How Do You Spell “Chruch” – Part 1
In the 1970’s there was a popular commercial for an antacid which simply posed the question, “How do you spell relief?” It was a clever commercial in that the answer being elicited had nothing to do with the literal spelling of the word “relief” but rather called one’s attention to the advertiser’s solution for a common problem known as indigestion—R-o-l-a-i-d-s! You might say that the advertiser was looking for the functional rather than the literal spelling of the word relief.
This unique commercial came to mind—am I self-carbon dating myself here?—as I was pondering the essence of the church. I truly wonder if the majority of believers today comprehend the biblical functionality of the church. If I were to survey a significant number of Christians across denominational lines asking them to define the church for me, I believe I would come up with basically two common denominators in their responses. The first would simply be a reflection of the theology and practices of their respective church experiences. The second would reflect that their answers were of an a priori nature. That is to say, most believers have formed their understanding of the church from their respective experiences rather than empirically searching out the biblical, historical and theological realities for themselves. The intentional misspelling in the title of this article is meant to convey my observation that a substantial number of believers today cannot adequately define (spell) the church in a manner that is consistent with its historical origins and biblical mandates.
As a broad example of my thesis, we can easily see the church divided into two palpable and discernible camps. In one there is a primary focus given to social needs and issues and the church’s responsibility to faithfully invest in these areas. In the other camp the principal concern is given to a demonstrable presentation of the Gospel, the winning of souls to Christ and the pursuit of holiness. This is admittedly an over-simplification but it serves to portray a fairly accurate picture of Christendom today. I am attempting to depict the emphasis reflected in the two camps while recognizing they do not represent mutually exclusive interests. That being said, I am sure that persons within each of these camps of church emphasis could easily find those in the other camp spiritually wanting with respect to their chosen bent. In the one camp they might find the others failing to faithfully walk out the essence of the Gospel by failing to invest significantly in social programs. In the other camp, they might criticize the neglect of one’s personal relationship with Christ and the lack of concern for lost souls. All of this notwithstanding, I question whether either camp is functionally on target with respect to living out the biblical reality of the church.
Why is it essential or even important to be addressing this question to begin with? Why wouldn’t it be satisfactory to have varied expressions of Christianity and the church? After all, people are never going to entirely agree with one another regarding any issue one could raise. The truth of the matter is, since the inception of the Church God has been working in its midst to ultimately bring all true believers into a unity of the faith. Consider this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ (Eph 4:11-13 NLT).
Within these three verses we minimally have an understanding of God’s means and intention for the church. God’s ultimate intention is that all believers mature into the full stature of Christ and his means for accomplishing that is through the engifted ministry of the members of the body itself. The picture we have of the church portrayed in this passage is of persons functioning with motivational gifting of the Holy Spirit in ways that equip and encourage all members of the body to minister to one another towards the end that all will achieve the full stature life in Christ. In essence we see here God’s purpose both for the individual believer and the corporate body of Christ—full stature life. Incorporated in arriving at this end is coming into a unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. The unity of faith is found in believing and acing upon biblical truth as God defines it and knowledge of God’s Son equates to an intimate personal relationship with Christ. I believe it is safe to aver that by the language in our Ephesian Scripture that coming into the full stature life in Christ—both individually and corporately—is a process (maturation) and constitutes the Holy Spirit governed work of the body of Christ.
Given this understanding of our Ephesian passage I believe we can draw some fairly clear implications for what constitutes the body of Christ, the church of Jesus Christ. The church is a community of persons who have declared their faith—their belief, trust, surrender, committed following, accountability and obedience—in Christ, have embraced the transformational life in Christ toward the end of achieving full stature life in him, and have committed to mutual ministry with the goal of helping fellow believers achieve the same. It is clear that the church is not a gathering of perfected saints but rather a fellowship of persons committed to God’s eternal purpose of many sons and daughters just like Jesus.
The church is not a mixture of persons of varying degrees of spiritual commitment. It is not a halfway house for potential believers. It is not a place to which the unbelieving are attracted in hopes of convincing them to accept Christ as their Savior. The church is—in the words of Elton Trueblood—the company of the committed. The church is comprised of persons whose convictions regarding Christ are thoroughly established and unassailable. The church is that community of the faithful on a pilgrimage to completion in Christ. Interestingly, the church can be afflicted with all the same challenges, failures, brokenness and even sin found in the world. However, the difference between the world and the church—and what ultimately defines it—is the believers’ absolute commitment to become everything in Christ he died for them to be.
But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be (Phil 3:12 NLT).
This commitment—as Paul so lucidly defined for the church at Philippi—involves the living out of Jesus’ call to discipleship:
Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me (Lk 9:23 NLT).
Failing to embrace this teaching from the gospel would be tantamount to denying Christ. Obeying this command is what makes it possible to be conformed to Christ’s image and live out the reality of Christian community. The church is not a place where bad attitudes and behavior don’t exist. It is the place where these aberrations of the faith find redemptive solutions through its members choosing to be accountable and making faithful, godly responses consistent with the teachings of Scripture.