What is the church? The word for church literally means “gathering”. But practically, there is a much confusion about what the church is and is not. In our world today, there is no end to Christian gatherings – small groups or parachurch ministries on campus or our cell groups within our church made up of people with similar demographics. As we study the Bible, let’s examine God meant for His church to be.
We'll look at it in 3 broad categories:
(A) Gathered by God around a centre : built on the gospel of Jesus.
The Bible teaches that God has always planned to have a people for His own possession. In the Scriptures, He gathers them, claims them with His own name, and declares that they are His own. However, across the story of the Bible, the categories of God’s people evolve over time.
God begins in Genesis 1 with a man and woman that formed the first family. This pair of man and woman were created as the first society, and as male and female, were joined together in a covenant – by marriage. This family, in its diversity of male and female, also showcases God’s good design for the human race. Two people that are different are somehow made one.
This family grows, and we see the promise of a nation given to Abraham, made up of numerous heirs and offspring. Subsequently, the children of Abraham were joined by common ancestry, a people for God Himself (c.f. Deut 7:6-7). This group of a people are defined by God’s covenant with Abraham, and by definition, they exclude outside from the group from those within.
This nation grows into a kingdom. The story of the OT shows that God’s people grow from being just a nation with a shared history and identity, but a kingdom with political definition and leadership. The kingdom is ruled by a king, and this king, David, has a covenant with God Himself. In the book of Daniel, God promises that He will create a kingom that is entirely is unlike the kingdoms of Babylon, Persia and Rome. His kingdom will not pass away but be for all time. When Jesus arrives, He comes proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (c.f. Matt 4:23-25). Jesus is pulling Daniel and Revelation together. The king of the kingdom has come.
God’s people are always formed by something God does.
God’s people are formed by something God does.
In Matt 16:15-20, Jesus speaks about His own ekklesia or “gathering”. What does Jesus say He will build it on and what does this mean for us? In Matt 16:15-20, Jesus declares that He will build His gathering “on this rock”. But what is the foundation for that gathering?
Roman Catholics believe that Jesus builds the church on the authority of Peter. On the other hand, Protestants believe that Jesus builds the church on the confession Peter makes. This is the gospel confession that Jesus is the Son of God. When we read the NT and the teaching of all the apostles, we see that the claim that Jesus is the Christ is absolutely central to the church. It is based on nothing else. Jesus did not build His church on one human being. Instead, He builds His church on the unchanging truth about Himself as the Christ. He even promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against this gathering. The people in the church will gather around this one truth only.
Thus, the true church is gathered by God around His centre, the gospel, or the good news of who Jesus is. Jesus is the promised Messiah and the coming king for all eternity. Any church that denies Jesus is the Christ is probably not a true church. But there are many ways even for the true church to lose sight of the centre. We may read about what a church believes in its statement of faith. But the real centre of the church is what for and why the church gathers every week. We may claim that we gather around Jesus but if we end up gathering around tradition, race, geography, who our parents are, or our shared experiences, then that’s our real centre. If Jesus is not the reason why we go to church, our priorities and purposes are terribly misaligned.
(B) Gathered people in a shape : wonderfully diverse yet beautifully ordered
Well, who then comprises the church? In Ephesians, Paul describes the people who are in the church. The family in Gen 1 grows into a nation, and then a kingdom who largely share ethnicity and nationality, but Eph 2 helps us to see wonderful things about the group of people Jesus is building into the church (Eph 2:11-16). Whereas the ethnic category of Jews who were originally part of the family/nation/kingdom were exclusive from the Gentiles, who were to be excluded, Jesus has grafted the latter into the former. Because of Jesus and what His death achieves, the Law that divides Gentiles from Jewish adherents to the Law has been abolished and Jesus has made “one new man in place of the two”. Both Jews and Gentiles are one in this new kingdom. Both Jew and Gentile are included in the church.
The people in the church are the people for whom God has torn down walls. By pointing out the that the church is made up of “Jews and non-Jews”, Paul is emphasizing the removal of the human divisions like race, though in effect, he is actually talking about universal inclusion irrespective of race. Now a Jew can say to a Gentile, “we belong to the one kingdom” (Eph 3:4-10). The gospel Paul was given creates an incredible unity among people who share little or nothing in common (Eph 3:6). This affects Paul’s understanding of his ministry (Eph 3:7-9). His role in preaching the gospel is not just to talk about Jesus, but to showcase the master plan, “that through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). In short – the gospel creates this kind of church.
