Why the Church?
Churches sometimes seem to be big social clubs with a cafe, bookstore, dances, concerts, and the latest positive thinking classes. Other churches are steeped in traditional ceremonies, incense, and rituals that repeat week after week. While still other churches seem to be comical places where people laugh, howl, and bark like dogs while calling these antics the work of God.
There is such a variety in the way people "play church". There are big mega-churches with thousands attending weekly services as well as small home churches.
Some people are at a church event nearly every day of the week. It seems their lives revolve around the church. Some people spend so much time at church that their family life suffers. But, mostly, people attend church one day on the weekend and act the rest of the week as if they were simply living for today.
It's no wonder that many people think churches are irrelevant in today's complex world.
But, God established the New Testament church for a reason. So, it's important that we ask:
What is the church and why was it established?
What is a Church?
First, the English word "church" used in our Bibles translates the Greek word "ekklesia". This is a compound word that literally means "out called ones".
It generally means a gathering of citizens called out from their homes to a public assembly. It does not mean a general public gathering. Rather it includes only those specially called together out of a larger multitude for the transaction of business. The Greeks used the word to indicate an assembly of people possessing the rights of citizenship (excluding visitors and those not allowed to vote) for the purpose of making decisions.
After Pentecost, we find the disciples praising God because of all the people God was adding to the church.
This clearly indicates that the church is composed of the people of God, or of believers. Most frequently it refers to the local congregation of believers, though it can refer to the entire body of believers worldwide and throughout the ages.
Frequent mention is made of a group of believers located in a certain city. Here are a couple of examples:
The English word "church" can also mean a building. We might say, "There is a Methodist church", or "There is a Baptist church." But, this is not the thought you should have as you read the word "church" in the New Testament.
Most early churches were small and met in someone's home. Paul often refereed to a church that meets in a certain home. Here are a couple of examples:
So, the church is composed of the people of God who meet together in some location.
Why So Many Denominations?
When the church began after Pentecost there were only Jews in the church. They believed that the way into the church to worship the Jewish Saviour was through the Jewish religion. They kept traditional Jewish ceremonies and holy days while at the same time believing in Jesus Christ.
It was about 10 years later that the first Gentile (non-Jewish) person entered the church. Later, whole Gentile congregations grew.
Jewish Christians from the original Jerusalem congregation sent messengers to a Gentile congregation in Antioch to see if the Jewish law of circumcision was being followed. A disagreement brought about a council of the Jerusalem church were it was decided that the Gentile churches did not have to keep the Jewish laws.
There were now two different ways of being a Christian: a Jewish way and a Gentile way. You could say they these were the first two denominations.
As the early church grew, many church leaders tried to clarify questions about Jesus and other topics. Such topics as the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and later the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son were debated. The conclusions of the bishops became the beliefs of the churches under their control. Some bishops attempted to create uniformity of belief among all the churches and so outlawed certain beliefs.
Creeds, often in the form of prayers, were written to declare "official" doctrines. Those who believed otherwise were held to be heretics. Schisms, differences in belief, were often the cause of wars between opposing sides.
Rifts in the great denominations occurred when the Greek Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church around 1000. Later the Protestant churches split from the Roman Catholic Church around 1500.
Various Protestant denominations were started by men who had ideas that differed from an existing church. New denominations are still being created today as congregations split over some doctrinal issues. Modern issues such as women in the ministry, gay marriage, or homosexuals in the ministry are major issues causing divisions today.
Who Established the Church?
Back to the beginning. Jesus said he would build his church upon a certain "rock."
There are several different way of looking at this passage. Each view has a different interpretations of what Jesus meant by the "rock" upon which he would build his church. These views can be stated as:
The Roman Catholic Church believes that the Apostle Peter was the "rock" upon which the church was built. They believe that there was a succession of leaders, or Popes, starting with Peter that continued on down to today.
Most Protestant churches believe that Jesus was the central concern or "rock" upon which the church was built.
Purpose of the Church
Just before Jesus ascended into the sky, the last instructions he gave to his disciples concerned their future mission. This statement is called by many, the great commission:
So, first, the church is an instrument of evangelism. It is to take the message of salvation to all peoples of the world. Those who repent and want to follow Jesus become students (disciples) of Jesus. They will be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit.
Up to the time of Jesus, God had been dealing personally only with the children of Israel (most people would say the Jews). The Old Covenant promised that God would prosper their nation as long as they were faithful to God's commands.
Jesus' death established a new and better covenant. Under the New Covenant, God's agreement is not just with the Jews, but with all nations, races, or nationalities. God promises that any person who has faith in Jesus will gain eternal life and avoid destruction.
The church is to take this message to the world.
Now faith in Jesus is not simply an intellectual belief. Rather, faith in Jesus involves a trust and loyal commitment that causes you to be willing to obey his commands. Such a commitment involves making a decision to forsake former ways of thinking and follow the teachings of Jesus.
Paul described the message he preached to both Jews and Gentiles.
After people repent and become students (disciples) of Jesus, they need to learn more accurately the teachings of Jesus.
So, second, the church is a teaching instrument. It is to convey the teachings of Jesus to students (disciples) of Jesus. Doing so offers people the opportunity to treat others with kindness and mercy as well as to place their faith and trust more fully in Jesus to resurrect them to eternal life at his return.
There are many instances in which Jesus modeled being a teacher. He taught many concepts to those that followed him.
The apostles continued this tradition. They taught whenever and wherever they could. And, they taught others to be teachers, just like themselves.
The church is to build up, teach, and prepare the members of the church to do the work of Jesus.
The church is a community. Jesus said that the community was to have a special love, one for another. There is to be respect and empathy within the community. Nobody is perfect; some will experience pain and other will experience joy. The community is to share these feelings:
The church as a community meets together to learn, to be uplifted, to worship God, and to pray. In the early church, we find a number of occasions when the Jerusalem church was meeting together.
At one time Peter and John healed a lame man in the Jewish temple. This attracted a crowd so Peter preached to the crowd. But, the Jewish religious authorities were annoyed and arrested them and kept them overnight. The next day the authorities questioned them and commanded them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. Then they released Peter and John.
Peter and John then returned to the brethren who were meeting together and told them the story. The brethren then prayed.
Jesus indicated that people ought to praise or worship their God. Jesus spoke to a woman of Samaria and told her that Good seeks true worshipers:
Jesus also gave his disciples a new commandment that they have special love, one for another. This is a love beyond the neighborly love of one for his neighbor.
In brief summary, the church is to:
I welcome your comments:
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Copyright © 2006 Robert Sherman