I must confess. I love the Church! She is a wonderfully large and beautiful Bride. But there is something which troubles me about us. Like Aesop’s fabled lion which Androcles helped, I have a thorn in my paw. Throughout my Christian life, I have heard many illustrations from us and others attempting to explain the Church. Many of them miss the mark. Regardless of how religious or inclusive we attempt to be, our descriptions often go awry. The Church of Jesus Christ is the most unique Living Body in existence. Anytime we look outside of God’s Book to describe His Church, we fail miserably.
Review the words of the Chief Church Builder with me, found in Matthew 16:13-18.
When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?“ Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
So, what is the Church?
The Church is not a building, even though our popular culture defines a church as a building used for public worship. Sure, we Christians own many nice buildings and some nice furniture. Yet, the true Church of Jesus Christ is not a building and can never be contained by an inanimate structure. She is an extremely large and ever-expanding world-wide Body of believers with local groups assembling to meet in various structures. But even if we are talking about the vast sum of all of our buildings together, this does not constitute the Church. It is best to think of the Church (capital “C”) as the world-wide, blood-bought, Body of Christ that every believer becomes a member of at the point of genuine conversion.
Consider these rhetorical questions. What if we stopped referring to our buildings as the Church? Would it aid our mission if we repented of our obsession with buildings? Shouldn’t we spend more money on missions than mortgages? Do we want to name the building or the congregation that meets in the building? Should our local names be representative of our vision? Let’s not forget that the Body of Christ is the Church even when She is not in a building. Many congregations outside of the USA and some within do not have the nice buildings that most of our American congregations love. They are simply content to gather in a certain location at a particular landmark for the purpose of worship and corporate Bible teaching. Does this discount their membership in the at-large Body of Christ?
You’ve probably heard this failed description too. We should really stop repeating this half-truth. “The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” The trouble with this failed illustration is that it runs out of relevance too quickly. I do agree that we are not a museum. Museums hold historical items deemed as valuable and we choose to occasionally visit them and reacquaint ourselves with their historical importance. So you see, the Church is not a museum but She is not a hospital either because both of those are buildings. Think about a hospital building. People are admitted because they have a sickness which demands some degree of isolation and more intense treatment than they could get at home. They get well and leave, hoping to return no more unless they want to visit a friend who is not in the best health. In saying that the Church is a hospital for sinners, we’re saying that sinners never get well enough to leave. How out of touch with biblical theology is this concept?! Here’s the deal; sinners aren’t just sick. They are spiritually dead in their sins and trespasses and in need of resurrection. By the power of His Spirit, Jesus Christ resurrects dead sinners into living saints. Biblical saints are new creations in the continual process of becoming like Christ, our Chief Cornerstone. And we don’t leave once we’ve been resurrected, we are joined as members of the Body. We remain within the Church (the spiritual building) for corporate worship and discipleship. As resurrected members of the Body, we make continuous efforts to assemble together in the physical buildings that our local groups have chosen to use for the purpose of worship and Bible teaching. Remaining in this spiritual household for submission and accountability also brings healing because after all, our Savior is a healer.
On a sensible note, let me clarify what I mean. Illustrations are tools, which come alongside Bible truths in order to help explain that which is unclear. Often, it is best to let the Bible illustrate the Bible. Illustrations from outside of Scripture are like dirty mirrors out of which you can never see perfectly. Regardless of how spiritual they sound, some can lead you or the people you’re trying to reach, into the ditch of false doctrine. A good principle to remember when using illustrations is this: “you can’t get more spiritual than scriptural” (Bishop Tim Hill).
Return to the text with me and let’s observe. Jesus is God Almighty and does not ask the original question because He does not know the answer. His goal was to get His disciples thinking, and He did. It would do us all good if we would pause and think before we speak (or simply repeat what sounds good). After the survey of answers came in, Jesus never spoke a word about them. He wasn’t really concerned about what the world without thought. His main concern was with the men who followed Him. So He immediately puts them on the spot. And as though he were the spokesman for the group Peter blurts out the Rhema word that has developed in his mind. Jesus was pleased with the answer from Heaven that Peter proclaimed. You see, it does matter to God that His people hear accurately from His word and His Spirit and have the right answers regarding Him and His Church.
Christians have no business listening to those who are outside of our faith attempting to define the Church for us. And regardless of the sources, we should not be entertaining the vain descriptions of the Church that are simply not what the Bible says. Perhaps this is the root cause of the many propagated misunderstandings. Lack of Bible literacy has caused us to believe too many of the other voices vying for our attention. The Church is the Body of Christ. And we have a sourcebook for all of our questions, which is meant to transform our minds. It’s a book, unlike any other ever written. It alone has the answers we are in search of.
Thank you for reading. By doing so, you’ve helped remove the thorn from my paw. In the comment section, feel free to give some response to the title question of this post.
PS – On 12/15/2015, about a month after I wrote this piece, I ran across this article with a very similar theme. Karl Vaters at newsmallchurch.com often writes pertinent articles regarding the church.