Defining the Church

— By Thomas Lambrecht —

As folks consider disaffiliation from The United Methodist Church and engage in foundational work to start the Global Methodist Church, it causes one to consider the question, “What is the church?” Is the church merely a local body of believers? Is the church a denomination? What does it take to be a “viable” church? Does disaffiliation mean a congregation is leaving “the church?”

A recent article by Dr. Kenneth J. Collins, Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, helps flesh out our understanding of the church from a Wesleyan perspective.

Collins points out that John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, “actually employed two basic frameworks, not one,” when attempting to define the church. Those two frameworks help us look at the concept of church from two different angles.

The Institutional Angle

The first framework comes from the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles, condensed and adapted by Wesley into our current Articles of Religion. Article XIII says, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”

As the article states, this definition focuses on the visible church. It entails things that can be seen and verified. The key marks here are:

  1. A group of believers in Christ
  2. The preaching of the pure Word of God – preaching that is based on the Bible, without watering it down or changing it
  3. The administration of the Sacraments (baptism and Holy Communion) according to the directions given in Scripture

These three marks can apply at any level of the church. A congregation can be “the church.” An annual conference or district can be “the church.” A denomination can be “the church.” All that is necessary is for these three marks to be present.

What is a “congregation of faithful men?” Simply put, it is the presence of believers in Christ in a congregation (male and female). Collins notes, “Later on historians reckoned that this definition of the church, which informed the life of both Anglicanism and Methodism, allowed for the mixed assemblies of sinners and saints, of nominal and real Christians, that Augustine recognized in his own ecclesiology and played out in large national churches such as the Church of England.” In other words, the presence of some unbelievers or nominal Christians in a body does not nullify it being a church. As long as some true believers are present, the body can be considered a church.

Biblical preaching is an essential mark of the church. The preaching of human ideas, however lofty, or teachings that are divorced from Scripture contravene this mark. The consistent lack of biblical preaching in a local body or in a denomination could cause one to suspect it is no longer a Christian church, even if true Christians are present in the congregation.

The proper administration of the Sacraments is also essential. A controversy in 2018 over the worship practices of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco is one illustration. In an open letter, Bishop Minerva Carcaño states about Glide, “Sunday Celebrations are uplifting concerts, but lack the fundamentals of Christian worship. Baptisms are conducted periodically but in the name of the people rather than from a Christian understanding of Baptism. Holy Communion was done away with some time ago and only introduced back into the life of the congregation this past Spring, but outside of the Celebration gatherings and with much resistance.” The absence of the Sacraments, or the administration of the Sacraments in a faulty manner could cause one to suspect that a body is no longer a Christian church.

The Spiritual Angle

Wesley’s second framework for defining the church is based on the four marks of the church lifted up in the Nicene Creed, articulated by the Second Ecumenical Council in AD 381. It states, “We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”

These marks are much more subjective and less overtly visible. In fact, Wesley maintains that the invisible universal church consists of all believers in Christ, no matter their denomination or nationality. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, non-denominational, Pentecostals are all part of the universal church.

The “oneness” or unity of the church does not depend upon any kind of institutional unity. If it did, then the church stopped being a true Christian church in 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics separated from each other. Christians residing in different denominations are still part of the one universal church. That means United Methodists in the post-separation era are still part of the universal church of Christ. And the Global Methodist Church (and other independent congregations who have disaffiliated) have not left the church but remain part of the universal church of Christ.

Disaffiliating from or leaving a particular denomination does not mean that one has left the church of Jesus Christ. Our unity is spiritual, rather than institutional. One can experience that unity in ecumenical gatherings where the name of Christ is lifted in worship and preaching. There, all serve the same Lord, regardless of what part of the Body of Christ in which they find their home.

Holiness is another essential mark of the invisible, universal church. Wesley helpfully describes it this way:

The Church is called holy, because it is holy, because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees. … If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body. It follows, that not only no common swearer, no Sabbath-breaker, no drunkard, no whoremonger, no thief, no liar, none that lives in any outward sin, but none that is under the power of anger or pride, no lover of the world, in a word, none that is dead to God, can be a member of his Church (Works, 3:55)

But who can judge the holiness of individual members? Who knows our hearts but God? We are all sinners and fall short in some aspects of living a Christ-like life. What “degree” of holiness is necessary in order to be part of the church?

The mistake we make here is trying to make the invisible spiritual universal church line up with the institutional church. The institutional church will never be “pure” in the sense that all its members are holy. To attempt to “weed out” any “unholy” or insufficiently holy members only does damage to the church. Jesus taught about this in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). When the servants wanted to pull up the weeds that were mingled with the wheat, the owner replied, “No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest” (vs. 29-30). It is only at “the end of the age” (vs. 39) when the weeds and wheat will be separated. God, who knows our hearts, is the only one who can separate the wheat from the weeds.

Accountable discipleship is the pathway to holiness, as the Spirit of God works within each one, transforming us into the likeness of Christ. We all ought to be accountable to live up to the ideals set before us in Scripture. Bishops and pastors ought to be accountable for their preaching, teaching, and leadership, as well. But grace and forgiveness are a big part of the discipleship journey. None of us is perfect, nor do we perfectly reflect the image of our Savior in all we do and say. The test of our holiness is our willingness to confess our sins, receive God’s forgiveness, and strive to do better. It is only when we turn our back on God, refusing to acknowledge our sins or receive his forgiveness, that we take the path away from holiness.

Integrating the Two Angles

The key point is that the institutional, visible church is not identical with the invisible, spiritual, universal church. There are members of the institutional church who are not true believers in Christ and are therefore not members of the invisible, universal church. At the same time, the invisible, universal church includes believers from all denominations, nationalities, races, and ethnicities. After all, Jesus was “slaughtered, and [his] blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). All these ransomed people belong to the universal church, no matter which part of the institutional church they are members in.

In a garden, there are certain plants, like tomatoes and peas, that need support in order to grow and bear fruit. So, gardeners set up structures like tomato cages or pea towers for these plants to grow upon in order to maximize their fruitfulness. Without these structures, the plants will not be nearly as fruitful.

In the same way, the institutional church is a visible support structure for the invisible, universal church. Different structures can help different parts of the church grow in that part of the garden in which they are planted. If a particular structure or denomination is not serving the purpose of fruitfulness for which it was intended, it can be modified or even abandoned. Only, whatever structures are used, they must contain the seven essential marks outlined above.

This is why some congregations are disaffiliating from the UM Church. They believe the UM Church is abandoning the pure Word of God by affirming behaviors that Scripture warns against. And they believe the UM Church is described by Collins as having “apparently abandoned the universal call to repentance, and therefore to forgiveness and holiness as well” with regard specifically to same-sex relationships and the church’s understanding of marriage.

When some believe the institutional support structures are not fulfilling their purpose of bringing about spiritual fruitfulness in line with the seven marks of the church, they feel justified in exchanging that support structure for a different one that holds more promise of fruitfulness. In doing so, they may be leaving one institutional church for another, but they are not leaving the invisible, universal church. In fact, they are attempting to be even more faithful to that universal church by disaffiliating. Let us pray that the new structures being built will be faithful to the seven marks of the church and yield even greater fruitfulness for the kingdom of God in the years ahead.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.


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