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What is the Church?
Unless a group that calls itself a "church" is committed to certain practices, it is difficult to understand how it might be functioning as "church," in the New Testament sense of the word.

There is a broad diversity that exists in various times of history and various subcultures about a number of issues of the Christian faith. For instance, groups of Christians all over the world refer to their "church" or their "churches", talk about "going to church," and even argue about how best to "build the church," yet there is quite a spectrum of churches that have resulted, both historically and contemporaneously. We have house churches, seeker sensitive churches, progressive churches (some of which were since called "liberal "), liturgical churches, emerging churches (some say "postmodern" churches),and renewal churches (including "third wave" churches),as well as, of course, traditional churches (some of which were once called "conservative").Then there are blends of these so that one might have a liturgical renewal church or a progressive traditional church (perhaps a "back to the future" church).

Yet we sense that within this diversity there must be a central core, a core that holds firm across cultures and across the centuries. In searching for such a core we as Christians will ask, "Where did this thing we call 'the church' come from?" The obvious answer is that we need to return to the source documents that inform our faith: the New Testament. In other words, "What does the New Testament have to say about it?"

It is clear that Jesus purposely gathered a community. That was obvious the minute he called people to follow Him, more obvious when He chose Twelve to represent Him and be His agents to gather the renewed Israel (see Mark 3:13-14), and especially obvious when He looked at His followers and called them His family in contradistinction to His blood family (see Mark 3:31-35). We are, therefore, not surprised when He eats the distinctly family meal of Passover with this fictive family (to use the technical term) rather than with His blood relatives (see Mark 14:12f f.).

While it is only Matthew who uses the word later translated "church" (see Matthew 16:18; 18:17), it is clear that Jesus intended that groups of His followers would gather together. In fact, the word we translate as "church" or "congregation" simply meant the gathering or assembly of the citizens of a city or, in the Greek Old Testament, the gathering of the citizens of Israel.

So by this term the New Testament authors meant a gathering or community of the citizens of the renewed Israel, both Jew and Gentile in origin. They used the term whether they were referring to a world-wide collection of communities ("the church of God," see 1 Timothy 3:15; cf. Colossians 1:24; Ephesians 1:22), a provincial community (see Acts 9:31), or local gatherings/communities (see Acts 15:31). The important point to notice is that "church" refers to the gathered people of God rather than the going-into- the-world people of God (see Matthew 28:19-20); it is the "inhale" rather than the "exhale" of the breathing rhythm of God's people in this age.

But what makes a gathering or community of people a church?

First, they are people who have committed themselves to Jesus as Lord. For instance, Acts 2 starts with a group of 120 of Jesus trainees—a small community, gathered in Jerusalem—and ends with 3000 more people pledging themselves to Jesus in baptism (Paul makes it clear that the baptismal confession was "Jesus is Lord," (see Romans 10:9-10) and being added to that community (see Acts 2:41).Thus an evangelistic gathering is not a church or a church meeting, although a church may sponsor such an event.

A gathering of the church is a gathering of people who are already committed to Jesus. (In that day this definition probably encompassed the extended family—including children—of those heads of family who were committed to Jesus, for extended families were expected to follow the commitment of the household head.) These gatherings are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and therefore Jesus is among them when they gather, resulting in their having His authority (see Matthew 18:18-20).This point means that some contemporary "church services" are not really church services, for they are intended to evangelize those who do not yet believe, and everything in them is aimed toward this end; they are evangelistic services sponsored by a church. A true church service may have the occasional unbeliever present (in the ancient world it was quite permissible to wander into a private banquet, although not to sit down and eat, as we see in Luke 7:36-38 and 1 Corinthians 14:22-25), but its design is to be a gathering of the followers of Jesus.

Why would followers of Jesus gather?

The obvious answer is, "Because they are a family, a family that supersedes biological family." Yet what does such a family do when it gets together? What do they gather for?

We could answer this by going through the New Testament, looking at every reference to "church" ((including terms that substitute for the actual word) and constructing our own outline to organize that resulting data. However, this writer realized that Acts 2:42 gives us such an outline, for it describes the basic functions of this family gathering:

  1. training (learning who they are and how to live it out),
  2. mutual support ("sharing" is the better translation of the word often translated "fellowship"),
  3. eating together in the presence of Jesus, and
  4. prayer.

