There is an odd thing in the world today. It is strange, peculiar; it makes people ask questions; it makes people uncomfortable and uneasy. Some people love it and give their whole lives to it. Others hate it and do all they can to get rid of it. They wish it would just go away. It really does not fit in; it does not really belong here. It says things that are not popular or cool or trendy.
It is odd!
What is this oddity? The church. The Christian church looks like an alien place to those who are not church-goers. For example, if you would read Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 54 to an unbeliever, she’d either laugh or shake her head in confusion. As we consider the church and what the Scriptures say about her, the main point is clear: the church is countercultural. The church is not of this world; it is other-worldly. She is here on earth, but this is not her proper place.
In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul gives us a few details and truths about Christ’s church. In four ways, Paul shows us how the church is different than the world. In one verse, Paul instructs the church about the church; he gives her an identification card, so to speak. Before looking at these four details about the church, please note that I am speaking about biblical churches. When I say “church,” I mean solid biblical churches—Reformation churches that display the three marks (preaching of the gospel, administration of the two sacraments, and the practice of Christian discipline). Also, though this would be the proper place to discuss the Reformed teaching of the visible/invisible church distinction, there is not enough space to do so. I refer the reader to the standard Reformed treatments of the visible/invisible church, such as the Belgic Confession article 29, the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25.
The Church is Called by God to Call on God
Paul calls the church the church of God (1 Corinthians 1:2). The church belongs to God—that is simple enough. He is writing to the church that belongs to God. The church is a “God-work,” we might say; it is for His glory, the object of His love. She was formed by Him, is upheld by Him, and will remain with Him. As the Heidelberg says, He gathers, preserves, and protects her (Q/A 54). The church is not my church or your church; it is not Paul’s church or Peter’s church. We are God’s people, the sheep of His pasture (Psalm 100).
Also notice the “called” language in verse two. Again, we see God at work: He calls. He called Paul to be an apostle (v. 1) and He calls the church together. By His divine and effective summons, the church is gathered and chosen. We do not go to church because some people a long time ago thought it would be a good idea. We do not go to church because someone started a helpful club that soothes us on the battlefield of life. That is what the world might say. The world says that we are masters of our own destinies, that we write our own stories, that we give ourselves a name, and that we have the freedom to start a club if we want. However, the church says the opposite. God is the master of our destinies; He writes His story and brings us into it; He gives us a name; He called us as a church to worship Him.
This is what the call to worship is all about in our liturgy. We are reminded at the outset of public worship that we are not just a neighborhood club gathering to hear a lecture. God calls His people to come to Him in worship. The preacher does not call the people together; God does. The first words we hear in the service remind us that we are called to gather. God calls His people. The church is called by God.
Paul also says that the church calls on God (v 2). The church in Corinth in the first century and the church everywhere calls on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. God calls us to call upon Him. This too is reflected in the church’s liturgy: after the call to worship we call upon His name in the invocation, “Our help is in your name, O Lord!”
God’s people calling on Him did not begin in the first century. We have to go all the way back to Genesis 4:25–26. The first generations of humans began to call upon the name of the Lord. Adam and Eve had a son to replace, in a way, the murdered Abel. Seth was born; he and his wife soon bore a son called Enosh. They began to call upon the name of the Lord. They invoked God to be their covenant Lord and Protector; they called on Him to protect them in a chaotic world.
We still call upon the name of Yahweh like that. The church today joins the voices of Seth and Enosh, Paul and the churches at Corinth, and the church throughout history. In liturgy and in life, we call upon the Lord because we have been called by Him. We still confess His sovereignty and confess that we need Him, that we are dependent upon Him. In summary, the church is God’s church, and she is called by Him to call upon Him.
The world may say that the church is like the YMCA, or some sort of Optimist or Rotary club. The world may say that the church is a place people go to cope, a religious therapy session, a religious pep talk to help people let go of their pasts. They may say that the church is a place to be motivated and inspired. They may say that it is a center for cultural change, a hub for community renewal, or a faith-based initiative to help the government make this nation a bit better. Primarily, however, the church is none of these. It is primarily a people called by God to call upon Him.
The Church Preaches the Gospel
We have noted how Paul described the church as called by God. But how does He call people to Himself? The answer to that is a well known Reformation emphasis: by the preaching of the gospel. The Heidelberg is right: Christ gathers, protects and preserves His chosen people through His Word and Spirit. Zacharius Ursinus commented on Q/A 54: the church is “called . . . by the preaching of the gospel for the purpose of hearing and embracing the word of God.”1 This is exactly the emphasis of Scripture. A few verses after 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul reminds us that he was called to preach the gospel, the cross of Christ (1:17).
