Archive: What is the Church?

Today there is much confusion about the doctrine of the Church. We hear many ideas that have no basis in the Word of God, which stands as the ultimate measure of Christian truth. Here are four definitions to stimulate and challenge you.

Where Christ is Pre-eminent
says Robert 0. Fraley, Staff Evangelist, Epworth Methodist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma

One of the characteristics of modern Christendom is its confused doctrine of the Church. This confusion is evidenced by a barrage of current questions such as: “What is the purpose of the Church?” “Why is the Church casting so little vital influence on government and society?” “Why do people want to belong to a church?” “Which church is right?”

Questions like these simply bring to focus the more basic and vital question: “What is the Church?” Is it only another man-made organization among the many that our social drives have produced? Is it a group organized to answer man’s search for salvation and peace? Is it a denomination or collective fellowship? Is it a building housing a group, with a charter and a name?

The first step in discovering a satisfactory answer is to distinguish between the Church as a doctrine and the Church as an institution. Just as we must in­sist upon a New Testament definition of the term “Christian,” so we insist upon a New Testament definition of the term ‘·church.” The Greek word translated “church” most often used in the New Testament is ecclesia. Its root meaning, “the called out ones,” establishes the doctrine. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul speaks with authority and clarity relative to the doctrine of the Church, using the unique metaphor of the Church as a body (Ephesians 1:23). In Chapter 5 he speaks “concerning Christ and the church”:

“Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body” (vs. 23). “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church . . . holy and without blemish” (vss. 25-27).“The church is subject unto Christ .. .” (vs. 24). Christ “nourisheth and cherisheth … the church” (vs. 29).”… we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (vs. 30).

These “called out” individuals, wherever found collectively, form the Church as an institution. The Church, then, as an institution, is made up of the body of believers in Christ who together perform certain functions. The Church (the body of Christ) is bound by faith to its Head (Christ). The functions of preaching, teaching, serving, and witnessing necessitate organization. Not the organization, but the faith relationship to Christ, makes the group the Church according to biblical doctrine.

In implementing the organization by performing the functions, it is natural that attention is given to externals. But when externals are accentuated, faith recedes. It is thus evident, that in any church as an institution, the faith relationship can be lost while function and organization continue. Such was the situation that evoked the messages to the churches in the Apocalypse: “ … Thou hast left thy first love” (Revelation 2:4). “… I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Revelation 3:1). “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot …” (Revelation 3:15).

When love grows cold, and apostasy brings death, then the mad scramble to make the Church “relevant” ensues. This we are witnessing in contemporary Church history.

It is ordained, but not guaranteed, that “a” church contain “the” Church. Many a church, by laxity in membership standards and proneness to backsliding, contains “a mixed multitude.” The evidence that members of “a” church are members of “the” Church is in their faith, fruits, and the demonstration of the Holy Spirit in His gifts.

Naturally, we will establish groups of believers. We need a focal point of worship and activity. We must unite in order to send believers to a waiting, weary world needing Christ. Organization is implied and inevitable. But the confusion resulting when organization supersedes the organism (body of Christ) spells death. Then the Church becomes only another organization reflecting our social drives. Then will people join, feeling that external adherence is sufficient for salvation. Then will the voice of denomination rise in crescendo claiming unique authority.

Only when organization is kept as a tool, and Christ given preeminence, only then do we have “the Church.” For such a fellowship of believers, missions is its purpose, evangelism its activity, the Bible its authority, the Cross its glory, healing its ministry, care of the needy, its compassion, testimony its expression of triumph, miracles its norm, love its mark of identity, prayer its source of power, faith its exercise, and the return of Christ its expectation. This is The Church!

“Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” Ephesians 3: 21

A Place of Certainty
says Warren Broker, Layman, Epworth Methodist Church, Elgin, Illinois

In many ways, the Church is like Motherhood. Both are defended and spoken of reverently by almost everyone. Both are turned to for comfort in time of trouble and despair . . . but quickly shunned when help with the chores is needed.

A recent experience with an every-member canvass reveals the actual attitude that many people have toward their church. Members dislike being “hounded” every year to serve on some commission. Or they are sick and tired of “always” being asked for money. Others nourish feelings that were hurt by something that was said, or possibly because there was no welcoming committee at the church door to greet them the last time they attended a service of worship-six months ago.

Obviously many laymen consider the church to be an organization that is interested primarily in their time and money … and offers in return solely a place to be baptized, married and buried-and to attend occasionally on a convenient Sunday morning.

The Church of Jesus Christ means infinitely more than this to me.

In one sense, it is the House of God where I come to pray, worship, and hear His Word preached. In my own inadequacy and gross imperfection, I can find here the Presence of the only One who is truly perfect, completely sinless, all-forgiving. It is a sanctuary from the trials and uncertainties of life where I can be secure in the knowledge that God is unchanging and that He is always with me.

