In an age in which the church is often ignored or belittled, I will offer over the next few weeks a multi-part essay on the nature and importance of the church. Part one is posted below.
What is the Church and Why Should I Care?
by Steven B. Cowan
"I don’t need organized religion. I can worship God my own way in the privacy of my own home."
"I do not belong to a local church, but I belong to the universal church made up of all who believe in Jesus."
"Can’t I just think of my little home Bible study group as my church? Why do I have to join a formal organization to please God?"
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard these kinds of things from professing Christians. Many religious people today seem to have little regard for the "traditional" local church, for what is often called "organized religion." There are perhaps many reasons for this. For one thing, churches do not always care for their members as they should. Hurting, spiritually-needy people sometimes fall through the cracks and are neglected by the church leaders and other members. Little wonder then that people who have been "burned" by churches would want nothing to do with "organized religion." For another thing, people in our relativistic, self-centered culture simply do not want the accountability the comes from membership in a local church. Add to this the fact that churches have done a poor job in recent generations of educating their members on the nature and importance of the local church—even denying at times that the Bible teaches formal church membership—and people outside the church have all the excuse they need to stay away.
Yet the Bible speaks much about the church. It tells us that Christ established the church; that he died for the church, and that he loves the church. Moreover, the Bible does teach (as we will see) that Christians should join themselves to organized, local churches. For these reasons, it is crucial that those who name the name of Jesus understand what the church is and what our relationship to the church should be. In this essay, we will outline the nature of the church under five headings and explain why you should care about being a part of a local church.
I. The Church Is a Gathered Community
Though the Bible does speak of a universal church that is composed of all Christian believers everywhere, and which is invisible (see Matt. 16:18; Eph. 5:23-32; Heb. 12:22-23), the Bible is very clear that this universal church is to have concrete expression in particular places by Christians gathering together to form local churches, local communities of believers. This is proven, first of all, simply from the word "church" itself. This term comes from the Greek ekklesia, which means "assembly" or "congregation." So, a church is an assembly or gathering together of people.
But, we can say more. In Acts 2, after Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon, we are told that 3000 people converted to faith in Christ. In verse 42, we learn that these new converts "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." Notice that one of the several activities that these early disciples is said to have devoted themselves was "fellowship." This term comes from the Greek koinonia, which has to do with people joining together for mutual benefit; having a shared life together as we see later in Acts chapters 4 and 5.
So a church is more than simply a meeting; more than a loose and casual gathering as when people get together for a party or at City Hall to vote on business. No, a church is a congregation of people who have a shared life together, a fellowship. The church is a community.
One of the most wonderful images of the church in the New Testament is the image of the "Body of Christ" This image makes it plain that the church is an intimate fellowship that exists for the mutual benefit of all church members. The Apostle Paul describes the church in 1 Corinthians 12:4-27 using the image of the Body of Christ.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. . . Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
Among other things, this passage clearly teaches at least three important truths about the members of the Body of Christ:
(1) Each Christian is given a spiritual gift for the mutual benefit of the whole church (v.7).
(2) The church needs each gifted member (vv.15-18).
(3) Each gifted member needs the whole church (v. 21).
What may we conclude from this? For one thing, we must say that the Body of Christ is healthy in so far as each member contributes his spiritual gifts for the good of all the other members. For another, since the church is a gathered community, there is the clear implication that each member of the church ought to have a commitment to the church. If a person exists in this kind of intimate fellowship in which he faithfully shares his gifts with the others, and they share with him, then that must involve a mutual commitment of each member to all the other members. We call this kind of commitment a covenant. For the church to be a gathered community, functioning as a healthy Body of Christ, requires that those who are gathered together enter into covenant with one another.
[to be continued...]