Without controversy, the most controversial subject in the Bible is "the church." This is what most of the fussing is about both between "us" and the denominationalists, and between us and us. In one way or another everybody argues over the Church; not Christ, but the Church. But the longer I linger around Church-anity the more I come to realize that much of this controversy is based on incorrect or unclear concepts.
As I perceive the situation, there are two basic "Church" concepts, loose in the land. First, is the popular concept, the one traditionally accepted by the majority of people. It is the notion that "the Church" of the Bible is a religious institution, albeit a divine one. Whether you talk to Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Baptists, "Christians only" in the Christian Church, or "the only Christians" in the Church of Christ, this is their mental picture of "the Church." When they use the word "Church" they are referring to the religious organization with which they are affiliated. Naturally they believe their Church is holy, a divine institution set up or established by Almighty God Himself, therefore one to which all Christians should belong.
Then there is a not-so popular concept of the church, that revealed in the New Testament and slowly being recognized by more and more thoughtful readers. According to this view, the "church" is a New Testament term describing people, particularly God's people. By definition "ecclesia" (the Greek word found where the English word Church appears in most versions) denotes a "called out" group of people; in the case of the "church" of Christ it refers to the called out followers of Jesus of Nazareth. These two views are diverse. On one side, the "Church" is always thought of as if it were an entity separate and apart from the Christians who belong to it, preach it, promote it, support it, love it, etc. On the other hand, the "church" is simply thought of as a people related to one another in Christ. The church is the body of Christ which we (if we are Christians) ARE! (1 Cor. 12:27).
My purpose here is not to explore all the differences between these two concepts. This would require a book I do not have time to write. All I want to do is make us aware that the traditional concept has some frightful holes in it. In an effort to make this clear, I want to ask you to do a little "supposing" with me. Briefly, I want us to suppose that we are about to "start a Church." For the purposes at hand, "starting a Church" is a good place to start doing some real thinking on this subject.
When we speak of "starting a Church" what do we mean, ordinarily? We do not mean what a young couple means when they speak of "starting a family." We understand that a family is started when little babies are born. But a Church is "started" when newborn babes in Christ are born. No, no! Starting a Church in a community and starting the family of God are two entirely different processes. For, according to popular understanding and usage, a large number of God's children can live in a place yet "the Church" not be there at all. In fact, it is God's born again children who supposedly are obligated to get together and start the Church! So (and we all understand the terminology perfectly well) when we today speak of "starting a Church," what we mean is that the Christians who live in an area should get together and form a religious organization that bears the official title of "Church." Keep in mind that the "Church" that these Christians will "form" is not the church they already are, but is one that they will somehow create. This "Church" is perceived to be an institution that has to be "set up" before it can exist; an organization that must be organized before it can operate. It is not a matter of disciples living together in a community, or even assembling together in the name of the Lord, for that matter. In our day it takes MORE than this to make a bona fida "Church." In order for a Church "as such" to exist it is simply imperative - someone has to "start it."
Right here is the first surprise. Believe it or not, the New Testament does not anywhere, in any way, discuss the procedure or practice of "starting a Church." This seems a little odd, since we talk about it all the time. If there is not a Church of Christ in a certain city we say "someone should go there and start one." If a lot of Christians live on the north side of town we say "that would be a good place to start a Church." If a new church shows up in town we are immediately curious to find out "who started it." While such talk is familiar to us it is foreign to the Scriptures. The nearest thing in the New Testament I can find to this kind of terminology is in Acts 16:5 where it says, "So were the churches established in the Faith, and increased in number daily." Notice, however, that this passage does not speak of "establishing churches;" it speaks only of establishing (strengthening) them in the faith. Can you think off-hand (or on-hand either) of ANY instruction in the New Testament on the proper program for starting a Church? Can you think of any historical instance where Christians went through the process of "starting" one? Before you answer, remember, preaching the gospel in a community and baptizing those who believe is NOT the same thing as "starting a Church" there. A Church, according to the popular concept, is something that those who have heard and obeyed the gospel will need to "start" later on, as soon as they can. And this involves more than just meeting together, or assembling, the first time. As we shall see, again according to traditional teaching, the Christians in a community can assemble with one another for an extended period of time without "starting a Church." Now if none of the problems are showing up in your mind yet, then maybe it is time for us to start supposing.
Let us suppose that I, my wife, and my son John, you, your wife and your son John, along with two other couples have just been transferred to a strange town where the gospel has never been preached. We are all baptized believers, brothers and sisters in the family of God, members of the body of Christ. We are all Christians. We have all arrived in town. But according to the popular concept of what a Church is, the "Church of the Lord" has not arrived yet. For as yet no local "Church" has been "set up." Therefore at this time the community is thought still to be un-Churched. Alas, there is "no Church anywhere in town."
So you and I and our Christian associates need to get together and discuss this situation. Suppose we do this. We get together and talk about how important the Church is, how every community needs one, how if we Christians don't start one perhaps no one ever will. We discuss the feasibility of starting a Church, the probability of success, the possibility of failure, etc.
