What is the church?
Quite simply the church is the community of Christians. Literally, the New Testament word for church constitutes a gathering or an assembly of people, but during the New Testament it began to be used in the Christian sense of those who are one in Jesus Christ. The church and Christ go hand in hand. In having fellowship with Christ, one has fellowship with the Church, since Christ joins the body together.
The word church is often split up into three uses of the term: universal, visible, and local. The universal church is the community of Christians worldwide throughout history. The visible church is the community of people that gather as church worldwide at present. The local church is the gathering of people as church in a specific place. While unbelievers can be members in the visible and the local church, this does not make them members of the church in the true sense of the word. In the true sense of the word, however, the local church is a representation and an expression of the universal church.
Three reasons regular participation in the local church is important:
1. It is the locus of spiritual growth.
One of the major pictures in the New Testament for church is the body of Christ. Each individual Christian is a member of the body. If you isolate yourself from the body, you isolate yourself from the source of sustenance and growth and abilities that other parts of the body provide. It will not be long before you perish through lack of these things.
The growth and sustenance of the Christian is the reason God gave the church spiritual gifts. The spiritual gifts are given that we might minister God’s grace to one another through our spiritual gifts, which are given for the purpose of building one another up (1 Cor. 12:7, 14:26). Christ doesn’t give the individual what he or she needs to live the Christian life; he gives the church what he or she needs for the Christian life. This means we need the church to live the Christian life, for it is there that God gives each individual what we need. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). Christians are reliant on the church, for it is there that God has given us all we need for spiritual growth.
2. It is where we attain unity.
In the West, we value individualism and differences more than community and unity, but Paul calls us to value unity in and with the community. In Ephesians 4 Paul describes unity as the goal of the Christian church. Unity has already been accomplished in Christ, but Christians also have the responsibility to maintain unity (v. 3) and to attain unity (v. 13). To be Christian means that one’s life will be characterized by seeking unity with other Christians. The place that this unity is to be sought is in the gathered community of the local church, which is the visible expression of the body of Christ, since that is the place in which the saints manifest unity in the body of Christ and are equipped for this work (v. 12).
3. It is vital for our witness to the world.
Though this could come under unity, I treat it here differently as it is an outcome of unity. In John 17 Jesus prays for those who would believe in him and asks the Father to unify them just as he is unified with the Father (vv. 20-22) for the purpose “that the world may believe that you have sent me” (v. 21) and “so that the world may know that you sent me” (v. 23). Jesus’ prayer shows that the visible unity of Christians is key to the church’s witness with outsiders. Again, this happens in the local church.
One of the hallmarks of modern-day evangelical Christianity is the personal relationship with Jesus. This emphasis grows out of the modern individualism inherent in Western culture. Certainly, Christians do have a personal relationship with Jesus, but it is never an individualistic or private personal relationship. Scripture knows of no such Christian. Rather, the Christian is spoken of as grafted into the olive tree (Rom. 11), baptised into one body (1 Cor. 12:13), and members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12). “The body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14). The Christian then has a personal and communal relationship to Jesus Christ, not in an individualistic sense, but in a communal sense.
The local church is where we meet together with Christ. It is where we worship Christ together and represent Christ to one another. God is at work in His church; He has given His church all she needs to grow and flourish. For this reason, Christians ought to continue participating in the local church with joy and expectation, for Christ is present and working there. What could be more joyous than participating in what God, in Christ, is doing through the Spirit in the gathering each week?
I look forward to exploring the importance of the church further with you at REgen ‘18. May God use this weekend to build his church!!
Blessings in Christ,