“The church is not just a building, it is the people.”
“The church is a hospital for sinners, not a club for saints.”
“The church should be the safest place on earth.”
That’s it. Those three statements exhaust the popular understanding of the church. Ecclesiology has essentially been reduced to a few catchphrases. They work well because they are almost Biblical—no, none of these are in Scripture, but they sound close enough to New Testament teaching that we give them a pass. And yet, in making the transition from inspired teaching to inspirational statement, something has been lost. The vision of the church has been reduced and drained of its power. What was that original vision? What might we learn from it?
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul marveled at “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things,” but hidden no longer for “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:9-10). Don’t miss the cosmic significance of this. This is not just about the influence of the church being felt down the street; the church has galactic significance.
A careful reading of the letter reveals that this mystery is the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles into one body. Why is that significant? Not just because these were groups that historically didn’t get along, or because there was a sense that the Gentiles didn’t belong in the covenant family. Rather, it is significant because Paul understood that this union of Jew and Gentile was a preview of a much greater union yet to happen: “the mystery of His will” is “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things in earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). The inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant family of the Jews anticipates the inclusion of the family of earth into the family of heaven. Those that don’t belong are being made to belong.
And yet, this union is opposed. “The rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” is a reference to demonic opposition—”for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). When the Angel of the Lord brought the high priest Joshua before him, the adversary came to accuse him (Zechariah 3). When Michael came to claim Moses, the devil stood to oppose him (Jude 9). The demonic cry declares of God’s people, “They don’t belong!” We are things of earth, not things of heaven. As such, we are earthly, faulty, erring rebels.
Enter the church, the appointed agency through which Christ answers that accusation by making “the mystery” known.
Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard. It is the theater of his grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts. (Acts of the Apostles, pg. 12)
In the church, God shows how He is able to take those who don’t belong and make them belong. This act in the theater of grace previews the final act: heaven and earth united.
Hence Paul writes elsewhere of the church:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Those who didn’t belong are made to belong, not because we redefine what it means to belong, but because the Spirit does a redefining work in our lives. Former labels no longer describe us.
Is the church supposed to uphold standards, or is it supposed to be welcoming? No such tension exists for Paul. He teaches us not to discriminate between “them” and “us,” but between “then” and “now:” who we once were, and who we are now in Christ. Such an invitation is open to all.
Yet, this washing takes time. Faults remain—faults that we quickly notice in each other. Hence, the command to “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3).
Humility works, not by thinking less of self, but by thinking more of others (Philippians 2:3). The actions of others typically require some degree of interpretation, and we tend to be much more generous in how we justify our own behavior than that of others. Humility calls for a reversal of this tendency, teaching us to interpret the conduct of others in the most charitable way. “If we are ever suspecting evil, we are in danger of creating what we allow ourselves to suspect. Oh, how many mistakes we make in attempting to judge the motives of our brethren!” (Our High Calling, p.237).
No longer eager to find fault, we put that energy into maintaining unity. This unity is not something we fabricate, but is based on seven divine realities that bond us together: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:4-6). United by these seven ones, there is no threat to unity from two opposing convictions on more disputable matters, however convinced one may be in their own mind (cf. Romans 14).
This is not unity for unity’s sake. There is a purpose: “building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). Therefore, we cannot sacrifice principle or truth (Ephesians 4:14). “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
In this work, each one of us has been entrusted with gifts—special capacities in which we can serve (Ephesians 4:7-12). Do you feel like your local church is not meeting your needs? Wrong question. Ask instead: How can you help meet the needs of the church? The church is in need of your particular God-given gift.
This new framework of living to serve rather than to be served is alien to the world—it is something we learn as we model our lives after the loving service of Christ (Ephesians 4:17-32, 5:1-2). As such, it has radical implications for every sphere of our lives: what we desire (Ephesians 5:5), who we associate with (Ephesians 5:7-8), what one’s marriage looks like (Ephesians 5:22-33) and the relationship between children and parents (Ephesians 6:1-4), as well as how we relate to those in authority over us or those we have authority over (Ephesians 6:5-9). Each home becomes “a little heaven upon earth” (Adventist Home, pg. 15), the union between heaven and earth being made manifest through the church.
How is this all possible? How can an enfeebled and defective church play such a cosmic role? The answer comes in three acts:
- Act One: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25). He paid the bride price in His death; He continues to give Himself in His never-ceasing heavenly ministry.
- Act two: “…that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…” (Ephesians 5:26). Christ administers to the church the bridal bath. You may be tempted to cleanse the church yourself, but you don’t have the right. She doesn’t belong to you. Be rebuked; be relieved.
- Act three: “…that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). The bride is ready to be received by the groom. Things of earth have been made to belong with things of heaven. Too, this final act belongs to Christ; we can trust Him to accomplish it.
The vision for the church is glorious; seldom, though, does the church appear glorious. This is by design. The enfeebled condition of the church allows the glory of God to be seen all the more clearly. The church is a theater, but God is to remain the star of the show.
How easy it is to admire a cathedral and never see Christ—let us worship in rubble that no glory is robbed Him.
How easy it is to be impressed with a speaker’s eloquence—let his tongue be tied that we might learn to listen to the words of Christ.
How easy it is to become discouraged by the shortcomings of ourselves and those around us—let us learn to see Christ at work.
How easy it is to be critical of leadership and question the direction of the church—let us speak of Christ as head of the church and our confidence in His leading.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)