What Is the Church?

Nearly 3 years ago I was asked the following question:

“In addition to the nature of Scripture and justification by faith, what do you think is the top theological issue facing churches? Write a brief response to that issue.”

Notice that horrible qualifier about the kind of answer expected: “brief”! All kidding aside, it is a serious issue that has broad implications that literally will be felt around the world. Here is how I answered:

What is the church? A full-orbed answer to that question should cover such issues as: membership and discipline; the primary purpose of the church; methods of evangelism and missions; the nature of biblical worship; the proper role of para-church organizations (e.g., mission boards; Christian schools, colleges and seminaries, evangelistic groups, etc.) It is evident in all sorts of ways. If the purpose of the church is evangelism, then music/message/format/venue will take one form. If the purpose is edification of believers, those things will look much different. An even more fundamental issue is who gets to decide these things; how much latitude does Christ give his church? Confusion with respect to ecclesiology is probably responsible for more conflict and wasted resources than we really want to add up.

A very close second (maybe even a tie) would be God’s design for the family. What is the biblical definition of marriage? What are the roles and responsibilities of each member of a family? These two theological issues are significant for the church in America as well as elsewhere. I am acquainted with pastors in both Ukraine and Siberia; they have asked for help and instruction on both these topics for the good of their churches.

I believe the second issue identified is closely connected to the first issue and often a result of it. Because the church at large has lost its way, the family is close behind. Obviously I speak of the local church as distinct from other uses of the term “church”. 

“…the Lord Jesus, through the ministry of his Word and by his Spirit, calls to himself out of the world those who are given to him by the Father. They are called to walk before him in the ways of obedience which he prescribes for them in his Word. He commands those who are so called to form particular societies or churches” (LBCF)

I know there are different opinions about which hat those who heard the Great Commission the first time were wearing – was it their official apostolic hat or was it their basic disciple of Jesus hat? Or was it some of each? The conduct of 1st century Christians following Stephen’s death sheds some light on this. Acts 8:1 tells us that “a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Then in verse 4 tells us that “those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word” or “evangelizing”. It seems beyond question that “those who were scattered” did not include the apostles. The obvious conclusion then is that the evangelists in Judea and Samaria were not primarily the apostles but rather the typical members of the Jerusalem church. It was not until after the apostles heard what God was doing in Samaria that they sent Peter and John to check it out. (Acts 8:1-14)

So what’s the big deal? Call them refugees, displaced peoples, or persecuted saints, when they were forced from their homes, they “went everywhere preaching the word”. Driven from their homes and neighborhoods, as they went along their way they made it their business to evangelize all who would listen. Is that the kind of people who fill our congregations on Sunday Morning? Not only were they committed to Christ and his Gospel, they were able communicators of that Gospel. For that to be true, those early Christians must have had a steady diet of sound teaching that went beyond “the elementary principles of Christ, …not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.” (Heb. 6:1-2) This solid teaching beyond milk is surely a significant part of the work of those whom Christ gave to the church: “some apostles, …some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” (Eph. 4:11-12) The apostles certainly equipped their flocks for the work of evangelism at least, and so should pastors and teachers today. The apostles equipped their flocks to endure incredible persecution and so should pastors and teachers today by “leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, [and] go[ing] on to perfection”. (Heb. 6:1)

Pastors, Christ is building his church for his people, his body, not the lost. And Christ expects you to be about the work of equipping the saints and edifying the body of Christ so they can serve Christ well. Yes, you do that by preaching the Gospel. But you must preach “the whole counsel of God” in a systematic, purposeful way so Christ’s body will grow – in knowledge of God and his ways; in ability to apply biblical principles to all of life; in confidence to share the Gospel with the lost; and most of all, in likeness and usefulness to Christ. If you are not presently doing so, get with the program. If that does describe your ministry, praise God and persevere.

Brothers and sisters, if you have a pastor who with God’s help labors to equip and edify his flock, thank God for him. Devote yourself to growing in Christ-likeness and encourage your faithful pastor regularly. If you are not blessed with such a pastor, you need one and sooner rather than later. Begin with the pastor you have; encourage him to put the skim milk away and start serving solid food that will enable you to grow. If he needs help, suggest he read Acts 8, Ephesians 4 and Hebrews 6. If your pastor shows willingness to step up to the challenge, give him all the help and encouragement you can. If you meet with opposition or apathy, find a local church that is striving to practice what I have described above and get growing.

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