“Church” is a relational word! It is used in the New Testament to speak of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:20-23, 2:19-22), or our relationship with other Christians in the assembly, a local congregation, or the universal body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:13). In fact, a quick look at the names used in the New Testament to describe the church (“the church of God,” “churches of Christ,” “church of the first-born”), will reveal they are not names at all in the formal sense, but express different aspects of relationship.
If there’s anything the Bible and human experience shake hands on, it’s our need for relationships. We were made for community. Christ said that to love God and others was what life was all about (Matthew 22:34-40). And that’s what we do. We cluster together in cities and towns; we work with others at our jobs, and participate with people in organizations, clubs, and the like. All of this bears out our need to be involved with others. But it is the church where community is ultimately expressed. It’s church where God is our Father, Jesus is our brother, and all are family. Church is, quite simply, the community of God. And what a glorious community it is!
Ahh, but how this glorious word has suffered! Today, church is rarely used in a purely biblical way. Instead of signifying the community for which Jesus died, it’s become a brand name. We have brought the word down out of the heavens and it has landed in the mud. We use the word church as part of a formal name (Church X, Church Y, Church Z, etc.). When we do so, “church” no longer speaks (primarily) of relationship. In fact, we’re using it to differentiate one group from another. So instead of “church” expressing the unity of community, the word has come to be a brand name to express our dividedness! That’s not what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of building His church/community (Matthew 16:18).
Someone asks us where we attend and we tell them, “I am a member of the Fillintheblank Church.” What are we saying? Are we conveying that we attend a local congregation (yes, but that’s not all we’re doing). We’re telling them (and I’m quite certain this is what they’re hearing), that we are part of this group as distinguished from all other groups. We’ve just told them our brand name.
Sometimes we ask, “Is so-and-so a member of the church?” Now what do we mean by that? Do we mean are they a member of the universal church of Jesus? Perhaps (though usually we ask this right on the heels of being told someone is a disciple). I think most of the time we’re asking if they are affiliated with the particular church we’re part of. We’re asking for a brand name.
What if when someone asked our faith we just said “Christian,” and when they asked about church we just said, “Yes!”
But wouldn’t that be confusing? Perhaps. But it could be clarifying and cause people to start thinking about what church is really all about. What if when someone asks us about church we used the word “congregation” instead? We said something like “I’m part of the congregation that meets at 1010 Main Street.” See what we’ve done? We’ve eliminated the brand name. We’re pushing church away from brand name and back toward brotherhood. That can’t be bad, can it?
And when we do that, we’ll be giving the church back to God which is where it belongs in the first place. The church is not ours to micromanage and mold into our image; it is to grow into Him who is all things. The church isn’t ours to market, barter, and haggle with others about; it’s too glorious for that! If we’ll just get on with preaching Jesus, church will take care of itself. After all, the church exists because of Jesus, not vice versa. And because the church belongs to God, it has mystery attached to it—mystery we’re unable to penetrate but we must appreciate.
That’s what Elijah found. Elijah thought he had a handle on the church of his day. He thought the church was me, myself and I. He found out it was much more glorious than that. It was 7,000 times more glorious than he thought. And it was because of what God had done (see 1 Kings 19:18).
Give the church back to God and great things will happen!