What is the Church?
The Church. Which one is the right one? Where is it? Is it invisible, or visible? Just what exactly, is the church, and what is it not? Can one be a member of the Church and not be a believer? Christians have fervently fought over these questions for centuries. And, unfortunately, these skirmishes rarely benefit either party. Most of the time, all parties leave such discussions more angry and divided in heart than when they first began. Much of this conflict is based on a murky understanding of the Church.
Unquestionably, the meaning of the Church is often blurred and confused in our culture. We are asked, "What Church do you go to?" and this question really means, "What denomination are you affiliated with?" The words "Church" and "denomination" are used inter-changeably, as if they both meant the same thing. They don't. As the next few chapters will show, the Church is the united, indivisible Body of Christ. A denomination is an administrative fragment which contradicts that Biblical truth. There may be many different "denominations", but the Bible makes it plain that there is only one Church.
What is the exact definition of the Church? The East offers none.1 This should not be surprising. The Christian people formulated no rational definition of the Church, for the first fifteen hundred years of its existence.2 The New Testament calls the Church a divine "mystery" (Eph. 5:32). It does so for good reason: the Church is the miracle of Christ in us and us in Christ. This mystery will always be beyond explanations.
In keeping with the Hebraic thought and culture of the times, the New Testament writers depicted the Church in "spiritual images", not rationalistic formulas. The Church is: the Bride of Christ (Eph. 5:23; Rev. 22:17), the True Vine with its branches (John 15: 1-7), the Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22), the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:6), the Household of God (Gal. 6:10), and Living Stones (1 Pet. 2:5). These and other New Testament figures speak not only to reason, but to our hearts, spirits, and human life experience. Each vision gives us a deeper insight into the truth that the Christian has been made a member of a divine-human community. Yet not one of these images (by itself or all together) can ever succeed in communicating the full reality of that union.
In the next three chapters I will discuss some of these images of the Church. But I would ask that you please keep the above point in mind: the Church is a spiritual entity. Therefore a spiritual sensitivity is necessary to see the pictures the Spirit paints for us to ponder. The mind alone will never be able to fully grasp any one of these illustrations.
HOW THE CHURCH BOTH IS AND IS NOT AN INSTITUTION
The Church is a human institution in that it exists within this world, has order, history, and is made up of people. The Church is a divine institution in the sense that her government is Divine, she exists eternally, and God dwells within her.
The Church is not an institution as the word is popularly understood to mean, i.e., a bureaucracy concerned with getting a job done. When the Church is thus spoken of by what it does rather than by what it is, it is reduced to a mere factory or academy.3 Some aspects of the Church's mission may call it to serve as a "teaching forum," a "soul-winning center," or as a counseling clinic, but these things do not constitute the nature of the Church.4 Her being is not defined by activities, but by communion with Christ and the brethren.
The love of God is the "heart-beat" of the Church, it is her very life. This divine power transforms the church as institution into the Church as a divine living organism, the Life of God. How is this so? By the fact that "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." Christ has come not only to provide us forgiveness, but fullness of joy through life in, with, and through Him.5 Christ, "the firstborn" of the Church (Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18; Rev. 1:5), is the one Who shares membership with us in the Church. It is He who unites us in love to Himself and to the brethren. He is the Vine, we are the branches (John 15:5).
The Church is more than an association of believers,6 and more than a collection of religious individuals working together.7 The Church is the community of Christ Himself.8 It is Christ who gives the Church her existence. The Church's nature and essence are totally dependent upon His nature and essence. For this reason, one's perception of the Church must rest squarely on who Christ is. "The nature of the Church is the nature of Christ because it is His body."9 A faulty view of Him will, therefore, yield an equally defective view of the Church.
One of the most significant Church councils pertaining to the doctrine of Christ was the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). In its profession, we gain not only a great insight into the nature of Christ, but also a perception of the Church as well.10 The following is an excerpt from one of its declarations:
Just as Christ, the God-Man, has both a divine and a human nature, so the Church likewise manifests divinity and humanity. Of course, Christ's humanity differs from the humanity constituting the Church in that her members are not yet complete and perfect. This, however, in no way detracts from the fact that the mystery of Christ's presence fills the Church. As it is within the Person of Christ, the Church's human will lives and acts in cooperation with the divine. Such a cooperation results in the Christian becoming more and more like Him Who is the Church's Head.
One's affiliation with the Church's outward expressions (in clergy, membership, government, doctrine, etc.) does not automatically provide one with an assurance that he has a reserved seat at the heavenly banquet. The Church is a Community of the Spirit; her essence transcends denominational boundaries and earthly authority. To be a member of a "religious" body is not always the same thing as being a member of the Church. Such a religious group grants membership when one conforms to its rules (e.g., no dancing, smoking, drinking), obligations (tithing), and doctrines (subscription to a "statement of faith," professing Christ as Lord).
