Growing up, my family always taught me their understanding of the church, often best explained through the old rhyme one would say while interlocking their fingers; “To have a church, stick up your fingers for the steeple, open the doors and there’s all the people!” While this was a clever use of one’s fingers and a great way to introduce the very basic idea of going to church to a youngster, it is severely lacking and does not explain or educate as to the true nature of the church as the body of Christ.
There are many examples I could use from my evangelical Christian upbringing that helped give me a skewed version of the definition of the church, such as some classics like; “Make sure to put on your Sunday best!”, or, “Stop! We don’t play in church!” These are all things I heard growing up in a God-fearing Christian family, and they were said to help me grow in reverence and respect towards God, yet they did not provide me with an accurate starting point for my burgeoning faith and ultimately became things I had to overcome as I grew to fully understand my journey of faith and place in the church, the body of Christ.
The Foundational Mission of Church
As I learned more and more about the true purpose and nature of the church, I found myself focusing on the church’s starting point. To completely grasp the reason the church exists, we must understand when and how it started. We see God lay out his plan in the Old Testament. The original intention behind the nation of Israel was to fulfill the blessing God originally gave to Abraham for the benefit of the whole world. “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed'” (Genesis 12:1-3). There are a few basic fundamentals that we see in this passage:
- God has a plan for bringing His blessing to the world
- God intends to use humans to be the messenger of that blessing
While the physical nation of Israel did not live up to this mission, it is clear through God’s use of the “remnant” that a spiritual nation of Israel was rising up inside the physical. This became clear through Jesus’ life and teachings. “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches'” (Matthew 13:31-32). This movement of Jesus was the catalyst of God’s eternal plan of bringing his love and grace to everyone on earth.
Jesus started by calling this movement the “kingdom of God” and explaining his plan for it all throughout his time on earth; that it would grow and be a source of life for all around it. His intention and plan was always that “all around it” would refer to the whole world and would come from the few gathered in front of him that day.
As it then was, even as it was on the day of Pentecost, it was smaller than any sect or party in Palestine or Greece or Italy. It was sown in God’s field of the world, but it was to grow till it became greater than any sect or school, a tree among the trees of the forest, a kingdom among other kingdoms (comp. the imagery of Ezekiel 31:3; Daniel 4:10), a great organised society; and the “birds of the air” (no longer, as before, the emblems of evil)—i.e., the systems of thought, institutions, and the like, of other races—were to find refuge under its protection.
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers for Matthew 13:31
From this, the church’s directive and promise of fulfillment is here in Matthew 24:14: “The kingdom of Heaven shall be preached to all nations and then the end shall come.” At the time Jesus said this, the disciples were still trying to figure out the mystery of what Jesus exactly means by this, but it fit exactly in line going all the way back to God’s calling of Abraham in Genesis 12. The point of blessing the Israelites was to bless the rest of the world with God’s love. It makes perfect sense that Jesus wouldn’t return until everyone alive has had the chance to receive that love and grace.
Jesus is the Head of the Church
From the start of Jesus’ ministry all through until he charged the disciples to carry on the mission, the charge was always spreading the gospel. The good news of salvation must be preached to everyone; every human must know the truth of their own lostness and inability to regain their own standing in front of God. Only by trusting in the atoning act of Jesus can a person be justified in the sight of God and reunited into His family.
We know from Paul that all a person has to do is “Believe with your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The plan of God—the mission of the church—is eternal salvation through Jesus Christ for the rest of the world. But why does humanity need that blessing from God?
Simply put, the world is without hope. You only need to watch the news for one day to see reports on mass murders, natural disasters, horrific acts of terror; the results of which can deflate joy and happiness faster than a pin can pop a balloon. “This generation thinks that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb” (Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, 342). The evil of Satan and the power of sin have robbed humankind of its connection to life and love. The hope we have does not come from this world, but from the God who smuggled himself into this world through the virgin birth and carried our sins on the cross. “There is hope, and it comes to fulfillment when we believe and obey the gospel. Because the gospel has been, is, and will always be the way of salvation, the only way, the church must preserve it at all costs” (Erickson, 342).
