35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”(NIV)
12Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.(NIV)
What is the Church supposed to be? It is the Assembly or Congregation of the redeemed in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit of the Living God. We have the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, Luke’s history of the Acts of the Apostles and the 1st-Century Churches, and the letters of the Apostles and others to those Churches. How do the practices of Churches today—scattered as they are among the numerous factions and denominations—compare with Jesus’ stated intention for His Church?
We find ourselves separated from the practices of the Church recorded in the New Testament and the authoritative writings of the first few centuries after Christ, on the far side of a 1,000-year gulf (approximately the span from the formal declaration of religious supremacy by Leo I in the 5th Century to the Reformation in the 16th) of a deliberate deception which attempted to drown out the faith which more direct forms of persecution had only made stronger. It is hard to sort out which of the components of the modern Church are constructive Spiritual guidance, and which are old habits formed from previous generations of state-sponsored misdirection.
But a Spiritually sound and productive Church is not a matter of religious practice or ceremony. Paul gives us a concise summary in Romans, chapter 14, of the role of such “disputable matters” as special days and dietary restrictions in the life of the Church. They are to be tolerated for the well-being of the Spiritually-less-mature, who might otherwise be harmed in their formative stages by confusion or temptation, but they are hardly the defining purpose of the Church.
Neither is Church a matter of merely resuming the literal pattern of the early Church as recorded in Acts and the Apostles’ writings. As our local pastor has pointed out, the Churches spoken of in the New Testament were often at least as dysfunctional and self-destructive as modern congregations. We can easily understand Paul’s anger in letters to the Corinthian and Galatian Churches. When left on their own, these immature congregations quickly toddled away from the Spirit’s direction and into serious trouble. The Revelation of John begins with cautions to key Churches against doctrinal failings and loss of fervor. Almost all of the letters from the Apostles have to warn their audiences against falling away, favoritism to the rich and powerful, superficial and lifeless faith, being distracted by defective doctrine. Then, as now, Churches were made up of “busted”, defective people who struggled to set aside the old ways, and take their places in the new Creation.
Modern Churches, Protestant or other (some are opposed to the idea of being derived by separation from Roman Catholicism rather than legitimate Scriptural and Spiritual heritage), almost always retain the carefully scripted weekly “stage show” format, with songs, recitations, and a speech by a specially trained pastor. No one in the “audience” would think to interject their own thoughts or feelings or individual Spiritual insight into the sermon (I’ve only actually walked out of one sermon in my life—I still can’t bring myself to talk about its subject). Our Bible studies (Baptists call them Sunday School) have often lapsed into programmed sales pitches distributed from a central office for the denomination. And yet, I have met individuals within those rigid, institutional Churches who spoke from genuine Spiritual inspiration, and showed that a real, breathing Church was inside the structure, alive and well. I have received messages during those formal sermons and even during some of those canned Bible studies that redirected and encouraged me when I needed it most. Even a busted, deficient Church is a place where people who take God’s purpose seriously gather, and as God has promised, His Spirit is there.
What is the Church supposed to be like? What makes it alive even when buried under layers of lifeless, institutional pavement? Jesus calls us His real Family(Mark 3:31-33). Paul described the function of the Church with that wonderful organic metaphor, as in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12—all the individuals working to support and build up one another with the individual gifts given them by the Holy Spirit, bound together by Love, unified in the task set for us by Jesus Christ. Further, we are told:
11It was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.(NIV)
This is what the Church is. Everything else is religion. We have to set aside the things we’ve been told by other people about what Churches are supposed to do and how they are supposed to act, and the historical formalities and ceremonies made by men (Matthew 15:9), and the “pretensions set up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5), and submit humbly to the guidance of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God through faith in Jesus, to serve one another in Love.