Toward a Definition of Church
[The following is my attempt to define and then describe the New Testament church. It is part of a larger book I am currently writing on the kingdom of God in the New Testament. -- DAB]
The church is the living presence of Christ in the world.
The church is the living presence of Christ in the world through His community of followers, who acknowledge His sole Headship and authority and whom He daily empowers through His Spirit to obey His commands and fulfill His mission on earth.
Here's the same definition with a bit of commentary:
The church is the living presence of Christ in the world (Matt. 18:20) through His community (ekklēsia) of followers (mathētai), who acknowledge His sole Headship and authority (Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:23; Matt. 28:19) and whom He daily ("all the days," Matt. 28:20) empowers through His Spirit to obey His commands (Rom. 8:3-4) and fulfill His mission on earth (John 20:21).]
A few observations:
1) When Jesus said "I will build My church" (Matt. 16:18), it would seem that He had in mind a community of His followers who would be taught His commandments, who would be bound together by a common allegiance to Him signified by their baptism, and who would regard it as their responsibility to obey everything Jesus had taught them to do, including their responsibility to reach out beyond their own immediate circle to add others to their number irrespective of their nation of origin (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15).
2) The purpose of the church is to make the fact that Jesus is present in the world visible and tangible. Those who do not yet know Jesus are to come to know Him through the presence and proclamation of the church in deeds and words.
3) This "ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18) is the continuation of Jesus' own mission through His disciples. In essence, what Jesus began in his "flesh" (during His earthly ministry) He now continues in His "body" (the church). Consequently, the theme of the book of Acts is Christ's continuing presence among His people as a present reality. The main task of this new community is to witness to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is this exalted Jesus who constitutes the major focus in the church's evangelistic preaching.
4) The church is not the kingdom of God. Yet it finds its basis in the kingdom. The main idea is that the disciples are people in whom the kingdom of God can be manifested. There is strong evidence that Jesus expected His own mission of advancing God's kingdom to be carried forward through His disciples (John 17). Their mission is not directed inwardly but outwardly, toward "the world." The essence of the New Testament church is not centripetal ("Come to us") but centrifugal ("Go to them"). The ethic of the kingdom is to be lived out in the midst of secular society.
5) The essential marks of a New Testament church are given in Acts 2:37-47. A New Testament church is an evangelizing church, a baptizing church, a learning church, a fellowshipping church, a Christ-centered church, a praying church, and a caring church. The church, at heart, is a disciple-making community (Matt. 28:19-20). Followers of Jesus evangelize in His name, calling the lost to repentance and faith (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the sign of initial discipleship (Acts 2:41). Baptized disciples are then taught the content of what Jesus had Himself taught. This is the basic core of apostolic teaching (Acts 2:42).
6) In the major metaphors for "church" in the New Testament (especially body and building), the responsibility of each member towards other members of the community is emphasized. No part of the body can exist without the other parts of the body any more than a building can exist without its individual parts. The Christian church is intended to be marked by a deep sense of mutual responsibility within the community. Its particular hallmark is love (John 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 13:4-7; Rom. 12:9-21). Thus, despite there being great diversity in the church, there is unity. In every congregation, it is the common participation in the Lord's Supper that unites believers (Acts 20:7).
7) In matters of organization, the church meets regularly. The overriding goal of all such meetings is mutual edification (1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:25). Every congregation should demonstrate visibly the unity and variety of the church. All Christians, as followers of Him who said He came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45), are called to ministry (diakonia). Followers of Jesus find it inconceivable that they should spend their lives in any other way than in Christian service. "I am here for the church -- the church is not here for me" is their motto.
8) A wide diversity of gifts, callings, and ministries (1 Cor. 12:4-6) requires that each believer discover his or her own gift and help others to discover theirs. Some (like the Twelve in Acts 6:4) are called to the diakonia of the word, while others (like the Seven in Acts 6:1) are called to the diakonia of social ministry. Neither ministry is superior or inferior to the other; both ministries are ways of serving God. (The Greek text gives the sense that the work of serving those in need is on a par with the work of prayer and teaching.)
9) The risen Christ gave shepherd-teachers to congregations to encourage and direct this equipping ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). Congregational oversight is plural oversight (Acts 14:23). There is no one-man band. "What model of church, then, should we keep in our minds?" asks John Stott (Ephesians, p. 167). "The traditional model is that of the pyramid, with the pastor perched precariously on its pinnacle, like a little pope in his own church, while the laity are arrayed beneath him in serried ranks of inferiority. It is a totally unbiblical image, because the New Testament envisages not a single pastor with a docile flock but both plural oversight and an every-member ministry."
10) Shepherd-teachers relate to each other in two ways. Firstly they relate to each other as siblings in Christ and as fellow sheep in the flock. They function secondarily -- and only within the parameters of the primary relational context -- as vision-casters and decision-makers. The ethical teaching of Jesus excludes the notion of hierarchy among the disciples, including their leaders (Matt. 23:8). The greatest are those willing to be servants utterly dedicated to their Master's will.
11) At its core, the church is God's new community. It is a family, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is, first and foremost, the living presence of Christ among His people and only secondarily an institution that requires strategic planning and administrative oversight. Acts leaves no doubt that the church is essentially a community of the Spirit.
12) With the birth of the New Testament church, the need for a building in which to meet passed away. Christianity has no holy places, only holy people. As John 4:20-24 teaches, there was no longer one holy place for worship. Theologically, the church does not need a building because God already dwells in the community of Christian believers. The people are the temple. Thus a church building cannot be properly called a "sanctuary" or "the Lord's house" because in the New Covenant these titles are reserved for the church as people. If church buildings have any justification, it can only be on the basis of practicality -- as simply a place to meet and carry on essential functions of the gathered church as necessary. In the words of John Havlik, "The church is never a place, but always a people; never a fold but always a flock; never a sacred building but always a believing assembly" (People-Centered Evangelism, p. 47).
13) As for the church's ministry to the world, Christians can and should influence non-Christian society by being both salt (hindering decay) and light (dispelling the darkness of untruth). Above all, societal change is the fruit of evangelism. Evangelism has an indispensable place in social action and improvement. Christian social action is impossible without socially active Christians, and socially active Christians emerge out of evangelism. It is only when the Holy Spirit changes people that they begin to develop a social conscience and gain the vision and courage to chance society.
14) The church, in short, is the presence of Jesus in the world. It is Christ's living and growing body. In this sense, the church is said to "complete" Christ (Eph. 1:23). The mission of the church is modeled on the ministry of its Lord and Savior: "As the Father has sent Me, so I am sending you" (John 20:21). All authentic ministry is incarnational ministry. All authentic ministry is Spirit-empowered ministry. And all authentic ministry is Christ-exalting ministry. In the words of Swete and Viola (Jesus Manifesto, p. 123), "Christians don't shout 'Come to church!' They shout 'Come to Christ!' They don't follow Christianity. They follow Christ. They don't preach themselves. They simply preach Christ."
It may be helpful to note here a few traditional definitions of "church." According to the Augsburg Confession, "The Church is a congregation of saints, in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered." Calvin writes (Institutes, 4.1.9): "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, it is not to be doubted, a Church of God exists." According to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, "The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to same." The church, however, is in essence neither a building nor an event/meeting/activity/sacrament. It is the loving and authoritative presence of Jesus among his people.
February 15, 2020
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.