This is probably one of the most asked questions that young adults across America are asking today. The present church is steeped in longstanding traditions that younger believers just don’t comprehend. Even more, they have cleverly crafted arguments to point out that Sunday School, prohibition, and traditional hymns cannot be tracked back to the early church and are more of a product of human intervention than divine decree. These factors, along with a joint cry to forego religion in place of relationship, have caused a massive exodus from the local church by young adults.
The problem with the role of a church is partly due to semantics. One person can ask, “Are you a member of a church?” And the other can answer, “I’m a member of the Church.” Both are referring to different variations of the same word: the local church and the universal church. But what does the Bible say? Is the Bible clear when distinguishing the differences? What makes a church?
A Definition of the Word ‘Church’
The original Greek word for church literally means ‘called out assembly.’ This is debated among some scholars, but I believe it is a mute point. The word church is a manufactured word in our English vocabulary and because we don’t use it in our common speech to refer to anything else, it has kind of developed a meaning of it’s own. I think it would be a much more valuable experience if the believer could imagine the word without it’s present day associations and try to think of it in general terms. The words gathering or community just don’t grasp the full spectrum so I prefer the words assembly or congregation.
The Beginning of the Church
It was Jesus who first named the church in Matthew 16:18. Up until Christ, God had been working on earth through the institution of a nation: Israel. While still preliminary in His ministry, Jesus gives Peter the heads up with a sort of preview for another institution that God is going to use to accomplish His will on earth. Jesus also mentions the Church again in chapter 18 where He talks about how to discipline a fellow believer.
There are some people who don’t think that this is a valid argument because God had not instituted the Church until Acts, but we have to remember that the book of Matthew was written after Pentecost and Jesus’ words would have been evidently clear to those who were in the Church age.
The actual starting day of the Church is called Pentecost, as I mentioned before, and was the moment that the Holy Spirit came down and anointed the Apostles to fulfill Jesus’ promise that a Comforter would come. Since then, the Apostles began proclaiming what previously had been just a mystery, but then was making itself evident.
The Problem with Semantics
When Jesus says He is going to establish His Church, he is referring to the universal Church. When John addresses the seven churches in Revelation he is not referring to seven different institutions, but seven local congregations. There is a subtle difference between the universal and local bodies. This isn’t foreign to our understanding in using the same word to refer to two different things. We call the one true heavenly Father “God” while we refer to pagan deities as ‘gods.’ Likewise, when the Old Testament refers to the name of God, the English translations denotes it as ‘LORD’ while referring to kings as ‘lords.’ Perhaps the better way to distinguish the differences of this present day institution is to follow suit and use ‘Church’ to refer to the universal body and ‘church’ to refer to the local body. Or we could use a definite pronoun ‘the’ for ‘the Church’ and an indefinite pronoun ‘a’ for ‘a church.’ Either way, we have two distinct qualities to this institution.
The Universal Church
When a person places their trust in Jesus Christ they become a child of God, a new Christians, and a member of the universal church. This means that they are being joined to and associated with a group of believers dead and alive; past, present, and future. This universal Church embodies the essence of being a called out assembly, but it falls short on practicality. Just walking into a church building does suggest that you are submitting to them as an authority. That is where church membership takes place. It is the essence of submitting to a local authority and being held accountable to the Word of God.
The Local Church
When Jesus alludes to church discipline in Matthew 18 it presents itself with a problem of being practiced globally. Perhaps this is played largely in part to the fact that the population of the whole ancient world was probably closer to that of LA and NYC combined. When Paul and the other Apostles wrote letters to a church, they titled them after a city. Most likely these were not metropolis mega-churches like we have today, but still representative of all of the believers in a given city. This probably made the function of church discipline more powerful because there was only one church in that community. A believer didn’t have the privilege of being cast out just to go down the road and around the block to the next gathering of believers. If you were a believer cast out of a church, you would have to move to a different city if you still wanted to go to church without following the biblical procedure of restoration.
Because of the ramifications of divisions and denominations over the spectrum of a lot of time, churches today don’t look that much like they did in the onset of their conception. A lot of procedures and traditions have crept in to maintain some semblance of order in an institution gone haywire. We have some unique issues that we have to deal with today that make ‘being church’ that much more difficult. Still, these are not reasons to give up on the institution that Jesus has set up.
What makes a Church?
Jesus sets the parameters when He said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20) The only thing you need to be a church is 2 or 3 people assembling with purpose and authority. Broken down, those are three specific things. It can’t just be one person. That’s not a church that’s a believer. It can’t be wherever two Christians find themselves together. My dorm room in college was not a church, neither is my families dinner table when we eat dinner. The gathering of believers without a standard for decency and order is not a church either. To be a church you need at least two people, a reason for gathering – namely to worship God, and an agreement of authority.
Authority Belongs to the Church
Hebrews 10:25 tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Many people have given up on the institution that Jesus has set in place and they will play no part of being his hands and feet. Jesus gave authority to the Church when He said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) and “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18). Notice he did not give that authority to individuals, but under the precipice of a church. If you are not a member of a local assembly, you are acting outside of this jurisdiction and you are not under the authority that God has placed over you.
In a discussion for the Songtime radio program on prayer, Warren Wiersbe, John DeBrine, and I talked about the prayer of Moses on Mt. Sinai where God tells him that He’s sick of the nation of Israel and He offers to start all over with Moses’ seed. What a tempting proposition. I imagine if God told some of us that same thing how many of us would jump at the offer. But Moses reminds God of His promises and defends the nation only to go directly down from there and find the people are worse than they have ever been and worshiping a golden calf. It’s almost as if God wanted to test Moses and see if he was legit, because right after that Moses goes back up the mountain to talk to God and without any prompting starts to plead and beg God to forgive the nation, even at the risk of losing his own salvation.
The next time you hear someone downing the institution of the church, put them to task and ask them how they could do better than the institution that God has established.
The potentials of what could happen if we started to work with and in the Church are endless. The problem is that we think we are better on our own than with a local assembly of believers and that we are wiser than the knowledge of God. Imagine if people were committed to their churches in the community where they lived, what a difference that could make in our culture. While our society is anti-institutional, we could be a serious counter-cultural movement to show the power of a local assembly gathering under the authority of God to make a difference in the world for the Kingdom.