We attend it, promote it, give to it, talk about it, pray for it, and love it with all our hearts. But what is it? With so much of our time, attention, and energy dedicated to our beloved foundation, it would be wise to come to an understanding of not just what we mean by the term, but what the Bible says about it.
To understand this truth is a great comfort and encouragement to the Christian. Yet to misunderstand the church is nothing less than to misunderstand Christ’s mission on earth. This article is intended to provide a brief overview of a few of the essential truths regarding this vital element of our lives and how Jesus Christ works his sovereign plan in Redemptive History.
The Necessity of Defining the Term
If we call ourselves Biblical Christians, then when we seek to address a topic of Biblical import, it behooves us to begin with a Biblical definition. This may seem elementary, but our two-millennia removal from the authors and contexts of the original writings can result in an approach laden with the baggage of those same 2,000 years, not to mention the burden of our own culture. This has been particularly true in how we understand the nature of the church today.
The Church as Commonly Defined Today
There are many ways our culture identifies what (they believe) the church to be. These definitions (a building, “clergy,” “laity,” etc.), used separately or in combination, usually identify the church as an institution. To this is then attached certain belief systems they understand that institution to represent, especially as they pertain to their personal lives and how they understand themselves. These conclusions may be based on personal history or experience but are often a reflection of the society at large.
To misunderstand the church is nothing less than to misunderstand Christ’s mission on earth.
Historically, this was not a hindrance as “The Church” was perceived in generally favorable terms and accepted as a vital, and even necessary, cornerstone of society.
Not so today.
The church has been objectified and vilified (who likes an “institution” these days?) as the adversary of human progress. The rise in critical thought resulted in the Church being infused and replaced by Enlightenment rationalism and its progeny. This shift provided the necessary space to reinterpret the essence of the Church to conform to rationalist thought to become “relevant” to a modern world, “progressive” in its worldview, and conforming to the world’s ideas of “affirming” and “accepting” individual lifestyles without objection. Of course, the world being the world, this approach is desperately self-serving, self-justifying, and self-validating. Still, this has left the church today adrift and rudderless in seas of uncertainty, confusion, and doubt.
In the midst of this milieu, we would do well to return to the church’s roots and remind ourselves of what God says about this, his prized possession.
Toward a Biblical Definition: Three Questions and Their Implications
Thankfully, God is not a composite of, nor is bound to, the latest critical theories. As the church seeks to shake itself (and its essential message) free from the dogmatic chains of relativism and reductionism, selfish materialism, narcissistic individualism, naturalism, spiritism, and radical feminism (to name but a few) it must understand what it is, not as the world demands, but as God defines it. Biblical literacy in the church, to say nothing of biblical redemption in the world, is at stake.
Question 1: Who Owns the Church?
To define the church and its character, it is vital to know to whom it belongs, as ownership imparts the right to define, just as the potter has the right to determine the form of the vessel. The answer is quite clear. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, upon the confession of Peter, that “…on this rock I will build my church.” So, in the first use of the word “church” in the New Testament, Jesus unambiguously states that it is his, and he is the one who will build it. It is no accident that Jesus then begins to set His face toward Jerusalem to “…suffer many things…and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). So, Christ owns the church not just because he founded it, but because he personally paid for it.
Implications of Ownership
There is undeniably great comfort in this fact. In our concern over the state of the church and its place in the world, we can know that the church, true, universal, and invisible, is in safe hands. If then, the church belongs to Christ then we, by extension, are also his personal property, a people for his own possession. All the promises regarding the Church also belong to us.
Question 2: What Does the Church Consist of?
The church universal consists of the full number of elect; all those who have been, are, or shall be called and gathered as one under Christ. It exists throughout the world and at times may be larger or smaller yet will never be overcome and shall remain until the End of Days.
Implications of What the Church Is
Being part of Christ’s church results in confidence. Immediately after stating that the Church is his, Jesus assures us that “…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). If we are found in him, because of his sure election, each of us are members of his eternal church and will never be cast out. As a result, we can be sure that we need fear no danger from the world or the Devil.
Question 3: What Assurances Does the Church Have?
First, as owner and builder, Christ defends his church to the uttermost. He does so because it belongs to him, and he will never forsake it. By his absolute sovereignty he has the right to establish his chosen people according to his purpose and is not dependent on human will to accomplish his will. He is definite in his plans to defend and bless his people for his own glory.
Second, Christ intercedes continually for his people and his church. We have no other Advocate not only because there is none, but especially because we need no other. We rightly look back at his finished work and forward to his work to come but are also reminded of his present work on our behalf, ever living to make intercession on our behalf.
Implications of the Church’s Assurances Through Christ
The result of defending and interceding for his Church is security. If Christ be for us, who can be against us? Though the waves buffet and the winds blow, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
This security is found not in the doctrines we know or the words we speak or the creeds to which we hold (though these are very important). No, our assurance is found in a personal Christ, a living Redeemer, a blessed man who is also fully God, and who sits at the right hand of God the Father. That is assurance, indeed.
We often hear of the privileges of being found in Christ, namely, as we have seen, comfort, confidence, and security, regardless of the world’s plans or the devil’s schemes. Yet we can also know that these are not empty promises but the pledges of God himself, based upon Christ’s ownership, his call, and his defense and continuous intercession on behalf of his Church and his people, whom he knows by name.
At the same time, these truths exhort God’s people to obedience as their duty and just response. Yet in all this, we must remember that God does not accomplish his sovereign plan because of the willing obedience of His people, but rather, through it (and, sometimes, in spite of it).
There are, indeed, very good reasons why there is no life outside the church of Christ and why the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Our assurance is found in a personal Christ, a living Redeemer, a blessed man who is also fully God, and who sits at the right hand of God the Father. That is assurance, indeed.