Of course, the world does not like the term “preacher of the gospel.” The world says the pastor is an entertainer, manager, therapist, performer, or political guide. The world explains that the pastor tells us how to deal with life, how to become better people, or how to live our best life now. But the church follows the Bible and says no to these. Paul says it clearly and often: the pastor is a preacher of the gospel. Let the church that does not preach Christ be accursed (1 Corinthians 9:16)!
In 1 Corinthians 1:1–3, Paul names Christ four times. Though it is not explicitly mentioned in these three verses, it is clear from the whole New Testament, especially in Acts, that the church preached the gospel and people became “church goers” through that preaching. What is the gospel? The gospel is foreign. It is an “alien word,” as Luther liked to call it, a word extra nos. In summary, the gospel is the glad tidings that Jesus lived a perfect life and died a substitutionary death for His people; the third day He rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven. It is nicely summarized for us in the Apostles’ Creed. The church is just as odd and alien as its gospel is. These things are not of this world!
The world will say suffering is bad and must be avoided; they will say that no suffering is good and that a bleeding man on a cross is foolish, offensive, and just plain stupid. They will laugh at Calvin’s liturgical absolution: “To all who in this manner repent and seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare absolution in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” But the church says that God saves people through the suffering and bleeding of His Son, Jesus Christ. The church rejoices in the message of the cross. The church preaches the very name that saved them: God reconciling the world to himself in Christ. This is why the Reformers called the preaching of the gospel a mark of the church. Romans 1:16 and 1 Corinthians 1:18 are the bright texts that tell the church to preach hard.
The church can be a hundred things and have a hundred societies and committees, but if she does not preach the gospel of salvation from sin by Christ’s finished work, it is not a church at all. The church may be helping people let go of the past and embrace the future, it may be restoring justice in the community, it may be building shelters for the homeless, but if the church does not preach the gospel, it is not a church! This sounds harsh to democratic, capitalistic ears. It is offensive and “intolerant,” not “politically correct,” but it is one of those things that Scripture is abundantly clear on: Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! That “woe” language is not a simple, “shame on me” cry, but a serious interjection of divine denunciation: God, kill us if we do not preach the gospel.
This is also why preaching sometimes hurts. Preaching Christ crucified is an assault on the world, a confrontation of worldviews, and a clash of opposites. Many preachers have compared preaching to surgery: it hurts, but it is good for you if the doctors do it right. The reason it hurts is because preaching the “alien word” of the gospel cuts away at the infections of the world in us. It cuts the world out of us, and it hurts. We want to hear messages that tell us how much potential we have, how good we are, how we can be all that God wants us to be. But when the “other” word from Scripture comes to us, we are reminded that we have no potential in ourselves, that we are nothing but a worthless heap of sins on our own, and that sometimes God does not have a wonderful plan for our lives. That hurts! But the gospel makes all things new and better. The gospel is a word from heaven about heaven. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The church has been called by God through the preaching of the gospel to call upon Him. And we are also called for something.
The Church Called Out of the World: Holiness
The church of God is called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2). We are called “set apart by Jesus’ work.” Paul uses the terms sanctified and saints. This means separate and separated. The church is set apart from the world by Jesus Christ. In baptism, as the Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 74 notes, we are “distinguished” from unbelievers. Baptism is our “odd” mark. The church in Corinth in the first century and all Christian churches are set apart from the rest of the world. That does not mean we should go live in caves or communal cultic colonies; it does not mean we should stay out of Target; nor does it mean we need to wear holy underwear. But it does mean we are different. It means we are called to holiness, purity, and godly living while in this world. We can not just leave the world, but we must be holy.
This holiness is most evident on Sunday. On the Lord’s Day, we receive that special call to worship in community. Paul says it this way: we are called to call on the name of the Lord (v. 2). Our “set apartness” is most evident in Sunday worship. In other words, the contrast between the church and the world is most obvious when the church is worshiping.2 To put it bluntly, our worship looks so odd because we are not the world, but the church. Especially in our worship we are reminded that we are set apart. The church is an “other-world community” gathered each Lord’s Day around the story of God in Jesus Christ as told by Scripture. No matter how you parse it, that is not normal.
What we do in church, in worship, is a visible and public display that we are set apart. We totally forget about the world for awhile, the TVs are off, the newspapers are rolled up, IPods are tucked away, and we are reminded of a better world. This is a good reason why we should be careful not to let the world creep into the church through the back door. We should want to be the church, not the world. Church needs to be different from the local theater, YMCA, Blockbuster, or fitness club. To be most specific, if someone who had never seen a Christian worship service would walk into your church, she should say “Wow, this is different!”