The church is the embodiment of the calling and blessing God gave to Abraham all those years ago. Just as the physical nation of Israel was to be the light of the world and bring others to God, the church is now the spiritual remnant of Israel and is charged with the same task: to reach the lost of this world with the message and hope of Jesus Christ. The church started with the first Christians to meet and hear the words of Jesus.
Jesus started the church by bringing salvation. He is the ignition, the catalyst, the message of the church. And though it did start as small of a mustard seed, 2000 years later it has grown into an intricate network that spans every continent and countless languages. Though the church has not reached the whole world, it is world-wide and fully cross-cultural. The Church, universally, is the collective group that includes every Christian that has ever lived. “The Church (Universal) is the Body of all saved people everywhere. It includes all those who have been redeemed by Jesus’ blood, have received forgiveness of their sins, and have been born spiritually into His family. This is the sense in which the word church is used in Matthew 16:18, which Jesus promised to build” (GospelWay.com).
The Growth of the Church
And it is an intricate network. After spending years in the business world, it is easy to see the genius way Jesus developed and built the church. It is a network that any business would love to perfect and many businesses try to model, albeit without giving the proper credit where it is due. Take for example, Coca-Cola. In the early days, during their major expansion efforts outside of the Atlanta region to national and global levels, Coca-Cola used one specific strategy for developing interest in its brand.
As Coke would work its way into a new town, it would take a small network of trucks and salesmen, enter a new city and immediately give away a certain amount of Coke to the local populace. They knew that if people got a taste of Coca-Cola, they would want more. The company initially dispatched these small networks throughout many smaller, local communities so that as people traveled back and forth, this new sensation would be ready and available for them quickly and easily. As Coke took hold in a particular town, the company would immediately establish carrier routes and help tout the local places that sold it. All of a sudden there was a dense network of Coke channels that lead all the way back to Atlanta (Pendergrast, For God Country and Coca-Cola).
Jesus initially developed this pattern of “market saturation” when he sent out the 72. He created small teams of disciples (2 by 2) and sent them out into the neighboring towns to share the message of the gospel. What this ultimately began and was formalized during the time of the Book of Acts was a local pocket of believers that could travel and connect to other pockets that had the same teaching as they were all connected to the hub.
Leadership and Structure of the Church
As the church grew and grew, many “hubs” popped up over the Mediterranean region, the headquarters moved locations and they all found themselves at different points questioning certain tenants of faith and their own existence. “The apostle Paul set the pattern for evangelism in the early centuries of Christianity by settling for a time in one of the great cities of the empire and, through his younger helpers, thrusting out from this center to smaller towns of the region” (Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 29).
Thankfully, instead of focusing their trust on what the hubs had to say, the church stayed together by a focus on God through prayer and stern rules on what was good teaching and what was not. A lot of the overarching theology was solidified through the early church councils where topics such as heretical teaching, the Scriptural canon and individual issues were discussed and decided upon. For example, the Council of Nicaea was formed so “a general council of the church would solve the problem created in the Eastern church by Arianism, a heresy first proposed by Arius of Alexandria and affirmed that Christ is not divine but a created being” (Encyclopedia Britannica, Council of Nicaea).
The local churches (or city churches at that time) would take the information they had from the overall church leaders and the councils and would prayerfully use those tools to follow God. Centuries before the World Wide Web and complex business structures, the church strategically built an infrastructure that would survive controversies, politicians, popes, wars and many other attacks (yet the heart of the church held together In those small units); through times like the Renaissance and the Reformation and still survives to this day. The sharing of the Gospel is the beginning of the calling for the church to be a blessing to the world, accomplished through local networks of churches.
Today, ecumenical councils have been replaced by denominational organizations that are as numerous and varied as the sands of the sea. Each of these are constructed based on their theology, philosophy of leadership and organizational style (among other differences). Denominations are then broken down into districts and local churches. While many agree on at least the main salvation-related issues, it has become more and more vital for each person to study the Scriptures on their own and choose a church that can logically, thoughtfully and clearly define and teach the theological truths of the Bible.
