7th January 2002
Our goal in this session is to discover God's perspective on what the chuch is, and so free ourselves from the negative stereotypes in the media.
The New Testament speaks mostly about the Universal Church, which is made up of all Christians who have ever lived or will ever live. But everything that it says about the Universal Church is, or should be, mirrored in every individual local church - including ours.
The church is, first of all, the Community of the Redeemed:
As you come to him, the living Stone [...] you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood [...] offering spiritual sacrifices. [...] You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.- 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10
This is a high calling. It's not just a matter of getting together in a cafe every Sunday! The church is the Army of God; the Family of his sons and daughters. It is a temple, a priesthood and a nation. It is the Body of Christ and will be his bride.
It's crucial that we do not allow the church decay into any of the possible ``church substitutes'' - which is the natural outcome if it's allowed to become a human thing: social clubs, missionary organisations, prayer support groups and bible schools are all good things but they're not the church. They are only tiny facets of the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
And it needs to be, because it's God's hope for humanity and for creation:
[...] this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.- Ephesians 3:9-10
We are it. If the Church doesn't make the wisdom of God known, then no-one will.
How can an outdated, irrelevant institution for children and old women possibly achieve this? It can't. But the church can!
The church is here for a reason: to fight a war. It's a war that only the church can fight. Charities and corporations and govenments can't do it - because only we have the spiritual weaponry that's needed:
Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.- 2 Corinthians 10:3-5
That's a call for the church to pray, powerfully and effectively: a subject that we really need to return to in another session.
All of which explains why this kind of attitude is appropriate:
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.And:- 1 Timothy 5:1-2
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.- Hebrews 10:24-25
This sort of caring, inward-looking approach may seem at odds with the idea of the church as an army. How do we reconcile these different ideas of what the church is? Easy - we don't! Simply, both things are true. We are an army and a family.
Being a family together is an extraordinary expression of closeness, but the bible goes very much further than this: it describes the church as a body, and the people in it as part of that body:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. 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. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.- 1 Corinthians 12:12, 15-22, 26-27
The church as a body is not a casual metaphor, but a closely worked argument with the consequences carefully worked out. This should cause us to reflect on the meaning of the word ``member'', which biblically is not a static, official notion of having your name on a list somewhere, but of being a member of a body, in the sense of a limb or an organ. When a church loses some of its people, it is literally ``dismembered''.
Now Jesus is the head of the body:
[Jesus] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church.- Colossians 1:17-18
Note that in the 1 Corinthians passage, we read that ``the head cannot say to the feet, `I don't need you!'.'' In other words, Jesus himself is incomplete without the Church! This is a shock, and might sound like heresy: but it's totally biblical (see also Ephesians 1:22-23).
Now one of the characteristics of bodies is that, being alive, they grow. With the church, this happens as the members are equipped for service:
It was [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.- Ephesians 4:11-16
Note the amazingly high expectation of the level of maturity that we will attain: ``the whole measure of the fullness of Christ''. That's because the body is destined to become the Bride of Christ! Jesus wants a grown-up bride, not a little girl. That's one of the reasons why Christian maturity is important.
The sense in Ephesians is not that the union of Christ and the Church is ``sort of like human marriage'', but that human marriage exists largely as a visual aid to the One True Marriage:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy [...] and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
In the same way, Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church - for we are members of his body. ``For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.'' This is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and the church.- Ephesians 5:25-32
This is the final destiny of the church:
I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ``Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.''
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.- Revelation 19:6-7; 21:2
How glorious the church appears in God's eyes!
So this is where we're headed: the church is a community, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, an army, a family and a body - and it will be the Bride of Christ.
These are all facets of the truth of the church. They are all true, but no one of them alone, nor even the combination of all of them, is the whole truth - just as a cylinder is truly both a circle (when viewed from the top) and a rectangle (viewed from the side), but is also much more than both.
[There's no ``application'': that follows in the next few weeks.]
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/church.html.