The Essence of the Church and Disciple-Making Communities
The way we use the word "church" in our contemporary culture reflects a variety of understandings. People use the word to refer to a building, to a program, to a denomination, to an institution, to a home Bible study, care group, two christians fellowshipping together, etc. Now all these concepts, held either consciously and reflectively or subconsciously and intuitively impact our understanding of what the church is and therefore what it should do (and should not do) and how it should do it. Thus what one believes about the nature of the church impacts how one understands its ministries and organizations.
For our purposes today, we want to focus primarily, though not exclusively, on the nature of the church. In other words, we want to ask and answer the question: "What is the church?" What is its fundamental nature which distinguishes it in its own right and in relation to other organizations, etc? Now, in order to answer this question properly we must realize at the outset that this question is not being asked in a theological and historical vacuum. There are sociological factors, in the providence of God, that stimulate and shape the answers being given. So here's the point: If we fail to realize and appreciate the human element in the development of any particular ecclesiology, we will tend to resist creative reflection, helpful criticism, and potential change. And, in the end, this posture has generally led the church into powerlessness in its personal and corporate life as well as culturally insensitive expressions in its missional life. This is generally what happens when people consciously or unconsciously wed the gospel or the Bible to their particular form of church.1
For example, during the Protestant reformation the question of the essential nature of the true church was debated vigorously-a debate fueled by both cultural/political as well as theological/pastoral questions. One element of the larger question was framed as such: Is the essential nature of the church visible and human (i.e., an unbroken chain of human succession from the apostles, as in Catholic theology) or invisible and spiritual (i.e., all those in spiritual union with the resurrected Christ, whether connected to Rome or not; so Luther, Calvin)? For the reformers the answer was straightforward, in that while there is no church without people, the essence of the church (or, who constitutes the people of God) is invisible and spiritual. It consists of those who possess the Spirit, and are therefore united by Him to each other in Christ. Thus, the claim to historical succession from Paul is no guarantee of the presence of genuine faith or a true church. To the reformers, the Roman church had a shell, appearing like Christianity on the outside, but essentially bankrupt, without the Spirit, and in deviation from genuine apostolic teaching.
Now, in our day, undoubtedly due to (1) unrest with the status quo or traditional forms of church, combined with widespread desires to seek new expressions for local gatherings; (2) the rapid expansion of the persecuted church in Asia, etc. (3) and the serious and far reaching impact of globalization/ postmodernism (technopoly, media, language, image),2 the church senses the need to rethink her ministries and organization, usually as a response to indictments of irrelevancy.
The unfortunate aspect to this "response" is that in much of the popular writing on the church, little sustained reflection is given to the nature of the church. As Evangelicals we have tended to jump directly into revamping our ministries or systematically overhauling our organizations. This often betrays the fact that our leaders are thinking of the church in primarily sociological (corporate?) and historical categories rather than biblical and theological. Both are absolutely necessary, but the latter acts as the critic and foundation of the former and this discernment process should not be short-circuited with a "hurry-up offense" attitude.
Thus it is necessary, especially in a shifting/changing culture, to give some prayerful and scripturally informed thought to what the church is. Only then can we confidently follow the Spirit into a politically, morally, culturally, and technologically uncertain age. Only then can we humbly glorify the Father, through the Son, in the personal leading and power of the Holy Spirit. Only then will we be kept from drifting into irrelevancy through cultural and unwanted dissociation, on the one hand, or uncritical accommodation, on the other.
Now the thesis of this paper is that discussion of the nature of the church must begin with thinking about the nature of the God who created the church. In short, it is my contention that the nature of the church flows, in many respects, directly out of the nature of God. So, in this paper we will reflect on our great and awesome God, his Trinitarian nature, and his powerful, redemptive reign. This theological background will form the backdrop to discussions about the nature of the church. Our discussion of the church will be framed in terms of the Nicene confession; it is through this confession that we will begin to see the church for what it is, not primarily what it does. Finally, from our discussion of the church's nature we will proceed to highlight certain "realities" that should characterize our new churches and discipleship ministries.