However, to be a member of the Church is not so simplistic. Membership in the Church requires a life of love lived with God and the brethren. This communal life in the Spirit is the Church (1 Cor. 12:12,13).12 The Eastern Church is "aware of being clearly differentiated from the more or less institutional conception of the church which characterized the development of the medieval Roman church."13 Christ came not to found a "Standing Executive Committee" or a "Divine Religious Jurisdiction." He came to bring man into communion with God and others.
In other words, Church membership is not given to those who trust in "churchly" forms, but to those who live in communion with the Spirit Who fills some of those forms.14 When these forms become ends in themselves, the danger of religious institutionalism appears.15 This occurs when people relate to the observable structures as if they guaranteed God's indwelling (e.g., "God must be with us, our bishop is within the historic line of the Apostles").16 However, no outward structure no matter how ancient or modern can command the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit may use structures, but He can never be manipulated by them. We must not confuse one for the other.
God's Church is where truth and love are; His Church is not where structures are revered no matter how beautiful, "religious" or "effective" they may be. In fact, even if the "organization and discipline of the earthly church ... be perfect, ... if its life and activity are not inspired by the Spirit of God, they are not even Christian."17 As Orthodox theologian Serge Verhovsky notes:
The Church does not exist to perpetuate its own institutional structures. She uses them to administer, to secure, and to promote the koinonia [communion] of man with God and with his fellow man. When they are not used to this end, they become obstacles to union. Such a misuse is no less than "blasphemous."19
VISIBLE OR INVISIBLE?
Discussing the institutional element of the Church naturally brings up another question: "Is the true Church visible or invisible?" In general, the Reformation tradition promoted the doctrine that the true Church was the invisible Church.20 According to this teaching, God was the only One Who could identify the real Christian from the false; no religious structure could be trusted to make the recognition.21 The emphasis for this view of the Church was a direct reaction to the Roman Catholic teaching on the Church. Romeıs hierarchy claimed to be the representatives of the Christıs Church. If you wanted a chance at being a member of the Church in heaven someday (the invisible church), you had to be a member of the Church on earth (the visible Church).22 This visible Church, Rome taught, was none other than the Roman Catholic Church.
How did the concept of visible and invisible Church first develop? Ironically, the foundation for the doctrine of the invisible Church evolved from within the Roman Church, or at least as it was expressed through Augustine of Hippo. In this famous bishopıs writings titled City of God, a basis was built for a conception of the Church as a spiritual-material dualism. This perspective viewed the invisible things of the Spirit as distinct, separate and unrelated to the material things of creation.23 Luther, echoing Augustine's dualism some thousand years later, not only asserted that the true Church was the invisible one, but that the visible and the invisible Church may be held in outright opposition to each other.24 Ulrich Zwingli, a key figure of both the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions, affirmed that because only God knew whom He had elected to salvation, the true Church's membership would of necessity be invisible. The logical implication of this reasoning was that unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity applied only to this specified "mystical" body.25
Generally speaking, contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are very much in sympathy with the Reformed and Zwinglian perspective. The true Church is something mystical, spiritual, unknowable, and "heavenly", whereas the "earthly" church, whose membership is composed of both Christians and non-Christians, is but a passing, fallen institution. Certainly those who are members of "physical" churches can receive encouragement, teaching, and moral discipline through them, but only one's membership in the heaven-based Church has any eternal significance.
The Eastern Approach: Visible, Invisible, and Indivisible
The Eastern minded Christian takes a different approach to the matter. He finds no Biblical reason either to divide the Church into two "parts" as the Catholics do (visible/invisible), or to believe it exists only in heaven (the invisible "mystical" body of Christ) as many Evangelical-Fundamentalists do.26 Eastern Christians believe that dividing the Church into visible and invisible parcels actually contradicts the very nature of the Church. The Church is one, whole organism. The visible is inseparably linked to and a part of the invisible, and vice versa. If the Church is indeed the Body of Christ (not two different bodies, one in heaven and one on earth), then her nature must be an undivided whole. In short, Eastern Christianity holds to a visible yet mystical body of Christ.
It is impossible to view the Church as only invisible. Although the Church exists outside of time and space, its historic origin at Pentecost was clearly a divine and human event, i.e., the Church was born in time at a specific place, Jerusalem.
