Toward an Understanding of Church

The church is not a consumer product, a tool for some good purpose, or informal social support for my personal walk with God. The church is not a self-serving institution or a modern corporation. These represent many of the categories for how we understand any form of human organization. If the church is none of this, then what is it?

I want to review Ephesians 2:11-22 because it covers what I believe are the four most prominent New Testament metaphors used to describe the Church. There are others that I’m not reviewing: the pillar and support of truth, a lampstand, etc but hopefully this provides a good starting point. 

Christ’s Body

“His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God.”

We, the Church, form Christ’ body.[i] Pause to consider the significance of this illustration. A healthy body is entirely integrated. A living body cannot be viewed as independent organs—that only happens in a dead body. Our modern individualism is obsessed with our individual uniqueness but seldom appreciates our integrated being. We have it backward! A body is more the sum of its parts. The parts themselves are important but only when seen in the context of the whole person. To use Paul’s illustration, what good is an individual eye or nose that is separated from the rest of the body?

When we recognize the Church as Christ’s body, we can never reduce the Church to one function. A body has many functions and is not one dimensional. A body is not a machine in a manufacturing plant, nor is it a modern corporation with one narrow strategic purpose—a body is living person.

In the ancient world, a person’s spirit was their breath[ii] which animated and gave life to the whole body. This is important toward understanding Paul when he speaks of Christ as the head of the Body, and the importance of His Spirit providing it with an animating life. The Head provides the will and direction. The Spirit connects the Body with itself, maintains vitality and life, and unites it to the head.

Believers are found in Christ and form the parts of His Body. Every time we take the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim this truth: We participate in the broken body—now resurrected into new creation. A reduced view of the Church limits the Body to one of its uses and fails to appreciate the wholeness. It also fails to recognize the importance of the Spirit filling the Body with life.

The Holy Spirit is given to us, not just to me. He does fill me, but in doing so, He unites me to the Body. We should be concerned about any “Christian spirituality” that is purely focused on the individual. The Holy Spirit is necessarily linked to Christ’s Body.

If the Church is Christ’s body, then it is never something we for which we shop. It’s not a product to purchase. The Church can never be limited to a tool in the toolshed for the sake of some other mission or purpose. The Church is not “mine” and nor I am ever its leader. Our ability to fulfill our role in the Body is directly dependent upon our willingness to yield to the Head and to submit to the Spirit.

This certainly does not negate the need for differentiation in the parts of the Body—the Church needs leaders, teachers, apostles, and prophets—but it does require these individual parts to remember they belong to a whole and do not exist for themselves or their own desires.

When we recognize the Church as Christ’s body, we discover a right view of own individuality: I must be careful to not pollute the Body with sin—an infection in any part of a body is in danger of spreading; I need to joyfully embrace my role within the Body; and I should find my significance in the whole far more than my own unique contribution or gifting.

Each person is significant, and God created our individual uniqueness but beauty of this is only realized when we are connected to something bigger than ourselves.

God’s Household

“Through [Jesus] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…”

Scripture repeatedly uses the language of family to describe the church: We are God’s children[iii], Christ’ bride,[iv] and Jesus’s brothers.[v] Pay attention to the family language the next time you read through the Gospels or the Epistles. We are used to calling one another “brother” but have lost sight of its meaning. Paul and the other New Testament authors penned these words to people who were their historic enemies and, in doing so, crossed ancient ethnic lines. We need to take it seriously.

Our individualistic culture distorts this truth. We celebrate that God is our Father, but we turn around and act like an only child. We accept that we are the Bride of Christ but prefer to view Jesus as our unique spouse. It’s become primarily about “me and Jesus” rather than “we and Jesus”. We hold a vertical view of our relationship with God but fail to recognize the horizontal perspective that is necessarily involved. When God adopted you into His family, you received a Father. You also received many brothers and sisters. Adoption occurs into a family, not into an individualistic relationship with a parent.

Our English translations of Scripture fail us at this point because there is not distinct plural word for “you” in English…that is unless you live in the Deep South of the United States where you are blessed with the word ya’ll. The word “you” is found far more frequently in plural form throughout the New Testament.[vi] Practice saying ya’ll (or Northern linguistic equivalents) next time you read Scripture. It is more accurate, and it starts to sound different.

The Bible is certainly relevant for me as an individual, but it is written to us as a family. Think about that for a moment. It’s radically different than how most of us view our identity. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III writes, “Corporate identity is primary; individual identity is derived from it.”[vii] David Bosch states, “The local ekklesia clearly becomes the primary group for its members.”[viii]

There is a temptation in modern Christianity to view our identity as entirely distinct from our membership in God’s family. This is contrasted to the experience of most of human history in which personal identity and purpose was derived from the larger family unit. Much of the world still operates this way: It is through family that individuals discover their identity. Modern America reversed the equation, and in doing so, cannot fully understand a significant theme in the New Testament.

Think about how often we hear individualized messages and sermons that highlight our personal uniqueness. Compare that to how often we hear a message regarding our belonging to the people of God. Though God certainly does assign value to us as individuals, I believe Western Christianity is out of balance. Our radical individualism represents a historical anomaly and we need to re-embrace the reality of our family identity.

