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Understanding the Church

February 29, 2016


And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am

coming to you.  Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have

given me, that they may be one, even as we are one…I do not pray for

these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word,

that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you,

that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have

sent me.                   Jesus prayer in John 17: 11, 20-21


I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all

of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be

united in the same mind and the same judgment.  I Corinthians 1: 10





The concept of Church is crucial to our life as Christians.  Our understanding of Church has departed substantially from the Biblical standard.

The consequences of that departure are of major significance.  To consider the validity of these statements we need to start with how the term Church is used in the New Testament.  The Greek word that has been translated Church is ecclesia, and it is used in two different ways within the Bible.


THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL – The word Church is used to describe the universal spiritual body of all Christians everywhere.  In other words whenever anyone, anywhere, comes to Christ, that person immediately becomes a part of the one true Church.  The Church in this sense of the term is a huge umbrella that covers all Christians.  In Matthew 16:18, Jesus, Himself, uses the word in this way when He say to Peter, “…upon this rock I will build my Church.”  There is very little disagreement on this understanding of the Universal Church.

THE LOCAL CHURCH – The second way that the word is used in the New Testament is more particular and limiting.  It is used to describe the more definitive group of believers who lived in a particular city.  In I Corinthians 1:2, Paul addresses his letter to the “church of God which is at Corinth”.  This is just one of many examples of this usage.  Where the Universal Church crosses boundaries of time and space, the Local Church is defined by time and space.  It is a subset of the Universal Church resident in a given city at a given time.

What is most significant is that in the New Testament the Local Church is always singular in a given city.  There was never a question of “Church membership” in the New Testament.  When a person became a Christian, they not only became immediately a part f the Universal Church, they also became a part of the Local Church where they lived.  Every believer in Ephasus would have been a “member” of the Local Church of Ephasus.  There were no choices involved.  One verse that might seem to contradict the idea of one city/one Church is Galatians 1:2.  In it Paul address the ChurchES of Galatia.  This is easily clarified by understanding that Galatia was a province, not a city.  There were a number of cities in Galatia and therefore could have been numerous Local Churches.



THE MODERN “LOCAL CHURCH” – In the modern American context the “local church” has come to mean something very different.  There are in fact many “local churches” in just about any city using current terminology.  Each individual gathering of believers, defined by theological differences, style of worship, philosophy of ministry, or whatever else makes it different, is defined as a “local church”.  There are Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Methodist churches, Catholic churches, etc..  Many of the denominations are further divided.  There are Southern Baptists, Conservative Baptists, American Baptists, Missionary Baptists, etc..  There are United Presbyterians, Orthodox Presbyterians, United Methodists, Free Methodists, etc..  All have some differences that make them distinct from all of the rest.  It is necessary to realize that while the multiplicity of “local churches” is a modern fact of life, it was a situation that was unknown in the New Testament.






DISUNITY DESTROYS CREDIBILITY – Jesus addressed the issue of unity among His followers in His prayer to the Father, shortly before His crucifixion.  This is recorded in John 17: 11-21.  He prayed not only for the unity of His disciples who were there with Him then, but also for the unity of all who would believe because of their words.  That includes us.  Jesus goes on to state that the reason that He is concerned with unity is, “…SO THAT the world may believe that you sent me.”  We must take this statement in Jesus’ prayer seriously.  Yet, I have rarely heard it addressed at all.  Jesus said that our unity as Christians would be the proof to the world that He was sent by the Father.


Evangelical Christians today are generally willing to give intellectual assent to the Spiritual unity of all believers and suggest that this is somehow what Jesus was talking about.  In looking at the statement, this clearly would not make sense.  For unity to be evidence to the world, it must be visible to the world.  Some spiritual reality, as true as it may be, cannot validate anything to anyone who cannot see it.  If we are to take Jesus concerns seriously, we must conclude that visible unity of believers is critically important for the world to understand who Jesus is.  Conversely, we should not be surprised when people do not see Jesus for who He is, when we do not exhibit unity.

In I Corinthians 1, Paul also addresses the issue of unity in the Church.  In that chapter he speaks to divisions that were beginning in the Church at Corinth.  How different were the statements of the Corinthians, “I belong to Apollos.” or “I belong to Cephas.” from the modern statements, “I am a Lutheran.”, “I am a Presbyterian.”, or “I am a Baptist.”?  The answer is clearly that they aren’t different in character at all.  Paul’s response to the situation is unequivocal.  These divisions have no place in the Body of Christ!




