What is a starting Biblical definition of the church? The church is all the people of the world who take Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, and who are brought to life by receiving His Holy Spirit. (John 1:12-13; Ephesians 1:13) This world-wide group of believers is made up of smaller groups called local churches. The Bible says the church is the bride of Christ and He will take her to be with Him when He returns. (Revelation 19:7-9)
We can know how God wants us to view the church because He tells us in the Bible. It is important to know this because many people have mistaken views of the church causing them to deviate from her, or to want nothing to do with her, thus missing her rich and unparalleled benefits. I think such muddied views of the church are common because people often see the negative or erring side of churches. Becoming a leader in the church has challenged me to seek in His word what God says about the church. I need to continually be correcting my own inadequate views so that I can be a proper and valuable part of what the Lord calls His church to be. I am made more aware of the need to answer this question about how to view the church when I hear the church criticized or shunned by unbelievers and Christians alike. It is written concerning Jesus that if they knew who He was they would not have crucified Him. (1 Corinthians 2:7-8) The same can be said of the church. If we knew who she is, we would love her instead of ignoring her, love her instead of persecuting her, love her instead of leaving her, love her instead of failing to get to know her, love her in spite of her faults, and love her with our involvement.
I do not blame people for whatever feelings they may have against the church. Some stay away from the church because they have been hurt. Although I have been tremendously blessed by the church, at times, I too have been hurt by her, disappointed by her, embarrassed by her, and disgusted with her. I sympathize with people who have been hurt by the church. The church has falsely judged people, offended people, rejected people, slandered people, and even killed people. Even though most of these wrongs were not committed by the church as a whole, but by one or a few individuals within the church, yet the church is blamed because those individuals are seen to represent what church is all about. Others stay away from the church out of habit, or because of a disagreement, or because they are bored by its irrelevance to their needs. I too have experienced disagreements or boredom in the church because I felt it was not doing the right things, or that it did nothing for me. Others reject the church because they say they do not believe in institutional religion. Do they mean that it is archaic and out of date, or that it demands involvement which they are unwilling to make, or that it tries to control people, or that it doesn’t demonstrate the life of Jesus, or what? I too have felt seemingly unreasonable demands, issues involving control versus freedom, or have had to wrestle with outdated, inept, or impractical structures, or have been disappointed by people. Others stay clear of the church because its people are hypocritical, or they themselves feel hypocritical if they attend. The only way for any of us to avoid such accusations is to be honest and admit who we really are instead of trying to appear righteous. Jesus condemned hypocrisy. (Matthew 23:13) The fact is; the church is made up of imperfect people, including myself, and it always will be until Jesus perfects her when He comes. (Ephesians 4:25-27) I don’t know where I heard this, or who to credit for saying it, but it goes like this; “To live above with the saints we love, that will be glory; to live below with the saints we know, that’s another story.” The Bible is perfectly honest in its portrayal of the church as being imperfect and in need of help to improve. Every letter in the Bible written to the church is, in part, written to correct something that needs correcting. For example, if you read the letters to the church in Corinth, you will quickly see that she has many faults and problems. (1 Corinthians 1:10-11; 3:1-3; 5:1; 6:5-8; etc.) You will not find on earth a perfect church. There is no cause for anyone who has been a part of any church to be under the illusion that it is, or should be, perfect.
I have been a part of the church all of my life and I have seen her terrible side, but also her best side. As I have already said, I don’t blame people for feeling turned off or betrayed. I was once rejected by the organized church by being told that they did not want me to be part of it. But I have seen the good side of the church, and it hurts me to see people turn away from something God ordained to be a help to them. On the good side I have seen unloved people loved, messed up people get their life together, marriages reunited, lonely people find a caring family, compassionate people meet other people’s needs, and fearful people find peace. The church has done more good for the world than the world will ever know; schools to educate the illiterate, orphanages to care for the homeless, elder care facilities, feeding the poor, giving relief following catastrophes, teaching health care, providing medical services, agricultural projects, loans to help the poor start self sustaining businesses, fighting for human rights like abolishing slavery, ever proclaiming the life-changing gospel of Christ in word and deed, and on and on the list can go. Even in the most corrupt days of the church, there have always been pockets of believers in the church, doing what God intends it to be and do; but because of its mixture of good and evil, the church is both hated and loved.
