Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
This is the 30th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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So what is the community of Christ; what is the church? You can’t ask whether or not the church is good until you understand what it is for or what it is supposed to be. The way church is used in English often is just a building. So the church is simply a building located at a particular place. The church in the Bible didn’t have a building; they met in the temple court or home. Church building didn’t come on the scene until much later. Don’t get me wrong, I think church buildings are a good thing to have; otherwise you would not have a place to go. We look at the rise of immorality in our society and it is often heard that the church should do something about that. So here the meaning of church is a moral police, a force in society for righteousness and goodness. For some, church is a place where you get married or a place where a funeral is held. A forth definition would come out of the question: are you going to church tomorrow? So in this sense, it is a meeting that you go to. I don’t think that the church is a meeting as such.
II. Church, According to the Bible
Acts 2:38-47 shows us where people are getting saved and devote themselves to the Apostles teachings and to fellowship and the breaking of bread which relates to communion and to prayer. There is community and compassion and worship and praise to God. There is also evangelism and mission in this chapter. This really gives us a fundamental theology of the meaning of church; we see an organization under leadership along with a function with the idea of doing good. We see the sacraments being dealt with in these verses. So when I think of these different elements, it really defines the local church. It is different from home Bible study groups or motivational speaking meetings. So I think the church is a movement of people continuing the mission of Jesus to reach the world, to bring us into that Kingdom so that God will receive the praise as he deserves. This is the heart of things.
A. Marks of a Church
The classic marks of the church consist of one holy catholic apostolic and the way I would describe this: it is one connecting by the Holy Spirit, not organizational unity necessarily but it represents a basic unity yet representing different traditions and emphases. Some have strong teaching ministries while some have strong community connections. Others have great services while others have evangelistic programs. Just remember holiness doesn’t consist of things you don’t do but it is being dedicated to God and being like God, doing his work in the world. And catholic would mean one Gospel for all people in all places and apostolic comes under the authority of the Bible and so the apostolic authority comes in Scripture.
B. Church as a Priesthood
The church instead of having a priesthood, like you would find in the Anglian or Catholic churches, the church is a priesthood and so when I think of priests from the Old Testament context, they were the ones who had access to God, who represented the people before God, primarily, but they also spoke blessings of God to the people. They perform redemptive sacrifice and heard confessions of sins and announced the blessings of God and gave spiritual guidance. So I think that the church is a priesthood and the idea is that every person is a priest. And I think of the clear ways which we do this is to have other believers hearing the confessions of sins. I think James refers to this in James 5 when he says to confess your sins one to another. So instead of saying that we don’t have a priesthood, we should emphasize that everyone is a priest, helping others spiritually, praying with others and hearing their confessions. What I am inclined to think is that we should confess our sins to God with the help of another person. When there is sin in my life, I should be working with other believers because they will help me see both the nature of my sin which I may be very blind to. They will also help me see the power of God.
C. Church and Culture
Another question has to do with the relationship between church and culture and the world around us. At one level the church is separate from culture. We form islands or lifeboats separated from the culture around us. The more obvious groups would be the Amish or Quakers, etc. Another aspect would be the church over culture which would be the classis Roman Catholic for example the Holy Roman Empire which actually formed a theocracy. I see that some Protestants are going back to that kind of model where the church is the one that has authority in the culture over moral issues. Some churches are encouraging their members to do public office and get involved in government. In most instances, this is an angry action against degradation of culture. Another view is where the church and culture are side by side, each sharing their sphere of responsibility and very separated on specific issues. Another perspective on the church transforming culture, we as the church should be actively involved in the political life of the culture around us. I find this in the classic Afro-American church where many sermons are on community issues. In an all too common picture of the church is actually being lost in culture. We don’t want to commit offences or take down the barriers of people seeing Christ so we relevance and non-offensiveness become powerful in the church making the church no different than the culture around them. Churches who adopt this idea want to become religionists and moralists, yet they end up not being very Christian. This happens specifically when the church gets involved with justice issues. When they get so involved with social issues, they actually lose Jesus. The Salvation Army would be an example of this. In some areas, we have the culture against the church. That is in the persecuted church; we don’t have a lot of persecution of the church in America as such but in some cases the culture is really against church. We find this when the church stands up for traditional marriage and thus certain groups become very antagonistic toward the church.
I think the church has a prophetic presence in culture. As a church, we proclaim righteousness into the non-Christian culture around us. We do that by deed first and then by Word and then from that perspective, we then expose sin and the evils of culture within the context of Grace. The Scriptural call is for us to be the community that shares. We need to be the kind of church that when people look at our church culture, they see the love of God for one another. And when we explore issues of justice and righteousness in our own community, they will also see this love that we have for one another. We see a passage that relates to this in 1st Peter 2:9 where it says that we have been chosen as a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You were once not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Then in verse 11, we are to obtain from sinful desires and to keep our conduct among the gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. So in spite of being against us, they see the good that we do.
So the church is the community of Christ that meets together regularly, it has leadership and does sacraments and organized in mission and brings people together to worship God through Jesus Christ. It is not a building; it is not a meeting, not a moral police but a community of Jesus Christ.