12 November 2012

Am I a member of the church?

Most people understand the word 'church' to mean a building, an identifiable subset of the believers in a town or district, or an activity that happens at a particular time or place. None of these definitions matches anything we find in the Bible.

Is this church?
In conversation with a friend yesterday, I heard once again that I am not a member of 'a church'. I didn't record the exact words but the sense was that I'm unusual in not belonging to 'a church', that it's a bit quirky and perhaps not a good thing.

And the day before yesterday I was listening to another conversation about 'a church' buying a building.

Of course, it's certainly not the first time I've heard these things, and I'm sure it will not be the last! But it's worth thinking this through again. What is 'church'? What is 'a church'? And what does it mean to 'belong' to church?

Organisations - The idea goes that there may be several churches in a small town. St Neots has about 30 000 inhabitants and in the UK some 1.5 % of people are involved in church activity. That suggests about 450 church members in St Neots.

There's an assumption here, so widespread and commonly held that we barely notice it. The assumption is that church is an organisation and that the people belonging to it are going to meet in a particular place once or twice a week. Clearly there may be several such organisations in a town and each may meet in a separate place.

Only one church - But Jesus was clear that there is only one church. He said, 'I will build my church'. That is singular - one church. A common way around this is to think in terms of 'the church universal'. True - there is one worldwide church and it necessarily meets in many places. But a problem with that idea is that the New Testament authors wrote of the church in a town, Ephesus or Rome for example. Yet we do not anywhere read about a church in Ephesus or in any other place, it's always the church. It seems clear that Paul thought in terms of one church that met in various homes, towns and provinces.

He does not think in terms of two or three different organisations in Ephesus called church (though the people probably met in several homes). Nor does he anywhere distinguish different 'churches' on grounds of doctrine, teaching, founder or understanding. On the one occasion he does mention this he regards it as a very bad practice that needs to be nipped in the bud.

'I hear', he writes to the church in Corinth, 'that you are saying that you follow Apollos or Paul or Jesus'. He sees this as a terrible precedent, a horrid disfigurement of Christ's body, he insists the practice must end immediately (1 Corinthians 1:9-17).

Church in the biblical sense is clearly a community, not a building or an institution. The Greek is ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) which means, literally, the 'called-out' ones. We are called out from the world into the community of the King. As we live (and meet) together we are part of this one community.

Being a member - So, in what sense am I not in a church, not a member of a church? And in what sense does a church need a building of its own?

If we think in terms of the Baptist Church, The Methodist Church, the Anglican Church, River Church, Open Door Church and the range of other 'churches' in St Neots then I am not a member of any of those. And Paul, I suggest, would have vehemently argued that we should all come to our senses and recognise that Christ is not divided.

Instead, I am a member of the church in St Neots, a statement Paul would have understood and surely applauded. It would be a mistake to suggest that because I'm not a member of this part or that part I am therefore somehow not a part of the whole. On the contrary, by being a member of a selected part I would be separating myself from every other part.

I have good, useful contact every week with a variety of people from several of the 'churches' and from none. We talk together, pray together, read together, sometimes we sing together, and we are being built together day by day into one body here in St Neots. I need and want nothing more. Jesus calls me to nothing less. I am a member of the church here in St Neots, the town where I live.

Questions:

  • In light of 1 Corinthians 1:9-17, how do you justify denominations?
  • If you disagree with my views in this article, where do you think I have gone wrong?
  • How do you explain Ephesians 4:1-6 and Ephesians 4:11-16?
  • What did Jesus mean by 'unity'? (See John 17:20-23)

See also:


* Note: I think the conclusions are somewhat rigid but the arguments are worth considering.

4 comments:

  1. You are right. I am pretty convinced that there is only one revival outstanding: The Anonymous Revival (or The Revival of the Anonymous Christian, if you wish). No big names. No new movements. No particular locality. Rather, it will be what Watchman Nee has called a "consciousness of the body". What you have written here is so simple that a child can grasp it. Yet it has been (mostly) veiled for 2000 years. We've seen it all: The restoration of grace & justification, Scripture, holiness, the gifts of the Spirit etc. But we have not seen a collective grasp of what you are saying. And yet it is the simplest of them all: Ephesians 4 says it all: "...until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God." Once that has happened the era of winds and waves will be done, and we will be a mature bride - ready to be taken by the groom. This revival has been scheduled as the last one, for it will bring all the parts together in the whole. Bless you. Nice blog.

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  2. Thanks Tobie, what an encouraging comment, I love what you have written. This is a path I've been walking since the 1970s and it's often been very lonely.

    The Spirit was telling us about one church back then and we began to live it with joy and enthusiasm. But then everything came off track again. How patient Papa is! Here's a story from that time, you might like to read it - http://jhm-old.scilla.org.uk/2011/10/for-some-time-maybe-year-or-two-we-met.html

    I love Nee's phrase 'the consciousness of the body'. Thanks for sharing it here :-)

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  3. So clearly and well put. This is such a simple truth that has such profound ramifications. If we would all but belong to the one church that Christ is building in Himself we would begin to walk in a unity and a life in Him that would turn the world upside down. Thanks for this post, Chris, and also for the link to my chain blog post. :-) Blessings in Him!

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  4. Glad to see you have found "church" outside the organization!


    Good post!

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