Spiritual Disciplines: What do Christians believe about the church?
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. – Ephesians 5:25
The story of the Christian church is stunning: a handful of Jesus’ followers have become, two millennia later, a global phenomenon of a few billion people.
During his life, Jesus promised his small band of disciples, “I will build my church.”1 Following his resurrection, Jesus commanded the church to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”2
Just prior to his ascension back into heaven, Jesus promised the first Christians, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”3 This was a seemingly grand promise for one hundred and twenty people. But when that power came at Pentecost, three thousand people “who received his word were baptized, and . . . were added” to the church, “and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”4 These first church members were awed by the miraculous power of God and shared their possessions with anyone who had need. They had favor with all the people of Jerusalem and more and more people joined them.5
What an amazing experience these people had as the church began! People all around Jerusalem saw the power of God at work and wanted to share in his grace. Furthermore, the first believers loved God and each other as demonstrated by their humble service and generous sharing. This is what church should be.
Tragically, in our day, the common perception of the church is vastly different. David Kinnaman conducted extensive research on how young Americans, people from their late teens to early thirties, believers and unbelievers, perceive the church.6 The results were quite different from Acts 2. They view the church as anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), too involved in politics (75%), out of touch with reality (72%), insensitive to others (70%), and boring (68%).7 They see the church as male-dominated and negative, with a strong political agenda.
It is curious that if you ask these same people what they think of Jesus, many will say they respect him.8 They are quite interested in spirituality. But they see the church as very unlike Jesus. To them, the church is quite irrelevant because spirituality is a very personal thing that does not require leaders, buildings, or programs.
What happened? Where is the dynamic church of Acts 2? Honestly, part of it is bad press. Sometimes the media only reports the most scandalous church activities, while faithful Christians and churches are not well known. Still, a bigger issue is that some churches have become ingrown. They have exchanged mission for institution and have wandered from Jesus’ commands for his people. The answer is a simple, humble, and continual return to Scripture to rekindle the love of God the Father, life of God the Son, and leading of God the Spirit in order that we be the church for the sake of the world to the glory of God.
There are innumerable erroneous definitions and assumptions about what the church is. The church is not a holy building in which spiritual meetings take place. The church is not a Eucharistic society through which God dispenses grace by means of the sacraments and a duly authorized and empowered hierarchy of bishops and priests operating in unbroken succession from the apostles. The church is not the moral police force of a society seeking mere behavioral change through legislation. The church is not a weekly meeting where people gather to do spiritual things.
Thankfully, what the church is can be found in Scripture. The book of Acts is the historical account of the early church. There, we see the New Testament church birthed through the preaching of Peter’s sermon at the holiday of Pentecost.
In Acts 2:42–47, we (Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears) get a biblical definition of church as God meant it to be:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Taking the work of the Holy Spirit which brought the church of Jesus Christ into being as we know it, we would define the church in the following way:
The local church is a community of regenerated believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. In obedience to Scripture they organize under qualified leadership, gather regularly for preaching and worship, observe the biblical sacraments of baptism and Communion, are unified by the Spirit, are disciplined for holiness, and scatter to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission as missionaries to the world for God’s glory and their joy.
What areas is your church strong in that you can thank God for? What areas in your local church are weak and could benefit from your prayer and help?