This outline (it is the one place where Luke describes "church," for Luke tends to describe things the first time he comes to them and then simply refer to them thereafter) covers what Paul, John, and others describe (and correct when people get it wrong). In other words, we can organize the rest of the New Testament's data under the headings that Luke gives us and thus it forms a handy outline for us to get at the core of what the church is.

However, we need to add a caveat at this point. We will need to distinguish between the function and how it was carried out in that culture. It may be that we fulfill the same function using different structures. That is no problem so long as we are really fulfilling the function and not rationalizing our not fulfilling that function. What we are trying to describe is core functions, not core structures; various gatherings of Jesus' followers will live out these functions differently from one another, both over time and within our present moment of history. So, returning to Acts 2:42, let us examine these basic functions of the family gathering.

First, any true gathering of the followers of Jesus has to include training. Those who are newly committed need to learn the foundation narrative, i.e. the story of the life and teaching of Jesus together with His death and especially His resurrection. That is the story that tells them who they now are. They also need to learn how to live out this story in the contemporary world. In other words, they need to learn to become apprentices of Jesus. They may also need to unlearn some of the assumptions they had before they committed themselves to Jesus, such as the ideas that financial or racial or national differences are meaningful, or that one can give allegiance to Jesus and also give allegiance to other powers, whether the power be money, a nation, or a cultural icon. This process is called resocialization. In the gathering of the followers of Jesus the more experienced followers normally are either doing this training or else deepening and expanding their own training. In other words, the apostles (or, better, delegates of Jesus) passed on what Jesus had taught them so others would behave as they behaved. Likewise, Paul in his letters corrected the misconceptions of some groups of followers of Jesus, guiding them to behaviour that better fit the model of Jesus.

Now, how this training is done is surely a matter of indifference. While some of the lectures (i.e. sermons) held in contemporary church gatherings are actually evangelistic presentations, and thus belong outside the church as church, others fit the description above. However, while some groups will prefer doing this training in a large group, others will recognize that this is less effective (it is a remnant of an age in which most people could not read) and so will do it in smaller, interactive groups or perhaps through the guided discussion of a good book or CD/DVD.

The sermon is not sacrosanct. Much of the teaching in the earliest period of the followers of Jesus appears to have been interactive, question and answer, as was most of the Jewish teaching of the time. We do not, of course, have to imitate the original cultural forms of the church. Thus the "how" will vary (mentoring, small group, larger group, etc.), but the goal of training the followers of Jesus to actually live like Jesus because they have internalized His life and teaching and have learned how to do it in the real world in which they live, remains the constant. The test of whether this training is being done is whether or not the people of that community are actually living like Jesus. One part of this, as we shall see below, is whether they have the missional heart of Jesus. So long as the results are there, the means are relatively indifferent.

Second, any true gathering of the followers of Jesus must act like a family and care for one another. Acts makes it clear that this sharing was not the sharing of a cup of coffee, but of real financial resources. The fact is, healthy families care for one another. This may happen locally, or over a long distance (witness Paul's collection in Greece for the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in 2 Corinthians 8-9). This care for one another expresses the teaching of Jesus. Indeed, in one of His parables He explains that this care is a way He can tell that we really belong to the family (see Matthew 25:34-40).

Now for this care to happen, several things must be true:

  1. the family gathering must be "safe" enough that we trust one another with information about our needs,
  2. the other members of the family must recognize that their time, energy, and resources belong to the family (and in particular, to Jesus, its head) and not to themselves personally, and
  3. vehicles must exist for getting the resources to the people in need.

In the New Testament we see people who did not get the basic idea, such as Ananias and Sapphira (they apparently saw giving as a way to gain status, not as a way to meet needs, and they failed to recognize that such a sin against the family was also an insult to the Spirit who made them a family) and those who taught for money (e.g.1 Timothy 6:3-5). In the New Testament we also see various structures being developed to see that resources got to those in need, and that the needy were not intimidated by their sense of shame (laying money at the feet of the chief delegates of Jesus, (see Acts 4:32-5:11); appointing a group of leaders to care for the distribution of goods and funds, (see Acts 6:1-6); and organizing a group of community delegates to take funds to a needy group that lived a long ways off, (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4).