Jesus told us that the church would be a mixture of good and evil and what would happen to it in the end. Jesus knew it would be imperfect because true believers are in different stages of maturity, and many in the church are not true believers. Jesus implied that the true and untrue will remain in the church until the end, at which time the false will be separated out and only the true will remain. (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43) Jesus knew that parts of the church would be corrupted; but, He still started it. One of the earliest mentions of the church by Jesus was when He said to Peter, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) In other words, evil will not overpower it, but the church, based on Christ Jesus and faith in Him, will win over evil. The church will go forth into the world and bring God’s message of salvation and blessed hope to multitudes of people, and nothing can stop it. In fact, Jesus implied that when He comes, the true church will rule the world with Him. (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 5:9-10) I feel sad for people who reject the church because they have experienced its negative side. They will miss the good and they may miss being in on its power and ultimate victory, both in their personal lives, and in the coming restoration of the world. (Acts 3:19-21) Why should we give in to the church’s evils and let it lead us away from God’s greatest force for good on the face of the planet. In light of what Jesus said, it certainly makes sense to be part of it, in spite of its evils, lest we miss its needed benefits for our lives, and possibly its glorious future. But that is kind of selfish, isn’t it – to be part of the church for what benefit we can gain? The greatest benefit in being a part of Christ’s church is in giving our lives to help one another become healed and whole. The apostle Paul gave his life for the people of the church, that every person might become complete in Christ. (Colossians 1:24-29)
Here are some unhealthy practices to consider when it comes to being involved in a local church, for Jesus warned us about being misled. (Matthew 7:15-23; 24:4-5) Beware of attending any “church” that claims to be the only “true church”, or that controls you by requiring submission and strict obedience to leaders who claim to know what God’s will is for your life. Beware of any church that uses God’s word, with guilt, shaming tactics, or threats, to pressure you to submit to its teachings. Beware of any church that claims to have revelations from God that supersede, overrule, or go against the clear teachings of the Bible. Beware of any church offering secret initiation rites to those who prove worthy. Beware of any church having a different message of salvation than the one spelled out in the Bible. (Galatians 1:6-9) Many churches do not fit the Biblical model of how God would have us view His church.
There are people who are susceptible to controlling kinds of “churches”. Some grow up in these traditions and do not know any better. Others are needy in some way, perhaps needing love, or a secure environment that makes decisions for them. There are other people who see issues only in black or white, right or wrong, with nothing in between. They consider themselves to be right and will not listen to, nor tolerate, other views. They look for churches that agree with them. I applaud people for thinking they are taking a stand for what is right, but do they have the fullest picture of what is right? Others are rebelling against the traditional Christian church, but still want religion; they lean toward whatever seems to fit what they are looking for, or are taken in by what outwardly looks like a good thing.
What does the Bible say His church is to be like? Two Bible passages provide clear descriptions of how God wants us to view the church.
(1) Unity. (John 17:20-26) Jesus asks God the Father that all who believe in Him may be one, just as He and the Father are one; that we may be perfected in unity. He prays that God’s love would be in us. There should be no greater vision we have for the church than that we practice God’s love for one another and that we live together in unity. (John 13:34-35) The church, first and foremost, is to be relational. But in our individualistic American society, we have a difficult time grasping the concept of what close-knit community is all about. Some would argue that the first and foremost priority of the church is not to develop relationships, but to preach the gospel. There can be no doubt that God called us to proclaim His message of salvation and make disciples of all peoples. (Matthew 28:18-20) But, if God’s people were authentic in their love and unity, our message would be more contagious. If our faith was lived, not just spoken, it would undoubtedly be received by a lot more people. Paul, one the church’s founders, said that his joy would be most complete if people of the church would be of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, and intent on one purpose. (Philippians 2:2) As a pastor, my heart is most broken when I see people in churches having unresolved conflicts and not loving each other. It is inevitable, to be sure, but one of the more beautiful godly things to see is people confessing their offenses to each other, forgiving, seeking to change their offensive ways, and moving on in love and unity. When love is evident, people are drawn in.