Many may respond at this point that this is nice idealistic theory, but it cannot work now, or if everyone else would just realize that we are right and join us, we could have unity.  I believe that neither one of these attitudes is acceptable.  To treat unity as some pie-in-the-sky ideal that is so remote and unachievable that we don’t even try, is to accept the consequences, both for the world and for the Church.  These consequences are simply too great to accept without a good fight.  On the other hand, the attitude in any group that they are right about everything an the only way for others to be united with them is to conform to their thinking will never bring unity.




There are certain essential truths that cannot be compromised and still remain within the framework of True Christianity: the Trinity, the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ, the substitutionary death of Jesus and the resurrection, salvation as a work of grace through faith, and the authority of Scripture.  This might not be the exact list that you would choose, but the list should not be very long.  Most of the other issues that have divided us are clearly issues of secondary importance: how and when to baptize, how to celebrate the Eucharist, millennial views, predestination versus free will, etc..  To say that these issues are of secondary importance in not to say that they are unimportant.  It is to say that we should not let them divide us.  Historically, disagreement on some of these secondary issues has led to Christians even killing one another.  We generally don’t go that far today.  We just ignore one another.  The results are almost as damaging.




The first practical action that I suggest is that we change our vocabulary.  We should only use the word Church in the ways that it is used in the New Testament.  We can use it in the universal sense or the local sense of all believers in a given city.  We should not use the word Church to describe a specific smaller gathering of believers or to describe a building.  To describe a gathering of believers, I suggest that we use the word congregation as a replacement.  Instead of the First Lutheran Church, then we would refer to the First Lutheran Congregation.  The Quakers have long referred to their buildings as Meeting Houses.  This is a good alternative when we are referring to an edifice.  We could also simply call our buildings “centers”, or some other creative term.  With a change in vocabulary there needs to be instruction.  It needs to be explained that the word Church is the more inclusive term, and that the various congregations in the city, in combination, are the Church.  It gives more of an awareness of being a part of a larger whole.

I am sure that this sounds trivial to some.  We have done this in our own congregation and have found it to be very helpful.  Because old habits are hard to break, we still slip into the old vocabulary, even after years.  When one of us does, there is always someone ready to remind them.  Every time we are reminded to correct our vocabulary, it also reminds us to correct our thinking about our relations with other believers who are not part of our congregation.  If education is a part of the initial change in vocabulary, the vocabulary is the constant reminder of the new knowledge.








Changing vocabulary is only a start in the right direction.  If we stop there we still haven’t done anything that visibly demonstrates our unity to the world around us.  We need to do more.  We need to start looking for things that we

can do by getting various congregations working together.  By cooperation we create at least three major benefits.  We bring into the picture greater resources of people, knowledge, and finances.  We start to build working relationships that bridge the gaps between congregations.  And, we do things that demonstrate to the world that we have an underlying unity in spite of our differences.  To gain these benefits, we must only sacrifice some of our individual congregational self-interest.  This may be difficult for some to give up, but we must start putting our concern for the whole Body of Christ ahead of our narrower interests.


Let me suggest several areas where inter-congregational cooperation could be effective: 1) Meeting Physical Needs – Problems like homelessness and hunger are ever growing problems most places in America.  Most individual congregations would find it difficult to address these needs in a meaningful way, because the scope of the problem is just too great.  If all of the congregations in a city combined their efforts, a major impact could be realized and everyone would notice.  2) At certain times of the year, such as Easter and Christmas, a truly city wide time of worship and praise could be organized.  Get the biggest stadium, hall, gym, or whatever, and get every congregation possible to participate.  The idea would be to try to get all of the Christians from the city together at one place at one time.  This would certainly make an impression, both on those participating and everyone else.  3) Special Youth Programs – Each congregation typically has it’s own youth group with varying amounts of resources.  From time to time a major event, getting all of these groups together could be planned.  Some ideas might be: an all day Christian music festival, an all sports day, or a fund raiser to meet a specific local need.  You could also have a day when all of the young people in the city did yard work for senior citizens and then got together for a big cook out.  4) Biblical Studies Institute – In addition to the education that each congregation provides for its members, a cooperative program for more advanced or specialized study could be provided cooperatively.  This could offer classes in Greek and Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Christian History, Modern Christian Thought, Teacher Training, etc..  It could be run like the adult education programs that exist in many areas today.

Those are only a few of a virtually limitless number of possibilities.  Be creative, look at the needs around you, and start building relationships that bridge the gaps that currently exist.  In some places today there are “Ministerial Associations” where “pastors” from various congregations get together.  It would probably be good to try to organize some kind of local committee with representatives from various congregations to seek out things that can be done cooperatively.  Including people who are not “pastors” would probably be more effective since “pastors” are typically too busy to get anything done.  People who are concerned and creative will be most effective.  The more things that can be done in cooperation between congregations, the more members of all the congregations will have a practical sense of our unity, and the more that those on the outside will be able to see that unity is real.