Family should never be treated as a utility for some other purpose. It is not a consumer good to support our individualized sense of well-being. Tragically, most of our Christian culture views the church this way. In fact, the very concept of family is increasingly seen through this radically individualistic lens. This is beyond the scope of this short article but pay attention to what you read just about anywhere. The underlying message is that your individual sense of identity and well-being is more important than your belonging to family.

Many people readily identify with the universal Church which includes all believers throughout all of human history, but refuse to identify with a particular local church, which is a specific group of people with whom you participate in Christ’s family.

You cannot have one without the other. Consider a family: It is a cohesive unit that is part of a greater whole. My wife and I have a family with four children; we have an extended family with our parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, and cousins; and we are part of a larger lineage of family with roots going back for centuries. These three all weave together to form the concept of family and they cannot be separated. It would be absurd for me to identify as a “historic Steadman” but then refuse to acknowledge the immediate and extended members of my family. The one necessitates the other.

It is important to acknowledge that human sin challenges this concept. For some people, the identity they received from their family is their greatest source of pain. The same can be said of many peoples’ participation in a local church. This is a sad reality that requires deep pastoral care and sensitivity.

The brokenness of this world does not change God’s plan nor His design—He ordained the family and the Church to be the places where we belong. However, Scripture does not dismiss the painfully real problems created by human sin, instead we discover that restoration is found in the Cross and Resurrection. Through grace and the power of the Spirit, God heals human suffering, redeems His creation, and restores us back to His purposes. We must proclaim the importance of Christ’s family while also extending grace for the reality of human sin.

In Christ, our personal identity is discovered within our family identity.[ix]

The Temple of God

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Temple imagery is deeply significant in Scripture, but few modern readers appreciate its importance and implication for the Church. A temple is the place where God dwells. N.T. Wright says, “It was the place where heaven and earth met, thus forming the signpost to the ultimate promise, the renewal and unity of heaven and earth, the new creation in which the One God would be personally present forever.”[x] Westerners tend to view temples as historic monuments but, for most of history, people have seen temples as a sacred space inhabited by God (or a god).

In Jewish culture, the temple sat at the center of society. Life revolved around the temple and it provided a consistent reminder that God lived with His people. Works words like “consecrated,” “purified,” and “sanctified” speak the terminology of the temple. The temple must be cleansed in order for the presence of God to dwell within and for society to function as it is intended.

This is at the heart of Paul’s concern for the Corinthians. They are the church of God, who are sanctified in Christ (1 Cor 1:2), but they have allowed their divisions and their immorality to tarnish the temple (1 Cor 3:9-17). Peter utilizes the same illustration, describing the church as living stones who are built into a spiritual house (temple) in order to be a holy priesthood.[xi] The members of the church are formed together to create the temple where God dwells.

In 1 Cor 6:19, Paul reminds the church, “Do you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” 90’s evangelicalism taught many Christians to interpret this passage as warning not to smoke cigarettes. That’s probably a good idea but not the point of the verse. The passage has an individual element to it: flee sexual immorality, but the larger context is based on the fact that sin pollutes Christ’s Body and desecrates God’s temple; in other words, our individual sin hurts the greater whole.

When we come together as the church, we function as the temple of God. We are the place where heaven meets earth and the place God dwells. The temple is no longer limited to a fixed geographical place within one nation but is instead alive and active wherever the church gathers. It is an awe-inspiring concept and an incredible responsibility.

This reality should confront our view of a church service. When we gather together, we form the temple of God. Do we view church this way? Or has it been reduced to something else in our minds?

I am in many discussions regarding the proper structure or methodology for the church and, in particular, new church formation. These conversations are important for those of us engaged in church planting; however, I think we spend to much time arguing about church models and not enough time marveling at the church’s identity.

We work hard to perfect the blueprints, but I worry that we’ve forgotten the purpose of the building. Whose house are we building?

It’s an awesome privilege to carry the presence of God. That is something I do together in community. This may be an underground house church in the Arab world, an independent Pentecostal church in Africa, a cell church in Korea, or an American mega-church. It could take on a traditional form or something that looks radically new. The church model is seldom the issue—instead, do we have a right view of the Church?

God’s Chosen People

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (that done in the body by the hands of men)—remember that at that time you were separated from Christ excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ…Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people…” Eph 2:11-13,19

This last illustration is the most difficult for us Westerners to relate to and yet is also the most important for us to understand. This question was everything for the first Christians. One of the New Testament’s most significant concerns is the new, expanded identity of God’s chosen people—the Church. This is a central point of Romans,[xii] Galatians,[xiii] and Ephesians. It’s the background for Acts[xiv] and a predominant theme for Matthew[xv] and Mark’s[xvi] gospel. The remaining epistles find their context in the church—letters written to churches that address life in the church. I’d go so far as to say it’s the major theme of the Old Testament as well: what does it mean to be God’s chosen people?

Being chosen by God was central to ancient Jewish identity. Out of the chaos of the nations, God chose a nation to represent Him to the world.[xvii] This introduces the language of election. Some Christian traditions focus on individual salvation when speaking of election—I’m going to skip that debate. Instead, consider election as it relates to the identity of the Church.

