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What is a Church? — Introductory Thoughts

by André Schwartz last modified Jun 03, 2014 11:16 AM
Back to Biblical Basics (BBB)

ChurchWhen one asks the seemingly simple question, “What is a church?” what can be expected as an answer? Many will answer: “A church is a building where people, probably Christians, meet.” Some others may answer: “A church is a group of Christians who gather on a Sunday for worship and fellowship.” Still, some others will insist: “A church is a group of Christians who cares about each other, who also meets together to pray, study God’s Word and worship Him.” Then one will get the critic who might say, “A church is only a club for insiders, mostly hypocrites!” These responses don’t take us very far if we want to understand truly what a church ought to be.

Maybe you noticed that there is actually a problem with the question. The question should not really be, “What is the church?” but “What ought the church to be?” In a few short instalments on the church, we will not talk about what churches actually are, or what some think churches are; we will examine what a church ought to be. So, we will look at an ideal church rather than the actual, which will always fall short.

Because the Bible is God’s inspired Word, and therefore is to be our chief guide both for faith and life (WCF I.vi), we will study the nature of the church from a biblical perspective. That’s the sort of thing that evangelical, confessional, reformed, protestants tend to do. Nothing in this world tells us more authoritatively what the church ought to be than God’s own inspired Word, the Bible.

What’s interesting is that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers would agree with us up to a point. They also affirm the authority of Scripture as God’s Word. But they add the parallel authority of tradition, especially as embodied in the creeds and historic teachings of the church, and in the bishops who guard and pass on this tradition. Christian tradition ought to be taken seriously. Of course, we Christians have much to learn from our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, but ultimately, we should weigh their convictions and practices in light of biblical teaching. Scripture must always trump church tradition, though without denying the value of it.

It is important that, before we launch into what the church ought to be, we need to quickly consider how Christians interpret Scripture when it comes to the nature of the church. It is just natural that we all tend to read the Bible in light of our own cultures. We all project our meanings and values into the text but careful interpretation of Scripture must help us see what is really there. We should never be misled by believing our projections into the Bible are God’s revealed Word. It is true that listening to what Christians from other cultures hear the Bible is saying (and not saying) can help us interpret Scripture more accurately, but ultimately, Scripture stands authoritatively above the experience of all Christians.

So, how do we interpret Scripture, not just when we want to know what the church ought to be, but for “all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life”? The main starting points are these:

  1. Though both Christian tradition and the experience of our brothers and sisters throughout the world are taken seriously, Scripture has the final word when it comes to matters of faith and practice, including the question of what a church should be. Therefore, the best way to discover what a church should be is by a careful study of Scripture.
  2. Scripture must first of all be read against its own cultural setting. If we want to understand the writings of the Apostle Paul, for example, we would do well to see them in light of his Greco-Roman-Jewish world. Doing this will help us avoid projecting our own preconceptions and biases into the text.
  3. At the same time, we live in the here and now, and even though we are to interpret the Bible accurately, we must always enquire from Scripture how the objective biblical truths might take shape in our cultural setting today.

Some of you reading this, especially if you have already done some “theological” reading, probably know that this topic is called ecclesiology (from the Greek words ekklesia, meaning “assembly, people meeting, church” and logos meaning “thought, word, principle”). Please do not be scared away, these few deliveries on the church will not be theological discussions. It is meant for all of us – the ordinary reader, especially the average Christian who wonders “What is a church, really?”

I hope all of us want to know what God’s Word has to say about what we ought to be, the church of Christ. Until next time then, and remember BBB!