Foundations: The Church
The story of the Christian church is stunning. What started as a handful of Jesus' followers has become a global phenomenon that includes a few billion people. But growth hasn't come easy for the Christian church, and it has taken quite some time (two millennia) to become so widespread. The Christian church's growth has been marked by opposition and struggle. There have always been weaknesses in the church and those who have tarnished her reputation by their unbiblical behavior. But one thing remains constant. Despite the opposition, struggle, and confusion the church has faced, it continues to grow--just like Jesus said it would. And that growth is not over. There is still much work for Jesus to do in and through his church.
The Church Locally and Globally
The church is not a place; it is people. You will not find the word "church" applied to a place in the New Testament. The title is reserved for those who unite under the banner of Christ and live their lives in a way that celebrates his saving work. They are called out from the world and reconciled back to God so that they may worship him. A simple, but not fully complete definition, could read as follows: the church is a group of believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. They are obedient to Scripture and regularly gather under godly leadership for the preaching of God's Word, worship of God, and participation in the biblical sacraments. They are brought into unity by the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives and have been tasked with the mission of taking the gospel to all the world. They exist and gather for God's glory and their joy.
When speaking of the church, it is important to see the distinction between the church globally and the church locally. The church globally is all believers everywhere, while the church locally is a specific group of believers who gather regularly in a particular location. The church's significance, both locally and globally, cannot be ignored. It is the church who displays the truth, love, mercy, and grace of God for an unbelieving world. Christ goes as far as to call the church his "bride." This title begins to help us see and understand the significance of the church in God's eyes. God is committed to his people and desires for us to be as well.
What Defines a Christian Church?
Throughout the history of the Christian church there have been several characteristics that identifies a church as Christian. While some churches may emphasize one characteristic over another, all are important and necessary if a group of believers would desire to identify themselves as a local church.
Their confession. A Christian church must confess the truthfulness and reliability of the person and work of Christ. The gospel of Jesus is what unites a group of believers together and allows them to share individually in the Spirit's work.
Holiness. The Christian church is marked by holiness. Holiness is more than behavior modification that comes as a result of obeying certain religious rules. The church lives out the new life, which does include obeying many commands, that they received from Christ. Jesus serves as the example of this holy life and as a friend who encourages us to pursue holiness.
Apostolic. The Christian church is devoted to the apostles teaching that is given to us in the Bible.
Universal. The Christian church is not made up of a particular ethnicity or nationality of people. The gospel of Jesus is for all people, in all places, and throughout all times. The Christian church will look a little different depending on where it is located geographically, but the gospel message will still be the same.
The preaching of God's Word. A Christian church regularly gathers to hear the Word of God rightly preached. Christians are aware of their need to continually increase in their understanding of God's Word and that the Bible is to be heard and studied so that it might transform lives. Regularly hearing and responding to God's Word displays submission to God as the source of truth, wisdom, and guidance.
Leadership. The church is organized under qualified and God-given leadership. Very soon after a church is established in the New Testament, there are steps taken to appoint elders to lead that particular congregation in the worship of God.
The biblical sacraments. The Christian church administers the biblical sacraments of water baptism and communion visibly as symbols of the gospel.
A loving community. The church is supposed to be a place where the Spirit empowers believers to love God, one another, their neighbors, and even their enemies.
Obedient to the Great Commission. A Christian church understands that there are people separated from God and will remain in that condition for eternity unless they hear and respond to the gospel. The church seeks to evangelize the lose and spread the glory of God to all peoples and all places. They are passionate about lost people meeting Jesus.
The Body of Christ
The church of Jesus is given many titles in the New Testament. The favorite of the New Testament authors seems to be the "body of Christ." It is a beautiful metaphor full of life-changing truth and responsibility for those God has saved and adopted into his family.
Our physical bodies are made up of different parts. Each part is essential and needed. The eye cannot do the work of an ear, nor can the nose do the work of the hand. Each body part has been given to us with great care for a specific purpose. The church of Jesus Christ is the same. God saves people, all who are different, and they become a part of his family. They have a specific gift to offer; they have a specific purpose and function to fulfill. Not one person is more important than another. As each person offers their gift to God and others, the gospel goes forth, Christ is more fully and accurately displayed, and believers become more Christ-like.
The Beauty of the Church
We live in a day where it is common, even from professing Christians, to have a negative view of the church. In many cases they have been hurt by the church in some way, so they lose the ability to see the beauty of the church. Yes, there are "bad" churches--churches who hurt people and teach unbiblical doctrines. There are churches that no one would call beautiful. But the true Christian church, although imperfect, is full of beauty.
The church is made up of individuals who love and sacrifice for each other. They care about the world, injustice, and showing compassion. They care about the souls of people. They are generous, kind, and forgiving. They acknowledge their shortcomings and sins, are aware of when they hurt others, and humbly ask God and others for forgiveness. They worship God rather than self. They know it is more blessed to give than receive. They cry tears of sorrow and joy alongside each other. They are willing to stand up for truth and suffer any consequences that may come. But the real reason the church is beautiful is because of who leads it--Jesus. He is with his church at all times--through both the good and bad seasons of its existence. He is at work making her beautiful. And he will succeed.