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What Is The Church? Three Angles of Vision


Ephesians 3:20-21


“Now to him who by the power at work within us…to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations.”

Whenever I have conducted confirmation classes for younger people I have noticed how engaged they are as we discuss God, his Son Christ Jesus our Lord, the nature of faith, the necessity of obedience, the rigours of discipleship. In fact I have noticed how engaged they are concerning almost any topic until we bring up the topic of the church. For them, at least, the church seems to have little credibility.

Many adults appear to be on the same wavelength. After all, they would never hesitate to announce a little league hockey practice at the same hour as Sunday School, thereby declaring church unimportant, even though they continue to expect the services of the church to be available when granny needs to be buried or their daughter needs to be married.

Then again those of us who have been ministers of the church for decades are always surprised to hear from folk who have been “turned on” to the gospel through coffee-house groups or campus organizations and who now wish to candidate for the ordained ministry, even though they have had no exposure to the church and have no familiarity with its worship or its governance or its traditions. Plainly they view the church has having little to do with their new-found faith.

All of this forces us to ask, “What is the church? What is it supposed to be?” By way of answering this question we are going to listen to three major streams or traditions of the church as a whole. The three are classical Protestantism (Presbyterianism is huge here), Roman Catholicism, and the charismatic or Pentecostal movements.


I: — Let’s begin with our own tradition, classical Protestantism. The emphasis here is plain: the church consists of those who gather to hear the Word of God preached and to respond to the Word preached through praise and prayer. The architecture of church buildings suggests this. In most of the church buildings of classical Protestantism the pulpit stands square in the centre of the platform. The pulpit, often not only central but even elevated, occupies the chief place. It can’t be overlooked. People assemble Sunday by Sunday in order to be taught. And when a pastoral relations committee is calling a new minister, the first question it wants answered is, “Can he preach?”

But we must never think that preaching is entertainment; it’s not of the order of an after-dinner speech or a politician’s pep rally. Preaching always presupposes that what people are taught through an exposition of the gospel they need as they need nothing else and they can acquire it nowhere else. In other words, the presupposition of preaching is that the gospel has a precise content. This precise content is rooted ultimately in the heart of God who is possessed of a precise nature and has come to us in a singular Son and whose truth summons us to respond in a particular trust and love and obedience.

In classical Protestantism, then, people gather at worship first of all to be informed of a truth and reality they can’t learn anywhere else. No immersion in newspapers, magazines, movies; no time spent at golf, bird watching or water skiing: none of this is going to acquaint us with that gospel which has to be taught, and which should be taught, say classical Protestants, through ministers whose vocation the church has recognized and whose education and training the church has supervised. Calvin was fond of saying that the voice of God sounded in the voice of the preacher. He never meant that the voice of God and the voice of God’s servant are identical. Yet he insisted (i) God speaks; (ii) God is going to be heard to speak only as the herald of the gospel is heard to speak.

From time to time people tell me that they don’t have to assemble on Sunday mornings in order to be instructed in the Word and will and way and work of God. Neither do they have to be instructed in the response that God both invites and summons them to make. They insist they “feel closer to God” in nature than anywhere else (church included), and therefore on Sunday morning they go to hear the birds sing or watch the sunrise or look at the Grand Canyon . But gather to hear the Word of God declared? Superfluous, they say.

In the spirit of the tradition of classical Protestantism I reply (as gently as I can), “Feel close to God? We can genuinely feel close to God only as we are close to God. And since as sinners we are God-flee-ers we can be close to God only where God has drawn close to us. And where has he drawn close to us? Not in nature and not on the golf course: God has drawn exquisitely close to us in his Son; specifically, in the cross of his Son. When we are profoundly moved at nature’s beauties we are not being moved by God; we are being moved by God’s creation, the things that he has made, but we are not thereby in touch with the person of God himself. We are in touch with the person of God himself only as we are touched by that Son whose crucified arms embrace us and plead with us to embrace him in return.

If people tell me that in nature they have a sense of God’s power, I remind them that God acts most effectively and acts most characteristically (i.e., lovingly, redemptively), precisely where, from a human perspective, he is powerless: in a cross. All of this strikes people as something they’ve never heard before. In fact they haven’t heard it before. They need to be told.

