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By Pastor Bruce Sikes
A friend contacted me recently and shared that due to various circumstances she was forced to leave her church. It was a church which she had been a part of for many years. She was deeply hurt by the situation and understandably so. It left her with many unanswered questions. In seeking to clear away the clutter and get to the root of the problem, she asked a simple question; “According to the Bible, what is Church?”
That is a question we don’t often ask because we assume the answer is obvious and so we just take it for granted. However, in an age where we are witnessing an increase in sin, false teaching and growing complacency in our churches, it is a very good question to ask ourselves. So, “What is Church?”
Some years ago, I was the pastor of a mission church in South St. Louis. It was the second of two churches the Lord led me to start and it was my third ministry staff position. By that time I had learned a great deal about what “makes a church work”. However, when I started laying the ground work for that first new church, I was essentially following the playbook, "Church Starting 101", or "How to Start a Church in Four Easy Lessons”. Like many other church starters, I simply looked at existing church models and said, "Well, we need comfortable seating, a stage, an altar area, a praise band, an overhead projector for music and Scriptures, and of course we'll need some deacons, ushers, a church secretary and custodian, plus we must have a nice welcome center with the trendy church coffee clutch area! Then all we have to do is start meeting on Sunday mornings at 9:30am for Bible study and 10:45am for worship and then we'll have ourselves a church! Amen!” We have been told this is how to DO church.
It was during this second time around at church starting that the idea of ”being” church rather than “doing” church really hit home with me. Most of my work at that second church was with lower income families and recovering drug and alcohol addicts. The only thing they knew about Church was what they had gleaned from popular culture, much of which was, (and still is!) a poor caricature and rather simple minded stereotype of what the real biblical Church is supposed to be. Sadly, many well-intending Christians have contributed to this superficial image of church through our own laziness.
Let me just give you one quick example of what I mean. Where does a Christian sit on Sunday mornings? In a church, right? WRONG! It's not the Church. It’s a building. It’s a big house, if you will, with a lot of rooms. Nowhere in the Bible will you ever see the word “Church” used to mean a building or even a worship center. In the book of Acts, the apostles Paul and Barnabas traveled to Antioch.
“On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:27)
It clearly says, “They gathered the church together”. Now, unless Paul and Barnabas were gathering up bricks to build a new building, you can easily see that it means, “they gathered the believers together”.
The verse makes it pretty clear that the Church is most certainly not a building. Calling any building, from the grandest gothic cathedral to a simple one room sanctuary, “the Church”, is to change the Bible’s meaning and to compromise the very form, function and identity of the Church. By the way, neither is the Church an “institution” nor is it a religious “organization”. Plain and simple, the Church is the body of believers in Christ Jesus. 1 Corinthians 12:27 says:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
When you are at your next worship service, take a look at the people surrounding you. What do you see? Those people who have accepted and follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are the Church. It’s not the building, it’s not the sign out front, and it’s not the altar, or the baptismal, or the communion table. Jesus did not die for any of these. He died for the redemption of men and women. Take the building away and the Church remains. Throughout the centuries, and even now, the enemies of God have burned worship buildings to the ground in an effort to destroy the Church, but the Church is not destroyed.
So, like it or not, when we refer to a building, any building, as “the church”, we are not only being just plain lazy in our language, we are being woefully unbiblical. So instead of saying, “We are GOING to church,” we should say “We are going to our church’s worship service,” or “We’re going to meet WITH the church.” Do you see the subtle difference? Some might ask, “What's the big deal? Everyone knows what we mean when we say the word “church”! But that’s the problem. I don’t think they do, and I’m not sure most of us do either! We’ve tossed the word church around so casually, for so long, that it has come to adversely affect the way in which we think and act as God’s Church.
For example, let's move on from what the definition of Church “is”, to what Church “does”, or to put it better, “What is the work of the Church?” By either intentionally or lazily identifying Church as a building, we have defined, or more aptly “confined” the work of the Church to the building. That's where we place our expectations for the work of the Church to be done, in the building. Worship can only occur in the building. Bible study can only occur in the building. Prayer can only occur in the building. Salvation can only occur in the building. For most Christians this amounts to what, a couple hours a week, mainly on Sundays?
It has become our convenient, noninvasive, low commitment, economical, check all the boxes way of “doing” Church. Go to work - Check. Go to school - Check. Go to Church - Check. Then whatever time is left is our “free” time, our “personal time” and we don’t put any checkmarks in that box of course because we like that one. You can see what we’ve done there. We’ve compartmentalized Church as something to “do”, somewhere to “go”.
But there is no such thing as “going to Church”. Either you ARE the Church or you are not. Either you are a born again heaven bound believer in Christ Jesus or you are a lost soul wandering on a path to eternal hell. There is no in-between. A seeker, no matter how sincere and well-meaning, is still a seeker. They haven’t found anything. They are still lost. These days we have “seeker friendly churches” or, we could say, “lost” friendly churches.” Now of course we know their good intentions; however, we also know what many have become; churches literally full of lost people. Seekers content with the journey and churches content to take them along for the ride. Dismally, it’s gotten to the point where we have a hard time telling the lost people from those claiming to be “saved”. No wonder! We’ve given them all a convenient box to check. Church - check! Done!
I can see them at Judgment day arguing with the Lord, “But Lord, I went to church every Sunday. See? The box is checked!” And then Jesus says, “Away from me. I never knew you!” (Matthew 7:23)
It’s time to uncheck that Church box! When we check a box, we are telling ourselves that we’re all done with that work. Let me ask you, “When is the work of the Church ever done?” I hope as you read that question you weren’t thinking of Church abstractly, that is, as being a particular location, denomination or institution. Because, when you see or hear the word Church you should see yourself, you should hear your own name being called. You should take it very personally. What did 1st Corinthians 12:27 say?
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
Let me ask you, are there any worthless or useless parts of the body of Christ? No! Absolutely not! Each part needs each other and, as it says in 1st Corinthians 12, you have a position and a task to do as a part of Christ’s body, the Church.
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (v.7)
No matter what other work or positions you may have in this world, all believers have been called to dual vocations, both secular and sacred. It’s not one or the other. We may check the box of secular work at day’s end, but our sacred work, the work of the Church, remains unchecked. The Lord Himself will check that one on the day when we will long to hear Him say, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25)
This holds true for all believers regardless of occupation: firemen, nurses, doctors, teachers, soldiers, computer techs, sales persons, accountants, construction workers, musicians, homemakers, and on and on. Regardless of your occupation, your identity in the body of Christ, the Church, transcends them all. This is your primary position; all others are secondary. That’s tough for some of us to grasp. We place much of our worldly identity and perceived self-worth into our secular work position. But those things can, and always do, change. So, is that who we really are?
CLICK HERE for the next page of “What is Church?” (Part 2)