(2) Caring. (1 Corinthians 12:12-26) This is another passage that provides a fascinating description of how God wants us to view the church. The church is likened to the human body. Our bodies are made up of many parts; eyes, ears, hands, feet, brains, hearts, and so forth. The church is also made of many parts; people all different, with differing functions, but each one important to the body, each one needed so that the body can function as it was designed. The weakest part is needed and we all need to rely on each other for the proper functioning of the whole. God puts each member in the body as He desires. It is emphasized that there be no division in the body and that each member have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:25) When I injure my body, my whole body gets involved. If I am cut and bleeding, my body feels the pain; my brain tells other parts of the body what is needed. My arm and hand respond by holding the wounded area to comfort the pain, and by applying ointment, a band aid, or whatever. The human body cares for itself. The church, when functioning effectively, will do the same and care for its members. Above and beyond that, we are to care about persons outside the church in the same way. (Matthew 22:37-39; Galatians 6:10) Jesus is the head of the church and the whole church body is to work with one another as He directs. As each member does the part it was put into the body to do, caring will happen. We can see why God uses the human body as an analogy for His church. It is such a clear and visible illustration of how He wants His church to operate. When we think about how our body operates, many applications to the church can be made. For example, we can understand that to leave the body of the church is like our arm leaving our human body. To be disconnected from its head and other bodily parts, the arm is not only alone, but useless and ineffective as the part it is intended to play in the body. Another point to ponder; the human body is organized and visible; so is the church. As we think upon passages such as the two just mentioned, we can be in process of correcting our mistaken views of the church, and be seeking the way that God would have us be connected to His body.
Of course, there are many other aspects in God’s view of the church. It is a place where its members greet one another to show there is nothing wrong between them (1 Peter 5:14), a place where we encourage and build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11), where we bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), admonish one another (Romans 15:14), help the weak, and be patient with everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
I once asked a very close friend of mine, a person with keen insight into people and life, “What do you think is the greatest thing about the church?” After brief reflection, the answer was, “It is where we learn how to die.” Certainly, one aspect of this is learning how to face our physical death with the hope of eternal life. The church gives us hope and comfort. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) But the other aspect is learning how to give up our lives for others. Jesus put it this way, “The one who loses his or her life for my sake will find it.” (Luke 9:24) When Jesus’ disciples argued about who was the greatest, He pointed out that the greatest is the one who serves, using Himself as the supreme example. (Luke 22:24-27) Our choice is whether we will do what God put us into the body to do, or not. (1 Peter 4:10) All believers are to submit to Christ and to one another in fulfilling God’s roles for them in the church. (Ephesians 5:21; Hebrews 13:17)
Unfortunately, some church leaders abuse their authority and use teachings about submission as a weapon, trying to force people into submission by threatening excommunication, or “the fires of hell”. This truth about submitting to God’s will, and to the leaders of the church, has nothing to do with controlling people. It is proper to resist anyone who tries to use the Bible, or their own authority, as a tool to control your life and get you to do what they want, or what they say is good for the group. (Acts 4:18-19) Some groups expect unconditional obedience, or agreement with whatever they say; if you refuse, you are being unspiritual. There is a proper place for authority in the church, but not as manipulation. As a pastor-teacher, I am told not to lord it over others. (1 Peter 5:3) Authoritarianism leads to bondage, whereas Jesus’ concept of dying to oneself leads to freedom and fruitfulness. (John 12:25) Dying to self can only produce freedom when serving is done out of voluntary choice. True serving begins with love for God and others, followed by willing acts of serving, as Jesus directs. True serving will produce personal joy and the blessings of God for yourself and others. But there cannot be true serving without death to self. Jesus says we cannot be an authentic disciple if we do not take up His cross daily. (Luke 14:27) There is a song entitled, “Few Be the Lovers of the Cross”. How true that is. Paul sent Timothy to help a church and he told them to receive him because he had no one else to send. He told them that he had no one else who would genuinely be concerned for their welfare because they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:19-21) What a few have discovered is true; we do not really live until we learn how to die. Dying to self is very difficult without the Holy Spirit’s influence in us. I find that a helpful way to learn how to die in practical ways is by being with people who care about people. Their influence on me inspires me to do the same. (Romans 15:1-3, 14) We rub off on each other. That is why belonging to smaller groups within the church is essential for growth. (Proverbs 27:17)
We might ask, “Why would anyone want to be part of the church when she has so many unresolved problems?”
The simplest answer is: because Christ Jesus loved her, and loves her still, even to the point of dying for her. The reformers, like Martin Luther, fought corruption in the church, not by leaving the church, but by seeking to bring her more in line with Scripture. We might better love the church, in spite of her imperfections and corruptions, if only we knew how God wants us to view her. If we as God’s people will endeavour to see the church rightly, as He describes her in his Book, such a view will go a long way to helping us want to be a contributing part. The word “church” and the concept of church is not a bad thing. The church is the only “organization” that has what the world needs; she has been entrusted with the Gospel of Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 2:4; 1 Timothy 3:15) We may not do things right much of the time; but with a right view, we can go in the direction of doing it better. Are you a believer? Then you are the church, and the church will only be as good as we, in the Spirit, make it.