DISCIPLINE – The problems caused by disunity of the Church are not limited to those on the outside.  There are serious problems for the internal workings of the Church as well.  The Biblical mechanism for dealing with correction for the person who calls him/herself a Christian, but continues in sin after being confronted, is rendered powerless.  In I Corinthians 5, we are told to exclude such a person from fellowship and not to have anything to do with them.  Such exclusions we designed to bring the person to their senses and bring about repentance.  To be excluded form the support of and interaction with all other Christians is a serious matter.  In America today, a person who is disciplined in one congregation is likely to move on to another congregation that is unaware of what has gone on.  In doing this the person involved is deprived of the corrective awareness of the seriousness of their actions.  And, the new congregation is exposed to a potential negative influence.


This problem could be, at least partially, alleviated by better communication between congregations.  If a new person shows up in a congregation, it should be routine procedure to check with the leadership of the congregation which he/she left most recently.  This need not be only to check for the negative kinds of information.  It could also be an opportunity to find out what kinds of strengths the individual brings to their new congregation in order to more expediently get them involved in contributing to the corporate life there.



SETTLING DISPUTES – In I Corinthians 6, Paul warns of the inappropriateness of one Christian taking another Christian it to the civil courts to settle a dispute.  He states that such matters should be decided by the Church.  Today, if there is a dispute between two Christians who are from different congregations, there is not a common authority to whom they can look for settlement.  The only alternatives seem to be to simply let the matter drop, which in many cases may be the right thing to do, or to violate the Biblical instruction and go to the civil courts.


The civil courts are, unfortunately, resorted to today to settle many disputes between people who claim to be Christians.  This has a serious adverse reaction in our corporate reputation in the world around us.  We need to work at developing mechanisms to settle such matters within the Church.  In our city we had a dispute between a young man from our congregation, who bought a motorcycle from a young man from another congregation.  The motorcycle developed major mechanical problems very soon after the purchase and the buyer felt that he had been cheated.  He was even more upset because he felt that a brother had cheated him.  In order to settle the problem, I, as an elder, contacted an elder from the other congregation.  We discussed the matter thoroughly and were able to come to an understanding with which both people could live.  This situation was relatively easy to resolve.  If it had not been resolved at this level we could have sought a leader from a third congregation who could have been more impartial and helped in the resolution.  What is necessary is to be committed to the principle of staying out of the civil courts, and being willing to find creative ways to bridge the gaps between congregations to solve problems.  It can be done.


MEETING NEEDS – Unfortunately, the divisions that currently exist between congregations also involve differences in economic resources.  We have, in most cities, some congregations that have more than they need, while others have far less than they need to meet the basic needs of the people in their membership.  There is a clear principle throughout Scripture that God’s people are to meet the needs of Gods people.  In II Corinthians 8: 13-15, Paul says that those with excess have a responsibility to supply for the lack of others.  Many congregations that have resources do not even meet the internal needs of their members.  This is a terrible failure on the part of those congregations and reflects badly on the Church.  We too easily become controlled by the values of our culture, such as self-sufficiency and independence, rather than the Biblical value of mutual support.  But, just meeting the needs within the congregation cannot be enough.  Where the excess exists, the responsibility exists to seek out where there are needs.  Most congregations that really look for needs will find them among believers in their own cities.


There need to be channels created for the flow of resources from places of excess to places of need.  This must be done in ways that preserve the dignity of the leadership in the congregation where the needs exist.  The attitude of paternalism can never be tolerated.  To avoid this, while allowing for responsible stewardship, would require a working relationship of mutual respect between leaders of the contributing and receiving congregations that recognizes that they are all leaders in the same Church.

If there were to be, to any significant degree, in cities across America, the kind of equalization (that is Paul’s word, not mine) that Paul talks about in

II Corinthians 8, the reality of the unity of the Church would be readily visible to everyone.

To close this chapter I go back to the initial statement, “Disunity Destroys Credibility”.  What is most significant is that, according to Jesus own statement, it destroys not only the credibility of the Church, but to the world at large it destroys the credibility of Jesus Christ Himself.  If in fact this is true, and if we believe Jesus it must be, then we must actively seek ways to practice unity and show it to the world around us.  To re-establish a complete institutional unity, while it might be an ideal, is not a practical alternative in any short-term time frame.  Therefore, faced with the limitations with which we live we must do what we can to experience and demonstrate unity across the separations caused by those institutions.  Only then can we truly lift up the Lord whom we claim to serve for the world to see.  Until then we lift up only a caricature.


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