For the most part, people in our culture have written off the church as a necessary or even a helpful institution. The result is a movement, even among Christians, toward decentralization and individualism. That which has historically been central to the church is now being pushed out to the individual so that “I” am the authority when it comes to what I believe and what I do. I see why we are like this, but honestly, it is just another swing of the pendulum from our experience of ineffective or abusive churches to a definition of church that really isn’t church at all, historically speaking. The answer, of course, is not to do away with the church, but to be the church, truly.
I had a professor who said that the greatest threat to American evangelical churches is their ecclesiology. Notice: the greatest threat is not the culture “out there,” but the culture within. The threat is what Christians think church is.
So we need a reorientation to what the church is and what the church does. Consider this framework: The church needs the gospel, and the gospel needs the church. There are all kinds of things that Christians are called to be and do. We are pretty aware of such things, but what often gets overlooked is that the church is the primary and essential context in which we are to become and do these things. The church is like the skeletal structure that holds all the parts of the body together under the authority and direction of the head, who is Jesus. We cannot divorce the implications of the gospel from the context of the church. The church needs the gospel, and the gospel needs the church.
The Church Needs the Gospel
The gospel creates and forms the church. When Jesus said, “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” he was speaking of the apostolic confession of the gospel that Peter had just made: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus built and is building His church upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles (Eph 2:20).
The point I want to make is that the church is not a man-made institution. It is of divine origin. None of the apostles were sitting around daydreaming about starting a church. Paul went from persecuting the church to planting the church because of “the command of God our savior and Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim 1:1). It was God’s idea, God’s calling, God’s commissioning, God’s gospel, God’s people.
The Gospel Needs the Church
The church would not exist without the gospel, but God has also ordained that the gospel would not go forth without the church. She guards and embodies it. Back to Jesus: It is His church and He will build it, but how? Through the apostles as they proclaim the gospel. This is how God works. He accomplishes His plans through His people.
A reading of the Pastoral Epistles makes clear that one of the primary tasks of the church is to guard the gospel – defend it, cherish it, teach it, preserve it, and expose anyone who wanders from it as a false teacher. The implicit question to churches and Christians today is this: Is the gospel more important to you than your comfort and your culture? Are you willing to stick your neck out to guard it?
The church not only guards the gospel, but also embodies it. The way the church reflects the power and beauty and truth of the gospel is by living as a family. God lives among his people, and that takes the form of local church communities. That is what He sent the Apostles to do, and that is why we have instructions for local church government and worship and conduct.
The church is not a service. It is not something you can add on to your life if you need it. It is the essential means by which God is accomplishing His purposes. The church is not a business. It is a family, the “household of God” (1 Tim 3:15). I can tell you from experience that most of the issues that hinder the church (and people) come as a result of Christians not living like a family. Family is inconvenient and costly, and even though it is who we are, we routinely act to the contrary. We want friends. We want a Bible study. We want a service to go to. But we don’t want to live like a family.
How do you know if your community lives like a family?
- People sacrifice time and money for each other. This is where the gospel shows itself to be sufficient for us.
- People are confronted or offended by others. This is inevitable in families, and it is where the gospel reconciles brothers and sisters to one another.
- People are present at each other’s events. This is where the world gets to see that God’s people are free to support each other because they are not self-absorbed and overrun by their own lives.
- People regularly share meals together. This is where the gospel is celebrated and experienced as we give and receive hospitality.
This is not about the programs of the church. It is about the nature of the church, and its stewardship to guard and embody the gospel.