Many years ago, concerned by friends leaving our church, I preached a sermon on the topic, “what is the church?” I could not find a copy of my notes, but I am guessing that I probably would not agree with much of what I said back then. After a few years as a church elder and dealing with a vast array of problems, I significanly revised my thinking on the church. If you looked back at some of my writing from this period, you’d note that I sounded quite emergent, before emergent existed. However, that, too, has passed. After many years of thinking, reading and writing about ecclesiological issues, I find myself almost full circle, coming back to a more traditional view of the church.
David Hayward has written recently about the nature of church, saying, “The truth is that it is basically a group of people in relationship with one another and with the spirit of Jesus.” I would have to agree that this definition follows Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” There is an element of church that exists wherever Christians are in relationship, even if no prior relationship existed between the individuals; our connection to Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit is sufficient for relationship, and church, to happen. However, I suspect that in many cases church relationships have become predominantly horizontal; that is, we no longer see our connection to the local church as based in Christ, but rather upon any number of extrinsic elements. The invisible, universal Church is one thing; the local church is quite another.
One of the unfortunate results from Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers is that we see ourselves as somewhat independent and self-sufficient; it’s truly “me and Jesus.” However, what we fail to realize is that we are priests not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others, the local community of believers. We are truly dependent upon each other. This is seen most clearly in the administration of the sacraments – baptism and communion – something which evangelicalism has also lost. The sacraments, having lost any sense of incarnational theology, have been reduced to rituals, memorials or testimonies, rather than a true expressions of the work of Christ. When attempts are made to “spiritualize” them, the result is often akin to superstition.
For Luther, the church was an expression of the Gospel, and was in fact founded on the Gospel, that we are justified sola gratia, by grace alone. The church, in Luther’s mind, is also seen as a communal version of his anthropology, that we are simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. That is, in Christ we are, as is often phrased today, in the “already and not yet,” sinners who have been undone and condemned by the Law, but remade and are being sanctified by Christ.
The Church is expressed locally when Christians gather in faith, with the common belief that we are simul iustus et peccator, sinners dependent upon the cross. There is no other basis for communion. When we corporately respond to the preaching of the Gospel and respond in faith, the church itself is undone and reacreated. Therefore, “unity” is only possible through the work of grace in the corporate gathering. There is, therefore, no need for pastors to exhort followers to “get on the same page” or do anything else to create or preserve unity in the church; whatever these issues are, they are immaterial. Unity and the corporate expression of the Church is solely based in the Gospel and our shared faith in the Cross.
This does not necessarily make finding a local church easy; even within the various liturgical church denominations, there are varying expressions, ranging from “low” church expressions with modified liturgies to “high” church expressions with all the bells and smells. Style and personalities are a factor; however, when all is said and done, we are made a church not by any of these things, but because we are all simul iustus et peccator.