One Bible teacher has said that “the church is God’s plan A, and there is no plan B because God makes no mistakes.” Thus, the church is not just God’s plan for our little lives. Rather, Eph 3:10 tells us that God designed the local church for a cosmic purpose. He intends to show His “manifold” or “multi-coloured” as the word may be translated, wisdom through the church. This is the message of Ephesians, about the gospel, the church, and the wisdom of God. We see this pattern built into the design of the NT itself. Most of the epistles were addressed to local churches from which those books take their names. The personal letters of Titus and Timothy were written to young men who are going to be pastors of churches, and Philemon, the only other letter Paul writes to an individual, is about relationships within the church. Read through Eph 3:10 and come to your own understanding and own convictions about what God intends to do through the church. This verse shows us that when “unlike” people – Jew and Gentile – come together in unity in the church, it showcases God’s multifaceted wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This means that when you go to church and sit next to someone different from you and exchange affection with someone not like you, it showcases God’s wisdom in the church to the angels.
In Gal 3:28, Paul also describes this same principle (that racial-ethnic categories are to be eradicated). Now, socio-economic categories (slave/free) and gender categories (male/female) are also removed. The wonderful diversity of the church brings God praise and glory. Put it another way – the lack of diversity in the church was not God’s intention. He did not intend for His church to be ethnically homogeneous. He did not intend for His church to be demographically segregated.
The church is not only to be diverse, but it was also designed to have a structure God designed. Paul established a pattern in setting up the churches in the NT. In Acts 14:21-23, Paul appointed elders in each church to shape and govern that local gathering. He did not just preach the gospel and leave. In his letter to Titus, Paul gives further evidence of this, writing to tell Titus to appoint elders or overseers in the church to bring order to a young church. These verses show us clearly that God, through His apostles intended for the church to have authority figures. We may react negatively to this idea of authority. In recent history, we have seen the reality of how authority can be abused. But, the abuse of authority is not a reason to toss the baby out with the bathwater. The exercise of good authority is a gift from God. King David, at the end of his life, says so in 2 Sam 23:2-4. Authority when discharged rightly is a blessing from God. We have all seen some good fruit from good authority. Perhaps it's a wise father who knew how to hold back his rage when angry. Or maybe a good church leader who discharged his responsibilities properly. God has built the church to be a place both of incredible diversity and beautiful order. Think about counter-intuitive this is for us. We may like diversity, but we don’t like order. On the other hand, we may like authority and order, but reject diversity because it makes us uncomfortable, unless it is the kind of diversity we get to choose. God demands that the church have both.
What does this mean for us practically? Do we go to church and only hang out with people that look like us? Do you only discuss things in the culture that we agree with, and that is all there is? Or perhaps, you've avoided serving in church because it's too awkward serving people who are different from me. Consider how awkwardness and submission are joys of the Christian life if they flow out of our diversity in the church, and recognise that that awkwardness can be overcome since Jesus has removed the greatest obstacles that stand in the way of our unity in Him. These verses exhort us not to move away from people that are different from us but actually call us to move towards them.
What is your view towards authority, for instance the authority of God’s word in the sermons you hear? Do we hear God's Word preached and then immediately try to self-justify and escape its authority?
How do we respond to diversity and authority?
(C) Gathered practically : authorized to represent Jesus on earth.
So, having looked at the gathering and who it comprises, we ask, what does the church actually do? Jesus uses the word ekklesia first in Matt 16, and the second time it is used is in Matt 18. In both these passages, God makes it clear that His church has authority to represent Him (c.f. Matt 18:18, 16:19).
Let’s read Matt 18:15-20 carefully. The passage is often talked about in the context of conflict resolution. But it is not really about that, nor is it about guaranteeing the presence of God in our twos or threes. Rather, if we trace the themes in the chapter, we read about how God’s kingdom is to be a humble kingdom (Matt 18:1-6) and that sin is a serious matter to be resisted (Matt 18:7-9). In this kingdom, lost sheep are to be sought and found (Matt 18:10-14). But in this kingdom, what is one to do if one sins? This is where verses 15 to 20 comes in.
Matt 18:15-20 are verses that talk about “church discipline”. Jesus begins by talking about a problem facing the church (Matt 18:15a). This is the public or serious sin that is also committed by a believer against another believer. This verse highlights the fact that the church is a messy place and full of sinners. Jesus Himself said so, and He is not surprised by the church’s sin. In fact, God graciously prepared us for the mess by telling us how we ought to handle sins in the community. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your heart broken in this way. Maybe you’ve been disappointed by a leader but these words also tell us not to be surprised. Jesus was not surprised.
