This is the title of a book, not a short blog post — don’t worry, I’m fully aware that a few hundred words cannot express the fullness of the Church. My goal is to pose, not answer, the question.
What is church?
It’s the Body of Christ, the household of God, the manifold wisdom of God, the pillar and support of truth, and the gates of hell cannot overcome it. The Church is both visible and eternal, led by God yet flawed by man, and exists globally and locally. In some ways, it’s easier to understand the role of the global Church than it is an individual local expression. The use of the lower-case “c” in this article is intentional. The Church will never be healthy if most individual churches are sick. Local churches do have prescribed functions such as teaching, discipleship, worship, and mission, but the Bible leaves us with very little structure for these operate.
Additionally, the Bible describes a wide variety of local church expressions: Large gatherings, house-to-house meetings, and training halls all served as the setting for church. Some contained a distinct Jewish identity while others exhibited a Greek flavor. Some churches were large and highly organized, while others seemed fledgling and organic. Even the apostle Paul seemed a bit unclear of the structure when he grappled with theological opponents in Acts 15.
Most Christians answer our question through the lens of their own experience. Some place a high importance on traditional structures — the presence of a church building (with a steeple), a seminary trained pastor, a liturgy or familiar order of service, hymns, felt boards, you get the idea. Anything that does not fit is suspect.
Other Christians view church in light of modern American culture. Church includes an organized kids ministry, modern worship band, an engaging Bible teacher, and great programs for members. These methods sprang out of a missiology, a fresh way of reaching people, but over time they risk becoming an end in and of themselves. If we aren’t careful, the very structures once used as a tool for believers to advance the Gospel risk becoming a menu for consumerists looking to meet their own needs.
While many believers view the above as necessary requirements for church, others have reacted against the previous viewpoints by deconstructing church in order to detangle our cultural perspective from biblical truth. This is a helpful exercise, but I worry we’ve taken it too far. I believe we so deconstructed church by discussing what it’s not that we’ve lost sight of what it is.
I’ve heard people describe a local church as “two or more gathered in the name of Jesus.” I have concerns with this theology. The context of Jesus’ words was a teaching on prayer, relevant to church but not a definitive description. Two people are insufficient to be the Body described in 1 Corinthians 12. Two people cannot even fulfill the ministry roles of Ephesians 4:11, let alone account for the saints who are to be equipped. An embryonic church might begin with two or three gathered, but if it really is a church, it should grow in both breadth and depth.
So back to our question: What is church? Answering the question requires a lifetime of seeking the person of Jesus, the Head of His Body. It requires us to stay centered on His Word and His purposes, and not our own culture and comfort. Ultimately, we will not discover the answer apart from the tension of living it out. Let’s learn to avoid judging by “mere appearances” and let’s commit to keep asking the question.