Now for some reason we do not discuss this situation in terms of "starting a family of God" in our new-found town; nor do we talk about the need to "start the body of Christ" there. We speak only in terms of "starting a Church." Strangely enough, we somehow understand that God's family and Christ's body are already represented in our community; the town just does not have "the Lord's Church" yet. And it will NEVER have "the Lord's Church," we think, unless someone like us starts one. So we feel the need to "get a Church started right away."
Please bear in mind that in our discussion we are contemplating much more than the practice of assembling together with one another as fellow Christians. As a matter of fact, the little group is assembled at the very moment of the discussion, as we will be later on. But starting to assemble does not start a Church. Whether or not to "start a Church" is the very item under consideration. We are already assembling, you see, but we may or may not "start a Church."
In any event, after lengthy discussion we agree. Yes, that's what we should do, "Let's start a Church." But right off there are several questions that come up, in my mind at least. Let me put them in yours.
First, WHAT is this that we are about to start? From what I know, all the spiritual relationships mentioned in the New Testament already exist between us. We are already members of Christ, we are already members of the body of Christ, we are already members one of another. We are already holy brethren, part of the same brotherhood of believers. We are already meeting with one another in Jesus' name. So what, exactly, are we getting ready to start? What is going to exist once we get through?
According to the contemporary way of looking at this matter, the thing that will exist once we complete our plans is a divine, blood-bought INSTITUTION that Jesus died for! Evidently THIS is what we think we are about to produce. But wait just a minute. I thought Jesus built the Church. But Jesus is not building this one. We - you and I and our Christian friends - are going to bring this one into being. We are the ones, literally, who will cause it to exist as in independent entity. We are arranging for its formation and formalization. Yes, Jesus Christ is responsible for us and our faith, and in this sense we are the church that He built; but "the local institution" is something that WE are going to erect. Undoubtedly this is a different sort of Church. We are already members of the "church" that Jesus built, are we not? But we are not yet members of the Church we are about to build. It does not exist yet. Once it exists, after we "start it," we will, I presume, be members of TWO Churches. This is all very interesting.
The second question is, WHY are we going to set up this institution later to be christened a "Church?" Did Jesus tell us to do this? Did he tell anyone to do such a thing? In the Great Commission He told the apostles to go into all the world and "make disciples" of all nations. Is this enough? Or do we need to go into all the world and "form Churches" also? Remember, according to popular preaching, we can "make disciples" all day long in a community yet "the Church" (as such) will NEVER BE THERE until someone decides to start one.
Let me repeat the question. Why should you and I undertake to do this? The answer usually given is that you and I as Christians cannot please God outside a local religious organization; we cannot serve God without a local Church "through which" to function. Although, admittedly, we Christians are indeed "the church" in some sense, we are not the Church in the required way to do what God wants done.
But, let us suppose a little further. Suppose after talking it over we Christians decide to postpone for a month or two the decision to "start a Church." (We may get transferred again in a few weeks and would not want to start a Church and then go off and leave it unattended.) Are we now "Church-less?" Are we helpless, unable to serve the Lord? What is it the Lord would have us do in the community where we have moved that we, as disciples and because we are disciples, cannot do in the meantime, before we get around to forming an official Church? Can we do good to all men? Yes. Can we let our little light shine? Yes. Can we teach our new neighbors the gospel? Yes. Can we baptize them? Yes. Can we continue to glorify God in word and deed? Yes. Can we gather together in my living room (or yours) in the name of the Lord? Yes. Can we have a prayer together? Yes. Can we sing hymns together? Yes. Can we put some money together to help a brother who has come down with a case of bad luck? Yes. We can, I suppose, do all these things without the benefit of the yet-to-be-formed Church.
On the Lord's Day can we remember the Lord's death by eating bread and drinking fruit of the vine? Uh, oh. Here we have hit a stump. "Wait a minute," someone says, "we cannot commune apart from a Church." This is "one of the main reasons" the Church needs to be established here - so we can eat the Lord's Supper. Think about this seriously. Did the first Christians on Pentecost, somewhere between Acts 2:41 and 2:42, have to stop and start a local Church before they could "continue in the apostle's doctrine" by breaking bread? Is this what we really believe? Are we actually prepared to say that Christians who find themselves outside the precincts of a religious institution cannot remember the Lord's death on the Lord's Day? What about those Christians who, like Paul much of his life, spend their life on the run? Do they take "the Church" with them wherever they go? Do they quickly form a new one at each stop? Or do they forget about communion altogether?
Also, consider this. Jesus gave his disciples two great "ordinances": baptism and the Lord's Supper. Why is it that we Christians, before we "start a Church" and therefore in the absence of one, can practice baptism to our heart's content, but without the presence of a "local Church" we cannot practice communion, not even once? Why is one "ordinance" different from the other? Does "the local Church" have custody of communion but not baptism? All this is very strange to me. So I ask again, why are we required to "start a Church" in the first place? What is it (make a list) that we as fellow disciples of Christ cannot do in the absence of one?