Even Christ's membership in the Church makes the claim of the invisible Church impossible. He did not poof into an invisible, divinized mist after His ascension. Christıs humanity was not erased after His resurrection (just as ours will not be in our glorification on the Last Day [I Cor. 15:20ff]). At the right hand of God Christ can still be seen in His glorified humanity (flesh, bones, teeth, etc.).
Christ's Covenant makes one a member of the Church, and that Covenant applies to the earthly saint as much as it does to the heavenly believer. The two realms of the Church are indivisible for Christ is the common foundation for both heaven and earth. Clearly, the Bible makes it plain that the Church is of heaven and of earth.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant ... (Heb. 12:22-24).
WHY THE CHURCH CANNOT BE A DENOMINATION
The Church is one organism within the one Christ: "There is one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4: 5, 6). This intrinsic wholeness of the Church leads Eastern Christians to refuse to see Christianity as a collective of denominations.
The Lord is the shepherd of "one flock" (John 10: 16). Dissensions and factions are a work of the flesh (Gal. 5: 19, 20f), not an administrative division of the Church. The Church's internal being can neither be reduced nor altered. The divisions between East and West, the Reformation, the Radical Reformation, or other such reform movements, have neither decreased nor increased the number of "pieces" making up the Church. Christianity is not the sum total of all denominations.27 The Church is one and Christ cannot be divided (1 Cor. 1:13).
In essence, the Church cannot be in dissension with itself. The Church embodies the Truth, and the Truth can never oppose itself with "many" truths for there is only one Truth. Since the Truth is whole, the Church can not be sliced and diced into competing denominations. A differing doctrinal confession does not create another "Church," it creates another denomination.
As the Church cannot be administratively divided, neither can it be administratively reunited. One does not "bring the Church together." The Church is already together. One cannot divide God and His Truth, and then through later efforts restore them to unity. Those who read John 17 ("that they may all be one") as a mandate to "put the Church together" ignore the unity and union which is already an inherent characteristic of the Church.28
One does not work for "Church unity" by trying to assemble all denominations under one administrative roof; each group is not a "state" within the Church Kingdom that can be united in a kind of federation. The Body of Christ exists concretely on the earth, but we do not organize the Church. With Christ, we compose the Church!
The earthly administration of denominations is not the same thing as the earthly administration of the Church. For the most part, the purpose of a denomination's government is to perpetuate its distinctives and defend its exclusive loyalties. On the other hand, the purpose of the Church's administration is to bring humankind into union with God. One seeks to distinguish and separate, the other to bring Divine-human harmony and communion.
THE CONFESSIONAL "CHURCH" VERSES THE CHURCH
The Origin of "The Confessional" Church
Both during and after the Reformation, Protestants formulated many of their doctrines in protest to what Catholics believed, and later Catholics developed much of their teaching in opposition to Protestants positions. Aspects of both theologies were being defined in contradiction to the other, each body trying to affirm only its doctrines as representative of the true Church. The result of such a battle was that true Christianity came to be equated with a particular breed of doctrine. To the Roman Catholics, one could not espouse Protestant doctrines and be a true Christian; and to the Protestants, Roman Catholic thinking prohibited one from entering into the Kingdom.
Thus began the "confessional" view of both Church and doctrine. Where the Early Church maintained that it was impossible to objectively define the mystery of this union in Christ, the confessional groups now believed that the Church could be sufficiently explained through encyclicals and "statements of faith." Hence, doctrine became something one can define, defend, and propagate through propositional logic. Whereas the early Church used doctrines only as a means of defending the faith, the confessional groups now used doctrines as a way to exhaustively delineate the Faith.29 Instead of doctrines being a means to deepen one's experience of God, each doctrine became merely another "theological brick" cemented in the confessional barrier. Christians now had a "theological" reason for their fleshly divisiveness.
The Fallacy of the Non-Confessional Church
The Reformation period's stress upon doctrine as a means of defining the Church is rejected by many ecumenically minded Christians today. To these Christians, ones doctrine is not as important as Christian "unity." Where for one person, confessionalism is a sign of orthodoxy; for another, a lack of theological awareness is an expression of "love."30 Those who have a concern for doctrinal clarity and precision are judged as cold, prejudiced, individuals on the hunt for a reason to exclude others.
Such thinking replaces confessionalism with doctrinal minimalism. The argument becomes: "If division was mothered by exacting confessionalism, why not create a confession of 'bare essentials' in which all Christians could agree and be unified?"31 The "confessional church" one belongs to is unimportant. Now the only thing that matters is that one "believes in Jesus."