The doctrine of the trinity is the affirmation based on the evidence of scripture that there is one God who exists eternally in three distinguishable persons, i.e., the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A specific way of speaking about this phenomenon is to say that God is: one in essence/substance (homoousios), three in subsistence. The prominent contribution of the OT to trinitarianism, while providing what some consider to be evidence of the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, is to repeatedly affirm the unity of God, both numerically and qualitatively. This unity is developed in the NT, however, in light of the coming and teaching of Christ, and shown to be more complex than had hitherto been known or understood. In the NT all three (i.e., the Father, Son and Spirit) are said to be divine, to do the works of God, and to be worshipped as God. The Father is clearly divine in the NT. The Son is deity (John 1:1; Titus 2:13), yet constantly distinguishes himself from the Father and the Spirit. And the Spirit is said to be God (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 5:3-5) and to be distinguished from the Father and the Son. Thus there is no room in the Biblical portrait for three gods (tritheism) or one God who manifests himself in three different modes (modalism). The Biblical portrait of God is that he is Trinitarian.
Thus the holy trinity is in itself a community. Further, it is a community characterized not by estrangement, strife, self-seeking, bitterness, and one-upmanship. Rather it is a community rooted in selfless, passionate love, crystal clear transparency, and mutual honor. God is and always has been a social being in that even before creation the members of the trinity loved, honored, and enjoyed each other in an unending chorus of bliss and pure joy. The Father has always deeply loved the Son and the Spirit, the Son has always passionately loved the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit has always single-mindedly loved the Father and the Son. All their inner workings and relationships are bathed in the most amazing and pure love.
From God as trinity, then, flows his relationship to the world and especially the church, which itself has been designed to reflect the harmony and beauty inherent in the Trinitarian society of heaven. Despite what some atheistic anthropologists say, we did not invent community; it flows from who God is and the fact that the human family has been created in his image. We desire relationships with others; it's wired on the hard drive. As blue is to sky, so is our inherent desire for community and friendship. We see this in marriage, family, extended family, close friends, the development of the "city," and especially in God's newly redeemed community, the church. The church must realize that vital, growing relationships are part and parcel of God's redeeming work in the church. Further, our ability to grasp the depth of the love of Christ is seriously diminished if we're not rooted in loving, nurturing communities (Eph 3:14-21). In short, the fact that God is Trinitarian and not Unitarian should tell us something about our need for real, honest, transparent, and truly loving communities.
How can it be that our all-powerful, all-sufficient, all knowing God would be searching for anything? But, indeed, Jesus says he is searching for one thing, i.e., those who will worship him in spirit and truth. The fact that he seeks people to enter into relationship with him is amazing, especially when we consider his self-sufficiency. But when we stop for a moment and meditate on his Trinitarian nature, it comes as no surprise that he wants to invite people into his circle of friendship. God's nature is thus ultimately missional.
I said above that when we reflect on God's Trinitarian nature it comes as no surprise that he seeks worshippers to enter into relationship with him. This does not mean that we're worthy for such a calling; indeed, we are completely and utterly unworthy! Make no mistake about that. But God's passion for relationship moved ahead with a plan to conquer our rebellious souls and reconcile us. The holy, loving, and heavenly community, working intimately together, has won salvation for lost and erring rebels. Together, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have worked out their undefeatable plan of redemption on the stage of human history. The Father chose people to be saved, the Son died for them, and the Spirit applies the benefits of Christ's death to them.
