Self-Evident and Observable Truth:
Religious people (not just Christians) commonly think their faith group, or particular brand of their religion, is IT. Let’s not pretend this is a purely Christian phenomenon. Just ask the Islamic world why shia and sunni muslims are at war with each other. Religious pride is a HUMAN trait. So, it is no wonder that congregations and denominations under the broad umbrella of Christendom think themselves particularly “right” — it’s human nature. The Bible is certainly always right; it is just that we all must recognize we are still learning the Bible and growing as Christians. Sometimes, I think to myself, “If I were a seeker of Christ or a new believer, where would I begin looking for a church?” And, admittedly, I get overwhelmed. Just this weekend, I heard how life for a new Christian had been great until (by that one’s own testimony) he met and fell in with other Christians at a church which was less than respectable for their isolationism and egotism. After that, his life went down the shoots, I was told. Stories such as that are one of my greatest fears.
But, if I could offer only one piece of help to anyone, something that would protect some against falling in with the wrong Christian crowd, it would be that they focus on how to accurately define “church.” I will give you the definition first and then prove why it is an accurate definition.
The best place to start is with Christ’s own statement on the matter:
Mat 16:16-18 (ESV) – Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
In the above Bible verses, there are 2 simple observations to make. First, Peter made a statement about Christ’s identity. The truth of Peter’s statement was revealed to Peter by God, the Father. He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For that statement, Simon Bar-Jonah inherited the title, “Peter” (or “stone”). So, Peter — for his statement’s sake — was nicknamed… so that the occasion would be memorialized and so that no one who knows of Peter would think of him without thinking of the statement Peter made. The statement about Christ’s identity is of utmost importance, especially since the identity of Jesus suffers so much attack. Many deny in part or whole that he is the only eternal, never created, pre-existent One who is fully God and fully man, sent from the Father and anointed by the Spirit to atone for mankind’s sin!
That brings us to observation #2: The statement Peter made about Christ is of so much import that Christ says it is the rock (literally, “slab”; i.e. foundation) upon which Christ would build His church. Please note that the church is Christ’s alone.
Church: In reference to Christianity, Church literally means: 1. “called out” (i.e. those who are different from others in the world, because when God called to them via the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they came out from the rest of the crowd by placing faith in Christ as sin-pardoning Son of the living God; 2. that universal collective body of believers in Jesus Christ who affirm that He is indeed the Son of the Living God, which is the first and most important of essential affirmations that biblically categorize one as Christian.
Notice what church IS NOT: the definition does not assert the church is an organization, a building where people gather and do stuff in the name of God, or a religious hierarchy or even a sect amid other denominations and sects. Notice that the definition does not say the church is only a local, isolated group. Some will tell you a local church is all the church should be, but to say so is wrong. There is one Church (Eph. 4:1-8, made up of the collective whole of born-again believers) which Christ is building at all times across all regions of the globe. By the individual members of that universal church having a God-given place in the world (1 Corinthians 5:9-10; 7:17-24), God gets his work done on earth. That being said, let me emphasize again that the church is not a hierarchy of churches and church leaders. God’s kingdom is not like man’s kingdoms — [see the kingdom parables of Christ and Abuse and Authority]. I am also quick to add that some churches claim to serve Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, but they disqualify themselves by adding to, taking away or redefining the Apostles’ doctrine (found in normal, literary readings of the New Testament).
A local church is but a manifestation of the fact that the Church (the family of God – Ephesians 3:15) is out there in the world being the body of Christ. To say that a local church is all the church should be is to place a manifestation of the Church above the Church itself. Any church that does this and/or does not exercise a “kingdom view” by seeing themselves as only one part of a large whole is not the sort of people you want to be around. God will become small, His working in the world will become small because everyone else is false, and even though that congregation of believers themselves will be small, they will think themselves the only ones who are right. Many times, their mentality will be “hold on till Jesus comes; we’re all that’s left.” That’s when they start back biting one another, their love shrivels, and they split-up over things like carpet color or the music. These sort are inward turned like cancer. Avoid them at all costs.
A local church should NOT view itself as an organization, the pastors/elders or board members of which systematically make plans for the attenders to do the work of God together (as if that were possible by human plans) and somehow “conquer the world.” That would be “lording” (1 Peter 5:1-3) because it is inserting one’s self between the believer and God, not to mention God’s spiritual vocation for that person. And so, it would take away from the already-in-progress plan of God, which has a believer in the place where he/she is most needed and effective — the place where he/she was called (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).
