We’ve learned about God, about the Bible and about salvation; today we will learn about
Let’s begin with a question:
What do YOU think of when you think of “the church”?
Think about some of the things we say:
“Wow, look at that beautiful old church!” or “There’s a new church being built in the city.”
We sometimes think of a BUILDING.
OR: “I’ve been hurt by the church.” or “The church is irrelevant to me.”
We sometimes think of an ORGANISATION or INSTITUTION.
So WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
The Greek word translated “church” is “ekklēsia” (phonetic: ek-klay-see’-ah). It means “a calling out” or “a gathering/assembly“. It has been translated “assembly” or “congregation” in early English translations such as the Tyndale translation, but the word “church” is most commonly used today.
Whatever English word we use, we need to know that the church referred to in the Bible is not a BUILDING, it is the PEOPLE. Strictly speaking, the word “church” is rightly used for a gathering of believers but wrongly used for a building they may use to meet in.
Realistically though, the use of the word “church” to describe the building is now deeply established, and we don’t want to “split hairs” over contemporary use of the word – but we do want people to understand that when the Bible speaks of the church, it speaks about US – the people.
That said, there is a related error that we MUST fix.
Because the word “church” has been associated with old buildings, old institutions and old traditions, some people would believe in Jesus, even follow Jesus, but they would not want to be a part of “the church” as they see it.
You may have heard (or said) things like:
“I believe in Jesus, but I don’t want anything to do with the church.”
OR – “I’m a Christian, but I’m not part of a church – I don’t need that.”
So we need to answer this important question:
IF I BELIEVE IN JESUS, MUST I BE PART OF THE CHURCH (OR JOIN A CHURCH) ?
What do YOU think?
Let’s look to the Bible to answer the question:
Ephesians 1:13 (NIV) – “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…”
1 Corinthians 12:27 (NIV) – “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV) – “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
So here’s the Bible’s answer: when we put our faith in Jesus, we were INCLUDED in his people. EACH ONE OF US is part of one “body” of believers. And a key expression of our belonging is our MEETING TOGETHER.
Simply put, when we were saved, we automatically became members of the “body of believers”. And as members of this body, we are told to MEET TOGETHER – to “be the church”.
There are people who believe in Jesus, but for some reason they don’t want to be part of the church. Effectively, they want a solo, “Jesus and me” experience, outside of community. This could be for many reasons, e.g. bad experiences in a church community, “bad press” about the church, a love of independence or a dislike of authority.
Whatever the reason, there is no Biblical room for “lone ranger believers”!
OK – we’re believers – we’re part of the church… What does this look like in real life? What should we expect our “church experience” to be?
I’d like to unpack this in two ways:
– WHO WE ARE
– WHAT WE DO
It’s tempting for some to get stuck into activities – what we do – but what we do should flow out of who we are – so we’ll start there.
We’ll do this by looking at
BIBLICAL PICTURES OF THE CHURCH
The first picture is of A BODY
1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27 (NIV) – “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. And so the body is not made up of one part but of many… Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
This is a powerful image and it is beautifully unpacked in this chapter (1 Corinthians chapter 12). It speaks of matters critical to the health of the church and how we co-operate:
- there one head – Jesus is Lord of us all
- there is one body – all believers are part of it
- all parts are valuable – in fact, we are interdependent
- parts are different – we are diverse
- for one body to be healthy the parts must all function – and all function in unity
This image speaks powerfully of the shared life of the church (Jesus and all believers).
What does this image mean for you? It means that you are a unique, valuable individual – and it means that you BELONG in a community. It means that you need the church community – and the church community needs you!
So take your place as a member of the Body – you are a vital part of it!
The next picture is of A KINGDOM
Colossians 1:13 NIV – “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves…”
This image is very different from the body! This one speaks of a KING and his SUBJECTS. It speaks of the authority and rule of Jesus the King and the submission of his people, the church.
What does this image mean for you? Some challenging things perhaps! It means that Jesus is not only your saviour – he is your king! It means that Jesus is in charge of the church – not any of us! It means that we are all his subjects – that our wills and our preferences need to be submitted to him.
So take your place as a subject of the King – you are his subject!
Here’s yet another different picture – of A BRIDE
Ephesians 5:25-27, 31-32 (NIV) – “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless… “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Have you ever looked at a bride and groom on their wedding day? Have you seen how they look at each other? It’s a picture of love and devotion!
Have you ever thought that Jesus looks at us like that? That he looks at YOU like that?
Have you ever looked at Jesus like that?
Jesus is our king, but he is a king like no other! He is also a devoted bridegroom – a lover who loves his bride passionately and wants nothing but the very best for her!
This image speaks of the love and devotion of the church. It speaks of unbreakable, covenant commitment.
