What is the Church?
Is it a denomination?
A hierarchy of old guys in funny hats?
Is it a building?
Is it a club?
Is it a set of traditions, values, or political commitments?
Hopefully the answer to those questions seem transparently obvious–No.
A Mostly Right Answer
But what about this: the Church is the people of God.
That sounds a little more accurate, right? The Bible in places refers to all Christians in general simply as the “Church” (Gal 1:13; Acts 8:3; Acts 20:28 1 Cor 10:32; 1 Cor 11:16; Eph 5:25). If you are a Christian, you have been baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13)–to be a “Christian” is, in one sense, to be the Church.
In the current COVID-19 world we are living, where nearly every local church around the world was unable to meet on Sunday, we have seen many Christians encourage one another to simply be the Church. We can’t get together on Sunday, but that doesn’t stop us from being the Church. And by this they mean something like: we can still faithfully follow Jesus, love one another, and serve our community if we cannot all gather together in a building on Sunday morning. To which I give a hearty, Southern-Baptist: Preach it, brotha!
A Fly in the Ointment
But, I wonder if there might be a fly hiding somewhere in the ointment. While the Bible does sometimes refer to all Christians across time and space as the “Church” (capitol “C”), more often it uses the word “church” to refer to local assemblies of Christians. For example, whenever Paul writes a letter he addresses it to “the church at Galatia, Ephesus, Rome, etc.” This is the distinction that is often referred to as the Universal Church and the Local Church, or the Invisible Church and the Visible Church. Since we are not God, we cannot see the Invisible Church (all Christians across time and space). But, the Invisible, Universal Church is made visible here on earth through the local church. In other words, the only way we can know who is a part of the Invisible Church is by their association or membership with the visible, local church.
More significantly, there appears to be a unique, peculiar dimension of the church’s church-ness when it gathers together corporately. “Church” in the New Testament, of course, literally means assembly, or congregation. So, just like the members of your family are still family even when dispersed, there is an element of your family-ness that is unique to when you gather together. A family who never sees each other is a family in letter, but not in spirit.
However, the family analogy is an imperfect one. There is no Biblical warrant for families enjoying a peculiar dimension of covenantal fellowship when corporately gathered–but there is for the church. In Matthew 18 we are told that it is when the church is gathered in Jesus’ name that Jesus’ presence is there (Matt 18:15-20). Of course, since Jesus is God He is omnipresent–everywhere, always. Thus, this must refer to a unique covenantal presence of Jesus–we are gathered in Jesus’ name. In the Bible, to bear God’s name is synonymous with being in a covenantal relationship with Him. And, therefore, we who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who then gather in Jesus’ name (read: are in a covenant with God) experience an aspect of His presence that is unique. In other words, Jesus is present with His church in a way that He isn’t present with the rest of the world.
We see this in practice in the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 5 we are told that it is when the whole church is “assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” that they then possess a unique, heavenly authority: “the power of the Lord Jesus (is present),” (1 Cor 5:4). In chapter 11 we are told that the Corinthians partake in the Lord’s Supper–the meal of the covenant!–when they “come together as a church“–something that is repeated 5x (1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). Jonathan Leeman writes, “[It’s] as if they are somehow more “a church” when together than apart,” (Church Membership, p. 44).
A Stick in the Mud
Why am I making this point? Am I just trying to be a stick in the mud? No. Or, at least, I hope I’m not. I realize that we have been given a difficult providence from the Lord. We cannot meet right now. Further, we cannot just have church online. So, why am I trying to sweep the legs out from another attempt by well-meaning Christians to make lemonade out of lemons? What’s wrong with saying that we can just be the Church?
Well, the problem with nearly all pithy, proverbial statements isn’t that they are wrong, but that they are often unclear.
When you say be the Church, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean that we should obey Christ, love neighbor, and seek to still follow our covenant oaths of church membership, despite being temporarily unable to gather for corporate worship? Then, verily, verily, I say unto thee: Amen!
But, do you mean that we can “be the Church” in the exact same way as we could when we could still gather? That gathering for corporate worship was just a nice, added bonus, but not essential? If that’s what you mean, then I am going to say: Actually, no. We cannot “be the Church” in the same way if we cannot corporately gather with the rest of our covenant members, hear the preaching of the Word and partake in the ordinances. There is a peculiar, unique, and non-reproducible element to our assembling together that no Facebook live video stream can recreate.
So, Can We Be the Church?
What am I getting at? Don’t cheapen the glory of corporate worship. Don’t denigrate the unique covenantal presence of Jesus we get to experience when we gather together in his name on the Lord’s Day by claiming, “It’s okay! We don’t have to gather for church, we can just be the Church!” How we talk about the church now–especially by pastors and leaders–is telling people what the church is. So, let’s be careful.
Of course, the Lord’s sovereign hand has led us here. He knows that this virus has prohibited His people from gathering. Therefore, we can assume that we can, in a way, still be the Church even if we cannot gather. By our obedience to the Lord, love of neighbor, and love for one another we still live as members of the body of Christ. Our citizenship is ultimately in heaven and local churches are simply embassies of heaven, here on earth. Though the embassy has temporarily closed, that does not render our citizenship void nor our duty to live in accordance with its laws. No matter what, we are sojourners and strangers in this world, passing through on our way to the Celestial City where our final resting place lies.
But, while we remain here, as we await that day, we long for the foretaste of that heavenly city to be brought to us again through our gathering. We long for the glories of corporate worship, the place where we get to be the Church in a way that we never can be alone, separated from one another.
May the Lord bring that day soon.