Church is Something We Are!
By Stuart Briscoe
When the man who had spent 25 years alone on a desert island saw a ship entering the lagoon one fine morning he rushed down to the beach and attracted the attention of the crew members by waving his tattered shirt furiously. Thinking the island was uninhabited, the sailors were as surprised to see him as he was delighted to see them. They were particularly intrigued by the size and number of buildings on the island when he told them he was the only person on the island
“What are all these beautiful buildings?” they asked.
“Well that one’s my house and the one next to it is the church I go to,” he replied.
“But you’re the only person here. Why are they so big?” the puzzled sailors enquired.
“I’m a builder and I’d nothing else to do so why not?” he said.
“What’s that huge building on the other side of your house?” was the next query.
The cast-away replied, “Oh that’s nothing. That’s the church I used to go to!”
Whenever I hear that story – and I’m usually the one telling it – I chuckle. First, because you can’t have a church of one – that’s impossible. Second, from a purely biblical point of view “church is not somewhere we go” (so it’s hard to see how we can stop going there, too). Third, it strikes a little too close for comfort when we realize how readily people leave churches and go elsewhere these days. So the chuckle may have a nervous element too.
My statement that “church is not somewhere we go” needs some substantiation because we constantly hear such things as, “That’s the church we go to,” or “Which church you go to?” or perhaps “We’ve heard they have a new pastor so we’re thinking of going to his church.”
If we had said any of these things to the apostles or early Christians they would not have understood us. The reason being that Christians did not meet in special dedicated places of worship until the Fourth Century. Up until that time, many of them met in secret, some were literally on the run, while others met in small family groups. They probably didn’t have the resources to purchase or build a building even if they desired to. It was only after the Emperor Constantine “converted” to Christianity that Christians were suddenly accepted and encouraged. The Emperor decided they should have suitable buildings called basilicas. Up until then, churches were addressed in letters (“the church of God in Corinth,” 1 Cor. 1:2) – writing letters to buildings is not a good idea! Paul, when he was still Saul of Tarsus, was “persecuting the church of God” (Gal. 1: 13) and that didn’t mean he was smashing windows. The picture is even clearer when we note Paul sending greetings to “the church that meets in your home” (Phil. vs.2).
So, while we admit that modern usage of the term has changed the meaning I contend that if we simply accept and use the word “church” in the modern sense it can lead to some serious distortions of our doctrine ( or ecclesiology), our understanding, and our experience of church.
Clearly it is not enough to say “church is not somewhere we go” without addressing the obvious question “well what is it?” All too often we define ourselves by stating what we are not – something I find dissatisfying. The correct answer to the question is “church is something we are,” but that needs some explanation too.
What Are We?
We can start to answer that question by looking at the Greek word “ekklesia” which is translated “church” in the New Testament and from which our word ecclesiology is derived.
A number of years ago I spent a hot afternoon in the company of a Greek guide, sitting on a hillside in Athens overlooking the ruins of the ancient city. He enthusiastically pointed out various sites including the “agora” or “marketplace,” which used to be the hub of Athenian life. He explained how on occasion a “herald” would enter the agora, take a prominent position and make a proclamation or announcement. It could be about the games beginning, the sighting of the enemy, the arrival of prominent people, or the meeting of the “ekklesia.”
The announcement concerning the ekklesia required all “competent, full citizens of the ‘polis’ (city)” (DONTT 1: 291) to stop what they were doing, to leave the agora, and make their way immediately to the meeting place where they would assemble and conduct the business of the city of which they were citizens. (It is interesting to note that should anyone refuse or fail to attend the ekklesia, he was called an idiotes a word whose English cousin “idiot” has connotations that did not apply to the Greek usage of the word. It meant a private person rather than one who is committed to community involvement.)
Obviously, the ancient Greeks regarded full citizenship as a privilege and were perfectly clear about the corresponding responsibilities of the privileged. This is particularly clear when we consider that ekklesia comes from ek-kaleo (to call out.) And the kaleo word had a militaristic flavor that made it abundantly clear that it was a call to arms – a call to action! Full citizens obeyed the call to assemble by putting personal considerations aside in order to focus on community matters. “We” and “our” replaced “I,” “Me” and “Mine” at least until the duration of the meeting.
So in the word “ekklesia” we note two powerful strands of meaning, namely “call out” and “community.” And it suggests to me that in choosing “ekklesia” to describe themselves, the early disciples saw themselves as the “community of the called.” So if “church is not somewhere we go, but something we are” we should emphasize more strongly the original concept of church as a community to which we are called to commit ourselves.
This speaks immediately to some modern understandings – or misunderstandings – of church. For example, in conversations with young people who have been brought up in Christian homes and attended Christian churches, but who have now drifted away, I hear them say, “I still believe what I always believed; I just don’t go to church! I’m still the same person.” Or quite frequently people tell me, “We go to church whenever we can, but we’re terribly busy and we need to rest over the weekend and the kids have soccer too.” America is not in the same league as Europe when it comes to declining “church attendance” (yet?). However, the troubling signs are in evidence.
So we need to raise the bar of people’s understanding of the church – and obviously the best way to do that is to turn to God’s Word on the subject. Here are some seed thoughts for your consideration, meditation and prayer:
1) The call to “be the church” is clearly articulated in Scripture.
Paul wrote, “I……urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1).
Note carefully the context. What has gone before and what follows on immediately shows that he was talking about being called to be the church. In this instance it’s a calling to corporate commitment to the Head and each other, not to individualized Christianity.
2) The church is clearly not a building.
Paul wrote, “The church which is His body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” (Eph. 1:22-23).
In his favorite analogy for the church – “the body of Christ” – Paul emphasizes the “headship” of Christ as He presides over His body, infuses His life into the members and they gladly co-operate with Him and each other in the work to which they have been called.
3) The church plays an integral role in the eternal purposes of God in Christ.
Paul writes of the “plan of the mystery, hidden for ages” but now revealed to the apostles:
“So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).
The church has many parts to play in the grand drama of God, but none more mysterious or challenging than this!
4) The church as a body requires the glad participation of its members as they fulfill their God- appointed roles.
“Rather speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow, so that it builds itself up in love”(Eph. 4:15-16).
My prayer for the church in America today is simply that we may look again at who we are in the economy of God. That we take seriously the call that has been extended to us, to look carefully at the kind of community we are called to be, and that we seriously evaluate how clearly we are demonstrating to a watching creation who, and what, we are.