What is the Church? Part 2: Defining what the Church actually is

As soon as I started typing the first post about the Church, I knew I was going to be here for the long haul.

I realised that even more when I realised, after doing some more reading on the subject, that I hadn’t even fully defined what the church even is. And so here I am again, continuing to look at how the bible defines Church. For those who are interested, my current (and likely to expand and develop) plan for this little mini-series of articles is:

1 – Looking at how the bible defines Church (we are here currently)
2 – Looking at what Jesus has to say on the Church
3 – Looking at how the New Testament Church looked and ran, chiefly by running through the books of Acts, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Revelation (but lets be honest now; there’s a very good chance that it will be every NT book and letter)
4 – Looking at our churches and the Church today, how we view the Church, and see how they compare to the New Testament Church.

Don’t let the numbers above fool you into thinking there’s only going to be four articles from me on this subject; considering I am about to continue defining what the Church even is when I thought that would be just one article, I am unsure how long this thing in total is actually going to be!

And so, before I continue, my prayer is that I will teach nothing new – as in unorthodox, unbiblical, or novel – but merely repeating, in a new way, many old truths. And, if something here is novel and new – something Peter, Paul and the apostles would not have recognised – I pray it will be utterly looked over, ignored and forgotten.

As we seek to define what the Church is, one of the main temptations – merely to save time, amongst other things – would be to pretend the Old Testament simply doesn’t exist, skipping instantly to the New Testament to look at how the Church functions there. But God has had congregations and a people – what would have been referred to as a Church if we used NT terminology for the OT – long before Peter, Paul and the apostles preached the Risen Jesus. So, in order to be able to define the Church, we must go back to the beginning; the dawn of human history.

From the earliest days of humanity, God has been deeply involved in the lives of humankind. From Creation to the Fall, the Flood to the Tower of Babel, the opening chapters of Genesis shows a tension between a perfect God and a fallen and imperfect world. In fact, that tension was stretched to a crises point in Genesis 6, for there it says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

What happened next was so dramatic that it was recorded in the histories of other cultures (Such as the epic of Gilgamesh), but God saved Noah, and relented from the flood. To Noah and his family, he promised he would never flood the earth again, and made the rainbow as a sign of that promise. The reason why I mention this event when talking about defining the church is simple; I do not find it a coincidence that God ministering judgement on a corrupt and evil world with a flood occurred before the calling of Abraham, and thus the beginnings of the story of the people of Israel, culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Church.

I would say the link between the two events – God’s just judgement of earth and its inhabitants in Genesis 6, his relenting and the calling Abraham and all that entailed – is integral; in the flood, God demonstrated, in a real place time as a lesson for all of us to remember, what the price of our sin and wickedness actually is. In fact, it is best summed up by the New Testament verse; “The wages of sin is death.” [1]

And so, before beginning to lay the foundations of salvation, God demonstrated to the world what would happen were we – broken, sinful humanity – required to pay our debt and save ourselves.

God showed the world what would have happened if Jesus never came. Thanks be to God that he didn’t just leave us in our fallenness, and sent his Son to earth, to die and rise again!
Thanks be to God that, because of the truth of Jesus Christ, we actually have a Church to be discussing the definition of!

But I digress.
When it comes to defining what the Church is, there is a great deal to be learnt from the Old Testament; Paul makes it completely and utterly clear in his letter to the Romans that the Church does not replace the Jews as the people of God (which is, unfortunately, a position some in the church have and, besides being unbiblical, is a blood soaked and destructive doctrine called supersessionism) . Rather, we are grafted into the Jewish people, not replacing them [2]. Thus it is safe to assume that the Old Testament, and that which is written within it, is useful for us also, as we strive to understand what it means to be God’s people.

Since this is going to be fairly expansive, tying in many verses from all over the place, I am going to go with thematic headers, and any passage I highlight will be in the footnotes. Starting with,

A Covenanted People

Covenant is not a word often heard in normal day-to-day activities these days, yet it is a concept that is fundamental to humanity’s relationship with God and, as I will hope to show, fundamental to the Church’s relationship with Christ. But in order to show that, I feel the need to go through the biblical history of God’s covenants with humanity…we might be here a while! (sorry!)

Before we go into it, what is a covenant? A covenant is a legally binding contract, with promises and contractual obligations for the smooth running of said covenant. Besides including the benefits of such a contract, a covenant would also include punishments for breach of contract. Many such covenants can be found in the bible, each of them laying foundations for the next covenant. For instance, the Noahic covenant (i.e the covenant God made with Noah) gave the command for humanity to multiply and fill the earth [3], allowed us to eat all things so long as we did not eat blood [4], forbade murder [5] and promised never to flood the earth entirely again [6].

Upon this, God made a covenant with Abraham, called the Abrahamic covenant, where he promised Abraham that he would make him into a great nation and bless him so that he (and his future descendants, including Jesus Christ) would be a blessing to all the earth [7]. He also promised his descendants the land of Canaan, what would eventually be Israel [8] and instituted circumcision [9].