What does this image mean to you? It means that you are deeply loved by Jesus! It means that Jesus seeks a deep, personal relationship with you. It means that Jesus is totally committed to you – and that he expects you to be deeply committed to him!
So take your place in fully committed relationship – you are engaged to Jesus!
How’s your picture of the church growing in depth? Body… Kingdom… Bride…
But wait – there’s much more!
Next one: the church is A PRIESTHOOD
1 Peter 2:9 NIV – “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
This can be a challenging image for some – perhaps your picture of a priest is a robed man you really can’t identify with. Let me help with a “working definition” of a priest:
A priest is a person set apart for God. A priest represents God to people – and also represents people to God.
This image speaks of the more “spiritual” side of the church – of being set apart for the service of God – of holiness and worship. It speaks of us speaking to people about God – and of us speaking to God about people.
What does this image mean to you? It means that God wants you to perform a “sacred role” on earth – wherever you are. That you should be recognised as one who belongs to God and represents him. That you should take time to pray for others.
So take your place in ministry – you are a priest!
The next image is really a collection of images: of A NATION / A HOUSEHOLD / A TEMPLE / A DWELLING / A FIELD
Ephesians 2:19-22 NIV – “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
1 Corinthians 3:6, 9 NIV – “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
These images speak of a common identity – one nation, one household, one building, one field. They also speak of common purpose.
This could mean many things to you, but I’d suggest that your embrace a common identity as a member of the church. You belong. You represent. You succeed and fail together.
So embrace your common identity – you are part of the church!
OK, here’s a powerful and emotive image:
we are AN ARMY
2 Corinthians 10:4-5 NIV – “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Ephesians 6:10-12 NIV – “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Weapons… fight… power… strongholds… demolish… set up against… take captive… make obedient… armour… take your stand… struggle… forces… This is “war talk”!!
This image takes on the realities of evil… of a spiritual war… of enemy forces who fight against Jesus and his subjects… It speaks of battles that we need to fight and win.
What does this mean for you? It means that as a follower of Jesus, you are the enemy of Jesus’ enemies. You have been rescued from the dominion of the devil, but not from the ongoing war between him and Jesus. So you have battles to fight! You have armour to put on and weapons to wield! (For detail on this read Ephesians chapter 6.)
One critical point on the spiritual battlefield: Our Ephesians 6 text tells us “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Your enemy is not human! One of the devil’s tactics seems to be to get his enemy to fight themselves instead of him and his forces!
Inside the church, one church member fights another instead of fighting the real enemy.
Outside the church, we fight people who are against us – but they are people who God wants to be saved; he wants to rescue them so they can become part of his. kingdom.
Let’s not fight people; let’s fight our real enemy!
So… take your place – on the spiritual battlefield!
One final image… we’ll end with a kinder one:
The church is A FLOCK
John 10:11, 14, 16 (NIV) – “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me… I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
1 Peter 5:2, 4 (NIV) – “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are all his sheep – gathered as his flock.
If you know anything about sheep, this image speaks volumes! Sheep are simple creatures (some would even call them stupid!) Sheep are vulnerable creatures – the ones who stray from the flock are often picked off by wolves and other predators. Its a humbling image, because it speaks of our frailty… but its also a comforting image, because it speaks of a flock tended by a good shepherd – he cares for us and protects us in spite of our weakness and foolishness!
What does this image mean for you? It means that you do not have what it takes to “go it alone”. It means that you need to be cared for. It also means that Jesus knows your vulnerability – and wants to take care of you.
So be humble in your frailty… and secure in your Shepherd’s care!
Here’s some “food for thought” for your personal reflection:
Think about which images of the church you really like – and why. Your answers may point to where you can be effective in the church.
Think about which images you don’t like – or struggle with – and why. Your answers may point to where you need to stretch or grow – or simply honour as “out of your territory for now”.
Now we’ll look at some of the things a healthy church DOES.
In the first part, we’ve looked at who we ARE… now let’s take a little look at what we DO.
The question is: WHAT DOES A HEALTHY CHURCH LOOK LIKE?
Acts 2:42-47 (NIV) gives a short, but detailed description of the church as it was established.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This reveals many elements of a healthy church. We don’t have time to examine them in detail, but let me briefly comment on each one:
This is not about occasional involvement “as and when convenient”! There was an observable devotion; the people gave themselves to the life of church.
There was teaching and learning – people were “schooled” in how to live their new life.
The word translated “fellowship” is “koinonia” which means community, partnership… They did not just attend meetings; there was “shared life”.
BREAKING BREAD (“COMMUNION”)
Jesus told us to remember his body broken for us and blood poured out for us in covenant. This should be regularly done to keep the cross of Christ foremost in focus.
Prayer was not just a personal activity, it was part of the corporate activity of the church.
The church knew who was king and who was God – so they had an appropriate attitude of reverent awe towards God.