Plainly we can’t inform ourselves of the gospel. The gospel – what all humankind needs as it needs nothing else – is not a human invention. It’s a divine cure. And concerning God’s cure we have to be informed.

You must have noticed that when Jesus began his public ministry, Mark tells us, he “…came preaching.” Then he commissioned twelve others to preach in his name; then seventy; then many more. There’s much to be said for classical Protestantism’s angle of vision concerning the church: the church consists of those who gather to hear the Word of God preached and to be schooled in the response they are to make.


II: — Let’s turn now to the angle of vision found in Roman Catholicism (and in Anglo-Catholicism, as well as the Eastern Orthodox Church.) These Christians emphasize the church as the body of Christ. Unquestionably this emphasis too is rooted in scripture. Altogether there are 188 images of the church in the New Testament. Three of the major images are “bride”, “building” (temple) and “body.” Of the three major images, however, “body” is the chief image. We are the body of Christ. Christ himself is head of his own body.

As soon as we acknowledge the church to be the body of Christ we have to acknowledge several crucial truths we might otherwise overlook.

[1] Individually you and I have a relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord only as we are related to his body, the church, the congregation. We can’t be related to the head of the body without being related to the body itself. No one can cherish Jesus Christ while disdaining his people. No one can glory in the head of the body while dismissing the body.

[2] Individually you and I have an identity as Christians only as we are identified with the body, the church, the congregation. If we are asked, “Are you a Christian?” our initial response, whether uttered audibly or not, is, “Yes, I’m a Christian; I cling to Jesus Christ in faith.” The response is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough. “Yes, I cling to Jesus Christ in faith and I cling to his people in love.” When the Christians in Corinth were ripping apart their fellowship through their bickering, party-spirit, and out-and-out wickedness, Paul asked them sharply, “Do you despise the church?” That stopped them in their tracks. They knew what he was going to say next: “If you despise the body then you despise the head of the body, Jesus Christ, and you aren’t Christians at all.”

[3] Individually you and I are going to be useful in the service of Jesus Christ only as we are members of his body. Rather crudely Paul asks us to think of a normal human body, and then to imagine a leg detached from that body “over there,” an arm somewhere else, an eyeball somewhere else again – you know, the sort of ghastly spectacle we might see at the site of an airplane crash. “Now,” says the apostle, “of what use is a detached leg?” Plainly, no use at all. Not only is a detached leg useless, can it even be said to be a leg? If a leg is defined as that which supports and propels a torso, then a detached “leg” isn’t really a leg at all. The purpose of an eyeball is to see. A detached eyeball can’t see, since it’s detached from nerve and brain. Then is it an eye at all? Once any body member becomes detached it’s no more than a piece of putrefying flesh: unsightly, malodorous, and above all, useless.

In everyday life the function of our body is to do what our head tells it to do. What the head wills the body to do is transmitted through our nervous system, since nerves connect mind and muscle. Jesus Christ has a body on earth (his muscles, as it were) in order that his will for humankind will be done. Christ’s purposes for his human (and non-human) creation will be accomplished only as there is a body, somewhere, that receives, recognizes the directives from the head and implements them.

“But surely,” someone objects, “surely where you are talking about Christ’s body you don’t mean the local congregation; you don’t mean St. Matthew’s by the Variety Store. Why, in that congregation there are all kinds of problems and more than a few power plays and God only knows what else.” (It has been said – truly – that the church is like Noah’s Ark : if it weren’t for the storm outside no one could stand the stink inside.) “Surely that congregation isn’t the body of Christ.” Yes it is. Our Lord’s body may be scarred, marred, pock-marked, even deformed, crippled in some respect. Nevertheless, it’s the only body he has.

In everyday life no one can exist without a body. Jesus Christ, Lord of his own body to be sure, nevertheless chooses to be present to our world and present in our world through his body. We are members of that body. If we forsake it we forsake him. If we snootily remove ourselves from it then we fatally remove ourselves from him.

There’s one thing more we can learn from the angle of vision that the church is the body of Christ: the body will last as long as the head lasts. Sometimes it is suggested that the church is at risk. To be sure, any one congregation or denomination may be at risk, but Christ’s body is no more at risk than Christ himself is, and he is never at risk. He has been raised victor over death. He has been enthroned at the right hand of the Father. The powers of destruction cannot prevail against him; cannot prevail against him, head and body alike.