Israel was not chosen by God because of their merit; instead, it was an act of pure grace. Lesslie Newbigin reviews this understanding by saying that “God has chosen one people among all the people to be the unique bearer of his saving purposes for all nations.”[xviii] This election carried a deep responsibility for God’s people to walk in His ways so they might reveal Him to the world.

In Ephesians, Paul reveals that an incredible mystery has unfolded: Through Christ, the Gentiles are now granted citizenship in God’s Kingdom. These Gentiles have been grafted into God’s people, like a wild shoot attached to the life of a vine.[xix] God chose Abram in Genesis 12 to form a new tribe. Jesus—God incarnate—became man and through His blood now offers this citizenship to all humanity. The Church has joined into this lineage of God’s chosen people.

Christopher Wright says “God has only one family. In the Old Testament period, it had been ethnic Israel alone, ‘the house/family of Israel’. But from now on, because of the work of Christ, that one single family includes people from all nations—just as God had promised.”[xx]

Baptism represents rebirth into a new family.[xxi] This ritual was initially an initiation rite for Gentiles seeking membership into Israel, most likely alluding to Israel crossing the Red Sea out of slavery and then crossing the Jordan river into the promise.[xxii] Converts were symbolized to have participated in these events and thus joined into Israel’s inheritance.

John the Baptist modified its meaning by calling on ethnic Jews to be baptized. This was a radical message of repentance signifying that ethnic identity was insufficient. People needed to be re-introduced into the covenant through an act of repentance.

Jesus took it even further in John 3:5 by presenting baptism as a symbol of re-birth. His followers must be born again. Paul repeats this understanding in Romans 6:3-7. We died with Christ through the waters of baptism. We are freed from slavery and our sin is washed away. We now live a new life as citizens of God’s chosen people.

We need to remember the fundamentally communal element of baptism. The sacrament is not just an individual act of obedience (though it is certainly that); it also represents a person joining the people of God and, in doing so, inheriting the promises. Their old identity is washed away, and they have received a new identity and are now members of a new people.

Membership in the Church—Christ’s Body, God’s family, and His temple—comes with an incredible responsibility. We form God’s chosen people on the earth through whom He fulfills His purposes.

 

[i]  Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 12:12-31, Eph 1:9-10, 22-23

[ii] Jewish tradition, Plato, and Aristotle each held distinct views. These nuances are interesting, as well as the question of how much these viewpoints interacted with each other and which one(s) were most significant in Paul’s understanding. That being said, the ancient viewpoints are much closer to one another than they are to modern physiology.

[iii] Rom 8:14-17, Gal 3:26-4:7,

[iv] Eph 5:25-32, Rev 19:6-9, Rev 21:9-11, 17

[v] Rom 8:29, Heb 2:11

[vi] ὑμεῖς (plural) and equivalent verb forms are found in most instruction and general teaching. σύ (singular) is often only found in dialogue between specific characters.

[vii] Ben Witherington III. The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus (Kindle Locations 2814-2815). Kindle Edition.

[viii] David J. Bosch. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (20th Anniversary Edition) (American Society of Missiology) (Kindle Location 4141). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[ix] “Finally, conversion to a new family or body of believers in antiquity was in various essential ways different from what it is today, not least in that one was not merely joined to a new religion, one was joined to a new people.” Witherington III: Paul (Kindle Locations 363-364). Kindle Edition.

[x] Wright, N. T.. Paul (p. 20). HarperOne. Kindle Edition. Temples are not an abstract idea but rather a physical place, and they must be purified so that God’s presence might dwell.

[xi] 1 Peter 2:4-10

[xii] Notice the structure of the book, chapters 1-8 build up to chapter 9-11 and answer the question: Who are God’s people? Did God fail His promises?

[xiii] Gal 4:28-31 as an example

[xiv] See the structure of Acts as outline in 1:8 and pay attention to the significance of tongues and the nations gathered at Pentecost as well as the emphasis given to the Cornelius narrative and council of Jerusalem

[xv] Jesus is presented as the new and greater Moses. Moses gave the commands on the mountain, which Jesus reinforced also while on a mountain (ch 5-7), but after the Resurrection, Jesus’s gave a new command on the mountain: Make disciples of all nations. The whole Gospel builds to this point.

[xvi] Pay attention to the lake stories in ch 4-8. Mark carefully recounts the same miracles in both Jew and Gentile territory. The disciples are called to fish for men and shepherd God’s flock on both sides. Jesus’s Messianic identity is gradually revealed in a way that no one expects: A suffering servant who leads both Jew and Gentile to God.

[xvii] Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Kindle Location 428). Kindle Edition.

[xviii] Ibid (Kindle Location 2101), Bosch: Mission (Kindle Location 696),

[xix] Romans 11:17

[xx] Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Biblical Theology for Life). P 192. Zondervan Academic, 2010.

[xxi] Bosch: Mission (Kindle Location 4152).

[xxii] This may also include a reference to the Flood, with water washing away the sin of man.

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