As with the function of teaching, it is the function that is important rather than the particular practical means of organizing it (although appropriate practical means must be in place or else talking about the function is so much hot air). The fact is that all true communities of the followers of Jesus will recognize that they are a family that is joined to a larger family and out of this sense of family (not out of a sense of duty or a desire to earn points with God, or their fellow believers) they will share with those members of the family that are in need. They will do this non-judgmentally (indeed, there is so much written in the New Testament about not judging one another, that non-judgmental attitudes should be characteristic of this family of Jesus) so the help can e received with joy by those who are in need. They will organize it efficiently but will not lose the personal contact (except, of course, when distance precludes it, although even then Paul saw to it that representatives of the givers would meet the recipient community face to face). Thus how we organize this sharing will vary by culture and situation, but that we do it will be a constant mark of every true community of Jesus.

Third, any true gathering of the followers of Jesus will eat a family meal together. In the Old Testament period the central act of worship was not the sin or guilt offerings, which were preparatory, but the thanksgiving/fellowship/ peace offering, which was a meal that the worshipper ate along with their extended family in the presence of God (i.e. in the temple or tabernacle with God and the priest receiving a share, but the bulk of the meat being cooked and eaten by the family). In the New Testament the characteristic gathering of the followers of Jesus was a meal modeled on the final Passover that Jesus ate with his closest followers. (It would be three centuries before the meal aspect finally faded into the symbolic eating of a bite of bread and the symbolic drinking of a sip of wine.) This is the one act of worship that was commanded by Jesus Himself. This is the act of worship that is regulated by Paul (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, the issue in Corinth was that rather than expressing a united family, this meal was underlining class differences within the community). This is the act of worship that Revelation 19:9 pictures as being consummated in the very presence of Jesus.

Now there are some implications to this meal focus from Old Testament through New Testament. The first implication is that to live "church" in this sense the community must gather in small enough groups so that eating together is possible. It is in such groups that we know one another well enough that it is clear who is committed to Jesus and thus invited to His meal and who is not. It is in such groups that we can be honest with one another and share with one another, the meal being a form of sharing in those first centuries (the poor in the community ate the food of the rich; the rich learned what the poor were eating by sharing in that food). It is in such groups that the gifts of the Spirit are manifested for Jesus is among His gathered people—at least that is the picture of 1 Corinthians 10:14. Furthermore, much of the training in the early communities was probably part of the mealtime conversation. The second implication is that these groups should express family care for one another. The third implication is that it is these gatherings that most clearly reflect the coming consummation of the kingdom, as well as reflecting our continuity with the Old Testament people of God (as well as out continuity with the whole church through history, including most of the Reformers).

Again, how we organize this meal is something that will change from culture to culture and situation to situation. Some will organize it in large halls but still manage to create a sense of intimacy, while others will organize it in more intimate home situations. Some will take bread and wine together, before or after the meal, perhaps doing so more ceremonially, while others will integrate that into the meal, as appears to have been the practice in the early centuries. (For those interested in copying this latter practice, the author would be happy to pass on the directions that Dr. Derek Morphew developed for his church's home groups.)

We can indeed debate what structures best express the principles that Jesus desired us to express—let us not divide from one another over our decisions on this matter—but that the meal is central to our existence as a community of Jesus is not a matter for debate. This means that we cannot be limited to a virtual church, a group that gathers electronically, but not face to face. This means that somehow we need to get close enough to eat together. This means that our church structures will express the fact that this group is our basic family and this table is our basic meal table.

Fourth, a true gathering of the followers of Jesus will communicate with Jesus. That is, they will present their needs to Him, they will give their thanks to Him, and they will expect Him in turn to guide them as they express this dependence upon and submission to Him. We see this happening in Acts 3 as Peter and John are going to the three times daily Jewish prayer services in the Temple, we see it happening in Acts 4:23-31 as the followers of Jesus bring their situation of persecution to Him, and we see this repeated throughout the whole New Testament (e.g. in Paul's requests to churches to pray for him or in the prayers he writes in his letters, which would be read aloud in the churches). Jesus spent time in prayer, submitting His will to the will of His Father (which means that He must also have been listening to His Father as He prayed); His followers do the same thing. A community cannot claim to be following Jesus if it is not marked by such a communication with Him and His Father.

