It is easy just to regard the church as a place where Christians can be encouraged to worship together, can be taught and looked after pastorally. All of those things are important and indicate that we ought to “attend church.” The emphasis here is on the church as a building. The New Testament, however, emphasises the church as being Christians in a corporate sense. However, some do not regard either of these as an absolute essential. After all, individual Christians can worship, read the Bible and find books, websites, DVDs etc., which give helpful teaching without going to church.
But there is a much greater significance to the church.
God intended Christianity to be essentially corporate in unity
We need to take this very seriously in our modern individualistic age.
On the night he was betrayed Jesus, of course, prayed for subjects which were a high priority. And he majored on praying for the unity of believers in the church.
He said: “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one … My prayer is not for them alone [his current disciples]. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one –I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:11, 20-23).
The unity of the church is an essential witness to Christ in the world
Note that Jesus prayed for the unity of the church so that the world would believe God sent him and loves them. This explains why the devil has, down the ages, stimulated Christians to fall out with one another and become divided. The New Testament is clear that we must be separate from those involved in persistent serious sin e.g. immorality and serious unbelief – rejection of credal beliefs etc. But, other than that, God wants us to be united (even if we don’t agree over secondary issues). There is no room in biblical teaching for denominationalism based on preferences or division based on personality clashes or personal rivalry. Sadly, there has been a lot of room for it in church history. By this the church has undermined its crucial witness to Jesus being sent by God and to the fact that God loves them. The love and unity between Christians witnesses to God who is love and to his Son who manifested that love to the maximum extent.
The unity of the church is meant to convey the wisdom of God to the heavenly rulers and authorities
Pauls says “[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10).
The church is to do this particularly through its unity. In Eph 3:6 Paul speaks of the unity of Jew and Gentile in the church: “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” He calls this a mystery which has “been revealed to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (v 5).
Paul is making the amazing statement that the angelic powers who rule with authority in heaven are observing the church on earth and “that to the degree the church is spiritually united it portrays to them the wisdom of God” (NIV Study Bible).
The unity of the Jew and Gentile is essential to the purpose of the church
We have already noted part of what Paul said: ““through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:6). But he emphasises this truth elsewhere too. “[Jesus] has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:14-16). The “one new humanity” is the church. “There is one body” (Eph 4:4).
Throughout the Old Testament the people of God were Jewish. The Gentiles were excluded unless they became proselytes. But the New Testament shows that the choice of the Jewish people as the people of God was not only for their benefit but (potentially) for the salvation of the whole world. The church manifests that truth.
The church is the body of Christ
That phrase is well known to Christians but often its significance is not.
It is united in Christ
The church is not an option which Christians can belong to if they wish. It is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:23). The union between Christ and the church is closer than the union between husband and wife in marriage. Paul writes: “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32). This shows that Christianity is not just a faith union between the individual and Jesus, but also a deep corporate union between the church and Jesus. This is underlined when Paul writes “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom 12:5). There is an intimate union between members of the body of Christ, the church. We all belong to one another. That is the language of marriage. The fact that we belong to one another means that it is a fundamental responsibility for every believer to be fully involved and active in the church. Christ is “the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow (Col 2:19). This union is expressed (and furthered) in Communion: “We, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17).
Christians are meant to be deeply united with one another. Only this way can they experience all of what God has for them.
It is loved by him
“No one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church –for we are members of his body” (Eph 5:30). Jesus has profound love for the church (and for its individual members). He sustains and cares for it.
It is governed by him
God “appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body” (Eph 1:22-23 cf 4:15; 5:23; Col 1:18). Everything, therefore, must be in submission to Christ and his Word. We are not at liberty to do anything which is contrary to his Word. Much division in the church has been caused by people refusing to submit to Christ and his Word. However we need to distinguish between clear primary truths (doctrinal or moral) and secondary matters which are genuinely open to different interpretations.
It is sanctified by him
Obviously, this is only achieved through the church submitting obediently to Christ. “Now as the church submits to Christ … Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25-27). Jesus wants to sanctify Christians very significantly through their involvement in the church. The writer to the Hebrews illustrates this: “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness …. Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 3:13; 10:24-25). The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42) which is essentially corporate. Isolated Christians miss out on this process of corporate sanctification.
It is empowered by him
This is primarily achieved through the love of churchmembers for each other.
a. Empowerment in holiness
Paul gives a wonderful description of how Jesus intends his church to be: “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:15-16). As we each play our part, Jesus builds his church to be a mature, loving body.
For this to happen we need to honour one another, have equal concern for each other, suffer with those who suffer, rejoice with those who are honoured. “Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour … its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:22-24). “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace … teach and admonish one another with all wisdom”(Col 3:15-16).
However the empowering of the church is also achieved through the different gifts Jesus gives to individual believers. Paul makes this clear: “We have different gifts” (Rom 12:6). “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good … Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:4-7, 12).
b. Empowerment in spiritual warfare
When Peter confessed that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” Jesus responded: “You are Peter, [Petros = ‘Rock’] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:13-19).
Commentators say that the ‘gates of Hades’ means the ‘powers of death.’ This includes the idea that the church will never die out but it is broader than that. It refers to “all the forces opposed to Christ and his kingdom” (NIV Study Bible). So, whatever attacks the devil launches on the church, the church will not be overcome, which is a very encouraging promise from Jesus.
However Jesus goes on to speak about ‘binding’ and ‘loosing.’ This means ensuring that churchmembers are genuine believers – before they are accepted into membership and when they are members. The ministry of correction is referred to here. This area of ‘binding and loosing’ is not popular in today’s easy-going churches but it is vital teaching of Jesus otherwise the church’s effectiveness in overcoming satanic attacks is undermined.
Jesus will return to be united with his church in a deeper way
Paul prophesies that “the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord for ever” (1 Thess 4:16-17). He adds that this will be “the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thess 1:10).
We noted above the union between Christ and the church is described as closer than the union between husband and wife in marriage. The Book of Revelation speaks of the marriage supper of the Lamb in the End Times: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready … Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Rev 19:7, 9). So we look forward to a much closer relationship with the Lord when he returns.
Christianity is essentially corporate in God’s purposes. Its unity is an essential witness to God who is love, and himself a union of three persons, and to Christ in the world who manifested that love so wonderfully (which makes frequent disunity tragically serious). Its unity includes the vital unity of Jewish and Gentile believers. It is also called to be a witness to the angelic rulers and authorities.
It is a unity in diversity, like a body. In fact, it is the body of Christ – deeply united in him, loved by him, governed by him, sanctified by him and empowered by him – united in love but with diverse gifts and ministries. The church will overcome the strategy of the enemy and will one day be united with Christ in an ever deeper way.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction