Churches rightly present themselves as communities, people offering fellowship to one another. Yet fellowship does not a Christian community make, even if Christian communities value fellowship. All Christian fellowship is confession-based. In seeking a church, one needs to explore the confession of faith for its dependence on Scripture and orthodoxy, and then see how the church interprets this into its life and fellowship.
The Church as ‘Assembly’
The church (small ‘c’ for local church instead of big ‘C’ for the whole Church) is a community. The actual word in the Greek New Testament is ‘ekklēsia,’ which is an ordinary enough word and does not, by itself, convey anything ‘churchy’ to those who heard it. It meant ‘assembly,’ a gathering of people. This word was used by the translators of the Old Testament, originally written in Hebrew, when they translated the word qahal, which also means ‘assembly’ and was regularly used of the people of Israel. In this way, these very ordinary Hebrew and Greek words took on a special meaning: the assembly or people of God.
So, the ‘church’ is the people of God. As Gordon Fee, a professor of the New Testament, used to impress on any student naïve enough to speak of going to church in his presence, ‘You do not go to church, you are the church!’ One never made the mistake again—not even these nigh forty years on. The church may have a building, but that is not the church. The church may have programmes, but they are not the church. The church may have a worship service, but even that is not ‘church’. And the Church (big ‘C’) may have a hierarchy and order and liturgy and all the rest, but that, too, does not a Church make. Church is, first and foremost, the confessing community of believers.
The Church as a Confessional Community
The Church is a collection of people with a common faith. It is a group of believers who share common ethics and practices. It is a group with a common worship and common ministry goals. All these are important, because community is not about a diverse group who simply agree to tolerate each other’s presence. Community is the product of things held in common. And what are those things?
One essential factor that creates community is a common confession. In our day, we need to make the side comment that community is decidedly not a group united socially despite their different confessions of faith or different ethics. Rather, what unites the community we call ‘Church’ is precisely the community formed around a common confession of faith. In Ephesians, Paul, eager to emphasise the unity that Christians share in their community, insists that this unity is formed out of certain confessions held in common. He says,
Ephesians 4:1-6 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
4 There is one body and one Spirit- just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-
5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
6 one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all.
Notice in vv. 4-6 the Trinitarian statement within this passage: 3 statements with three parts to each, and in each statement the mention of one member of the Trinity. This arrangement brings out the aspect of unity all the more, as does the theology of one God in three Persons: Holy Spirit (v. 4), Jesus Christ our Lord (v. 5), and God the Father (v. 6).
The Church as God’s People
We do, indeed, need to progress from simply saying that ‘church’ means ‘assembly.’ An assembly is rather passive—a crowd, a gathering, an audience present with each other without much purpose or intention of interaction. One could hardly say that that typified God’s people, Israel, in the Old Testament or His people, the Church, in the New Testament. The people of God have clear-cut obligations to be His people in reality, not just the declaration of being His people (cf. Dt. 6.4-6). There is no corner of life that escapes the One God’s rule and authority. Paul insists that our unity as believers is found when we submit to God’s complete reign over our lives. He says that there is
Ephesians 4:6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
In one of the major, definitive passages for Israel’s identity in the Old Testament, God declares,
Exodus 19:5-6 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites."
What follows this passage in Exodus? The Ten Commandments (Ex. 20.1-17). Israel could be chosen by God, declared His treasured possession, and constituted as a kingdom of priests. Yet any such identity came with a concrete Law. They were not just chosen; they were chosen to be holy and blameless (cf. Eph. 1.4).
This passage in Exodus, incidentally, is repeated of the Church by Peter in the New Testament:
1 Peter 2:9 … you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
In the event that anyone should wonder whether the Church constitutes God’s people in the sense that Israel did, we might note that another Old Testament passage follows hard on this one in the next verse:
1 Peter 2:10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
This verse picks up the language of Hosea (Hos. 1.9-10; 2.23), spoken in reference to God’s having mercy on Israel after she had sinned and been exiled. Peter applies the idea and the language to the Gentiles (for Israel had become like the Gentiles in being exiled and rejected by God). Indeed, if Israel can be made God’s people again after she became like the Gentiles because of her sinfulness, so also the Gentiles could become God’s people. If the Old Testament teaches us anything, it is that covenantal communion with God is not merely social or relational but is also a matter of obedience. And this, new people of God, brought out of their sins, redeemed by God, obediently living under the new covenant through the powerful presence and working of the Holy Spirit, is the Church, the community of believers.