Such prayer will be a bringing of our needs to our Father—a recognition that we are His family and that He is responsible to care for His family. Such prayers will be expressing our submission to Jesus and our Father, which is what we mean by worship (the most frequent biblical term translated "worship" is itself a word meaning "to prostrate oneself in submission"). Such prayers will be giving our thanks to Jesus and our Father for their care of us and their reception of us into their family. Such prayer will be a seeking guidance from Jesus and our Father as to how to act in a given situation. In other words, prayer in this sense is an expression that Jesus is really the resurrected King of God's kingdom and that He and His Father really do rule, and that we, guided and empowered by the Spirit, are actively bringing ourselves into harmony with that rule.

Again, how that prayer is organized is a matter of relative indifference. As noted above, one way the Jerusalem church did this was by participating in the formal prayers in the Temple. At other times in Acts we see spontaneous prayer gatherings coming together according to need. We see people praying on beaches and in ships. We see prayers being sung, sometimes using new songs and sometimes using the old words of the Psalms. We see a wide variety of forms and styles of prayer. But prayer is a characteristic function of the gatherings of the followers of Jesus. While one can pray individually, group prayer is repeatedly modeled and commanded in the New Testament. This should not surprise us, for a family needs to talk together about its issues, and prayer is how we discuss our situation with one another and with our family Head. It is also how we thank our family Head for all that He has done for us, which thanks has the function of unifying the family.

Finally, although not in Acts 2:42, every gathering of the followers of Jesus (i.e. church) will have structure. Church is not just an occasional, casual coming together of the local followers of Jesus, but a continuing, functioning group with appropriate leadership. The New Testament appears to use the model of the elders of Jewish communities as the pattern for the leadership structure of communities of the followers of Jesus. In some of the larger groupings of house churches they added "servants" (i.e. deacons) to the elders, for the communal charity work had become too great for the elders to do it alone. In 1Timothy we read about an official list of "widows," who were also apparently involved in the charity work of the community. Jerusalem also had the Twelve at first, but their function was more representative: the Twelve patriarchs of the renewed Israel. They were not replaced when they died, and soon the clear leader of the Jerusalem cluster of gatherings of followers of Jesus (probably in the sense of the senior elder in that he seems to lead by summing up a consensus) is James, as the Twelve departed on various missions. Church structure was not tied to the Twelve.

There were other apostles (i.e.delegates of Jesus), such as Paul, Barnabas, Junia, etc. They seem to have functioned as what we would call "church planters" or "missionaries," staying in an area until there were enough local believers well-enough trained to support themselves as a community and then moving on to new areas. Their returning to the churches they had planted (or their sending of delegates, such as Timothy and Titus) tied the communities together relationally.

What we notice, however, is that Paul does not control or direct the churches he has planted. His normal mode of operation is persuasion, not command. The structures are local (i.e. the elders relate to a city-wide group of house churches, which would include the towns and villages dependent upon the central city).

Later there would be a structural shift to Roman hierarchical models. Whether this was an appropriate cultural adaptation or a loss of early relationship-based structure is debated, but it is the Roman model (specifically, its 6th century form) from which much of the present focus on the senior pastor/rector/parish priest comes. Be that as it may, the fact remains that even the earliest communities were structured, for without at least limited structure the community will fall apart. Part of the reason for structure was the need to adjudicate issues among believers, the need to decide who was "in" or "out" of the community (not in the sense of punishment, but in the sense that

  1. a person who is not following Jesus does not belong in the worshipping community and
  2. the person who is not following Jesus needs to be clearly told that they are not part of the followers of Jesus so that they do not deceive themselves into thinking that they are okay, the need to carry out the support function of the community (someone needed to make sure that the widow Jones, who could not get to the communal gathering due to infirmity, received the food and finances that she needed), and the need to protect the group against aberrations that claimed to be new interpretations of Jesus, or the will of God (we see that happening in 2 Peter and Jude).

