The Church 1: Mission as Forming Gathered Communities of Christ
The evidence of Acts and Paul’s letters demonstrates that the object of mission for Paul included proclamation of the Gospel (evangelism), the formation of Christian communities (church planting), and nurturing the churches in the faith. It also included remembering the poor (Gal. 2.10). An understanding of each of these is essential for one’s understanding of mission. This series of posts will focus on the church (a community of believers) and the Church (the universal followers of Christ). It begins, however, with a third meaning of ‘church’: the church as a gathered community of Christ.
The Gathered Church as a Community for Worship
In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of something special about the gathered people of God. We might say that when Christians gather as the church—as opposed simply to Christians gathering together—this is a spiritually constituted gathering. Thus Paul can say, ‘When you come together as a church’ (1 Cor. 11.18). The phrase ‘When you come together’ appears five times in this passage about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist (1 Cor. 11.17-34). This is not just a fellowship of believers or a discussion of spiritual things—it is an intentional coming together as a church (or assembly)—as the people of God. When Christians have coffee together, or when Christians have a spiritual discussion with other Christians or non-Christians, this does not constitute a ‘gathered church’. Similarly, the more we turn worship services into the equivalent of coffee shop gatherings (and I have nothing against coffee!), the more our actual church services are not the gathered church.
What Paul says about the gathered Church is that something happens in this context that is very serious, and serious consequences can follow if people behave in ways contrary to the practice of worship. If the Lord’s Supper is, among other things, a celebration of the unity of believers, but the Supper is actually celebrated with disunity (some persons asserting their status over others), then divine judgement will follow. Paul says that some are sick and some have even died as a result of the Corinthians’ sinful performance of this practice (1 Cor. 11.30), for they eat and drink judgement against themselves (v. 29). This letter, 1 Corinthians, involves several other passages that speak of the ‘church’ as a spiritually gathered assembly, but the actual phrase, ‘When you come together,’ appears one other time in 1 Corinthians—in 1 Cor. 14.26:
When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.’
Once again, ‘coming together’ involves Christian worship. So, the question needs to be raised, ‘When mission activity focuses on the formation of communities of Christian worship (as it must), what are the characteristics of this worship?’ Indeed, the result of mission is worship, but we seldom see or experience the spiritual depth of what this meant for Paul in many churches.
The Gathered Church as a People of Divine Authority, Judgement, and Forgiveness
Indeed, one aspect of the gathered church is that its gathering is in and with the power of the Spirit and the presence and authority of Jesus Christ. This authority may involve judgement. In 1 Cor. 5, for example, the gathered church constitutes a judicial assembly. Paul can even join it in spirit when he is physically absent (1 Cor. 5.3)! Paul says, regarding rendering judgement on the man in question, who is living with his father’s wife,
When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5.4-5).
In this passage, the gathered church is said to be a gathering ‘in the power of our Lord Jesus.’ This appears to be a general notion in the early Church, since we find the idea in Matthew and in John as well. In Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples to exercise judgement in the gathered church because their gathering involves the presence and authority of Jesus in their midst:
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Mt. 18.20).
The risen Lord also speaks of the authority to forgive and render judgement in John’s Gospel:
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (Jn. 20.23).
Since the English reader is unable to determine whether ‘you’ is singular or plural in this verse, he or she may well think that this involves some individual—one of the disciples or someone with ecclesiastical authority—forgiving or retaining someone’s sins. However, the word is in the plural, and once again the notion is that gathered believers who have been given the Holy Spirit have an authority to render judgement.
Paul, Matthew, and John seem to be saying the same thing, and this understanding apparently arose from Jesus himself. Thus, applying the language of John on this matter to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5, one might say that Paul is recommending retaining the sinner’s sins because he is unrepentant. In that case, as also in Mt. 18, the result is exclusion from the community of believers. In 1 Cor. 5, however, sending the person out into the realm of Satan ‘for the destruction of the flesh’ is both the rendering of judgement and itself a redemptive act. Indeed, in both Mt. 18 and 1 Cor. 5, judgement of a sinner is an action that is part of a redemptive process for the individual and a cleansing process for the believing community, God’s holy people. There is a slight difference, though. In Mt. 18, exclusion is the final act after a series of attempts to redeem the individual sinner. In 1 Cor. 5, however, exclusion is yet another redemptive action, since only by excluding a sinner can the sinner realize that he or she is in reality apart from the community of Christ and headed to eternal separation from both believers and God. Only then is there hope that the person, now handed over to the realm of Satan, will repent and be willing to destroy or let God destroy his or her ‘flesh’—the sinful passions and behaviours. Were a church to permit such an unrepentant sinner to remain in its midst—as happens regularly today—the sinner would not realize that his or her behaviour is sinful, would not realize that he or she was in danger of eternal judgement, and would sully the purity of God’s holy people.