The nature of the Church of God, however, can never be minimalistic. It must always be maximalistic. Why? The Church cannot prioritize Truth, because Truth cannot be abbreviated. To confine Truth to its "Top Ten" propositions implies that the other eleven to infinity are not really important. Thus, according to this reasoning, there is such a thing as irrelevant Truth. All Truth, however, is relevant, for where there is Truth, there is a revelation of Him Who is the Truth. Actually, to say that Truth has a minimal expression is a contradiction. Truth, to be Truth, hides nothing; only in ignorance is falsehood permitted to reign. Where there is Truth there is Light, and darkness, by necessity, must be dispelled.
The call of the Church is to manifest the Truth in its fullest, not its least, expression. Truth is the very foundation and nature of the Church, its Head being Truth Himself (John 14: 6). It is not our option to give Truth a "crew cut" simply to encourage a "practical," confessional unity. It is a fallacy to assume that a common confession will guarantee real unity. Despite the doctrinal agreement each confessional group maintains among its membership, the multitude of divisions existing within both "non-denominational" and "Brand Name" denominations sufficiently proves this point.
An agreement based on "minimums" is either a commitment to bridle one's pursuit of Truth, or an admittance that a fuller measure of truth is insignificant (at least in respect to the promotion of unity). In this latter case, Truth and the disclosure of God is not the goal of doctrine, but a superficial, administrative unity. Such a compromise is contrary to the purpose and character of Christ and His Church. We are not to find our unity by limiting ourselves in the fear that our "unity" will be "ruined" through greater insight into the things of God. We "are to grow up in all aspects into Him" (Eph. 4:15).
The spiritual reality of the Church is never realized confessionally by either definitions or through minimizing Truth. The Church is actualized only in communion with God and the brethren (Eph. 3: 18, 19; 4:13-16). This neither denigrates nor exalts the place of doctrine. It puts it in its proper perspective: within the context of love. This relational (as opposed to confessional) environment will always lead us to live more compatibly with God, i.e., to live in Truth.32 Only in this setting of communion and love will we rightly understand the purpose and end of doctrine: to emulate God's love (I Tim. 1:5; Eph. 5:1, 2).
Because confessionalism distorts the vision of the Church as a divine-human community, its major premise is unbiblical. Christianity cannot be shrunk down to a few fundamentals. The Church is life in God, a supernatural and human society which seeks to embrace all of creation in the redemption given to her by her Head.33 Confessionalism, on the other hand, depicts the Church as an institution of confessing individuals. The church of confessionalism inevitably ends up competing with the Church of communion.
THE CHURCH AS THE BODY OF CHRIST
Christ's Inseparable Union With The Church
Because the Church is the body of Christ, it is an organism. It is a living entity. In 1 Corinthians 12: 12 Paul says,
"For just as the [human] body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ."
What can we conclude from this passage? Christ and the Church (His body) are intimately united to each other. How deep is this union? His union with us is as intimate as the relationship we have with our own physical members actually, even deeper. This is a profound mystery! Christ's closeness to us is such that Paul can speak of our relationship with Him as union (Rom. 6:5). We are joined into Christ (Rom. 6:3. We are member of the very Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12).34
The body of Christ is the realization of Christ's promise to be with us even unto the end of the ages (Matthew 28: 20). When Christ ascended into heaven, he did not leave the Church. He kept His promise to remain with us at Pentecost in the pouring out of the Spirit. On that day, Christ made His people His body, an "incarnation" of His very being.35 This is the "intimate union which constitutes the mystery of the Church."36 The Spirit has made the Church and Christ inseparable, a genuine union emphasized time and again in Scriptures:
Our bodies are "members of Christ" (1 Cor. 6:15).
"For by one Spirit were we all baptized into one body ... and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13).
We are all one body, in the one Christ (1 Cor. 12:20-27).
"...we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another." (Rom. 12:4, 5).
The mystery of our union with the Lord in the Church is as intimate as the one a believing husband and wife are to share (Eph. 5:29-32) in some respects it is even richer. In this union Christ can honestly say to us, "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me, receives Him who sent Me." (Matt. 10:40, Matt. 25:40). It is an identity so strong that Jesus can say that He experiences what even the least of His brethren experience at the hands of others (Matt. 25:40). It is this bond which made Paul's persecution of the Church a persecution of Christ Himself ("And he said, 'Who art Thou, Lord?' And He said, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting' "[Acts 9:5]).