The Bible, God's story as it were, is a mosaic filled with gardens, cities, serpents, God and so-called gods, kings, and peasants, but the plot-line uniting the whole is simple and powerful. It can be accurately summed up in four words: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Now what is important for our purposes is that this overall structure reveals God's missional nature. We see it in creation, especially in terms of his relationship to man, the pinnacle of his creation. He created man, male and female, and pursued fellowship with him in the Garden (cf. Gen 3:8). We see it in redemption. When man sinned, it was the Lord who pursued him while both Adam and Eve hid behind their own "religion" of autonomy (Gen 3:7). God's grace is obviously missional in nature, leading our Lord and Savior out of heaven and straight to the cross (Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:20). The church is the result of his missional nature and his second coming, with all its attending judgments and blessing, is to complete his mission of bringing all things under his rule. In short, our missional God delivers, speaks, judges, saves, guides, etc. from within history as One who remains sovereign over history (Eph 1:11). Jesus said "My father is always working" (John 5:17).
John's ministry was to clear the "way of the Lord" by preparing Israel spiritually for her Messiah. He boldly and without fail announced the nearness of God's kingdom, summoning Israel to repentance/baptism in preparation for the king's presence. Both by his lifestyle and preaching he testified to Messiah and Messiah's future work of baptizing His loyal subjects with the Spirit.
Jesus himself, just like his forerunner John, heralded the coming of the kingdom of God. Indeed, as our Lord began his ministry in Galilee, this was his message: "Repent for the kingdom of God is near!"
Jesus' preaching was accompanied by many miraculous signs authenticating and revealing the presence and nature of his kingdom. His miracles reveal His love, holiness, power, mercy, compassion, and judgment. In short, they reveal Him to be God himself, clothed in human flesh, extending His powerful saving arm on behalf of a lost and hurting world.
The ultimate demonstration of God's love is to be decisively found in Christ's willingness to suffer for his people, to give his life to redeem an erring and sinful humanity. It was in this very selfless act that the penalty of sin was paid, the power of darkness defeated, and the prisoners set free! The death of Christ was followed by the greatest demonstration of God's power ever, i.e., the resurrection of Christ from the dead. God's power to bring the universe back into conformity with His will was exerted in that moment of triumph. Jesus' death and resurrection proved his worthiness to be exalted, i.e., to sit at God's right hand (in fulfillment of Psalm 2 and 110). From this privileged position he has poured out the Holy Spirit upon all those who receive Him in faith!
Pentecost marks the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit promised by John the Baptist (Mark 1:8). As soon as the Messiah had been exalted to his Father's right hand, he poured out the Spirit (Acts 2:33) The kingdom of God had come with greater power than every before because God drew closer to his people than ever before. Every Christian since Pentecost possesses the Spirit and indeed without the Spirit a person does not belong to Christ (Rom 8:9).
Every Christian possesses the Spirit of God living in them. For His part the Spirit makes all the blessings of God real in our experience, especially our sonship and God's fatherhood. Through the Spirit we have come to know that God is truly our Father and we are his specially adopted children. We cry out to Him, "Abba, Father!" The Spirit also testifies through the Scripture he inspired that there is more to come. Through him we experience the kingdom of God and are sealed for the day when we shall enter into his presence and receive our total inheritance (2 Cor 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-14). In the meantime, while we experience joy, we also experience pain, sorrow, and suffering. "We groan inwardly," Paul says, "as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8:23).
At some appointed day in the future, God will usher in the kingdom in a full and complete way. All death, mourning, crying and pain will be done away with. The finally impenitent will be judged and for those who know Christ, God will be their God and Father in a marvelous, unending, unthreatened relationship of joy. For their part, the company of the redeemed will enjoy and relate to him as completely redeemed human beings, not hindered in the least by even the presence of sin, let alone its power. In the present "now" of salvation, however, we are seeking to see God's glory and presence manifested in and through his church; we long to experience a taste of heaven in the "here and now" (cf. Rom 5:1-5).
An important question to be answered in determining the precise nature of the church is her relationship to the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God may be thought of as the redemptive reign of God and the church as the realm in which that reign is visibly manifested. But the church is not the kingdom, as some theologians have contested, though the relationship between the two should not be totally separated. Ladd makes five helpful observations regarding the relationship of the church to the kingdom:
(1) the church is not the kingdom;
(2) the kingdom creates the church;
(3) the church witnesses to the kingdom of God;
(4) the church is the instrument of the kingdom;
(5) the church is the custodian of the kingdom.3
The church is our Trinitarian God's unique and dynamic presence, activity, and life in the world through a specially redeemed, human community that is created, indwelt, empowered, and missionaly directed by His Spirit.
