“Pardon me, Mr. Henderson, but what on earth is the church?” That was the question poised to me by an obviously very intelligent young table mate in my favorites coffee shop. I was intrigued by his question. It made me more aware that we are now seeing a generation who are products of a post-Christian culture, and who have had no significant contact with what we call: the church.

The question fascinated me so much that I am currently working on a manuscript to see if I can satisfy myself in trying to define the essence of what can authentically be described as the church. The problem is that the more I probe into what the New Testament actually teaches about the church, and then comparing it with my long career of being involved with the church in its multiple expressions, . . . I am of the opinion that a large amount of that religious organization that passes itself off as ‘the church’ actually has very little to do with the church—often just a stagnant pool of what someone called: “a stagnant pool of religious Christianity.” (Isn’t that an awful thing to say about the church?) But there is undoubtedly a lot of confusion inside the church about what it is also.

For our purposes here, however, consider that Jesus uses the word ‘church’ maybe twice, but most prominently at Caesarea Philippi when he was near the end of his earthly ministry, and was facing the cross, he asked his disciples: “Who do men say that I am?” They gave him some of the responses they had received. Then he said to them: “But who do you say that I am?” At that point Peter voices their conclusion that he actually was the Messiah so long expected by the Jewish community. Jesus response to that affirmation of his role as Messiah was that it was upon that Messianic reality that he would build his church.

It is an interesting choice of a descriptive word. The word in Greek is ek-klesia, and is not at all a religious or Christian word. It means called-out. It describes a people called our for any one of many possible reasons: to celebrate something, or for political reasons, or to advocate something, . . . whatever. It was only the choice of the much later English translators to appropriate the word church that has to do with some community of the Lord’s people (the meaning is a bit shadowy).

It is the Greek word that demands our attention. When Jesus, who has presented himself as the very Son of God, now come to inaugurate God’s new creation, God’s kingdom, speaks of building his called-out community upon that Messianic foundation, . . . then any thoughtful person would immediately ask himself/herself: Called out of what? and, called into what? What have I been in that I need to be called out of? and, what are the implications of whatever it is that Jesus is calling me into, and what will that called-out community look like? And, what demands will it make of me?’

Later in the New Testament documents you begin to get some more precise understanding. Paul’s missionary mandate from the risen Christ was that he go and open men’s eyes that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, and that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are made like the one who calls. Later, Paul will speak of Christ delivering us out of the domain of darkness and transferring us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.

All of the apostolic writings, then, give substance to the radical new humanity that Christ is forming by his Spirit. There is never any suggestion that the church is some place to which we resort for inspiration. There is never any suggestion that we join the church. There is actually no mandate for so much of what consumes the ostensible church. So again, one wonders if much of what goes on under that concept has anything to do with the dynamic new humanity that Christ is building. How on earth is the church the incarnation of God’s New Creation? Stand by . . .

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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