’ mission in the world. We are called together to serve together and be a blessing to others ,not to simply ask “what’s in it for me.” Darrell L. Guder questions this view of the church in his book The Missional Church — A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. He writes the following:
Does this image of church correspond to the cluster of images found for the church in the New Testament? Does it correlate with the New Testament speech about the nature and purposes of the church? At the very least, this producer-consumer model separates its notion of church (a religious firm producing and marketing religious products and services) from its members (potential and hopefully committed customers consuming those products and services). Members are ultimately distanced in this model from their own communal calling to be a body of people sent on mission.2
A metaphor used in the New Testament to describe this “sentness” of our lives as God’s people is that of being Christ’s ambassadors. As ambassadors we have a two fold role as the church sent into the world. First, we proclaim the gospel and urge others to be reconciled to God through Jesus. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 describes this well:
17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (ESV)
The church is not out to promote itself or proclaim its own majesty, but rather we “proclaim him” (Colossians 1:29). Second, we represent and announce the reality of the Kingdom of God, the rule and reign of Jesus, in the midst of a dark world. We’ll cover that a bit more in the next section. At the close of the apostle John’s writing about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, he records the following words of the Lord:
19On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
John 20:19-21 (ESV)
Jesus came into the world, sent as a servant from the Father. He gave his life for others and loved them so that they would be reconciled to God. He now sends us to people in the world to model his sacrificial life for others and to proclaim his gospel so that many more will be saved and added to the family. His final words, often called a great commission, gives us instructions as his people:
18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)
To simply come together without the mission of Jesus is to ignore the teaching of Jesus. It is a self-absorbed enterprise that ironically leaves many Christians weary and bored with insular religion. God has called and sent his church—it is our joy to go on his behalf to those in our neighborhoods, in our dorms, in our building, at our work, at the gym, at the pub and wherever he calls us to be.
The Church— A Community that Represents
Ephesians makes it evident and clear that our individual salvation and forgiveness is in Christ is to display the glory of God’s grace (Ephesians 2:7). Furthermore, his creation and calling together of the church is to display his wisdom is to demonic and spiritual powers (Ephesians 3:10). The church is also described in Ephesians as the bride of Jesus which he is making beautiful. In this we see the committed, faithful, covenant love of God (Ephesians 5:22-33) for us in Christ. The ultimate ends of both our salvation and the forming of the church is to represent and praise the glorious grace of God in the gospel.
The church community is itself an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God where we live under the rule and reign of Jesus. We have a different King, a different way, a different calling as we live as sojourners in this world. Jesus is the center and focus of the church, our baptism symbolizes our union with him in the gospel and our remembering at communion is a participation with him in his faithful new covenant . Our fellowship together is in light of his grace so we extend similar love and grace to one another. When we rep him in this way, he told us that people would know we are truly his followers and that others would know that God sent him (John 13 and 17). As such the church is a body of people together that bears witness to the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus all to the glory of God.
Last word. We don’t just need to “go to church”, but rather we need to presently be the church. A people which gathers in various places for worship, is instructed in the teachings of the apostles and prophets and is then sent to love and preach good news in Jesus name.
Remember, you can’t shop for that—we live it together.
- Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, Total Church—A radical reshaping around gospel and community (Nottingham England: Intervarsity Press, 2007) 37. Now available in the US under the same title, Crossway Books (Re:Lit), 2008.
- Darrell L. Guder, Misional Church—A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 85.