What Is “The Church?”

What Is “The Church?” January 20, 2021

What Is “The Church?”

Of course this question—What Is the Church?—is far too “big” for a blog essay to answer. Here is why I am asking this question now, in this forum, and attempting to answer it—however partially.

Over the past few years I have heard and read many people publicly referring to “the American church” or “the Baptist church” or “the evangelical church.” These are misuses of the word “church.” I think journalists are especially guilty of this misuse of language because they should know better.

So this is for them and for you. If you happen to see or hear this misuse of the word “church,” please correct it. Email the person as I have! Write a letter to the editor as I have! And above all, don’t be guilty of misusing the word “church” in this way.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

To put it simply and bluntly—there is no “the church” (without some qualifier such as the name of a denomination or particular congregation) except the universal Body of Christ that includes all believers, everywhere and at all times.

There is no “the American church.” I assume people who use that language really mean “churches in America” or something like that. But ever that would be far too vague without more specificity. What churches in America? Which ones? “Churches in America” are extremely diverse. They do not all have anything in common except claiming to be churches. There are even “churches in America” that make no claim to be Christian!

There is no “the Baptist church.” Every Baptist church is independent, governing it own affairs without outside interference. One can speak, I suppose, of “Baptist churches” but even then they have very little in common. I will give one example. Here in the U.S. there is a Baptist subdenomination in the Appalachian mountains called the “No Hellers” that do not believe in hell. I could give many, many more surprising examples of the diversity of Baptists in America.

There is no “the evangelical church” – around the world or in America. Evangelicals exist in most denominations and churches and even those that call themselves “evangelical” are extremely diverse. There is no “evangelical headquarters.” Even the National Association of Evangelicals is not a church and contains much diversity and many evangelical churches are not even members of it!

Every time I read or hear “the evangelical church” or “the Baptist church” or “the American church” I wince and cringe. How can journalists and makers of documentaries on Youtube (or wherever) and other educated, smart people know so little and be so wrong? And yet I see and hear this misuse of “church” very often as I peruse newspapers, articles, documentaries, and just listen to people talk.

So what is “the church?” At least for Protestants, it is the universal Body of Christ and is invisible insofar as it has no headquarters or institutional structure. There are headquarters and institutional structures in it, but it has no earthly head or headquarters or institutional structure.

Now, the Roman Catholic Church and some other Christian organizations claim to be the visible and institutional one, unified church of Jesus Christ on earth. But, of course, I do not agree with that claim. And even the RCC admits that some people of God, members of the Body of Christ, are only “mystically united” with the RCC and not formally members of it. I consider that an admission of the invisibility and universality of the Body of Christ—beyond the borders of any organization or institution.

Only God knows for sure who are members of the Body of Christ, the true church.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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