The title of a recent article on the excellent blog of Alan Knox, was a question, “What Caused You to Start Studying the Church?”
In my case, the reason was my first meeting, half a lifetime ago, of a large number of other pastors at a denominational pastor’s conference, and the denominational annual assembly. Those meetings were the catalyst to start me questioning why I was even a part of such a group.
That meeting helped me, over a period of time, to see that for myself that, as a denomination, our understanding of “church” was very limited. That limited view was established by our experience of church life and denominational distinctives, not by the Scriptures.
For me, and many others, that experience was a long one, the authenticity of which we had never questioned. Mine began at the age of twelve, and had been repeated and established during the first twenty years of my total involvement, from simply sitting in the pews to preaching and teaching.
To ask anyone the question, "What is church?", always had the effect of people looking very perplexed, and finally voicing the opinion that, “We are the church!”
The faithful attendance at the habitual following of established traditions, reinforced by the messages from the pulpit, was instilling in the congregations the certainty that, as long as they were regular in attending to this, everything was fine and dandy.
The only conversations the congregations were involved in always revolved around the pragmatic matters of organized religion; filling empty pews, and bigger buildings when we filled them, finance and the need to increase the accumulation of it to do the grand schemes the pastor had envisioned. Of course there was the normal discussions of house keeping, maintenance, etc. Occasionally the matter of missions came up. Of course our mission was those missions and never our Jerusalem, or even Judea.
We were a missions oriented church, but not mission oriented!
Very seldom were there discussions which didn’t result in some strong words, which were certainly not appropriate for those claiming to be brethren in Christ.
We didn’t know it at the time but, our individual definition of “church” revolved around our own experience, that with which we were familiar, we were always correct and anyone who disagreed was incorrect. As a result most other congregations in the area were suspect.
No wonder we had problems and cliques of those who agreed with each other, and disagreed with everyone else, even within the local congregation. (have a look at this great article from Paul Burleson)
Other definitions of “church” arise from the satisfaction of personality problems of functioning in community, or desires for “life” which has more to do with sensual satisfaction.
As I’ve talked to people, and pressed them on the original question, "What is church?", several common thoughts appeared. Although, not in any specific order they were generally:
1. Believers who came together each week on Sunday
2. They were a church because they had been baptized as become members.
3. They had a qualified pastor, and possibly elders.
4. Baptism and communion was practiced according to denominational dictates.
5. Although unsure of what it meant church discipline was necessary.
6. Most importantly there had to be a document of doctrinal beliefs which defined who they were.
7. Evangelism is important as long as someone else accomplished it.
When asked, “Who owns the church?” The answer was always, emphatically “We, the congregation, do!”
The presence of Jesus Christ is only assumed, and any concept of His presence by His Spirit, is very vague.
This assumption has allowed many of our institutional churches to become nothing more than social institutions for people who gather using Jesus’ name, and to have reinforced in us the thought that our church/denomination is the one with God's stamp of approval.
Where is the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit, who reveals Jesus amongst a ministering people from whom living waters flow, who opens our hearts to understand Scripture, who leads and directs?
Is our idea of church formed by the standard of what we have always done, or, the clear standard of Scriptures?
Are we disciples of Jesus Christ, or, are we disciples of a tradition, from which our standard arises?
Are we afraid to ask questions of that standard, and compare it with Scripture? I think so!