According to the Bible, what is the Church?

Just yesterday I read an article suggesting a push for the adaptation of current churches to become more online friendly. Let me suggest that this push is coming from people who are unfortunately elevating cultural preferences above biblical truth. The Bible clearly proclaims the truth that when a person is saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus they are absolutely individually justified, however, they are also adopted into God’s family, the Church. You may be able to cultivate a superficial sense of family through online chat-rooms or social media sites, but you cannot cultivate the spiritual people of God. So, according to the Bible what is the Church?

Readers may remember on February 26th I published a blog post on “The Most Asked Theological Question of 2018.” These questions were compiled into a list based on google searches, and the number one theological question was “What is the Bible?” The question we turn to now was the #4 question of 2018, according to Google, “What is the Church?”

A way to refer to the community of believers in Jesus is as “The Church.” But, before we go further we need to all be in agreement that when we talk about “The Church” we are not talking about a building… We are not talking about a social construct-when we are talking about the Church what we are talking about is the entire community of people who have recognized they are sinners, and have trusted in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as their only way to be forgiven and saved from sin—and therefore are gathered by God the Holy Spirit together as one Church made up of people from every nation, language, and tribe.

Now, the very first thing we need to understand about the Church is that it doesn’t belong to a pastor, or to a group of church leaders, but the Church belongs to the Lord of the Church who is Jesus. Jesus is the head of the church!

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus is speaking to Peter and he says,

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Peter had just identified Jesus as the Messiah who is Lord, and upon hearing Peter’s faith, Jesus then declares that Jesus Himself will be the one to build his church. Jesus even recognizes that Satan will attempt to stop Jesus from building his church, but Satan will not succeed!

But, if Jesus leads the Church-then HOW does Jesus lead? John 10:1-21 is a great place to read and see how Jesus leads. I kindly suggest you even turn there in your Bible to read that passage on your own…

When Jesus declares that he is the head of the church, the visual analogy he gives us to understand is not one of a powerful businessman lording over employees, but it is a beautiful picture of a shepherd caring for his sheep continually. An amazing part of John 10 is when Jesus says in verses 4-5, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus speaks to the church through His Word and all members of the church are called at all times to follow Jesus’ Word-the Bible.

This should be an amazingly encouraging truth for those of us in Christ. When we come to church-when we think of church our leader is Jesus who lovingly shepherds us and guides us through questions about faith. He lovingly shepherds us and cares for us when we doubt. He lovingly shepherds us and cares for us when we feel lost or when we feel like we don’t belong. I am saddened to know that there are some leaders in today’s American Evangelical church who liken the office then of Pastor to being like a CEO of a corporation. As under-shepherds, we pastors are not supposed to be like CEO’s we are called to be like Jesus who is the Good Shepherd. When I think of a CEO I think of Mark Cuban on “Shark Tank” being a strong leader-yes! But, being equally harsh at times, and being emotionally distant at times-and firing people at times… But, rather than being like that –instead Jesus, and therefore all pastors under Jesus who lead our local churches, are to be shepherds who carefully lead the people of God to where Jesus wants us to go. And when one of God’s people goes astray Jesus doesn’t fire them! Jesus runs after them and brings them back!

By now you might be saying to yourself, “OK. I kind of get how Jesus is the head of the Church as a whole, but what about the local church? What’s that all about?” “What is the role of the local church?” You may understand who the church is in the capital “C” sense, but what about a lowercase “church” like specifically Parkside Church where I’m a pastor. I mean in the United States you don’t have to drive too far through any town or city to realize there are a ton of church buildings. In the New Testament, primarily the Church refers to the wider community of believers which includes those from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language. But, normally we refer to church as in, “I go to church at ….” Or, “church was good today!” When you refer to church in these ways you are referring not to the broader community of believers as a whole but to the local church. These local churches are also referred to in the New Testament. For example, Paul writes “to the church of God that is in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2).” And he writes “to the churches of Galatia (Galatians1:2).”

It is important for us to first understand that a local church (Parkside) is a member of the larger church which includes believers from all over the world. However, it is also very important for us to understand some things about how the local church is meant to be. Bruce Ware points out the significance of the local church in this way, “Christians must meet in smaller local gatherings to sing, pray, worship, hear preaching, be baptized, take the Lord’s Supper, serve one another, hold each other accountable, and urge one another to love and do good deeds.”

Consider Acts 2:42-47 which is quite possibly the best picture of what the Church looks like as a result of the Holy Spirit living in believers and then living out the Gospel as we wait for the day when all who are in Christ will actually be gathered with Jesus on the day when he returns to take His Church to rule with Him in heaven.

We are told in this passage that the believers of the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” So, the local church has always been meant to be a place for fellowship, for being committed to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, to prayer and to the taking of the Lord’s Supper. We are also told in this passage “they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” So the local church has always been meant to be a place of service from one believer to another.

