Two men were talking over a Monday morning cup of coffee. Both were typical American suburban dwellers who never bothered much about the church. As well informed individuals they had heard about the current movement back to the church by many citizens. They had decided to try it too. After all, going to church never hurt anyone too much! Now they were busily engaged in swapping experiences.
Both were disappointed in their experiences but each for a different set of reasons. The one complained about fooling the lack of being wanted at the church he had attended. He felt any church ought to be glad to see a new face now and then. But this group of believers had seemed so smug, so silent, so content with themselves, so unconcerned about the world outside. The preacher had talked as if he were giving a lecture. It would not have been so bad if his remarks had only seemed more relevant to life today. The congregation had sung rather listlessly and were restive while the preacher spoke. After the service they had looked at the stranger but had said nothing as each turned to converse with his favorite set of friends. Our coffee drinking friend felt that the church people were too inbred, too satisfied with their lot in life, much too much like a highbrow religious society.
His friend listened patiently hut with a puzzled look in his eye. His experience had been quite different. Where he went they had floored him with an eager-beaver spirit of zeal. The people had sung with zest. The preacher had been really excited about what he was saying. But what he said was so shallow, so naive. One wondered whether the man really knew what sin was in its power, cleverness, and hard claim. He called his listeners to decide for Christ, but all along one wondered just who this Christ was, what he did and does, that makes such a decision so urgent. The message, the service lacked substance, that is, the substantial stuff one needs in a hard-pressed, fast, and selfish world.
These two coffee drinking friends point up a real problem. Their experiences show how difficult it is for a worshipping congregation to be a genuine church of Jesus Christ. Each of the congregations visited by our imaginary friends displayed certain features of the church, but it did so in exaggeration. Each in her own way exaggerated one feature of a true church as pictured in the Bible. In this article I wish to look at a few features of the church as pictured in Scripture in the hope that we as members may keep the picture in proper focus within our local congregation.
By the word church I mean the people of God, the holy congregation of genuine Christian believers who look to Jesus Christ for salvation, having been washed by his blood. sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. A group of people who may be gathered in a local building somewhere for purposes of worship and fellowship is the universal Church of Christ organized localIy. That which makes the worshipping congregation a church is her relationship to Jesus Christ. Therefore if we arc to live in our local congregations as church, we must look at this relationship which the congregation sustains to Jesus Christ.
The best way of doing this is to pass in short review some of the pictures which the Bible gives of this relationship.
The Body of Christ
The church is called the Body of Christ. Believers from both Jews and Gentiles are brought together into a Body (Eph. 2:16; 3:3–6). This Body is the human race made new in living fellowship with Christ. He is the Head and the beginning, the arche (Col. 1:18). The Body grows out of the Head. In faith we must hold fast “the Head from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increaseth with the increase of God” (Col. 2:19), “From Christ the Head, the church his Body builds up itself in love (Eph. 4:16). The Body is a growing organism.
As his Body, the church is declared to be the fulness of Christ (Eph. 1:23). Just as God in olden times dwelt in the temple and filled it with his glory, so now Christ dwells in his church and fills her with himself. The passage in Philippians 1:23 can also refer to the church as the fulness of Christ in that it is the complement of his mystic person. In any case, as the fulness of Christ the church is an expression of the presence of Christ.
In a very real sense we may say that the church is a continuation on earth of that which began in the incarnation of our Lord. It is the spiritual reality of Christ’s life in the bodily form of his members. This does not, however, give warrant to call the church an extension of the incarnation. The church must live Christ’s life in such a way that she really represents Christ in the world. Compromise with the sins of the world diminishes the luster of this life. Conformity to the world’s mentality and manners is a radical defection from the church’s essential nature as Christ’s Body.
The church as the Body of Christ includes the following three facts. 1. Every Christian in the genuniness of saving faith is inseparable from every other Christian. 2. The Christian’s daily conduct is evaluated under the light of Christ’s life and Word. 3. Every Christian who actively participates in the work of the church is sharing in the continuing ministry of Christ.
A Spiritual House
The church is the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple of the Lord (Eph. 2:20, 21). This figure applies to the universal church (1 Peter 2:4, 5); to the local congregation (1 Cor. 3:16, 17; 1 Tim. 3:15 ); and to the individual Christian (I Cor. 6:19; Eph. 3,17).
The stones for this building are cut from two quarries, the Jews and the Gentiles. They are brought as dead stones to Christ the living One and through his Spirit are made alive. In faith they rest on Christ (I Peter 2:6). This building is in process of construction. It is not yet a finished product. Christ the Master Builder is working on it by means of his word and Spirit. This house will be completed when God’s final purposes reach their consummation.
The purpose of this house is that it shall be a holy temple. It is a spiritual house, one under the domination of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. Its stones are holy priests who offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:5). In this house God’s people pray, witness, and bless.
The Bride of Christ
Christ is the Lover and the church is his beloved (II Cor. 11:2, 3). The church is Christ’s wife (Eph. 5:31, 32). It may seem strange to us that the church which is the Body of Christ can at the same time also be Christ’s Betrothed, his Bride. We must not forget, however, that the magnificent reality of a relationship to Jesus Christ is so vast a reality, such a big fact, that it demands many and varied figures to describe it.