Leadership and authority of the church is dependent on its larger governing body, but Christ is the Head. This was modeled back in the early church with the 12 apostles taking leadership roles to ensure the continuity and correctness of the teaching – as they were the ones that had a direct, first person relationship to Christ. Paul then lays out in 1 Timothy 3 the qualifications for leadership in the church as it continued to grow. Protection of Christ’s message and the mission were (and are) vital, so Paul explained the type of individuals that should be trusted with certain positions of leadership. Proper teaching and doctrinal stability has helped ensure that Christ and Him crucified is what is preached. This is not the end of the mission, though. Jesus is not just our Savior, but also our Sanctifier and he uses the church as a vehicle of blessing in this way as well.
Sanctification through the Church
Matthew 28:19-20 and Romans 12:1-2 (among many other verses) make it clear that the job of the believer is to live a lifestyle of worship, through which a ministry-minded outreach should be a significant part. In other words, we are called, as we are living our life, to share the Gospel and invite other people into relationship with Christ. The Christian life, however, does not start and stop at the point of conversion. In order for a new believer in Jesus to reach the point of spiritual maturity and the faith/ability to go out and share Jesus themselves, they need to learn and grow.
“The first decisive step in sanctification is an act of will by which we renounce evil in every form in which it is made manifest to our consciences and brought into the light. We deny further not only evil in its manifestations but also the whole evil self and sinful nature from which each separate act has sprung. We also separate ourselves from the world and its embodiment of the old natural condition of things and the kingdom of the prince of evil. We recognize ourselves as not of the world even as He was not of the world. We put off, not merely that which is sinful, but that which is natural and human that it may die on the Cross of Jesus and rise into a supernatural and divine life” (Wholly Sanctified, A.B. Simpson, 10).
It is not the responsibility of the church to sanctify its members, as that is the work of Christ Himself. However, God did establish the church as a way for believers to live and grow with each other, learn the proper teaching and achieve, in a matter of speaking, a separation from the world through the community of believers. The Book of Acts speaks of this purpose of the church beautifully.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47, NIV).
The Church is One Body, Many Parts
Whether we are looking at the local church down the street or the world-wide community of believers, God has brilliantly constructed a living body of Christ that has all the right pieces in all the right places at all the right times. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul talks of the roles of the body of church down to the individual members through the explanation of spiritual gifts. God has gifted every believer to fulfill a role in His plan and laid people out accordingly so that the whole of the work can be accomplished. It’s just like any business would dream to be able to fabricate: having a team of different talents and giftings that complement each other so that the commission may be fulfilled.
A.B. Simpson, the founder of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, saw the mission of the church in a fully realized way as he developed a movement of teams with specific abilities to accomplish specific purposes for the Gospel world-wide. That can be seen even in the name of the denomination, as the missionary agency and sending churches in the states eventually grouped under one organizational hierarchy. Just as he saw the mission from Jesus and formation plan of the early church over 100 years ago, we are all called to work together in that early church mindset that Acts describes so that, as we come together, the fullness of the body of Jesus is realized both for internal sanctification and external impact. This is the key to experiencing the blessing offered in Acts 2:47; seeing the multitudes come to Jesus.
God does the work in both the acts of salvation and sanctification, yet He offers us the opportunity to “go along for the ride” and be a part of His workings in the world. The church, being made up of people is certainly imperfect, but it is the way He chose to work: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27). This is so there is no question that it is His work; His power. We are weak, but God has united us through his power to each other and to Him and is using us to accomplish great things locally, nationally and internationally. We are not a scattered group of people or a nursery rhyme, but through the power of God we are one body, one church; His vessel to bring the blessings of His love and His grace to the rest of the world.
Erickson, Millard. Introducing Christian Doctrine. Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992.
Pendergrast, Mark. For God, Country, and Coca-Cola. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1982.
Simpson, A.B. Wholly Sanctified. Camp Hill: Christian Publications, 1991.
Ellicott’s Commentary on Matthew 13. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/matthew/13.htm
A Study of the Nature and Meaning of Jesus’ Church. http://www.gospelway.com/church/church_nature.php
The Council of Nicea. www.britannica.com/edchecked/topic/413817/council-of-nicea