The life of the church had a powerful supernatural dynamic – God was clearly present and at work.
The church met in large gatherings (temple courts) and small gatherings (in homes). Both large and small gatherings are really important because of the different opportunities they present.
God is always worthy of praise – so it is right that we should praise him together!
If the life of God is at work in us, there will be growth. Growth is normal; if there is no growth, we should ask what of the life of God is lacking amongst us!
It would be a helpful to reflect on a couple of questions related to these elements of “healthy church”. As you reflect, take care not to fall into the trap of criticising others; focus on your personal experience and your personal contribution:
- Which elements of healthy church life do YOU presently experience?
- Are YOU challenged about any of these elements?
- Based on your answers, do you see anything that needs to change?
For last part of this session, we’ll a quick look at some people who are identified for their specific impact on the church. Their impact is not so much in terms of spiritual gifts (we should all have an impact with spiritual gifts – more on that in a later session), but in terms of functional position of impact in the church: these people are elders, deacons and apostles.
These names are not titles of status or rank; they are functional positions that facilitate greater health, greater growth and greater impact.
The words have different associations for different people, so we’ll look for them in Scripture and look at the meanings of the original words to help us understand them better.
First, let’s look at ELDERS
Different church groupings use different words for their church leaders – like “minister”, “pastor”, “priest” and “elder”; let’s see what words we find in the Bible:
1 Peter 5:1-4 NIV
To the elders (1) among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds (2) of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Acts 20:17, 28 NIV
From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders (1) of the church. … Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (3). Be shepherds (2) of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Scripture uses three Greek words together to describe the leadership of the church:
(1) presbuteros (NIV “Elders”) – the Strongs Dictionary defines it as “among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or churches) The New Testament uses the terms bishops, elders, and presbyters interchangeably”.
(2) poimainō (NIV “Shepherds”) – the Strongs Dictionary defines it as “tend as a shepherd” – its a verb that describes functional leadership.
(3) episkopeō (NIV “Overseers”) – the Strongs Dictionary defines it as “oversee… look diligently… give oversight”.
What is important here is not the label, but how we understand our leadership role:
A church leader must fulfill all three expressions of the role: the caring shepherd, the wise man of maturity (elder), and the leader with authority (overseer). Importantly, one must also temper each role by the others.
For example, if a man exercises soul care (shepherd/pastor), but does not lead with authority (overseer), the church will lack vision and direction. Or, if a man leads with authority (overseer), but does not exhibit wisdom and maturity (elder), he may lead the church in the wrong direction. And, without caring for the souls of the people (shepherd/pastor), he may become dictatorial and demanding.
The elders are the highest authority in the local church – yet they always govern with the knowledge that they are not the head, but under-shepherds to the Chief Shepherd, accountable to him for the sheep
We typically find the terms in the plural – the church is ideally governed by a team of elders. This does not mean that one person should not lead the team, but it does imply that, ideally, one person alone should not lead the church – a team protects the sheep from being dominated by one person. For this reason it is a priority of a church plant to build an eldership team.)
Now let’s look at DEACONS
The Greek word translated “deacon” is “diakonos” meaning one who executes the commands of another, a servant, or an attendant.
The first appointment of who we would call deacons is found in Acts 6:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:1-4 (NIV)
Deacons do not share the governance or oversight responsibility of the elders, but they most certainly share the ministry responsibility!
A strong body of deacons strengthens the church in two ways:
(1) it helps the eldership team focus on their core responsibilities by taking on some of the many other necessary responsibilities of the work of the church.
(2) it increases the breadth or reach of ministry as more people work into more areas.
Deacons are most certainly not “spiritual number 2’s” or restricted to practical work. As we read further, we read that the first deacons did far more than “wait on tables” (take responsibility for practical tasks):
“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.” Acts 6:8 (NIV)
“Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed.” Acts 8:5-7 (NIV)
The last group we’ll look at for this session are
The Greek word translated “apostle” is “apostolos”, meaning a delegate, a messenger, “one who is sent forth with orders”.
Acts 14:21-23 (NIV) gives a helpful snapshot of apostolic ministry
They preached the gospel in that city [Derbe] and won a large number of disciples.
Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
As ones who are sent out, the ministry of the apostle reaches beyond the local church where they are based:
- into new territories (in this case, Derbe)
- as well as into established churches (in this case, Lystra, Iconium and Antioch).
Apostles do not “rule over” eldership teams (they are not another level of authority), although they may appoint a church’s elders. Their purpose is to strengthen the churches that they minister into.
The church is truly a magnificent phenomenon! I hope this session has increased your sense of its depth, breadth and beauty – and inspired you to take your place and to fulfil your role.
In the next session, we’ll speak more practically about how you can take your place and be effective as part of the Body of Christ.