But all the above questions are easy compared to the last one. Suppose that after a month or two we have another meeting and decide to go through with the proposal to start a Church. Now the question is, HOW do we go about doing this? Some may think this is easy. If we want to start a scriptural Church all we have to do is appoint some elders, ordain some deacons and hire a preacher. Presto! The organization is now organized, the "Church" is now formed; it now exists. But once more let us do some supposing. Suppose there are none in our group "qualified" to be Elders, none willing to serve as Deacons and no one wants to be the Minister? What then? We still want to start a Church. But how are we going to do it? Some kind of action must be taken that will make a "Church" among us where heretofore there has been no "Church." Here is the intriguing part. Everybody who is anybody agrees that a legitimate institutional Church (one recognized by the Lord himself as being "HIS divine institution" authorized to do "the work of the Church") can indeed exist and operate as the approved "functional entity" WITHOUT having a staff of Elders and Deacons. This is known as being "scripturally unorganized" as opposed to being "scripturally organized" or "unscripturally organized." Let us look at this supposed situation very, very carefully. It is not an unheard of situation at all. Here we are a group of Christians intent on starting a Church, yet in the beginning we are not going to have ANY biblical officers; no Elders or Deacons. We are not going to have an Eldership or Deaconhood. Then HOW, pray tell, are we going to "form" this Church-entity? We have decided to start the proposed Church, but how shall we proceed? This is the question.
Suppose we have one more meeting, say on Wednesday night, and decide that Sunday is the day. We will start "the Church" this coming Lord's Day. This means two things: there will be no Church in town till Sunday, but there will be one after that. Fine. But the question lingers. Come Sunday, how, oh how, are we going to pull off this feat? Sunday arrives and we all show up at the place where we have agreed to meet. There is no Church there, unless one has miraculously materialized since Wednesday night when we had our last planning session. So here we are, a group of disciples gathered together, but as yet no "Church" is present. We have a brief prayer together; but still there is no "Church" among us. We sing a few hymns together; but we don't have a "Church" yet. We have a Bible lesson; still no "Church." Now we are in trouble. We are getting perilously close to Lord's Supper time, and without the presence of "the Church" we dare not, as mere disciples, commune. Somehow we need to bring "the Church" into existence before time to commune. Can it be done? How shall we accomplish this? Does some brother at some point in the proceedings merely arise and ANNOUNCE the "Church" into being? Does someone make the pronouncement, "NOW there is a divine institution in this good town!" So a moment ago there was just a group of Christians present; now we have a scriptural Church! Hallelujah! A moment ago we, the Lord's disciples, were assembled here, but without a "Church." We are all still present, but now a "Church" is here also, one that we are henceforth obligated to sustain and support. In the beginning God said "let there be light" and there was. Is this how it is done? Is the Church of the Lord (in an institutional sense) merely SPOKEN into existence? This must be how it is done. For in our supposed situation "the Church" certainly was not "organized" into existence, because it was not given ANY kind of organized structure. The Church we have started evidently exists only because someone has SAID it exists. Can just anybody announce one of these "divine institutions" into existence; or does it require special credentials and/or authorization? We need to know all this in case we really want to "start a Church" some day.
To come to the bottom of all this supposing, let me ask one more question. Once we have finished the task of starting this new Church (however we managed to accomplish it), what do we have? It looks to me like we have a very, very, very mysterious "Church." We are told these days that the disciples in a community do not in and of themselves constitute the Lord's church. The Church is something ELSE, besides them, something they form or create. What is this entity? Of what does it consist? In the case described above, where there are no Elders, Deacons, or Preachers, the Church seems to exist only in our minds. It is an organization, but without any officers or agents; it is an institution, but without any institutional framework; it is a corporate body, but without any corporate structure. What we have is a group of disciples who are meeting together, PLUS something else. Because we have "started a Church" everyone seems to think there is also hovering around the premises a divine (functional) entity, complete with a set of assigned duties or works that the aforementioned disciples could not in its absence perform. Again I ask, of what does this mythical "Church" consist? Apparently we have successfully completed our mission of "starting a Church." But, what do we have that we did not have before we started it? Before we started our Church all we had was a group of Christians, brothers and sisters in the family of God. Now that we have established a "Church" all we have is the same group of Christians. Of WHAT, then, does this mysterious "local Church" consist? It does not consist solely of the Christians; we had them before we started it. It does not consist of Church officers; we don't have any, scriptural or otherwise. It does not consist of a church building; we do not have one of these yet. This Church does not appear to consist of anything you can lay your hand or mind on. Frankly, I am at a loss. I fear that "the Church" we have started may be a figment of our imagination.
To some readers perhaps all of these questions will seem too silly to ask. To me they serve to raise some serious doubts about the traditional concept, the institutional Church. In fact, the whole Church system as it is presently preached and practiced generates confusion and controversy. This itself ought to raise our eyebrows if not our curiosity. Is it just possible, do you think, that we may have a few chinks in our "Church" concept? Frankly, I believe it is time for all Christians to look again at the ecclesia of the New Testament, and see it in a more scriptural and simple light. Hopefully the pages of this journal will encourage efforts in this direction.