What is the Church?

What is the Church? January 11, 2022

In my last post, I asked why can’t we just leave the church?

I noted that one cannot leave because the Church is the body of Christ. In other words, you can’t leave the church because you are the Church.

Now, this could be taken in several ways: one I agree with and one I do not agree with—well, I kinda don’t agree with it. I’ll begin with the latter.

First, those who think that a person can’t be a Christian unless they are part of a church are mistaken. We are the body of Christ not because we are members of a particular church but because we are members of the Church: that is His body.

The book of Ephesians affirms: “because we are members of His body” (Eph 5:30).

The book of Colossians then says that Christ is the head of this body: “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything (Col 1:18).

I don’t suspect that I need to offer more proof for this supposition. Those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord have been adopted into the body of Christ which is the Church. This is why Paul refers to his prior activities of persecuting Christians in terms of persecuting the church: “I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9). We don’t need to ask if he persecuted individuals or if he persecuted the Church. The answer is “yes.”

You can’t leave the church because you are the Church, but the church transcends a local gathering of believers.

Secondly, I mean this a way of affirming those who have become so disillusioned with the institution of the western evangelical church that they want to leave. You are the Church. Whether or not you should be connected to a local church is another question.

Whatever we have to say, then, we must begin with an extremely high view of the Church! We must love the Church as Christ loved it and laid down His life for it: not the church as an institution, but the Church as the body of Christ.

Sure, one could easily point to the history of the Church and the tremendous evils that have been done and are being done in the Name of Christ. This is certainly something that we need to reckon with. And we really do need to reckon with it–including the many problems within evangelicalism.

But we must begin by acknowledging that the Church has also done tremendous good in this world.

Christians started orphanages. They spoke against the Roman practice of exposure (Romans abandoned, or exposed, unwanted children leaving them to die) and began rescuing and adopting exposed children.

Christians cared for widows who were left to fend for themselves because they could not contribute to society any longer. Paul even notes a requirement for putting widows on “the list” so that they might fall under the care of the Church (1 Tim 5:9-10).

Christians started hospitals. They started schools. They started homeless shelters.

Even in the US, amidst the crisis that I believe the western church is facing, the body of Christ continues to manifest the presence of Christ to the world.

As Jonathan Haidt notes, “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”[1]

The Church is the embodiment of Christ on Earth.

The Church is supposed to be a living organism that manifests the love of Christ to the world. It is not supposed to be an institution like it has often become. The Church is called to be advocates of the Kingdom of God in rejection of the kingdoms of this world.

The Church is supposed to value the human dignity of all persons.

And behind the scenes of all those making noise and gaining large crowds and often making a mockery of what Christ has called us to be, there is a remnant of faithful, loving, and sacrificial people who have learned to truly deny themselves and are taking up their crosses and making Him known.

The reason why we don’t often see them is because they are not seeking to be seen. They are not interested in gaining large crowds and lots of attention. They are not doing the work of Christ to be seen by people. They don’t make for great headlines. (They make for great stories, but the media rarely covers them because sex, violence, and conflict sell far more than selfless acts of love).

For all the disillusionment that abounds in our local churches, all the stories of narcissist pastors run amuck, all the sexual abuse scandals that are being hidden to protect the “sanctity” of the institutional church and those who lead them, all the misuses of funds, all the hate that is spewed from pulpits and cathedrals against to those who are not “like us,” all the church splits because the sanctuary was too warm or because they dared let a woman preach in church, all the tearing down of good pastors and their families because they dared speak against racial injustice or advocate for environmental preservation, for all of it, and there is so much more, there are also many stories of good people who are doing good things in the name of Christ and giving of their time, their money, and their very selves so that an other may have dignity.

The Church is the chosen people of God who have been called to make Christ known to the nations. This is so central that I would not hesitate to say that this is the primary mission of the Church. This is why the Church exists.

There is no question that much of evangelicalism fails to represent this mission. Certainly, many of the main faces of evangelicalism have failed in this mission and have instead championed other causes that have done great harm. But we cannot deny that there are many, often behind the scenes, who are still exemplifying the cross-bearing love of Christ.

There is still a lot more, of course, to be said.

In our next post, we will ask: “what is evangelicalism anyways?”

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[1] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 310). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Citing the work of Putnam and Campbell.

About Rob Dalrymple
Rob Dalrymple is married to his wife Toni and is the father of four fabulous children, as well as the grandfather of Oliver and Holland! He has been teaching and pastoring for over 32 years at colleges, seminaries, and the local church. He has a PhD (Westminster Theological Seminary) in biblical interpretation. He is the author of four books (including: Follow the Lamb: A Guide to Reading, Understanding, and Applying the Book of Revelation & Understanding the New Testament and the End Times: Why it Matters) as well as numerous articles and other publications. You can read more about the author here.

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