What is a Church?
Imagine a daily newspaper with the following article in its religion section:
The Bishop of Marshland recently wrote a strongly worded letter to the people of St. Swithun’s in the Swamp after serious issues in the life of their congregation were brought to his attention. St. Swithun’s has recently been splitting up into several factions, each uniting around the personality of a charismatic leader, and the various groups have been loudly criticizing each other. Several people in the congregation are involved in lawsuits against one another, and illicit sexual behaviour between various members of the congregation has also caused a few raised eyebrows in the community at large. At the communion services, those who arrive first often eat all the bread and get drunk on the wine, and leave nothing for those who come after them. Services are also very rowdy, with members all getting up to say prayers and share words they believe God has given to them, without even the courtesy of waiting for the person who was speaking before them to finish. The congregation seems to be characterized more by pride and self-display than love and gentleness.
No, this is not an Anglican congregation having a fight about the issue of same-sex blessings. It’s a New Testament congregation, the church in the Greek city of Corinth, and the Bishop in question is Paul himself, who first took the good news of Jesus to Corinth and now found himself having to deal with a mess! The New Testament, you see, was not a golden age of the church. Throughout our history, we Christians have been confronted over and over again with the uncomfortable fact that, when a person becomes a Christian, they do not immediately cease being a sinner. There are no perfect churches, because churches are made up of sinful people like you and me. And so, where there are churches there will always be problems; that’s just business as usual.
How does Paul deal with the problems at Corinth? He doesn’t come right out and confront the Corinthians with the issues right from the beginning of his letter. No, in today’s reading he first of all starts by reminding them of what a church is meant to be. Why did God look down on Corinth - or on South Edmonton, for that matter - and say, “I know what that place needs: it needs a community called the Church of Jesus Christ?” What did he have in mind when he called this community into being? 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 gives us some clues about that.
First of all, the church is a gathered community. In verse 2 Paul addresses the letter ‘to the church of God that is in Corinth’. The word that he uses in the original language of the Bible is the Greek word ‘ekklesia’. This word was used in secular Greek for what we might call nowadays a ‘town hall meeting’. Someone in authority called the citizens of the community to gather together to discuss an important issue and to reach a decision about it: that’s an ‘ekklesia’. You’re not a member of the ekklesia just by virtue of living in the city; unless you actually come out to the meeting, you’re just a citizen. The ekklesia is those who gather; as they say on West Wing, ‘Decisions are made by those who show up!’
When the Bible was first put into English there was considerable debate as to how this word should be translated. William Tyndale’s translation of 1527 says ‘to the congregation of God which is at Corinth’. Tyndale argued that when an English-speaking person heard the word ‘church’, the image it conjured up in his mind was bishops dressed in gorgeous robes and acting as government officials, and grand cathedrals and splendid liturgies and so on and so on. In his mind, this was far removed from an ‘ekklesia’ – the town hall meeting called to decide how much to pay the snow-plough operators! But when King James’ men began their work in 1604 they wanted to emphasise the fact that the institutional Church of England in the 17th century was in continuity with the folks at Corinth in the 1st century; hence their use of ‘church’ rather than ‘congregation’. Most translators since then have taken their point of view, but personally I think Tyndale had a point; whatever institutional structures we have imposed on the body of Christ – bishops and dioceses and synods and pension plans and prayer books and so on – we must never lose sight of the essential character of an ekklesia – a group of Christians, gathered together to worship God, to listen to his word, and to make decisions about their life together.
So the church is first of all a gathered community, an ekklesia. Secondly, it’s a community under authority. Who calls the town hall meeting? Who gathers the community together? The answer is clear from these verses: the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you notice in these verses how Paul emphasizes the authority of Jesus by the way he names him? You don’t see the simple name ‘Jesus’ at all, and ‘Christ’, by itself, appears only once. But we have ‘Christ Jesus’ three times, and ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ and variations on it five times. Remember that the Greek word ‘Christ’ is a title more than a name; it means ‘the anointed one’, ‘the Messiah’, ‘God’s chosen King’. When Paul says ‘Christ Jesus (rather than ‘Jesus Christ’) he is emphasizing this; if you hear ‘Christ Jesus’ as being like ‘King Jesus’, you’ll get the sense of what he was communicating. And of course ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ carries a similar meaning; the Greek word for ‘Lord’, kyrios, was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor.
So Paul starts out by underlining in an unmistakable way the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one who called the Corinthian ekklesia together, and he had a purpose in mind when he did so. He is the lord of his Church, and we, its members, are not at liberty to set aside his purpose and substitute something that is more to our taste. So, for instance, if Jesus has decided that one of the purposes of the Church is to go to people who are not yet followers of Jesus, share the gospel with them and invite them to become Christians, we are not at liberty to say, “Sorry, we’re Anglicans and we’re too shy to do that!” If he has told us to settle lawsuits between Christians before they reach court, we’re not at liberty to set that aside and say, “Sorry, I didn’t get a big enough settlement that way, so I’m taking you to court because it’s more effective”. Jesus knew what he had in mind when he called this ekklesia together; he’s the one who has the authority to decide the agenda and set the rules of order. Our business is to find out what his will is, and then to learn to put it into practice.
And this leads directly to the third thing. If the church is a gathered community and a community under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the third characteristic we see is that it is meant to be a holy community. Paul says in verse 2, ‘To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. In the original language the words ‘sanctified’, ‘saints’, and ‘holy’ are all based on the same word, and what it essentially means is ‘belonging to God, set apart by him from ordinary use for a special purpose’.