The picture of the church as Betrothed and Bride accents the fact of the sinner’s original estrangement from God and the astonishing Jove which moved the Bridegroom to come down from heaven to redeem her. For his Bride Christ paid a fabulous price, his blood. He purifies her b y means of his Word and Spirit, clothes her in the garments of salvation, and will finally present her without spot or wrinkle in holiness and beauty to God (Eph. 5:25–27).
The three figures mentioned arc the most important for a right understanding of the church but there are others too. There is the Teacher-student relationship. The Greek word for disciple actually means scholar, or student. There is the Shepherd-sheep picture found in John 10. As Shepherd Christ calls, leads, feeds, knows, heals, guards, and carries his Hock of sheep. Christ is the commander-in-chief, and genuine believers are his soldiers (II Tim. 2:3, 4; cf. ph. 6,10; I Thess, 5:8, 9). And we could mention the Master-slave bond as well as that of the King and his subjects. Underlying and complementing all these figures is that of the covenant which accents the essential oneness of the church in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Each figure adds another facet of meaning to the glorious reality of the church as God’s people.
There is a lesson to be learned from these pictures. The Body must grow from within as her life radiates freshness and strength. This life reaches out and adds members from without. The life of Christ which is the life of the church must be vitalized by the use of the means of grace provided by Christ the Head of the Body. These means include the preaching of the whole Scriptures and the meaningful administration of and participation in the holy sacraments.
As these means are genuinely used a pattern of Christian life develops. It takes concrete form in such practices as catechism classes, family visitation, society fellowship, prayer meetings, works of loving service and sympathy. In this way believers grow in grace, love, faith, and truth.
As this inner life expands the church draws others from the outside to herself. The unbeliever sees the life of Christ take on concrete form, and this sight awakens a curiosity as to the secret of such love, truth, and joy. The life of the church on the inside becomes a witness to the world on the outside. In this way sinners are confronted with Christ through the life of his church, his Body. Thus the church grows from without. Every church in her internal life is a real missionary instrument to the hands of Christ who gathers his church.
Within the Building of God lives a family of brothers and sisters. They live for each other because they all share in the life of the one Spirit. As life’s vexing questions arise this family prayerfully searches God’s Word for answers. Haltingly but with persistent love the family tries to follow Christ her Lord. Knit together by the bond of truth and love the members look forward and upward for their Lord’s return.
This Building is located on the frontier of an alien and lost world. This sanctuary of the saints is a service center for those outside in their loneliness, guilt, and death. While the family takes her inner life seriously she keeps her doors wide open. Those not in the house must clearly hear the prophetic voice of God’s children and clearly see her dynamic life of love. Any sinner may enter, and enjoy the fellowship of the family on the basis of an intelligent and consistent profession of the Christian faith.
Every church must reflect the fulness of this Biblical picture. The church is both a genuine provisional beginning of the recreated human race and an instrument for the Christianizing of the world. The church is both a community of saints who seek to work out their salvation with fear and trembling as the Word of God increasingly controls their lives and an agency used by Christ for converting sinners into saints. The life of every congregation must be lived in the tension of these two equally important aspects of her life as the Body of Christ, the Household of God.
The Loss of Tension
This tension is lost when a church becomes introverted. This introversion takes place when she pays exclusive attention to her inner life. All that concerns such a congregation is her traditional forms in rigid stability. Such churches foster their own special social class, increase their own budget prosperity, and save their own warship comfort. The church’s traditions, once alive with power and meaning because her spiritual forefathers forged them in the middle of life, now become hallow shells, empty forms. The membership becomes selective, “choosy,” utterly out of touch with the world in which Christ wills to work out his program. Turned within, this house of God is filled with the sound and fury of family quarrels.
Tension is lost, life begins to shrivel and die, when a church becomes extroverted. Such extroversion takes place when a church looks only to the outside. Neglecting, or subtly ridiculing, the means for nourishing the life of her members, she becomes shallow in her understanding of God’s truth, superficial in analyzing and answering the problems of life. A tolerance of indifference to truth gradually develops and the sound of God’s voice to a sinful world becomes muted, confused, and contradictory. In this spirit of recruiting new members for the family she loses the pattern of Christian life which marks the church as a Spirit-indwelt people of God. The radiant life of the Last Adam which was once her power is transformed into a feeble life of the First Adam, now dressed up in respectable religious clothing.
It is not easy for a church to be a church. Each congregation must remain in the constant purifying process of self reform in order that her life may remain fresh, strong, and significant for the community in which she lives. Only as each congregation refuses to live in the laxness of sinful contentedness and prayerfully reforms herself can she be a church true to the picture of Scripture.
Living in tension between these two aspects, as each aspect converges on the other for mutual stimulation, is a process which gives rise to many questions. There is the matter of church membership standards, the question of the church and the churches in division, the question of holiness and worldliness, as well as others. Such questions must wait for further discussion. Meanwhile each congregation must look into the mirror of God’s Word and prayerfully evaluate the picture she sees of herself.