The Church as a Community of the Spirit
The Spirit is associated with the community of the church, who forms it into one body. In an earlier letter, Paul had expressed this very point to another church: ‘For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12.13). Hope, moreover, is to be associated with the Holy Spirit: ‘For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness’ (Gal. 5.5). This is because the Spirit is a deposit given us now of the full inheritance we are one day to receive:
2 Corinthians 1:21-22 And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
2 Corinthians 5:4-5 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
Ephesians 1:13-14 In him [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Note that Paul does not say that we have been given a portion of the Spirit as a guarantee of more of the Spirit in the future. Rather, the Spirit is the guarantee given us now of what is to come—‘all the promises of God’ (1 Cor. 1.20), the future resurrection (2 Cor. 5.4-5), and the inheritance of salvation (Eph. 1.13). The mark of the Christian is the indwelling Holy Spirit, as Paul explains in Romans:
Romans 8:9-14 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. 12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
The Spirit not only plays a life-changing role in the individual believer’s life; He is also active in transforming the community into a community of the Spirit. The basis for this conviction is in the expectation of the prophets that God would take sinful, exiled, Israel and reconstitute God’s people as a righteous remnant restored to live according to God’s Law by the Spirit. The Israelites had failed to live according to God’s Law in their own strength, but now the restored people of God would have the empowering presence of God’s Holy Spirit to give them life:
Isaiah 59:21 "And as for me, this is my covenant with them," says the LORD: "My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring," says the LORD, "from this time forth and forevermore."
Ezekiel 11:19-20 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Ezekiel 36:27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Ezekiel 37:14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.
The reader of these texts may notice that the focus is on a restored Israel. The New Testament finds such texts to apply to ‘the people of God’ more broadly than just to Israel: they include both Jews and Gentiles. Already in the prophets, the restoration of Israel from her sins was understood to mean an inclusion of the nations as well. That expectation is thoroughgoing in Isaiah (e.g., Is. 2.1-5; 42.1-4; 45.23; 49.6-7; 56.3-9; 61.11; 66.18-21). Thus, the restored people of God—the ‘Church’—is made up of Jews and Gentiles and is marked by the Spirit of God indwelling the community.
The Spirit’s presence in the community is not a claim or a doctrine apart from being a reality. The Spirit is present where there is unity in the body of Christ, the church/Church. But, as the above verses show, that unity is the result of being a people that has turned from sin to obey God’s Law. The church that wants unity without obedience to God’s Law or with different views on the righteous life is a church that does not understand the role of the Spirit in restoring a people that had been exiled because of their sins. It is a church that does not have the Spirit, and therefore it is not really a church in the first place, no matter how much its outward trappings present it as such. Paul expresses this understanding of the Church as a people restored by the Spirit to a righteous life in a Trinitarian theology of God’s mission:
Romans 8:3-4 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
An increasingly common error in most oldline denominations in the West (thank God cultural theologies are at least confined to those cultures!) is the belief that the Church is a place for diverse views on morality, where ‘pastoral care’ means an accommodation of sin and where ‘community’ means the celebration of diverse lifestyles against which Scripture and the Church have consistently spoken through the centuries. This would be the equivalent of the prophets not foreseeing the transformation of a sinful, exiled Israel into God’s holy people restored to a new covenant, righteous life in His Kingdom, but advocating, instead, that the exiles enter into shared conversations with idolaters and tolerate, even endorse, their sexual disorders on the grounds that unity in diversity is far the better way to go than the exclusivity of God’s righteousness and holiness.
The Church of God in Christ Jesus
There is no Church apart from Christ Jesus. As Paul says,
1 Corinthians 12:3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says "Jesus is accursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 10:12-13 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
The confession of Christ Jesus as ‘Lord’ is essential for the Christian community—the ‘saved’ people of God. One simply has to insist on this point—long a teaching of the Church—for any number of qualifications are proposed in the present time to try to soften the reality lest so exclusive a claim in an age of diversity and tolerance be considered extremist. In the nineteenth century, the Christian ‘religion’ was touted as a system of values more than a devotion to Christ as Lord. In the twentieth century, some deep yet benign religious experience shared by various faiths or some activism on behalf of the poor or marginalised was taken for Christianity. These, and whatever else we may choose to highlight with respect to the faith, only take on Christian distinctiveness when the thread of Christ Himself—incarnate Son of God, crucified for our sins, raised from the grave on the third day, ascended into heaven, and coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead—is woven throughout the cloth of faith.
Thus Paul repeatedly engages the phrase, ‘in Christ.’ For the Church, whatever counts is that which is ‘in Christ,’ and whoever would be part of the Church must be ‘in Christ’. As Paul says,
Galatians 3:25-29 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
The Church is God’s people in Christ Jesus. Even an identity defined by God’s Law and descent from the great patriarch, Abraham, must be reformed around the person and work of Christ. All diversity finds unity only through Him. Paul rephrases this point from Galatians in his later letter to the Corinthian church,
1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free- and all were made to drink of one Spirit…. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
As Paul says in Ephesians, ‘there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. 4.5).
So we see that by ‘Church’ we mean a confessional community that finds its unity in the convictions that it holds about God—God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. What is confessed, moreover, is what is experienced as the reality of God at work in His people. The Church is the purposeful people of God shaped into a community for the praise of His glory (Eph. 1.12, 14).