So what are we supposed to do when there’s serious, public sin? Jesus goes on to outline the procedure to take (Matt 18:15b-17). The answer is not to cover it up or ignore it. Ephesians tells us that Christians need to speak the truth in love to one another. Matt 18:15b is done in order to encourage repentance in the sinner. Our goal is to “gain our brother”. God's people confront sins in each other's lives in order to bring about repentance, and when someone turns back, we rejoice! This speaking of the truth doesn’t just stop at the personal level, but extends to the congregational level. Jesus expects that the business of holiness will be a church matter. Practically, it means that in the church, people know each other well, and the church needs to get involved in each other’s lives.
After a series of interventions, if the person remains unrepentant, we reach Matt 18:17. Notice how the church is called to draw lines and distinguish between a believer who is a repentant sinner, and the unrepentant sinner who is to be treated like an unbeliever. The church isn’t just a big happy place where people gather from 9 to 11 am on a Sunday and after we leave, we can’t tell if we are Christians. Rather, the church is responsible for being clear about who is authorised to speak for Jesus and be His representatives here on earth, or “chuch membership”. Where can we see church membership in the Bible? At many points in Acts, we are told about size of the church and how the church was increasing (c.f. Acts 1:15, 2:1, 2:47, 4:4, 4:32, 6:1-7) but the growth was always quantified, which also means that the church was counted to know who is in, who just joined, and who is out. When Jesus says “tell it to the church” in Matt 18, it is not that the sins are to be told to a random, ambiguous group of people. Shepherds of the church will know their sheep and must be able to distinguish between sheep and goats. In this same way, the church is authorised to recognise a true Christian who repents from a false one who continues in unrepentant sin. To this end, it is so important in the church for us to know one another. Friends, if you go to church and are not baptized or participating in a known way, it creates a problem for leaders. The leaders of the church have no way of loving you or knowing you if they don’t know who you are. They won’t be able to know if you are a Christian or not. If they find out that you’re not a Christian, they won’t beat you up – rather they would love to share the gospel with you. Is it possible that in the church that you attend, there are shepherds that want to love you but they can’t because you show up but you’re not known?
Thus, the church is authorized to represent Jesus on earth. This is the principle of the church (Matt 18:18-19). Of course, this authority is with the true church, one that is gathered around the gospel, and does not deviate from Christ’s teaching and word. It is this church has the authority to identify and recognise Christians and distinguish them from false, unrepentant Christians. And Jesus makes a promise to this kind church involved in this fight for holiness and for godliness (Matt 18:20). When we do the practical work of the church – to help each other live out the gospel and strive to holiness – Jesus is there.
How does this change your view of church when you gather with your congregation this Sunday, singing the same song in an off-tune way? What does it look like for us to participate in the church? If you are in a cell group and active in your church, praise God for your cell group. But is there some way to help this group expand beyond just your demographics? Maybe get this group to serve another group. Some here serve the children in their church. Others here have also committed to serving other ethnicities. What can you do? Or perhaps you’re a casual attender of the church, going when you feel like it, and skipping when you don’t feel it. Jesus wants something better for you, friend. He wants you to be loved by His people and He wants you to use your gifts to serve someone else in His body. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean just to join a ministry. Get to know someone in church. Make a friend who doesn’t look like you. Take an interest in someone else in church.
Church membership helps us understand the importance and significance of baptism and the Lord's Supper to the church. Baptism is like the front door of the church through which we come in. The Lord’s table is the fence of the church that keeps people out, or separates those inside from those outside. Thus both are covenant The people not taking the communion do not believe the same things that we do. This is what we are declaring when we take the Lord’s supper. Have you been baptised and is currently a member of your church? These are signs of the covenant people of God. If you’re not baptized, please do get baptised in your church! This way, the leaders of the church can know and recognise you, love you and help you in your faith, as you can hopefully do for others.
This is God's plan for the church, and the plan for every Christian. As you consider your church, and how you're a part of this local gathering, here are some reflection questions:
How do you think a church loses sight of its centre? What happens when a church shifts its centre?
How are you living out and experiencing the “wonderful diversity” and “beautiful order” of the church? What are some obstacles to you experiencing both these truths?
What do you do practically about sin in your life and in your church? How does that affect the way that we represent God in the world?