Rethinking Church #6: The Church is Also the People

The human dimension is an essential feature of the church. The church is a gathering of people. It is not simply a divine idea or the divine dimension by itself. The church exists only as the divine and human are united in one community. In the New Testament, the ekklesia or church is called an assembly, a people, a nation (1 Pet 2:9), and a family (Gal. 6:10), each denoting human beings in community. The church, then, becomes visible in the world in a community of living human beings.

There are many kinds of assemblies and communities. The church is a people called together by the Spirit of God to live in Christ for the praise and service of God. But the church could not exist apart from a human response to that call. The most basic response is faith. Apart from a believing embrace of the message of Christ, repentance, baptism, and other churchly activities make no sense. Faith moves us to turn away from our old lives and mark that transition by receiving baptism, which is pictured in the New Testament as a spiritual washing (Acts 22:16) or a death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:1-7).

The transition from nonbelief to belief and its symbolic enactment in baptism is at once a transition from not being a Christian to being one and from not being a member of the church (or family or people) of God to being including in this people. Becoming a member of the church is not an add-on to becoming a Christian but happens simultaneously and is co-essential. It makes no sense to think one could be “in Christ” but not part of the body of Christ, a child of God but not a member of God’s family.

What is the Church?

Until this point in the series I have used the term “church” without defining it. For until we uncover the essential features of the church—that is, those factors that determine the difference between its existence and nonexistence—we cannot define it with precision. What, then, is the church? The church consists of those people who in obedient faith and by baptism have been incorporated into Christ through the work of Holy Spirit and so have become one body, one people, one family.

Wherever these factors are present, the church in its fullness exists. Once the church exists and begins to act, other factors come into play. Some means will be chosen to organize its life and work. Language and culture, too, will place their stamp on the outward forms of church life. But it is important not allow the historical and contemporary forms the church to hide the simple essence of the church. List any factor you please—clergy, systems of organization, property, employees, legal recognition, social visibility, tax exempt status—none are essential. Sweep them all away and the church exists still. The church is simple in essence and, hence, very adaptable in form.

The Individual Christian and the Church

Since New Testament language about the church envisions a community that gathers and acts as one at least on occasion, certain questions naturally arise in our individualistic culture: (1) does the church exist in each individual? (2) Or, does the church exist only when formally and intentionally gathered “as the assembly”? (3) If you were the only Christian left alive in a nation or in the whole world, would the church still exist? (4) Lastly, assuming the church exists even when not gathered formally, must an individual Christian gather regularly with other Christians as the church?

The answers to these four questions are implicit in the definition of the church: (1) Yes, the church exists in each individual believer. Each believer is called by God, lives in Christ, and participates in the life of the Spirit. The divine and human dimensions are united even in an individual Christian. (2) No, the church does not cease to exist when not assembled as a group to act corporately. Christ and the Spirit are not divided by distance. (3) Yes. The church would exist if you were the only Christian in the world. (4) Yes. Though individual Christians can act as members of God’s special people even when not with other believers—in prayer, praise, study, and service—the love of God poured into their hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5:5) will drive them into fellowship with others who share that same compelling love. The gathering is a manifestation in the present of the unity of all things in Christ “when the times reach their fulfillment” (Eph 1:10). And it can be so beautiful!

Next Time: We have not yet addressed the church’s divinely assigned work and purpose. In these areas, too, we will distinguish between essential and accidental features. What is the essential work and purpose of the church? Hint: it, too, is very simple.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Church #6: The Church is Also the People

  1. Charles A Hanson

    I see you are still struggling with the nickname christos. You did not mention one time the name of God in your transcript “Jesus”. You may not see the importance of this but I pray that Jesus will give you the revelation. Your transcript is just OK and it could be great if you would see the importance of how Paul uses this word christos. God bless.


  2. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hi Ron
    You mention “human dimension” right up top, and then later you ask and answer some pivotal questions. Thank you for those answers.
    The Holy Trinity is tripartate, Jesus Christ himself is tripartate; and we, made in God’s image, even as human beings are also tripartate (for example, physical, spirit, and a soul). May i ask you to what extent you think the church functions in a tripartate sense, and what key attributes we ourselves can experience and differentiate?


  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    In my view, if we base our thinking about all matters of faith and theology on revelation—otherwise, we are merely philosophizing, whether well or poorly—we need to begin with God’s action in the economy of salvation where God clearly acts as Father, Son, and Spirit. You mention the tricotomous view of humanity as body, soul, and spirit. This view, though perhaps mentioned in Paul, is a Platonist idea and is based in philosophical anthropology. I don’t view it as being a theological starting point for further speculation. Now back to the economic Trinity. Theological reasoning about the Trinity moves from the economy in history to the eternal Trinity. As to your specific request, it would not be surprising that we could discern distinct activities in the constitution and work of the church that correspond to the Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet, the activities of the three are united and never separate. In theology this unity in distinction in the economy is called “appropriation.” However, some theologians want to see the Trinity everywhere and use it as a revealed ontology—e.g., male/female relations—and in the church. I have a student right now doing a thesis on Miroslav Volf who argues for a particular doctrine of unity and diversity in the church based on the eternal Trinity. I am skeptical of Volf’s argument, and my student is also. Thanks.


  4. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hi again Ron.
    I think Jesus said this in Luke 10:27 didn’t he? Heart, mind and soul…
    But thank you very much for your interesting comments. I’ve always admired the human common sense of Meldenius in the practicalities of that kind of church ” …in essentials unity, non-essentials freedom, and in all things charity” or something like that.
    But back to your ‘dimension’, and back to what you’ve mentioned repeatedly throughout Ron. ” Reconciling” ourselves with God, and perhaps returning or being re-united with God in/ thro’/by/with Jesus Christ… Please, if God is a Spirit, and Jesus Christ is a life-giving spirit, and we are indeed returned to our maker in the next ‘dimension’, please can you explain to me which part of our tripartate nature is resurrected in Christ, Ron? And if you might think all three, then how are our bodies and minds and spirits made soluble with God? The Spirit?
    Best regards



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