In another sense, the Church is a fellowship of believers with whom I can unite in worship, in seeking His will for my life, and in my feeble efforts to follow His leading. Of course I should also read the Bible, study and pray at home. But these activities take on added significance when they receive the mutual support of other hands and voices. For Christ has given us the assurance that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This relationship with Christ applies also to church service projects of all kinds. These worthwhile activities are not carried out simply to help others – many fine secular organizations also do that – but to glorify Jesus Christ and the Heavenly Father.

I also consider the Church to be an institution founded by Christ. It gives unity of purpose to His work on earth from generation to generation. Even a cursory review of Church history from the first Christian Pentecost through the Reformation to present-day ecumenical movements reveals an amazing sense of direction. Surely this represents more than the bungling efforts of man alone! Mighty nations have risen and fallen during the past two thousand years. Yet the Christian church has not only survived, but it has continued to advance inexorably in performing its sacred mission.

What does the Church mean to me? Many things. And all of them have special meaning and purpose because of their inseparable relationship to Jesus Christ.

The Risen Christ Expressing Himself
says Dale C. Bittinger, Pastor, First Methodist Church, Dayton, Tennessee

The Church, conceived in the heart of God before the beginning of time, is both an organism and an organization. As an organism, whose life is the Holy Spirit, the Church is the risen Christ expressing Himself through redeemed and regenerated human personality in all races. The Church that Christ loved, and for whom He gave His life, is characterized by a deep and abiding fellowship and an inner witness of the Holy Spirit, as well as a life-giving love for God and man. Her pure and holy conduct glorifies Christ. Further, the true Church has a quality of inner spiritual unity centered in the life of Christ and the Being of God, rather than an outward mechanical unity centered in a unified and uniform organizational structure.

By the command of the Savior, the Church as an organism operates within the church as an organization. The organism was meant to control the organization. Any other arrangement makes the Church weak and unworthy.

The Church is the spiritual Israel, having superseded the He­ brew people in the matter of responsibility for the Kingdom of God on earth. To carry out her function of manifesting the Kingdom of God, the Church yields herself to the rule of Christ by fulfilling His ideals within and without her borders. She wages unceasing war against all forces in opposition to her Lord by: (1) proclaiming His great evangel whereby men may be brought into the Kingdom, (2) by testimony to His moral standards, and (3) by persistent, perpetual prayer in the secret place as well as public worship. Like her Master, the Church is moved by, and ministers to, the needs of all men. To the extent that the organism is in control, these functions are carried out.

Although the history of the Church has been and will be filled with persecution and conflict, our Lord has promised that she will prevail. In the end time, Jesus will come again and claim His Church. In this climactic moment of the ages, Jesus Christ will present the Church as His spiritual Bride to the Father.

A Fellowship of Faith and Love
says Blaine Lambert, Retired Pastor, Minnesota Conference

A fellowship of faith and love was formed at Pentecost; it grew into THE Church. The fellow­ ship continued in the teaching of the apostles, and in the practice of the two sacraments Jesus had suggested.

Jesus gave the program of the Church when He said, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses . . . to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). This gives the Church’s only commission. Only one condition of membership is re­ quired: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 38).

At first, the testimony to the resurrected Jesus was so overwhelming that everyone was a witness. Christians pooled their property, and cared for the total needs of their company. The first officers were named to care for material needs; one of these became the first Christian martyr, another the first evangelist to a neighboring land.

When laymen came to Antioch, and proclaimed Christ to all, Jews and Gentiles believed. There was no class or color line. They were called Christians first in Antioch. They talked about Christ and lived like Christ. In a decaying Roman society, the Church became the one center of security and hope. Letters and messengers were sent between local churches; but their unity was in one Living Christ.

Paul uses three figures to describe the Church: (1) the body of which Christ is the head, (2) the temple in which He dwells and each believer is a part, (3) the household of God, the Heavenly Father. In Ephesians 4 we read, “But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift … until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” This is the goal of the Gospel: Christlikeness in the individual and in the Church.

A modern definition of the Church is “a congregation of faithful men in which the Word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered.” But to preach the Word of God, a church must include all ages and classes, and provide a fellow­ ship in which the Word may be understood, with opportunities for worship, witness, and work. Such a fellowship would provide an atmosphere of expectancy that would lead men to seek the Savior. So the Church offers frequent invitations for personal commitment to Him, and for repentance and renewal.

There is a significant story in Acts 4. Peter and John, forbidden to speak at all in the name of Jesus, reported to their friends. They prayed for courage “to speak thy word with all boldness . . . and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” So today, little companies and whole congregations may meet for study, prayer, and resultant action, and find a spiritual renewal. In 61 years in the Methodist ministry, I have seen this happen many times. Christ “loved the Church, and gave Himself for it!” Let us love the Church and give ourselves to it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Our Mailing List!

Click here to sign up to our email lists:

•Perspective Newsletter (weekly)
• Transforming Congregations Newsletter (monthly)
• Renew Newsletter (monthly)

Make a Gift

Global Methodist Church

Is God Calling You For More?


Latest Articles: