As the church has continued facing the reality of changes in physical gatherings, and even as many begin planning what it may look like to come together in a building once again, church leaders continue to wrestle with a simmering question. It’s a question that had been rumbling quietly before and now must be answered all the more clearly: What is the church, and why does she meet?
In the Bible, the church—denoted by the term εκκλεσία—is described as believers in Christ, united by God’s Spirit (1 Cor 1:2, Eph 4:3-4, 1 Cor 12:12-14). No matter the place on the globe, the church is meant to embody believers in Christ through whom God desires to reveal and fulfill his mission in the world. Clearly, the church is not a specific style of worship practices, nor is it a meeting on a Sunday morning or in a building. There is no one specific definition of how the nature of the church must be applied in the world, and there have been many different global expressions of the church for centuries. But what does that mean for our present time, as many churches around the world are having to reimagine what it means to gather together?
The nature of the church is much broader than its various applications, as these applications vary significantly based on culture and context. Yet it is through God’s church that God has chosen to fulfill his mission in the world, and there will be different expressions of the church formed by people of different languages, backgrounds, perspectives, and understandings, not to mention responding to the realities of various situations such as pandemic. The church is not a strategy, nor does its nature change. Now more than ever in recent years, the church has needed to reframe and redefine who it is, and how that is expressed. Meeting online has brought up questions that North American Christians in particular have not been forced to think of before:
- Why do we gather?
- What does community mean when we can’t meet in person?
- What is the church, anyway?
- Why do we do what we do?
- What forms us as a community, and what is of priority to ensure it continues?
While we should have also been asking these questions before, they are now undeniably in front of us.
Marks of the Church
It matters that we have a robust understanding of our own ecclesiology. We cannot do what we’ve done just because we’ve always done it, and we now have the opportunity to renew the church in fresh ways especially as we consider what we reopen and why. Theologian Beth Felker Jones describes how the people of God, as demonstrated in the Old Testament, were once identified through circumcision—a visible mark on the body to show who was a part of God’s people. Today, the people of God, the church, are identified by other marks, through the unity of the Spirit, as they are saved by grace. These marks that the church bears visibly show that they are God’s people.1 As we have faced a limit on gathering physically, and we are now deciding what it looks like to begin to gather in-person again, what is it that marks the church as Christ’s?
Gathering as the body of Christ
The New Testament is full of examples of groups of believers gathered in various geographical regions. These believers are referred to as the εκκλεσία or “ecclesia.” They gather in homes and regions with other local believers (Rom 16:5, 1 Cor 1:2, 1 Thess 1:1) and care for one another (Acts 2:42-47). This gathering of the church described in Acts 2 depicts them continually gathering for teaching, sharing meals together, praying together, and sharing possessions amongst each other, giving to anyone who was in need. Gathering together as believers in Christ has been a hallmark of being part of the people of God. Chinese theologian Xiaxia Xue describes that the church “in its essence is a community that is united in the midst of conflict.”2 Living the fragile aspects of human life together as the people of Christ, through the power, renewal, and sanctification that only God’s Spirit can bring, is a unique feature of the church. Whether a church gathering must be in secret within a home or occurs in a grand cathedral—or now over online platforms and video conferences—whatever the earthly restrictions on the church may be, it is the unity in the Holy Spirit as they gather that marks the church as Christ’s. We are indeed discovering how to live the fragile aspects of life together as community.
Unity as a people
Divisions have threatened to split and break the unity of the church since the biblical era.3 In the 21st century, racial tensions, gender discussions, theological distinctions, and cultural clashes continue to wage war on the unity of the people of God in various ways. Now, as we face a global pandemic, division continues to rear its ugly head amongst us as many disagree on how to handle it. Knowing this, how can the church inhabit her God-intended essence as the church, maintaining unity while being diverse?How can the church inhabit her God-intended essence as the church, maintaining unity while being diverse? Click To Tweet
One important aspect of this is recognizing the value of diversity within united communities, and then sacrificially stepping into that diversity. The church can be united while celebrating the variety of gifts, backgrounds, ethnicities, and even opinions of those within the community. 1 Corinthians 12 describes the multiple gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the people of God, empowering them for witness and service, while still upholding the unity of all believers as though they are a body connected together—many different parts with Christ as the head. This metaphor given in the New Testament serves as a strong reminder of the significance of diversity among the people of God, while still being unified in Christ. Our center must be Christ, and it is Christ who leads us into loving our neighbor, forgiving our enemies, and standing against injustice. Furthermore, Revelation 7:9 describes a time when people from every tribe, nation, and language will be worshipping God together. This is the future hope, a vision of the ways of the kingdom of heaven. Beth Felker Jones, summarizing theologian Samuel Escobar, describes the importance of recognizing diversity in the church in this way:
“‘Men and women everywhere,’ writes Escobar, feel that Jesus ‘is “theirs,” and artists in the past and present have proved the point by representing Jesus in their own cultural terms. At this point in history the global church stands closer than ever to the vision of the seer in Revelation.’ That glorious vision is of ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands’ (Rev 7:9). The church’s oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity—worked by God amidst our brokenness—is also a global reality. This means that we will have to practice ecclesiology in a way that appreciates that, in God’s kingdom, diversity fits together with unity.”4
It is precisely through this diverse church that God is inbreaking his kingdom ways into the world.
A community, not just individuals
As we gather in various ways and press into unity, it is clear that individual believers comprise the church, but the church is also community-forming and communally-directed. As we have all faced various stay-at-home orders, our need for others and the dangers of isolation (see Jared Boyd’s article here) have become clearer than ever. As the late Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg says: “The gift of the Spirit is not just for individual believers but aims at the building up of the fellowship of believers.”5 The church is not just a gathering of people, but it is a community of those who truly believe in Christ and who are united together by his Spirit, which is working out sanctification within them while also working in the church community as a whole. The Spirit does not just work in the church for its own formation, but continues to empower and gift Christians “with various gifts and capacities for witness and service” (Acts 1:8; 1 Cor 12:14).6 The Spirit works within the church, propelling us in mission, for mission is not simply a task given to the church, but its very nature and essence is missionary.7The Spirit works within the church, propelling us in mission, for mission is not simply a task given to the church, but its very nature and essence is missionary. Click To Tweet
David Fitch points out this inconsistency in his book Faithful Presence, where he states, “For most Christians in the West, God is an individual belief, a personal relationship, a private experience, something we fit in between the other things in our lives. The notion that we can be present to God, and he to us, is not on the horizon of our awareness.”8 This highlights the urgent need for a robust ecclesiology among Christians. Individualistic cultures, such as that of the United States, pull against the very nature of the church as a community that is missionary and that reflects Christ in how she lives and operates—even within a pandemic. Now, as our vision of what community looks like has been challenged, we have been given the opportunity to be present to what God is doing and step into community in new ways, and sometimes fresh and renewed ways. When there is clear ecclesiology, the unchanging nature of the church as designed by God can thrive amongst the changing realities and contexts we are living in and how we live that out.When there is clear ecclesiology, the unchanging nature of the church as designed by God can thrive amongst the changing realities and contexts we are living in and how we live that out. Click To Tweet
A reflection of God’s kingdom realities
Just as those who believe in Christ are united in the Spirit, gathering and caring for one another in many ways, the mission of God is naturally fulfilled in the world as the church lives these things out. The world is able to witness to what God has done among his children, making God visible amongst communities. How we make God visible in our present pandemic-stricken world requires that we creatively rethink how we live as a people. However, the mission of the church has not changed. It has never been about simply meeting in a building one day each week. As the church lives out reconciliation, healing, wholeness, and care for others—thus showcasing aspects of who God is, and making his ways part of the world—the world gets the chance to experience God. This is part of the nature of the church, and it is the purpose for which the Spirit equips and empowers believers. The very essence of the church is missionary. Buildings may still be closed, but we have a massive opportunity as the body of Christ to live out God’s kingdom realities in our communities and neighborhoods.The mission of the church has not changed. It has never been about simply meeting in a building one day each week. Click To Tweet
1Beth Felker Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine: An Introduction to Thinking and Living Theologically, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 197-203.
2Xiaxia E. Xue, “The community as Union with Christ in the Midst of Conflict: An Ecclesiology of the Pauline Letters from a Chinese Perspective” in The Church From Every Tribe and Tongue: Ecclesiology in the Majority World, ed. by Gene L Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo, (Carlisle: Langham, 2018), 134.
3Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Ecclesiology and the Church in Christian Tradition and Western Theology,” in The Church From Every Tribe and Tongue: Ecclesiology in the Majority World, ed. by Gene L Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo (Carlisle: Langham, 2018), 21.
4Jones, Practicing Christian Doctrine, 210.
7Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical, and Global Perspectives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 151.
8Fitch, Faithful Presence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 19.