On the other hand, pastors/elders are given by God to their local church in order to equip/train up the believers until they become mature in Christ, with the result of making disciples themselves. Training, then, is far different than assigning duties, departments and personnel as a corporate human resource administrator would. [For example: one’s saying, “Your place is to serve here, or else you are disobedient.” Or, “This role and task is God’s will for you.”] Instead, equipping and training would be the process of teaching truth, encouraging, supporting and providing the “watch me and learn” examples & tools necessary for fulfilling the role to which one is called by God. And, yes, in cases of ill (spiritual) health or outright disobedience — reproving, rebuking and exhorting (2 Tim. 2:24-26, 4:2).
Some churches focus a lot on doing programs but only as the minister/elder/pastor(s) leads… or, rather “lords.” These churches are “busy, busy, busy” and you’ll feel like you’re on a treadmill for a never-ending health exam that goes nowhere fast. One word: EXHAUSTING. They do not seem to understand that doing Christian things can never outweigh “being” a Christian, which is all Christ wants from us – John 15. Fruit happens naturally (not even trying) as we spend time with the true Vine and love the other branches. That being said, the Christian who abides in Christ will bear MUCH fruit (John 15); and like Paul, he will labor more abundantly than anyone else… not because of himself but because the grace of God is in him (1 Corinthians 15:10). All in all, everyone can tell when someone is doing something out of duty vs. when it is supernatural love compelling them.
Other Christians speak of revival and spiritual awakening. Revival and Spiritual Awakening happen when Pastors/Edlers step aside from their administrative positions of lording to serve the Holy Spirit in each believer… to equip them one on one and in intimate groups to learn a vibrant, interactive relationship with God on God’s terms so that each believer in a local church is doing the work to which he/she has been called (he/she alone knowing what that is). That is the true work of the pastoral ministry!
Rather than a lording pastor, the pastor(s)/elder(s) builds each individual believer up till he/she maturely walks with the Lord… with the result of each knowing his/her saintly identity, a passion for lovingly carrying out the great commission, AND exercising his/her own gifting for edifying other believers as they go through the world and as they meet together (Ephesians 4)….
The pastor/elder oversees. That is true. But, he oversees two things–the feeding of the sheep and the doctrinal protection of the sheep. He makes sure that each Christian obtain the spiritual maturity necessary for recognizing/responding to the Lord’s leading (Romans 8:14 – by the Spirit and Word), so that the believer’s naturally supernatural influence will be felt in the world throughout his lifetime.
Very simply and NO MATTER WHAT, the pastor’s duty (along with doctrinal vigilance) is to keep directing people (by prayer and ministering the Word — Acts 6) to develop their own interactive relationship with God, so that the believer follows God’s leadings to minister to others. If the pastor speaks his own opinions, that church’s denominational traditions, or if he does not teach you altogether what actually is in the Bible, then he’s not exercising his supposed calling. He’s a fake, a fraud. Neither is a pastor/minister/elder a spiritual boss, an administrator or a spiritual diviner of God’s will. And, one cannot lead others into an mature, interactive relationship with God unless he has it himself; it is the chief thing he must exemplify. Any minister/elder/pastor who does not understand this is not worth his salt or your time. Chances are he is just running his own show of programs and calling it spiritual progress & church while claiming the programs are “God’s will” for that church. He may be doing these things ignorantly; but if he does them, then he has spiritual blindness that only God can remove. If you approach him on it, you will only be hurt in return. Save yourself.
To summarize, the Church is something universal that Christ is building all over the world at all times. It is made up of people who have affirmed their trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of the Living God, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world through His sacrificial death for our sins and victorious resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).
The Church is manifested when groups of believers form together and meet regularly. A plurality–not just one individual–of elders (pastors, bishops) is among them as those who are themselves accountable to God for the souls under their care and are to be spiritually mature as well as devoted to praying and ministering the Word, so that others will grow up in Jesus to maturity and vibrancy, becoming addicted to ministering where they are in the world…or where God might lead. When a group of believers do come together, it is for the purpose of worshiping God and building each other up, because we all need encouragement and spiritual support. We need it in order to fulfill our purpose of being a Christ-like witness in the place of the world where we were first called out by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and/or to whom He’ll lead us in our lifetime.