The Church can never be separated from Christ, for "She cannot exist without Him from whom she received all fullness."37 The book of Ephesians says this very thing when it refers to the Church as "His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:23). The Word "fullness" here is the Greek word pleroma (plhroma), which means "that which makes something full or complete."38 In this light, the Ephesians passage reveals an amazing and incomprehensible mystery: we, as the Church, somehow actually supplement, and complement Christ Himself! How can this be? In Christ, the Church stands as a new humanity (1 Cor. 15:20-23), redeemed and reborn through her Head.39 The depth and intensity of our intimacy with Christ unfolds the mystery of His existence within the Church. In this context,
In some wonder of God, we the Church will complete His work of redemption on that Last Day when He restores all creation in Himself.41 How? We do not know exactly, but we do know that the answer lies somewhere in our genuine union with Him. As our union in His Body restores us,42 so His union within us will be used to restore creation itself.43 In this awesome wonder to be unveiled on the Last Day, the truth is again clear: "Christ is never alone. The Redeemer and the redeemed ... [are] together inseparably."44
The Spiritual Ramifications of Being the Body of Christ
The Church's being the body of Christ strongly emphasizes that the Church is Community. In every place but one where the phrase "the body of Christ" is found in Scripture, it is used in direct connection with the Eucharistic gathering,45 the gathering where "the many become one" in the communion of Christ.46 Paul's reference to the Church as the body of Christ was not just a metaphor. It was based on the spiritual-historical reality that Christ became a Man and now shares our humanity.47 The purpose of the Incarnation was not just to make it possible for Christ to take on our sin on the Cross, but to unite our humanity with His, and through Himself, to bring us into a healing bond with one another (1 Cor. 12:13).
The individual Christian is a member of a body of believers, and therefore he truly needs his brethren. If a glowing hot coal is taken from the fire it soon becomes cold and useless. Likewise, the Christian needs the fellowship of Christ's body to maintain the spiritual vitality that is supposed to characterize the Christian life.49 Our union with each other in the Body is not just so we can have a more intimate relationship with one another, but so that we can have a more intimate relationship with Christ, the Head.
The truth is that our genuine communion with other Christians is actually the chief way that the Lord strengthens us, reveals Himself to us, and transforms us into His likeness. We receive the nourishment supplied by the Head through each joint (member) of the body.
"...holding fast to the head [Christ], whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God." (Col. 2:19)
We are called to actually live in such a way that this reality of our shared bond in Christ is manifested. When it is, we will be living witnesses to the truth that God is indeed among us. "The ultimate desire in the heart of God in visiting a people is not just to bless them as individuals; but His constant yearning is that they be knitted together as a functioning body through which He can express Himself to the world."50 May the world, which stands in such great need, receive this living witness soon.
NOTES FOR CHAPTER NINE
"In the West, the Church developed as a powerful institution; in the East, it was seen primarily as a sacramental (or 'mystical') organism, in charge of 'divine things' and endowed with only limited institutional structures. The structures (patriarchates, metropolitinates, and other officialdom) themselves were shaped by the empire (except for the fundamental tripartite hierarchybishop, priest [presbyter], deaconin each local church) and were not considered to be of divine origin." John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology, (New York, Fordham Press, 1979) p. 215
The main theological continuation of the evangelical impulse in the church during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is contained with the streams involved in the First and Second Awakenings. In the course of the nineteenth century, however, the American evangelical stream began to suffer constriction and reduction. This did not occur without further development and some positive gains: Charles Finney and D. L. Moody, whose native intuitions were never disturbed by seminary education, popularized the gospel in a way that brought the laity into the process of witness as never before. But there were losses in this process also. The frontline work of evangelical renewal was no longer led by men with the intellectual and theological stature of [Jonathan] Edwards and [John] Wesley ... Revival became revivalism; what had been a comprehensive program of church renewal, evangelism and social and cultural reform, became increasingly limited to one expression of mission: mass evangelism and personal outreach through the local church.
Robert Webber, Donald Bloesch, eds., The Orthodox Evangelicals, "A Call to Historic Roots and Continuity," Richard Lovelace, (New York, Thomas Nelson, 1977) p. 59
"In America, for the first two centuries Protestantism dominated overwhelmingly, and the Bible had played a role in shaping the culture for which there was no European parallel. Lacking a strong institutional church and denying the relevance of much of Christian tradition, American Protestants were united behind the principle of Scriptura sola. ... In the wake of Revolution, Americans saw themselves as inaugurators of a new order for the ages. The new order was conceived as a return to a pristine human condition. For Protestants this ideal was readily translated into Biblical primitivism. The true church should set aside all intervening tradition, and return to the purity of New Testament practice. The Bible alone should be one's guide. Biblicism was closely related to religious individualism, also encouraged by revivalism. The individual stood alone before God; his choices were decisive. The church, while important as a supportive community, was made up of free individuals."
George M. Marsden. Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980) p. 224