This is the seventh part of a new series I’m calling Blogmatics. It’s an attempt on my part to lay out as best I can in as brief a manner as I can all the theological assumptions behind my blog posts.
What is the church?
Is it a building?
Is it the people?
Is it an institution?
I remember back in my youth group days we all used to get fired up about this question. “The church isn’t a building, it’s the people!” we used to say without a doubt in our minds. I still hear that line tossed out by people of all ages and all theological persuasions.
On the surface it sounds so true, almost liberating as if denouncing the formality of a church building or institution frees us from all the things that we think are foreign to the faith.
As I’ve gotten older I don’t know that I’ve gotten wiser, but I have become more convinced that the church is both more complicated and more beautiful than most of us imagine.
Is the church a group of people?
Of course. In Acts the church begins as the “ecclesia,” the called out ones, men and women called out of the ordinary, the mundane, and the routine to live extraordinary holy lives that would forever change the course of human history.
But even then there was more to church than just a bunch of friends hanging out, sharing a meal, and singing a few songs.
The popular myth is that the institutional structure of the modern church is contrary to the church of the New Testament, that those first churches were all casual, autonomous groups of believers. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It may have taken a few years to coalesce, but the New Testament is unequivocally clear that the early church was a interconnected and interdependent body with appointed leaders who oversaw a network of churches who “were all together and had everything in common.”
The great missionary and social work of the apostles, of Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and the rest were part of a coordinated, institutional effort to spread the gospel.
The early church, as Paul so clearly stated, was one Body with many fundamentally connected, absolutely not autonomous parts.
This is why Paul and Barnabas had to appear before the Council in Jerusalem. And why Paul took a collection from the church in Corinth to Jerusalem. It’s also why Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers had the authority to write the letters to early churches, some of which they had never even visited themselves, giving them instructions, advice, and commands for how to be the people of God and how their churches should function.
The early church was never the autonomous, loosely affiliated group of believers so many in the church today want to pretend that they were. In fact, the very idea of autonomy is fundamentally antithetical both to what it means to be the church as well as to the Christian faith itself.
Because independence is an American ideal, not a Christian one. If you want to be independent and do things however you see fit, then George Washington is the founder of your faith, not Jesus.
As Christians we are not independent of one another. We are, by definition, members of one interdependent Body. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Which means there is not, never was, and never will be such a thing as “it’s just me and Jesus.”
Jesus came to unite us in one Body, not pat us on the head and say “keep doing your solo thing, it’s obviously working out great.”
So whether we call ourselves Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Nazarene, or Catholic we are all share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We are the called out ones together, not individually. And so we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend like what happens in one corner of the church has nothing to do with us simply because we’re not a member of that particular denomination or congregation. What one pastor or preacher or congregation or lay person does affects us all whether we like it or not. So, regardless of the name on the sign out front we must support one another, even as we hold one another accountable.
And yet I think there is a beauty in our diversity.
Do I wish there were fewer denominations? Absolutely.
But disagreement is not evil. It certainly is not a sin, nor is it necessarily detrimental to the life of the church because being a Body is about unity, not conformity. In fact, disagreement can be a very good and important thing when it stimulates growth and maturity in the Body of Christ.
Each theological tradition brings a important voice to the table, reminding the church of the complexity of her faith and, hopefully, keeping her from teetering too far towards a monochromatic dogmatism defined by the opinions of a few.
Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters remind us of the importance of tradition and authority. Pentecostals remind us to leave room for the moving of the Spirit. The Reformed tradition reminds of the power of God. And Wesleyan-Arminians remind us of God’s gift of free will and the divine desire to be in a truly loving relationship with creation.
When these voices speak in conversation with one another, rather than denouncing the other outright, they come together to weave a beautiful, rich, and vibrant tapestry of the faith that no single tradition is capable of achieving on its own.
But, of course, this happens far less often than it should.
Because the church is made of human beings and human beings are not perfect, therefore the church is not perfect. Too often there is a tremendous credibility gap between what we proclaim and how we act as a church. We must always strive to bridge this gap through love, humility, and service to others. But until Christ returns to claim his bride the church will continue to have moments of embarrassing failure.
But those short comings on the part of some do not negate the importance and necessity of the community of faith as a whole in shaping who we are and guiding us towards who we were created to be.
Simply put, we need the church and the church needs us.
In the end God may choose to extend salvation beyond the church, but for now there is no Christianity, no being a follower of Jesus outside the church he established.
So is the church a building, institution, or people?
It’s all the above and more.
The church is defined by the lives of her people. She is led through the guidance of the Holy Spirit by the leaders God has entrusted with her care. And she is a physical place where the people of God can come together to be reminded that they are not alone and that the God they worship inhabits and is transforming the world in which they dwell.
Being the church isn’t easy, but being the church is who we are as followers of Christ.
We can celebrate it, criticize it, get angry with it, wrestle with it, or praise it.
But we can’t abandon it.
We can’t say to the Body “I don’t need you.”
Because to reject that Body is to reject the one who gave us his Body.
And if we do that, we can no longer claim to be his followers.
Grace and peace,