Major Texts: Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 1:2; I Pet. 2:9; Matt. 28:19; John 17:21, 22; Acts 15:1-29.
This week the lesson looks at the idea and function of church. Interestingly, though this is a subject vital to the Christian faith, it is a part of Christian thought that is the least developed. in other words, it is an area of Christian theology and practice that needs some very careful and deliberate thought in order that the understanding of church, and the understanding of its function, can be well understood in a biblical sense. Truth is, a lot of what we think of when we think of church is quite highly culturally conditioned. It is not hard to see that “church,” from place to place, tends to follow societal norms and practices.
In the western world, the church is falling on hard times. Church used to be central to people’s lives not only in terms of attendance, but also in terms of morality and developing a sense of community. In fact, back in American Colonial times, the church provided more structure for society than did government, and that included not only instruction in civil and moral behavior, but also in terms of discipline. Not so any more. And yet, in view of the Bible, one is constrained to ask if the church is any less important now than it was years ago. Certainly, in kingdom terms, it is not less important even if, in societal terms, it may be.
Part of the unhappiness with church comes from the fact that the church, especially in times past, became over taken with things for which there is not biblical mandate. Church gave power to people, and people became corrupted by that power. As a result, there are many blemishes on the record of church, something that today causes people to be disdainful of what the church claims and does. For these reasons, it is important to develop a good and biblical idea of church identity and function.
We begin with the question of the nature of the church, what it is, or is supposed to be. One way of discovering that is to look at the major word used in the New Testament to designate church. The basic meaning of the word “church” is “called out ones.” The implication or intention conveyed is that the church is a community that has been called out of the world into relationship with God for particular purposes. We conclude that, in a primary sense then, that church is a community of believers. Everything else that we associate with church must not be disrespectful of the fact that the community of believers called to salvation is the church at its best. Of course, decisions made by the community will affect both the mission and character of the church, but the essence does not change – a group of people who associate together because they have responded to the callings of God.
Notice the major images or figures of speech used to describe the church:
- “People of God.” 1 Peter 2:9
- “Body of Christ.” Romans 12:5
Because the church is made up of humans who have responded to the calling of God, by its very nature, the church has both a human and a divine dimension. This makes for a tension that never goes away. It is why you can see some of the most amazing things in church as well as some of the most horrible.
Several points accrue here:
- The church comes into existence due to the initiative of God. It is not first of all, a human creation.
- Because it consists of people who are in the process of being saved, the church is precious to God. It is something upon which God lavishes His love and attention. In view of this, it is disingenuous to diminish the church and to speak ill of it.
- The calling of God creates a common bond of unity among church members. This bond is not on the surface but is deeply embedded in the life experience of believers. The unity is inherent, thought it needs to be protected and nurtured. It is also important to notice that unity is not uniformity. Believers do not all do the same things, yet are united by this bond of salvation that comes from their calling by God.
- Because a church community is made up of those who are called by God, each unit is the church in a particular place. A congregation is not just part of the church, but is the church in a particular location.
- If the church is the “body of Christ,” what kind of mandate does that create for those within it? How should they relate to each other?
The mission of the church needs to be clear in believer’s minds. Careful study of the Bible – New Testament in particular – will reveal four great purposes for the church:
- To Worship. Worship simply means to “ascribe great, or ultimate, worth to something.” This is a primary task of church.
- To reach out to the lost. In common parlance, this is called “evangelism.” In Matthew 28:19,20, Jesus established evangelism as the major element of church mission. He commissioned his followers to go to every kindred, tribe, and people bearing the good news. And in his own life on earth, he exemplified his own commission. Proclaiming the good news is a major component of church mission. And any church that is not at work doing it is negligent of Christ’s own admonition.
- To provide edification and fellowship for the believers. This is an internal function where people are able to find fellowship with those of like mind, and where they can receive instruction in Kingdom ways. In many places, this aspect of church life is ignored or neglected.
- To engage in matters of social concern. The church is called to sound a voice in favor of the down-trodden, to care for the destitute, to raise a societal sense of conscience against wrong-doing. The church may often find itself here acting in counter-cultural ways, standing against the status quo as it advocates for those who are without help.
One of the questions that comes up repeatedly is the one of church governance. Governance simply has to do with the way things are done. And whenever there is a group, some way of getting things done must be devised. The big question is, how is that best done and how is that biblically done?
To the surprise of many, the Bible does not provide a blueprint for church governance. What we see, particularly in the New Testament, is believers struggling to create some means of official association between some very disparate congregations. Some things should be kept in mind here:
- Acts 15 is a major passage on church governance.
- The formula that seems to have emerged from the early wranglings was that they did what seemed right to “the Holy Spirit and to us.” In other words, they had to forge out some ideas and methodologies that were in harmony with their own efforts and by way of which they felt they were in harmony with the biddings of the Spirit. This has been the modus operandi of church ever since. Whatever form the church has taken, it has been ostensibly because believers have attempted to do what seemed right to them and to the Spirit.
- Given the dualistic nature of the church, what might we expect from it in terms of perfection or the absence thereof?
- What are some realistic expectations we should have about church and the way it lives and operates? Do you think some expectations are unrealistic?
- What would you think about a “Day of Apology” as an annual event in a congregation where the congregation as a whole recognizes its faults and failings and the way they have hurt people?