The way we structure our communities will vary by culture and situation; that they need structure and its consequent functions is clearly evident in the New Testament.

"Ah," someone says, "but you have forgotten evangelism."

No, we have not. We have checked all of the references to "church" in the New Testament and evangelism is never attributed to the church in them. The fact is that the community gathering (the "inhale") is the place for grasping the teaching (i.e. training), and finding the support that is necessary for people to go out and live the life (the "exhale").

The early communities quickly recognized some individuals as evangelists (and presumably, if the community was large enough, supported them in their activity), but everyone was to live the life of Jesus in the world. That living the life of Jesus included announcing the good news that Jesus reigns, doing the things that Jesus did, repeating the teachings and explanations that Jesus gave, and especially being living examples of Jesus' character. The early communities gathered for church, and they went out for evangelism.

Now, surely, this distinction should not keep followers of Jesus from banding together and using their community building (if they have one) for activities such as Alpha, which seem to be an effective way of doing some of the things that Jesus did. But the main emphasis of the New Testament seems to be on either the work of evangelists (and, in new planting situations, apostles who followed the pattern of Jesus and traveled in pairs or teams, i.e. as a small church) or the faithfulness of individual believers, who were daily in contact with "the world" in terms of their extended families, their jobs, and the marketplace.

The fact remains that the gathered community functioned to train and support the believers, who in turn did their outreach work (to the extent that it was a specific job and not just living-like-Jesus-in-the-world) outside of the community gatherings. The community gatherings were places of worship (which I have included under the heading of prayer), training, and mutual support.

Again, we need to add a caveat. While we have argued that the New Testament does not provide evidence that a significant function of the church as a gathered community was to evangelize, there is plenty of evidence that the people of God are to be a missional people as they are "going into the world" (see Matthew 28:19-20). Thus whether or not a church has an evangelistic program is not an issue; evangelistic programs are often counterproductive (e.g. the crusade evangelism of a past age, which is often copied in some church services, is regularly pilloried by the world in our age, while Alpha, which is so effective in our relational age, will likely be a liability in some coming age). Whether or not a church is initiating new followers of Jesus (or dealing with the persecution that comes when people reject the good news) is an issue. If the people of God are not being missional, sharing the good news with neighbours and colleagues, then the community has failed in its training function. Its people are not doing what Jesus was doing (i.e. go back to the first characteristic of the church: training).Yet while this spreading of the good news may be expressed by the people of God in their developing effective programs, it is not the presence or absence of programs that one measures, but the presence or absence of hearts like Jesus', which hearts will result in new followers of Jesus (or else, as noted above, in persecution). Or, to put it another way, a "church" that only inhales and fails to exhale is more a club than a gathering of people whose hearts are like Jesus'. Furthermore, as the metaphor suggests, it will soon be dead.

So what is a church?

A church is a structured gathering of followers of Jesus in which

  1. 1. they are trained to follow Jesus,
  2. 2. they engage in prayer and worship together,
  3. 3. they support one another, including financially, and
  4. 4. they eat the communal meal together in anticipation of the return of their Lord and the great banquet of that day.

The church is not an institution "left in this world" to evangelize the world and then to be removed from it to a "heavenly home," but a subversive group that is even now living what will be the future life of the world when Jesus returns, and is recruiting those around it to join in the subversion. The church is a colony of the kingdom (a kingdom that is going to take over the whole world), a foreign entity within each of the nations of the world, whose allegiance and lifestyle is determined by their great Leader, and the members of which are seeking to invite others into their colony. How this is expressed will vary with time and culture, but without doing the things we have mentioned above, it is difficult to understand how a group is functioning as "church" in the sense that the New Testament thinks of "church."

Peter Davids, a biblical scholar, is professor of biblical theology at St. Stephens University, New Brunswick. His wife Judy is employed as a counsellor. Peter writes training materials for the German speaking Vineyard movement, and has taught or written for the German, Benelux, and Canadian Vineyard movements.

Originally published in Vineline, Fall 2005.





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