We need to think of the church more as an exponential people movement involving all of God’s people.
Church is not an institution run by religious professionals offering different brands of religious goods and services. But to stretch our ecclesiology will require a handle on the basics of what makes a church, well . . . a church. This is because in reinventing the church for the particular challenges of our era, we run the risk of ending up being less of what the Bible means by “church” than before. We must go back to Scripture to rediscover what theologians have called the “marks” or “identifiers” of the church that Jesus built, and then we must start again from there.
In saying this, I am not suggesting it’s all bad, but I do think the traditional marks of the church that stemmed from the Reformation are woefully inadequate to equip the contemporary Western church to deal with the bewildering missionary challenge we face. The traditional marks all orbit around the practice of the sacraments. The Reformers argued about whether it was two, three, or seven (the Catholics), but they all agreed the church is the place where the sacraments are administered and experienced.
The problem with all these formulations, however, is that they effectively “institutionalize” grace by making it something only the priests can handle, usually in “churchly” contexts. Gone is the idea of a people movement that embodied the early church. Gone is the idea of a Philip simply baptizing the eunuch. Gone are the actual meals in houses that made communion a daily affair—not to mention they say nothing about mission, discipleship, and cultural life beyond the confines of the church institution itself. What is clearly inadequate can therefore prove to be culturally oppressive to the so-called laity—those believers who have to exercise their following of Jesus outside of the confines of the church’s organizational life.
In The Forgotten Ways I tell the story of how my own community had to get back to basics to assess if and how we were being an authentic and faithful expression of Jesus’ church. The outcomes of that inquiry I believe still stack up well in providing us with some working essentials for a New Testament ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). This is what I believe is a useful (but not the only) way of identifying a faithful expression of church.
A church is . . .
- Centered on Jesus: He is the new covenant with God, and He thus forms the true epicenter of an authentic Christ-ian faith. An ecclesia is not just a God-community—there are many such religious communities around. We are defined by our relationship to the Second Person of the Trinity, the Mediator, Jesus Christ. We believe in the Trinity to be sure, but take Jesus out and it simply isn’t a church anymore. A community centered on Jesus as Lord participates in the salvation He brings. We receive the grace of God in Him.
- A covenanted community: A church is a formed people, not by people just hanging out together, but ones bound together in a distinctive bond. There is a certain obligation toward one another formed around a covenant. So here a covenant community is a network of relationships formed around Jesus our Lord. Remember this does not imply buildings, per se.
However, more is required to truly constitute a church. Let me suggest that a true encounter with God in Jesus must result in . . .
- Worship: Defined as offering our lives back to God through Jesus. Note that this is an all-of-life, biblically stretched definition. It includes communal praise and learning, but extends to every aspect of a life and a world offered back to God in worship.
- Discipleship: Defined as following Jesus and becoming increasingly like Him (Christlikeness). Again, this is not just “church” as we tend to define it. It’s the relational fabric of the church that reaches way beyond organizational boundaries.
- Mission: Defined as extending the mission (the redemptive purposes) of God through the activities of His people in every sphere and domain of life, including, of course, church planting but not confined to it.
So there are five identifiers, or marks, in the above model. Graphically it might look something like this:
We can easily see these are profoundly interlinked and inform each other to create a complex phenomenon that constitutes the basics of church as Jesus intended. They describe the core (minimal?) aspects of a faithful ecclesia. If some are really missing or are significantly diminished, we should be asking some serious questions about ourselves. It is important we go back to Scripture to rediscover the identifiers of the church Jesus built.
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