The church is not different because we are conservative or traditional. We are not odd because we have always done it this way or because seventy-five years ago was the golden age of the church. Some conservative and traditional churches are a mess because they do not preach the gospel and live lives of holiness. We worship this way because we are called out of the world, set apart from the world, to be the church. Like Seth, Enosh, and Abraham, we may certainly interact with the world on the stage of common grace, but with them we have peculiar altars, places of worship. Really, Christian worship is a political act that subverts the world’s values by assigning glory and honor to the God the world hates, as one preacher has said. We see things upside down. We are a set apart people; the gospel calling of God does that to us.
The Church’s Makeup: All Peoples
Another aspect of calling that Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 1:2 is found way back in Genesis 4:26. Back then, people began to call upon the name of the Lord. As the Heidelberg says, the church has existed from the beginning of the world and extends throughout time. Adam, Eve, Seth, Enosh, Abraham, and so on were members of this church, your church. The church is not just “me and Jesus” but all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:2). We are a catholic church—the church of Christ is not fenced in by time or geography. The church is made up of people out of the entire human race. Paul is writing to one city’s churches of a particular era, but by extension this also means the global church, the Christian church in China’s underground, the Christian church being persecuted in Colombia, and the Christian church in Trinidad or Miami.
This reminds us well that we are not the only church in the world. The church is bigger than Classis Pacific Northwest or the Southwest Presbytery. The church is bigger than the borders of North America. Paul says it elsewhere just as loudly: whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13). Of course the world and culture will try to segregate things and break peoples up into ethnic groups. Surveys will ask you if you are Caucasian, Latino, Other, or the almost humorous, “Prefer Not To Answer.” The church fills in the oval next to “Doesn’t Matter.” Of course the world and culture will say: red state, blue state. The church says: neither. The world will say women against men, adults versus children, but the church does not draw those lines. The world will divide things up according to language; the church does not. The gospel we just heard is a gospel that breaks down walls and barriers and erases skin colors and language distinctions. The church does not care what you look like, what language you speak, or whether you shop at Costco or the Goodwill.
To make this a bit more concrete, I once heard a story of a doctrinally solid church in the Washington DC area. Two men who were members of this church also worked for the federal government. In fact, one was a Republican and one a Democrat. During the week, they would clash on social policy and other political issues. But on Sunday, you could see these two men share a hymnal, say the Apostles’ Creed together with deep conviction, and talk about irresistible grace and limited atonement together in complete agreement. Exactly. We are not a red or blue church, not an American or Chinese church. We’re a Christian church, a place where people can set aside petty differences (race, language, politics, and age) to hold hands, join voices, and call on the Christ who called them. Children and adults can come together to confess sins, hear forgiveness, and sing praise in unison. You just do not find that on television. Before concluding, I need to draw out one more implication of Genesis 4:26 and 1 Corinthians 1:2; this doesn’t mean the church will be huge. When Moses and Paul tell us that all kinds of people from all times and nations and tongues call upon the name of the Lord, they are not telling us that the local display of God’s people will be large. If you stand back and look at the total historical picture—from Adam after the fall to now, the church is indeed massive. But these verses do not mean your church in your town will be massive. To draw another contrast between us and the world, capitalism and consumerism scream in our ears, “Bigger is better!” “Bigger means success!” But this is not what we find in Scripture. If you read the context of Genesis 4:26, Seth and Enosh were named after a long line of unbelievers. Looking later in history, who can forget the tiny church in 1 Kings 19, during Elijah’s time? In all of Israel, only seven thousand worshipped Jehovah. Today, that church would look like a miserable failure. For the Christian church, big is OK, but not a sign that it is better.
We must let the Bible push out of our minds the world’s definitions and thoughts of what the church is. We have to let Moses and Paul tell us what a church looks like instead of Hollywood and Starbucks and Walmart. In a word, we have to think biblically about the church. We have to face the fact and admit that we’re a strange people! As one preacher has said, we do not want to bend over so far to speak to the world that we fall into the world! The Bible calls you aliens, exiles, pilgrims—that is what our churches should portray.
By way of summary, the Scripture tells us that the church is called out by God to call on God, the church is called to preach the gospel, the church is called out of the world to be holy, and the church’s makeup is people from all times, tongues, and tribes.
These are good things. We exist because we were called, we exist because of that gospel, and we exist to preach that gospel. Our job as a church is to be the church instead of the subset of a certain culture, political party, or society. The church is countercultural. The church is a caravan of tent-dwelling, cross-carrying Christians longing to be really home. The gospel promises to bring us there! This is why there is no salvation outside the church.
1. Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism trans. G. W. Williard (Phillipsburg: P&R, n.d.), 286.
2. See chapter one of D. G. Hart and John Muether, With Reverence and Awe (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002).
Rev. Shane Lems (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the pastor and church planter at the United Reformed Church in Sunnyside, WA.