What is The Church?
“I didn’t get anything out of the service today” is a weekly cry of discontent in American churches. The underlying suggestion seems to indicate dissatisfaction with everything from a pastoral sermon to worship performances. Conformed by a cultural pressure to deliver a product each Sunday, local congregations and their leadership strive to relate The Gospel to a way of life obsessed with advertising and consumer satisfaction.
In an atmosphere where perception trumps truth and need reigns supreme over mission, G. K. Chesterton’s century old dictum deserves a renewed hearing. Orthodoxy (1908) maintained “the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles’ Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics” (20). Chesterton’s brief description of biblical ecclesiology (study of The Church) is necessary to engage the cultural perceptions of The Church: cosmology (beginning), ontology (being), teleology (purpose), epistemology (knowledge), and axiology (ethics). The Body of Christ must translate belief into behavior.
The Church’s distinctive cosmology (beginning) runs the length of Scripture. God’s intention of communal relationship with His human creation (see Gen 3:8) is disjointed because of The Fall. Yet from the death of man comes the seed of new life (Gen 3:15; Jn 12:23-24). Planned before the world’s foundation (Rev 13:8; 17:8) the beginning of Christ’s church is a cosmic design (Eph 1:4) where the second Adam (2 Cor 15:44-49) will return the universe to its original, eternal condition (Rev 5:9-13; 21:1-5). In light of The Church’s unique beginning, the 21st century church need devote itself to a Christ-centered rather than self-centered focus.
The Church’s distinctive ontology (being) depends on integral connection to Jesus, the One who will make all things new. The whole of creation will benefit from deliverance procured on the cross (Col 1:18-20). For God’s vice-regents (Gen 1:28; Ps 8:5) personal identification with Jesus—a literal losing of oneself—is necessary for internal and eternal change (Jn 3:30; Gal 2:20). Induction in The Church for each person is demonstrated through acts (i.e. baptism, Acts 2:41) and activity (i.e. good works, Acts 2:44-45). In light of The Church’s unique being, the 21st century church need devote itself to internal change rather than external conformity.
The Church’s distinctive teleology (purpose) grows out of personal transformation, communal participation, toward a cultural infiltration. While each person is created as a unique entity (Gen 5:1, 3; Ps 139:14-15), the part has responsibility to the whole as each Christian understands their place in Christ’s body (Jn 15:1-4; Rom 12:3-8). Vocational giftedness as persons contributes to the life of The Church (Eph 4:11-16). And as each believer is sustained by Body life (1 Cor 12:12-27) Christians can infiltrate and transform culture by their vocational lives (1 Thess 4:11-12; 1 Pet 2:11-12). In light of The Church’s unique purpose, the 21st century church need devote itself to personal, congregational, and cultural renovation.
The Church’s distinctive epistemology (knowledge) is predicated upon the Word of God through the prophets and apostles (Eph 2:20). Wary of the “doctrine of diversity” (Eph 4:14) Christians acknowledge the planet is a diverse place with diverse perspectives (Acts 2:5-11)—including race, gender, and social standing (Gal 3:28). But the local church is part of the universal Church (Eph 1:22-23; 5:25). Creedal diversity strikes at the root of the tree: the unity of the Christian message (Rom 16:17-19, 25-27). In light of The Church’s unique knowledge base, the 21st century church need devote itself to revelational truths grounded in creational law rather than personal preference.
The Church’s distinctive axiology (ethics) emanates from eternity (Ps 119:89-91). Without the eternal, there is no ethical. Without a telos there is no ethos. Whereas “values” identify what an organization may do, and “morals” is what a group sees as normal, “ethics” answers what one ought to do. “Should” demands an objective standard outside oneself (Prov 8:12-36). “Should” is dependant upon a source of authority other than individuals or groups (Eccl 12:13-14). “Should” produces a stable framework within which people can function for the public welfare (1 Tim 1:8-11). In light of The Church’s unique ethics, the 21st century church need devote itself to common truth for the common law on behalf of the common people for the common good.
The Church is not about individual gratification. The Church is a body of people set apart by Jesus. Salvation benefits each person in The Church for The Church on behalf of the whole creation. Agents of reconciliation, Christians do not vie for political or cultural power bases. However, when Christians speak to the issues of the day, having infiltrated every strata of society, their words echo eternal principles that run counter to the cultural idols of the day: what Abraham Kuyper called “an all-embracing system of principles” giving opportunity for engagement with every facet of life (Bacote, 79).
Unbelievers may think Christians just “want a place at the table” but the reality is Christians believe the table belongs to The King in his castle in His Kingdom. What The Church does for a culture or a country is to give it a basis for freedom (impartiality with regard to belief not necessarily approval or acceptance), law, justice (equity—not equality—in human affairs), and beneficence. Only ends give hope (Polkinghorne, 2002).
As Chesterton said, Christian theology is the best root for ethics. Christian belief ought to beget Christian behavior.
Originally written in 2007, Mark believes that ecclesiology should be lived out daily by Christ’s body, in every body.
Bacote, Vincent E. 2005. The spirit in public theology: Appropriating the legacy of
Abraham Kuyper. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
Chesterton, Gilbert. K. 1908. Orthodoxy. New York: John Lane Company.
Polkinghorne, John. 2002. The God of hope and the end of the world. New Haven, CT:
Yale University Press.
Picture Credit: http://bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com/2012/06/theres-stranger-in-my-house.html