What are the essential features of the thing we call “church”? Of course, most of us already have an idea of what “church” means—from the Bible, history, and our own experience. However at this point in the series I am asking everyone to place all those images aside to join me in rethinking the concept from the foundation up. How shall we proceed? Where shall we look to find the essential features of the church?
To get us started, let me make an assertion that I may need to modify later: we will find the essence of the church in its origin as documented in the New Testament. Perhaps we can learn more about the full implications of those essential features as the church takes different forms in different cultures and historical eras, but I am working with the assumption that its essence existed from the beginning and has not changed.
The most basic essential feature of the church is its origin in God. In Ephesians 1, we read about the grand story of salvation in Christ, from the depths of eternity (1:4, 11) to the gathering into unity of all things in Christ (1:10). At first, Paul speaks of the objects of God’s great love as “we” and “us” (1:3-10), but soon he begins to include those whom he calls “you” (1:11-18). Toward the end of the chapter Paul combines the “we” and “you” into a new “us” (1:19) that he calls “God’s holy people” (1:18) and “the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:22-23).
The church is God’s idea, God’s choice, and God’s act. God created it to achieve his purpose according to his plan. The church—whatever else it is—is the divine act of gathering all the scattered pieces of creation into unity in Christ by the power of the Spirit (Eph 1:13). We need to think of the word “church,” then, not merely as a noun designating an entity but as a verb describing an action. God is churching the broken, mutually hostile, and fragmented world. It will make clearer sense if we ignore the English word “church,” with its accumulated connotations, for a moment and think of the Greek word ekklesia, which means a gathering of people, an assembly. A gathering must be gathered by someone for some purpose. In reference to the church, God is the subject of the verb “gathering” and the gathering (the church) is the object.
In rethinking church, then, we must rid ourselves of any view of the church that in theory or practice displaces God as the primary actor and replaces him with human actors. The “gathering,” the “uniting” of all things in Christ that we call the “church” is God’s decision, choice, plan, and work. God is churching (reconciling) the world in Christ (2 Cor 5:19). The church is not our plan or project. It’s not for us to determine its purpose or measure its success. And its purpose is way beyond our power to make happen.
If we forget this essential feature of the church and try to “make it happen” by our own power, we may indeed achieve great things measured by human standards. We may build huge, wealthy, and influential institutions. We may entice crowds of people to say the right words. But only God can gather the scattered pieces of creation into unity in Christ. Our task is to let ourselves be churched by God. It is to believe, speak, and act only in harmony with the crucified and risen Christ empowered by God’s Spirit. Do we believe God can do this? Do we have the courage to let God be the primary actor is this event we call “church”? Can we be satisfied with what God does and the way he does it?
Next Time: the church is Christomorphic in form and Cruciform in action.
Write think about all of the possibilities that love has if we would take advantage of it instead of looking at Paul as someone who’s laying down a rule book
Yes. “love is the fulfillment of the law.” Indeed love does what law would imagine demanding!
It is just OK. I believe your presentation would come alive if you would use the correct translation for the nickname of Jesus “christ” christos. which means “the anointed One.” Paul is teaching about the anointed One the Holy Spirit. Nothing changes in a person without the Holy Spirit. When the word Christ is used it takes away what Paul is teaching. Paul is teaching the Holy Spirit
The christos (adj) the anointed One, or anointing of the Holy Spirit. Just using the word Christ takes the punch out of Paul’s teaching.
Okay. I take your point. The English word Christ does not communicate the meaning of the Greek word Christos. However, if I were going to replace the English word, I would use Messiah: Messiah Jesus or Jesus Messiah. Paul no doubt though this as he used the word Christos. Even “the anointed one” does not get it. Paul meant THE anointed one, King of the Jews. Peace.
Messiah Jesus or Jesus Messiah?? Paul meant THE anointed one, King of the Jews.
That only sounds good.
I believe Paul meant, the Anointed One the Holy Spirit. You are baptized in the name of Jesus christos the anointed One who is the Holy Spirit received. Paul teaches in all his epistles that it is the Holy Spirit who is the christos. The title christos is found in the book of Romans 37 times by itself. Paul is teaching about the anointed or anointing of the Holy Spirit living in the believer. It actually is Paul’s point. Love from Dallas
Interesting. No doubt that Paul does not make the neat distinctions that are made in the Nicene Creed, and he does identify the “Lord” with the Spirit in places (clearly in 2 Cor 3:17-18). However, distinctions remain. Jesus was anointed with the Spirit and in the resurrection in glorified so that where the Spirit he is also. And that is very good news. But nevertheless, Jesus was born of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, but it was not the Holy Spirit that was born of Mary. But you point out an important NT fact that calls for an explanation. Any explanation will need to take into account all the other facts, some of which seem to me to count against a simple identification of Christos and the Spirit. Thanks!
I have been thinking a lot about what the church is, what it means, and what it stands for these past couple of weeks. Without getting too deep down the political rabbit hole, it perplexes me that a historic church building and a Bible can be used as a visual semiotic code to communicate… what, exactly? What does that church and Bible mean to those for whom the image is intended? Is it the body that has its origin and purpose in God, as you so eloquently wrote about? Or is it communicating an alternative meaning of church—one of a societal order, of a paradigm of power, of political allegiance? These are questions I do not yet have answers to, but hope to think about in conjunction to the development of your argument on this blog.
Thomas: I hear you. Things easily become their opposites! Paul’s passion for God led him to become a murderer. The cross becomes a symbol on a battle flag or the hilt of a sword. The poverty of Jesus becomes the opulence of the bishop. I am so happy to have you to walk with me on this journey.
1Peter2:4-8 speaks into much of this…
The Victorians were clearly disposed enough to think deeply about placing their wealthy patrons names upon the actual cornerstones of their ” churches”. Boy did they get that wrong…
Peter’s letter mentions Jesus Christ, conventionally understood to mean Kristos i think. But more importantly, the spirit and mind of Christ is the metaphysical head of the ‘ church ‘, and Paul believes we make up the body: i agree. And furthermore, ” wherever two or more are gathered… i am there in the midst…” needs no building, it’s that wonderful gathering word again!
Finally. Has anyone mentioned Hebrews yet? If time is short, please try to have a look at chapter 7 since the quote at the top alludes to both it and Isaiah 28. Discuss.