According to this passage, because of the local church and their fellowship, “Awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” The local church is meant to be a place where God pours Himself out and reveals Himself to a community which then strikes awe into every believing soul.

Acts 2:42-47 also says “they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” The church is meant to be a place of gladness and love which leads to believers having generous and glad hearts. And furthermore, “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The local church should be a place where believers tell non-believers about Jesus and so the number in the Church- the total number of believers in Jesus grows as non-believers get saved.

I recall once having a conversation with somebody who was fairly dismissive of evangelicals, specifically of evangelism but they claimed they were proudly protestant. And I asked this person how it is that they could be so against people who want to tell others about Jesus while at the same time claiming to believe in Jesus and go to a church that supposedly believes in Jesus. And this person said to me—“Well, my church does good deeds for our community.” And I said to this person, “Yeah well Giant Eagle does good deeds for the community too! And so does the Cincinnati Reds (I was living in Southern Ohio at the time)… Oh and there are Atheist missionaries did you know? Have you ever heard of the Foundation Beyond Belief? They are an Atheist group who have sent missionaries to at least 20 different countries in order to carry out humanist service projects for the advancement of human rights, education, and the environment.” Here is the simple fact-you Do NOT need the Holy Spirit to do nice things for people, however, you CAN ONLY carry out the Great Commission if you have the Holy Spirit! “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That command from Jesus to evangelize by telling those who do not know Jesus about who He is and what He has done by dying on the cross for our sins, and then being raised triumphant over sin and death-that is an absolute must for the Church!

So, to put it quite simply, if a Church is not actually obeying the command to “Go and make disciples of ALL nations,” then they aren’t truly a church—they are actually no different from a social club. All of us have our own specific role to play in the church then as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission. In your own church y’all are as a local church, a gathering of local believers and followers of Jesus Christ who are given a specific role as individuals and together as a church to see unbelieving people (in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, throughout Cleveland) actually themselves come to believe in and love Jesus, and then they themselves also become committed followers of Jesus who then go and play their role in seeing other unbelieving people become committed followers of Jesus Christ.

Another New Testament passage to consider when theologically answering, “What is the church?” Is found in Romans 12. The analogy given there is that the church is like a body with many members and the members do not all have the same function. Christ is said to be the “head” of the church, but all other members of the church are given a specific gift to use in order to make the body of Christ operate in a healthy and effective way.

In the church, the freeing thing is that NONE OF US are the head of the Church because Jesus is. And we aren’t called to try and fight for being top dog we are called to be a role player in the Church. So for you as an individual then you aren’t called to be the person to lead God’s people to the championship as if you were the “Tom Brady” of the church-the championship has already been won when Jesus put our sins to death on the cross, and then rose victoriously from the grave-and Jesus is the one who we wait for who will return from heaven to defeat Satan forever, and then transform our bodies to be like His glorious body—you don’t need to be the top dog-you just need to find your role then in how you can be used by God in the Church to fulfill the Great Commission. For some it is going to be using landscaping skills to serve somebody in the community. For others it is going to be using your sports skills to offer to help out a teenager you know through a family friend. For others still your role is going to be the fiercest prayer warrior your church has ever seen-I don’t know all the ways everyone will be used I just know Jesus will use every single one of us who are in Christ in some way, shape or form to reach people and proclaim the good news of Jesus.

I’ll finish looking at the topic of the Church by considering the two “ordinances” of the Church. An ordinance is something given to be carried out, so the two ordinances of the Church are the two charges Jesus gave for the church to continue to do until he returns. Those two ordinances are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Baptism was clearly charged to believers after Jesus had resurrected from the dead and before he ascended into heaven. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The word baptism comes from a Greek word (pronounced ‘baptidzo’) and it means “to immerse in water.” Baptism is meant to be a symbol of the Gospel. The immersion into water is representative of the believer joining in with Jesus’ death by faith, and being cleansed of sin the believer returns from underwater symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus.

We are not saved by baptism, yet, we as believers are baptized to publicly identify that we have faith in our Lord Jesus who lived, died, and rose from the dead to take away the sins of the world and we have been saved by him. We do this out of obedience to Jesus’ ordinance, and the local church is meant to be the place where baptisms are carried out.

There is another ordinance called the Lord’s Supper, or communion, which is meant to remember Jesus dying on the cross to save believers. At the last supper with his disciples, Jesus used wine and bread to symbolize his upcoming death. Paul also refers to the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 where he reflects on Jesus’ charge for his followers to gather together and celebrate his death and resurrection during worship. The broken bread refers to Jesus’ body which was broken and the wine is a symbol of Jesus’ blood which was shed for sinners. The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to remember Jesus’ death and to celebrate his resurrection together as a church family.

In reading this, I hope we all can think through the idea that the biblical church can thrive through the internet. Let me suggest that just as virtual reality is manufactured relationship, so too virtual church is manufactured church. I hope this blog helps us to think out the need for a vibrant local church life for every believer in Jesus. May we seek to live out the clear biblical teaching on the Church.

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