The true church worldwide, the universal church, is essentially one church in which every member partakes in the life giving Spirit and each member is forever connected to all the others in an eternal communion with Christ. Th us the true church has a spiritual oneness that flows from her common redemption and relationship with the living God. Again, we are united to each other through the Spirit who indwells us. But the one church takes on different and at times quite diverse forms in various geographical locales. This is good and necessary given the various contexts in which the redeemed community finds itself in worship and mission. Now it is true that diversity has often led to disunity, but this is not a necessary prerequisite for diversity, nor does it reflect who we really are in Christ.
Thus the essential oneness of the church, flowing as it does from the oneness of our Trinitarian God, should lead to real unity (not just conformity) among churches of diverse backgrounds, ethnicity, and perspectives. Both these truths, i.e., the oneness and diversity of the church, should not be pitted against one another, as if they were in conflict. They are not. In other words, since we are one community in the Spirit, we ought to strive for unity within and among our local churches. Jesus prayed for his church that it would be one, just as he and the Father are one (John 17:22).
The church is holy in that it is a creation in which God himself dwells by his Holy Spirit. The church (local and universal) experiences his redemptive reign as he breathes life, purity, and power into her on a moment by moment basis. Since the church is a creation of God it ought to reflect his attributes, e.g., holiness, love, and purity. But the church is also human in that it is composed of redeemed, Spirit renewed, human beings. Thus it has a dual nature, holy and human! This means that as the church lives out its dual nature it will need to rely on the Spirit/Word as it thinks through adopting patterns of thought, structures, and agendas. We cannot simply and uncritically mimic the culture in the ways it promotes its institutions and agendas. We cannot do this for the church of God is not merely a human institution. It is nothing less than fully human, but it is more than just human. We are Spirit indwelt communities and we must live out our birthright in the power of the Spirit. Again, this does not mean that we do not need structures to promote God's will. We do. But we must be led by the Spirit of God, through the word of God, to adopt organizational structures that suit who we are!
The church exists in all cultures and in any one culture. It is both universal and local. The church is not limited to time and space, nor is it wedded to a single political, ideological, or philosophical tradition. Rather, the church universal, as it contextualizes itself in any one setting often stands over and against much in that setting. It speaks out against fallenness and wickedness when it sees it, all the while loving, helping, and caring for people in that setting. Thus the church can, and indeed does, exist in communist countries and democratic countries, in Muslim countries and in religiously pluralistic countries.
The church is apostolic in that it rest its convictions in apostolic doctrine now vouchsafed to us through the apostolic testimony preserved in Holy Scripture. All our beliefs about God, the gospel, the church, and the world should be derived either directly from or in keeping with God's Word to us. But the church is also apostolic in that it is sent. The church is a result of the Spirit's redeeming work in the world and as such her existence reflects God's mission in the world. This is true whether she lives properly or powerfully preaches the gospel. The mere fact that she exists in a dark and lost world indicates her "sent-ness." From her nature as "one sent into the world" she ought to live in a way that displays God's holiness, love, and wisdom, as she powerfully proclaims the gospel and as God extends his redemptive reign through her.
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______.The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
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1 Admittedly, this is a complex issue involving the question of the church's nature, its mission, the contextualization of the gospel within varying cultures, the work of the Holy Spirit, etc. We cannot discuss all this at the present time, but suffice it to say here that the church needs to be conscious of her historical situation.
2 See Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used To Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-To-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Modern Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper, 1990); David S. Dockery, The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1995); Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985); idem., Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1992); Craig VanGelder, ed., Confident Witness-Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
3 For his defense of these points see, George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed., ed. Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 109-117.
4 I am indebted to Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), ch. 5: 101-26, for his discussion of the Nicene Creed (i.e., "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church).