It is unfortunate that most of us when reading about the beginning of the church think first of some kind of organization or institution having by-laws and governing powers over its “members.” Is this what the church is? Or is it like a club or social order we join for the benefits we can obtain from it? Is this what Jesus paid the price of His blood for? (Ephesians 5:25-27).
The word “church” is a collective noun, and it “collects” people. But not just any people. Christ’s church consists of “Saints and faithful brethren,” “a people for God’s own possession.” (Col. 1:2; 1 Pet. 2:9) Of all the multitude gathered in Jerusalem, only those who “gladly received his word” and “were baptized” became members of the church. (Acts 2:41) (Robert F. Turner, Plain Talk, Jan. 1964).
It is equally regrettable that so many have a denominational view of the church. The fundamental concept of denominationalism is division. A denomination is a part of something that is perceived as larger than the itself. It is one that thinks of the church as being made up of all the thousands of different parts or divisions identified as “Christian” today. People like this concept because they get to pick and choose what part they will be a part of – whatever part they “like.” The only problem is that this is not anything like what Jesus had in mind when he declared “I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18).
It was God’s purpose in creating the church that it be ONE NEW MAN in Christ. By dividing ourselves off from one another we defeat God’s purpose.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14-16)
Jesus’ prayer for His disciples the night before He was crucified was…
“…that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:21-23).
Paul wrote of this plan of God which was…
“…according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:8-10).
This sounds suspiciously like God had in mind for the church be a return to the kind of ideal relationship that was found in the garden of Eden where human beings lived in harmony with God and all else in creation. Paul uses a little shorthand phrase that we often take for granted. He says all this is to be accomplished “in him” or “in Christ.” That phrase is inclusive of all who have been redeemed and brought together in that ideal relationship where all spiritual blessings are to be found. (Ephesians 1:3). For us, it is synonymous with being in the church or that collective of people received by God.
This picture of what Jesus had in mind for His people has been spoiled by silly sectarian squabbling, legalism with its rigid rituals, rules and requirements and the loose living of liberalism to the extent that one has to look long and hard to find anything resembling the original of which we read in the New Testament. People have made church their personal playground, their social society, their source of self-affirmation. It was not intended to be any of these things.
Instead of dividing people from one another, the church is supposed to make known “This mystery… that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6; Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV). People today labor much more eager to maintain their division from one another than they ever would to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3).
So how does all this tie in with the overall story of the Bible? Remember that God had told Abraham that through his seed that all nations of the earth would be blessed. Paul makes the argument that Jesus was the promised seed was Jesus through whom all nations were to be blessed (Galatians 3:16). But in speaking of the salvation that comes by grace through faith in Jesus, he refers to believers – Jews and Gentiles alike – are the seed of Abraham.
Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations.” (Romans 4:16-17).
Therefore if believers (who make up the church) are the seed, (offspring, spiritually speaking), of Abraham, then the responsibility of the church is to be a blessing to the nations. How are we to accomplish this tremendous task? By preaching the gospel is one obvious way, pointing others to the Savior and King and then to live out the principles of that gospel, showing the character of God in a dark world. Our deeds are to be a reflection of His glory – a shining beacon of love, forgiveness, mercy and grace that draws people back to Him.
In order to accomplish this task it is necessary that people be prepared for it. This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 4:11-16. Christians are expected to grow up, become mature and able to teach and strengthen others. The church is a self-perpetuating body with each member contributing his or her part to make the whole fully functional as the body of Christ on earth.
As the body of Christ, the church must function as He did when He was on earth. He came as the exact image or true representation of God to the world. If the church is the body of Christ, then we are to function in the same way and to the same end.
Does the church – do we – do this work perfectly? Are we ideal reflectors of the divine mature? Of course not! As human beings we are flawed reflectors, but that fact must not deter us from the most sincere efforts we can make to show His glory in the world. What we lack in perfection, God makes up in grace, accepting our best efforts and forgiving our shortcomings.
People claim they see in the church nothing but hypocrisy. Maybe there is some truth to that claim. But what men see as hypocrisy because not all who profess to be Christians are perfect, God sees as human weakness and accepts us on the basis of our faith in Him.