What is the Church? (Membership Class #1)
These are the notes from the first of the five membership class sessions. In this first part, we first set the discussion in the context of the challenges posed by the culture in which we live. Secondly, we orient ourselves to think about the church according to the great work that God has been doing throughout history.
1. What is the Church?
March 5, 2017
Challenges We Face
It is helpful to think a little bit about the realities we face in our time and place before we delve into the topic at hand. Life in the 21st century America is all about choices. Shell or Chevron or Mobil? Ralph's or Albertson's or Vons or Stater Bros? ESPN or ESPN2 or ESPN 3D or FSN? From baby bottles to caskets, we live in a world of almost infinite choices, and often there are no great consequences to our choices. But culture has ways of influencing us when we least suspect it, and it has influenced how we think about the church. Today most communities are filled with churches of various denominations, kinds, and sizes, each marketing (yes, marketing!) its products to consumers of religious experience. “Our sermons are relevant!” “Our music is uplifting.” “Our style is casual.” It's not surprising, then, that many professing believers have exactly the same attitude about choosing a church as they do in choosing a bottle of shampoo or the brand of gasoline. Whatever costs less (however we define the cost) and inconveniences us the least gets our vote.
In addition, the typical American favors the individual over against the community. We value individuality over what we derisively call “conformity,” forgetting, perhaps, what we reject as “conformity” may be the ability for individuals to live with civility, harmony, and cooperation in a community, a trait which is becoming increasingly lacking in our society today.
Then there is the way sin manifests itself as the sheer refusal to learn from God. This is, not surprisingly, the modus operandus of unbelievers. But sadly the unwillingness to learn from God is seen among professing Christians as well.
These challenges (consumeristic attitude, individualism, and scoffing attitude), and others, constantly pull us away from thinking about Christ's body rightly. So it is very encouraging when people in this day and age are thinking seriously about Christ's Bride, the Church, and are seeking to commit themselves in the fellowship of believers. This simply does not happen apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. And those that are drawn into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit discover the great joy of belonging.
Church is an eschatological community
“Eschatology” is a fancy word. Those who know the term typically learn it in the context of end-time discussions. But in our context the word “eschatology” means that from the beginning God called his people into a community that looked forward to the glory to come. In other words, to describe the church as “an eschatological community” means that in the body of Christ we are drawn into a work that God has been doing from before the creation of the world to the end of creation, and beyond. The church as an eschatological community is a community that looks forward to glory.
It's helpful, therefore, to think about the Church as a community of people who are shaped by the four great teachings of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
Creation: When God created man he blessed Adam and Eve in the Garden. The paradise, in many ways, was a perfect place of fellowship with God, joy, security, and provision. Yet it was not perfect. As we all know, it turned out that Adam and Eve's fellowship with God was one which could be broken (it was). Their enjoyment of the Garden was a privilege which could be revoked (it was revoked in their expulsion). The life they had was one that could come to an end (it did when they were cursed with death). But there stood in the middle of the Garden the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, side by side (Gen 2:9). The tree of life promised, and was a symbol of, a greater stability and blessing than Adam and Eve enjoyed in Eden. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil indicated the way to the greater blessing than that which they presently enjoyed was through obedience (Gen 2:15-17). Thus when man disobeyed, the tree of life was taken from man (Gen 3:22-24); the hope of fellowship with God that cannot be broken, life that cannot be lost, joy that cannot be ruined was lost.
Fall: Man's sin thus deprived from him the hope of glory. But God who is rich in mercy promised a Savior as soon as the hope was lost, and prepared the hearts of man until the time was right.
Redemption: When the time was right, God sent his Son to redeem the lost. Yet it seems God has a terrible sense of timing. His appointed for the coming of his Son was not when people were ready to receive him. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. Jesus came when his disciples were not ready to trust him, when they would all abandon him. No one would run a presidential campaign like this, with a seeming complete miscalculations. Either God was supremely incompetent to send his Son into the world that would reject him, or he was supremely merciful.
He was merciful. Jesus came to those who would not choose him, would not love him, would not follow him, and gave himself up for them. Thus by the love of God and the grace of Jesus we are drawn into fellowship with the Holy Spirit who justifies and gives us eternal life, a life that cannot be lost, a fellowship with God that cannot be ruined, joy that cannot be corrupted, a hope that will not perish.
Consummation: Thus what man lost in sin, he gains through Jesus Christ. It is no accident that when Christ returns in glory, we are not brought back to Eden where our fellowship with God could be ruined and our life could be lost, where man was longing for something better to come. When Jesus returns in glory, we “have the right to the tree of life” (Rev. 22:14). This is what we mean by the church as an “eschatological community.” We are by faith in Christ made participants and beneficiaries of the work that God began before the world began to bring his people into glory. Being a member of Christ's Body means we are members of a community of imperishable hope, of incomparable glory to come. It means while nations and cultures come and go, we are a part of something that lasts for eternity.
All this is to say that being a part of Christ's body is a great privilege. We are loved, cherished, and blessed for Christ's sake. We are a part of something that will endure. We are a part of something, the only thing, that really matters. These are some of the reasons why we want to think biblically about belonging to Christ.