The Church as a Cleansed People Gathered to Celebrate the Feast of Christ’s Passover
Indeed, 1 Cor. 5 makes the additional point that the gathered community, the church, is a holy assembly. They are God’s holy people, but they are also a gathering of God’s holy people when they come together, having cleansed and readied themselves to partake of Christ their Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5.7). The more we understand the gathering of God’s people as the church, the more we will undermine some standard images of the church that are frequently found in contemporary Western Christianity. Some see the church as a hospital in which sinners are in various stages of cure but, in general, simply forgiven sinners. There may be repentance and forgiveness, but there is very little aspiration to holiness, and there is likely no belief in the transformation of the sinner through the resurrection power of Christ at work in us (Rom. 6). Some see the church as a field in which wheat and weeds are growing side by side. This image may be combined with one of the most misinterpreted texts in all of Scripture: the passage where Jesus says that his disciples should not judge lest they be judged (Mt. 7.1). That passage is warning against hypocrisy; it is not stating that sinners should not be judged. After all, Mt. 18.12-20 lays out a process for bringing judgement in the church! Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds in Mt. 13.24-30 states that the field is the world, not the church!: the parable is about why God does not bring judgement here and now into the world and is not at all teaching on how to handle unbelievers in the church! And some understand the church to be an audience in which believers and unbelievers (‘seekers’) passively or actively participate in singing and listening to a talk or watching some performance on a stage. As the next section will explore, this could not be farther from an understanding of the church as a gathered people of God.
The Church Gathered for Prophetic Words and Spirit Filled Worship
While unbelievers may be present in a gathered community at worship, their experience of the Spirit-filled community, says Paul, is that they come to understand what is being prophetically said to them. Thus, they are reproved and called to an account by the prophetic word spoken to them by believers with the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14.24). This, once again, is a community that, in gathering together ‘in church’ (not a building but the people of God; 1 Cor. 14.19, cf. vv. 28, 35), experiences the prophetic word and power of the Spirit. Paul says,
After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, "God is really among you." (1 Cor. 14.25).
This presence of the Holy Spirit in worship involves a ‘filling with the Spirit’ in the gathered community’s worship. Paul describes this in Ephesians as singing
‘songs and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ and being subject to one another in fear of Christ (Eph. 5.19-20).
The local church is, in the theology and experience of the early Church, so much more than what we often take it to be. We see it as a building—it is not: believers do not ‘go to church,’ as one of my beloved professors used to say repeatedly, they ‘are the church’! We also often see the church as a campus that runs various programmes. The result of such a way of thinking is that the church is thought to be successful if it has numerous, smoothly run programmes for various groups—a Sunday School programme, a youth ministry programme, a worship programme, and so forth. The ‘programme church’ might grow very large—having programmes causes growth—but such churches inevitably struggle to establish community. More seriously even than that, the programme church fails to establish itself as a gathered and spiritual community of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in many cities around the world today, the successful church is thought to be the large church, and the large church is a church defined by its programmes.
How very, very different this is from Paul’s understanding of the church as a gathered assembly in the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The local church is, first, a worshiping community, where worship is practiced and experienced as an expression of the power and presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Imagine the gathered Church as a Spirit-filled assembly overflowing with spiritual worship in songs, thankfulness, and mutual submission creating unity among believers across the social divisions of the world. Imagine gathering together on a Sunday morning with the express thought that we are forming in our assembling together a Spirit-gifted body (1 Cor. 12) where Christ and the Spirit will be encountered and where ministry will take place. Imagine an understanding of the local church’s gathering that involves the fear of Christ, a holy awe as we encounter the very presence of God. Imagine understanding our gathering in such a way that judgement may be rendered and sins forgiven or retained. Imagine understanding the gathered church as a prophetic community where unbelievers will fall under conviction of their sins, repent, and find forgiveness—rather than made to feel comfortable with their coffee mugs and light entertainment from the stage. Imagine all this as the result of mission—the gathered people of God. Paul did. Matthew did. So did John. In fact, it seems that Jesus did as well!