Nowadays of course this meaning is obscured by the way the word ‘saint’ is used in popular culture for ‘an especially good and holy person’. A Christian might even feel that he or she was being humble by saying, “I’m no saint’. What they mean by that is “I’m not a very good person”. To which Paul would respond, “Goodness is not what a saint is; goodness is one of the ways a saint behaves”. To put it in a nutshell, we might say, “I’m not very good, so I can’t call myself a saint”. Paul’s approach, on the other hand, is to say, “God says that you are a saint, so now it’s time to start living like a saint”. And that involves what has traditionally been referred to as ‘a holy life’.
Consider this picture: imagine an Olympic runner arriving at the starting blocks for the final of the 100-metre sprint, dressed not in shorts and running shoes, but in a thick winter coat and carrying two suitcases. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a winter coat and suitcases – in some situations they might be entirely appropriate – but they definitely are not appropriate for a runner whose purpose is to win the 100-metre sprint!
In the same way, there are ways of living that might be entirely appropriate for people who have a different purpose in mind, but are completely inappropriate for people who have been called to be God’s people, set aside for his purposes. It might be entirely appropriate for a person who believes that money and possessions are the secret of happiness to do all they can to get rich, but it is not appropriate for us who follow a Lord who told us not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth. It might be entirely appropriate for people who believe that their individual rights are the most important thing in the world to engage in lawsuits against others when they feel those rights have been infringed, but it is not appropriate for people who follow a Lord who told them to settle disputes among themselves before going to court. We who belong to Jesus have been set aside by God from the ways of the world so that we can learn a different way of living, a way that’s appropriate for saints. It’s no good us saying, “Well, I’m no saint, so it’s no use me trying to learn that way”. In the New Testament ‘saints’ is exactly what we’re called; it’s up to us to learn to live up to the name God gives us.
So this Church of Jesus Christ that we belong to is a gathered community, a community under the authority of Jesus, and a community called to be holy, to live in a way appropriate for saints. A fourth thing we see here is that it’s a gifted community. Paul says in verses 4-7:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and in knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God has asked his Church to do a job for him: the job of being a signpost pointing people toward his kingdom. In order to do this job properly we need spiritual gifts from God, and Paul says here that God has not been stingy about giving those gifts. As we look further on in this letter, we see that the Corinthian Christians were very excited about supernatural gifts. They especially loved the gift of speaking in tongues – praying and praising God in a language they didn’t understand, in words given directly by the Holy Spirit. They seemed to think that anyone who could do that was right at the top of the spiritual mountain, and in their services there were apparently times when they all did it at the same time in a kind of holy babble! Paul wasn’t against speaking in tongues – in fact, he told them that he did it too, maybe more than they did – but he didn’t want to emphasize it over other gifts. And so he mentions what we might today think of as supernatural gifts – healing the sick, for instance, and other kinds of miracles – along with less spectacular things like teaching and administration and the gift of being helpful to others and so on. All of those gifts, he says, are essential, and the Holy Spirit decides who should exercise each gift. No one gift is more important than any other, and every gift needs to be exercised out of love for others and not out of pride or self-display.
So here are four essential characteristics of the church of Jesus Christ. It’s an ekklesia, a gathered community. It’s a community under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a community called to live a holy life. And it’s a community gifted by the Holy Spirit to do the work God has called it to do.
How do we fit into that community? How do you fit in? Let’s close by applying each of these characteristics to our own lives.
First, the church is an ekklesia, a gathered community. That means that the way you fit in is by showing up for the gathering. You’re not a church member because you’re on a parish list somewhere, even if you never go. You participate in a town hall meeting by coming to it; ‘decisions are made by those who show up’. And you take your place in the body of Christ by coming together with your fellow Christians to worship God, to hear his Word, and to make decisions about our common life. In the New Testament, a Christian who doesn’t participate in church is a contradiction in terms. The body of Christ is an ekklesia, a gathered community; to be a part of it, you have to gather.
Secondly, the church is a community under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. That means that my business as a member of the community is to figure out what it means to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice, and then to learn to do it. One of the things we Christians are called in the New Testament is ‘disciples of Jesus’; that’s what it means to be a disciple, pure and simple.
Notice, by the way, how these characteristics build on each other. Yes, it’s important to gather with the church as we worship week by week, but it’s also important not to stop there. It’s possible to come to church every week but not to let it effect your life; you can close your ears to what’s said in the scriptures and in the sermon, go through the motions of worship, and go away completely unchanged. But if you make it your business to take Jesus as your Lord and King and submit to his authority, then you can’t do that. Once you’re clear about what it is he wants you to do, you have to apply yourself to learning how to do it.
And this leads to the third thing: the church is a holy community, and its members are called to be holy. That will mean that there are some ways of living that I will have to turn away from, because they are not appropriate for someone who is a follower of Jesus. Sometimes those things are not what we would normally think of as spectacular sins. In Ephesians 4 Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (4:31-5:2).
Finally, the church is a gifted community, and that means that I need to be praying that the Holy Spirit will show me what gift or gifts he has given me, and give me the courage to use them. Is it the gift of hospitality, the gift of being a good listener, the gift of praying for the sick, or the gift of teaching adults or children? Is it the gift of being a good bookkeeper or the gift of listening carefully to God and passing on his message to others? In every case, to step out in faith and exercise my gift takes effort and it takes risk; it’s much easier to stay at home and do nothing. But that doesn’t help the gathered community fulfil its mission for Christ.
The Church in Corinth had many problems; every church does, including ours. In order to solve our problems, we need to come back again and again to what God has called our church to be: a community that gathers, a community that obeys its Lord, a community that lives as saints of God, a community whose members willingly offer their gifts in service to God and one another. If we get these things right, it will be easer for us to address any other problems and issues that we face. May God grant us all together the grace to do that. Amen.