Later, with the coming of Moses, the Exodus, and the coming of the people of Israel to Mount Sinai, God gave one of the most well known covenants in the bible, the Mosaic covenant. This covenant matches the above description of what a covenant is almost exactly; scattered throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are the 613 laws, promises, obligations and prospective punishments for breaching the covenant that make up the Mosaic covenant. But God doesn’t just lay out laws for the governing the functioning and religious institutions of a then-soon-to-be Israelite nation state, but also something much more important. Paul, when he wrote to the Romans [10], states (in admittedly slightly confusing language) that the Law of Moses exists to show us what needed to be done to be truly righteous and, in so doing, show us how far short we are from righteousness. In the Mosaic covenant, every sin had to be repaid – or ‘atoned’ – for with a sacrifice of a healthy, unblemished animal.

In the Laws of Moses, God not only showed humanity how far short it fell from righteousness, He also laid the foundation for Christ’s death and resurrection as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. As Romans 6:23 said, “The wages of sin is death.” This is furthered elsewhere where it is written, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” [11]

And so we have the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants that laid down many promises, and also laid the foundation for the coming of Christ.
We now turn to the covenant God made with David, which is called – unsurprisingly – the Davidic covenant. This covenant promised – amongst a guarantee that his son (Solomon) would build a temple to God, and be disciplined rather than toppled by God when he sins – that a descendant of David will establish a kingdom which will last forever [12]. In short, God promises to David that a messiah will come from his line.

And so it brings us to the church. It is important to know that the law and the prophets all either laid the foundations for, or proclaimed, the coming of the messiah, because we are a covenanted people. Jesus’ coming, death and resurrection were all foreseen beforehand, and called the New Covenant in the prophets;

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” [13]

Christianity is founded on a covenant with God. We – the Church – are part of the people of God because of the covenant He made through Jesus Christ. In terms of defining what the Church is, this is quite illuminating. Being a covenanted people, much like the Israelites of old, means that we are to honour and follow our obligations to God, and to give God his dues.
And our obligations as a covenanted people? There’s so much to choose from, so I chose a few;

“Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God. You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body [14]. You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds [15]. Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness [16]. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God [17].”

We were bought at a price. Jesus Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” [18], through whom all things were made [19] died to seal this covenant and give it effect; throughout the bible, covenants with God are sealed, even inaugurated, with sacrifices. This one was no different [20]. So, with this in mind, the Church is undeniably a covenanted people, bought at a price by God, and thus called to follow God’s will in all things since. Much like those covenants of the old Testament, we at some point willingly agreed to God’s covenant (if you consider yourself a Christian, then this was whenever you called yourself as such), and thus we have bound ourselves to the cause of Christ, to proclaim Him with our lives.

As one of the verses above states, “we are not our own.”

A Prophetic People

Prophecy has had a lot of confusion surrounding it. The most common way the word is perceived is that of seeing the future.

This is where we, in the West, have been seriously short changed by our own culture; this definition of prophecy is ubiquitous, from Hollywood to everyday conversation, a prophet is always the person who sees things to come.

When it comes to the bible, however, that is a fraction of what a prophet does. A biblical Prophet (and thus biblical prophecy) spoke out against injustices, cruelties, and the corruption of the people who still claimed to be God’s. The purpose of prophecy is the build up and encourage those who follow God [21].

Often we think of encouraging and building up in terms I would say run counter to scripture. We have taken on the impression that building up a strong, faith Christian requires no tearing down of inferior works, much like we have assumed that encouraging cannot ever be done harshly.
Yet this is exactly what the prophets did. God showed them and – through them and their writings – us what glories await us, what promises He has for us, what hopes and intentions He wills for us. I have a personal suspicion that such glimpses of all that God wills to give His people made the prophets even angrier at the open defiance of God they saw in their days. The prophets’ writings are strewn with harsh, stringent rebukes of God’s people Israel. Israel – God’s apple of His eye [22] – has been called by His prophets a whore [23], cursed [24], doomed to destruction [25]. Hosea chapter 9 is quite possibly one of the fiercest rebukes of Israel by the prophets of God.

How can that be encouraging? Easily, in fact. I am a sinner – being a Christian only means I am saved, it does not mean I am perfect – and I do many sinful things. On a number of occasions, some people have confronted me on some of these things. Some of the things they have deemed sinful are – biblically speaking – not, but some things very much are. I get hurt by them, fight back against their harsh words but some time after, often – for me -in the stillness of night, when nothing else but my thoughts are around me…I realise they are right. The only reason I felt so hurt is because they had exposed my sin, not because they had attacked me personally. And, knowing my sin, I can repent of it and pray for forgiveness for it.

In the end, harsh words for me have proven to be an encouragement, because they have strengthened me in God. So too the prophets; sometimes you must be cruel to be loving. To people who have become so blinded to their sins that they do not even see them (or, if they do, don’t see them as sins), one’s words must be barbed to have any effect.

Even a casual glance at the gospels and letters will attest that this particular form of prophetic ministry is alive and well in not only Jesus, but His apostles also. For instance, Jesus called the Pharisees (a denomination of the religious leaders of the day) white washes tombs [26] (or, to modernise it a little, dead inside), Paul said exactly the same thing to the Pharisees later on [27]. In fact, the harsh, blunt truths aimed at the Pharisees seemed to have had the desires effect, since one of the larger groups that congregated to determine what the Christian faith would look like in chapter 15 of Acts were none other than a group of Pharisees.