The body of Christ existed long before we were added to it; it will thrive long after we are no longer around. Therefore the community of Christ’s people will never disappear. The church is weak? God will strengthen it. Confused? God will enlighten it. Corrupt? God will purify it. “I shall build my church,” says Jesus, “and the powers of destruction shall not prevail against it.”


III: — Let’s look at the church from the third angle of vision, the emphasis of the charismatic or Pentecostal movements. The emphasis here is on the Holy Spirit: the church is the community of the Spirit. These movements remind us that a body can appear splendid, and yet be a corpse. The Spirit – life, breath, vitality – the Spirit is the difference between a body and a corpse.

To emphasize the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit is the immediacy, intimacy and vividness of God) is to emphasize our experience of God. The book of Hebrews, for instance, speaks of those who have “tasted the goodness of God and the powers of the age to come;” tasted, not merely read about it, not merely discussed it. What’s the difference between tasting salt (and knowing that what you’ve tasted is salt) and reading a book on the chemical properties of sodium chloride? Paul reminds the church in Thessalonica that the gospel came to them “not in words only, but in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction.” Of course the gospel had come to them in words. (Classical Protestants had made sure of that.) Yet the gospel had come to them as well “in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction.” Can’t we sense the crescendo, the surge, of all that our charismatic fellow-Christians insist on? The Christians in Thessalonica heard the gospel announced, and then were convicted and convinced of its truth and its significance for them.

In his first epistle the apostle John says much about believers abiding in Christ and Christ abiding in them. Is it mere talk, or is there a reality behind the talk that lends the talk authenticity? John answers our question when he adds, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.” The Spirit is God himself in his immediacy and intimacy and intensity burning his way upon men and women so that they know—not wish or think or hope – know that their relationship with their Lord is just that.

When the Christians in Galatia were in danger of exchanging the gospel of God’s free grace and his gift of faith for a moralistic legalism that would render people self-righteous legalists Paul wanted to correct them as fast as he could. He asked them, “Did you receive the Spirit by hearing (the gospel) with faith or by moralistic legalism?” (Galatians 3:2) The point is this. When he asks them “Did you receive the Spirit?” he was referring to their identifiable experience of God. They could no more deny their present experience of God than the person with a raging headache can deny her headache. If I have a headache right now you may say to me, “Did you get your headache from reading in poor light or from having the ’flu?” Regardless of my answer the one thing that isn’t in doubt is my headache. I know I have a headache.

“Did you receive the Spirit through hearing with faith or by moralistic legalism?” The apostle knows they aren’t going to deny their present experience of the Spirit. He knows too that they are going to recall how they came to taste the Spirit: they had responded to the gospel in obedient faith.

In the older testament the Hebrew word for spirit is ruach. In the newer testament the Greek word for spirit is pneuma. Both ruach and pneuma mean breath, wind, spirit. Breath is essential to life. To be without breath is to be without life. Wind indicates power; it drives boats and windmills; it dries clothes; it moves clouds. Wind always does something. And Spirit? Spirit is simply the God who infinitely transcends us now coming among us, even coming within us with such immediacy, intimacy and intensity that we no more doubt him than we doubt our headache – better, than we no more doubt our contented heart.

The charismatic churches have much to share with us.


What is the church? Classical Protestants say it’s the gathering of those who assemble to hear the gospel preached and to be schooled in the response of faith and obedience.

Roman Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, Eastern Orthodox insist that the church is the body of Christ, his hands and feet and muscle in the world, obeying Christ the head and aspiring to do his work.

Charismatic Christians say the church consists of those who have been touched by the Spirit.

The truth is, all three emphases are correct. And we need all three. For if one emphasis only is upheld, distortion, lopsidedness and out-and-out error occur.

If we want to see the church whole and see as well its marvellous diversity, then we must view the church from three complementary angles of vision. As we do this we shall find our understanding deepening, even as we find our love for the church swelling – but never out-swelling our love for him who ever remains ruler and head of the church, Christ Jesus our Lord.

                                                                                                        Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                

 April 2004