A few years ago, in preparation for a Bible study, I threw out a little test on Facebook which read, “Quick, I say church, you say…” The responses I got included fellowship, pastor, pray, God’s people, community, lady (that one made me chuckle), Amen, worship, people, building, steeple, and mouse. It struck me that there was not one knee-jerk-response reference to Christ, even from my believing Facebook friends. Yet Jesus tells us,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
Jesus had just commissioned his Church. It wasn’t nebulous or vague. He was very specific: make disciples of me, baptize into me, teach obedience to me.
If you’re like me, you go to church on Sunday. You pick out an outfit. You may or may not go to Sunday school, and if you do, you may or may not have done the homework. You get in the car, then run back in to the house to retrieve your Bible. If you have kids, you may have already spent a couple of hours wrangling, feeding, dressing, and correcting. Your frame of mind might not be what you want it to be, given the fact that you’re about to worship the God of the universe. Nevertheless, when we go to church, what is it, exactly, that we are going to?
John Piper spoke about what he referred to as “minimum church” vs. “maximum church.” Minimum church is characterized by the trappings of church: choir, youth programs, committees, boards, pot lucks, Bible studies, good sermons. The things of minimum church are all positive, but if they don’t illuminate and elevate Christ, they are all simply religious or social ritual and tradition.
The Church as commissioned by Jesus Christ is what Piper is referring to when he speaks of “maximum church.” The Bible is clear and unmitigated in its definition and expectations of the church.
First, Christ’s church consists of his people.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys that temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22).
You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5).
God designates marriage as a type of Christ’s church. His people are his bride.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so 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. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)
For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2)
Second, Christ’s church is to be a light, illuminating him through visible works.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:11-15)
And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. (Titus 3:14)
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
Third, Christ’s church is to be unified, each individual part working together to elevate him in the world.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye where would be the sense of hearing? God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:13-27)
This unity is not only with each other, but with-in-the Trinity. I never tire of reading John 17, nor does it cease to humble and amaze me. Listen to the depth of love and intimacy that Jesus has for us, his church. He is discussing us with God the Father. Remarkable.
I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you and these know that you have sent me. I made known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:6-26)
Oh, how grateful I am that God left us his perfect, beautiful Word to illuminate his plan for his creation. God couldn’t be any clearer on what he expects of us, his church. We are one body with many parts, in unity, set apart for good works to point others to Christ.
My brother-in-law Matt defined the church as “a community of God’s elect chosen for our good and for his glory.” C.S. Lewis stresses,
...the church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.
So, on Sunday, as you pick out your outfit, wrangle the kids, grab your coffee and Bible as you rush out the door, try to remember not where you are going to, but what you are a part of. You are a member of God’s elect people, chosen before the beginning of time to serve as his visible representative in the world, illuminating and elevating Christ so that people may know him.
For thy church, that evermore
lifteth holy hands above,
offering up on every shore
her pure sacrifice of love;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.