I could keep going, sifting through Acts as a whole, and the letters, and the gospels to furnish countless instances of this kind of prophetic ministry, but I feel that I have covered enough to give a good enough idea of how the Church is to act.

As Christians, we believe in the same God who called Abraham, the same God who led Moses, the same God who sent Jesus. What He said to His people thousands of years ago is still applicable to our lives today. We the Church are covenanted with God, sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

We are His.

We the Church are also prophetic, standing against abuse and injustice wherever it is to be found, and advocate a better way; the way of Christ. But, when dealing with our own members, prophecy – looking through both the New and Old Testament – is not just fuzzy encouragement and painless building up; prophecy exposes sin [28], tears down any idols we have set up, and can generally be exceptionally blunt. But it must always be done with love; after all, prophecy has and always will be for encouragement and building up, even if some things must be torn down first.

At long last, I feel I have covered enough of what the Church is defined as; at last I can finally start looking at how the New Testament Church looked!

To recap, over the last two articles I argued that:

1. The Church is not just one idea, but four; universal, local, visible and invisible (look up part 1 for more info)
2. The Church is the Church because it has joined in a covenant with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
3. The Church is called to be prophetic, standing against evil with good at all times, but also calling those – both within and outside it – to repentance.

Thanks for reading everyone, I will try and keep the next article a little shorter!
God bless you all

Footnotes

[1] – Romans 6:23
[2] – Romans 11:11-24
[3] – Genesis 9:1
[4] – ibid. 9:3-4
[5] – ibid. 9:5-6
[6] – ibid. 9:11-17
[7] – ibid. 12:2-3
[8] – ibid. 15:18-21
[9] – ibid. 17:9-13
[10] – Romans 7:7-25
[11] – Hebrews 9:22b
[12] – 2 Samuel 7:12-16
[13] – Jeremiah 31:31-34
[14] – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
[15] – Ephesians 4:17b
[16] – ibid. 4:22-24
[17] – ibid. 5:1-2
[18] – Colossians 2:9
[19] – John 1:3
[20] – Hebrews 9:15-22
[21] – Ephesians 4:11-12 & 1 Corinthians 14:26
[22] – Zechariah 2:7-10
[23] – Jeremiah 2:19-22
[24] – Jeremiah 17:4-6
[25] – Isaiah 10:22
[26] – Matthew 23:26-28
[27] – Acts 23:3
[28] – 1 Corinthians 14:24-25

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About trevfrancis

It always seems an odd position to be in; how do you distill yourself into a mere box? The short is, you can't, but I will give it a good go all the same; 23 years I've been on this earth, and 9 of them as a Christian. Books and learning are a passion of mine, as is spending time in good company. The pub is my preferred place for study, and all the wonderful insights I find there from people who I see eye to eye with, even if we agree on precious little. True friends are synonymous with family to me, and I love my family very much. Love walking to clear my head, will walk for miles upon miles if I could. At the end of the day, the best I can think of to sum me up is a pilgrim, far from home, seeking to understand the world he's passing through, and the God behind it all.
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3 Responses to What is the Church? Part 2: Defining what the Church actually is

  1. tawnymartin says:

    First comment! 🙂 Huzzah, this article is finally up! I have been waiting so long for it to at last see the light after having been longing to look at it in the posts manager – though I never gave into the temptation to look at it, though twas hard to do so 😉 😛 because I wanted to not be spoiled for it. 🙂

    This is a very good article, kudos. And don’t worry about the length, if something is as long as this it only means tis good for digesting – and this one is certainly, how shall we say it ;), juicy. 🙂

    Your interpretation of a biblical prophet was especially intriguing to me, particularly the instance where biblical prophecy is always used for encouragement and to build up fellow Christians, tis not surprising that many Christians (including myself) miss that in the bible, so often seeing just the prophets’ condemnation of Israel and their diatribes against Israel’s sin, forgetting that their is hope and encouragement in their words despite the harshness. In fact my pastor just did a series on Hosea relating to that. 🙂

    Also, the definition of encouragement that you mentioned resonated with *me* because at times I can remember you having to tell me hard things that I didn’t want to hear, but it has deepened my walk with Christ and I thank you for that. 🙂

    It was also fascinating how you commented that the Church should act as prophets and speak out against what is wrong, but do so in a way that offers encouragement. It also reminded me of Nietzsche… 😉 and since this comment is becoming too long (I mean, like you never expect this with moi :P) respond and I will elucidate my enigmatic statement to thee. 😀

    One last question (unrelated to this fantastic article, but I have to ask it, so I hope I’m not being too forward :/): hey Trev, have you gotten the most recent email that I sent you? 🙂 I don’t know if your memory’s playing you false again or no, so I was just wondering. 🙂 and now I am off to do homework lol.

    Cheers!

    God bless you too!

    T

    (Mea culpa again for such a loooooooong comment)

  2. Pingback: Taking Another Look 110811 « Mennonite Preacher

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