Some things are simple and complex at the same time. The concept of an old iron bridge is simple to grasp yet, when we look at one, we see amazing complexity as all of the members, just the right size, are positioned in precisely the right place. Together, they provide enough strength to allow heavy vehicles, even trains, to cross safely. Though the principle behind an iron bridge is relatively simple, the design and construction of it is not. The same is true of the church. The concept is simple. Yet, its functioning is complex, because it is made up of millions of individuals, has a variety of aspects (e.g. universal/local; corporate/individual), and engages in several activities (e.g. worship, discipleship, evangelism).
A Common Bond
Though some are confused about what the church is, most understand that it is not a building or a social institution. It is a group of people who are bound together because of their common belief that the Lord Jesus Christ is “very God of very God” and their own personal Saviour. Some who believe this but cannot, or do not, gather regularly with other Christians certainly are part of the church (e.g. isolated believers in Islamic countries). People who do not believe this may be found, from time to time, gathered with the church, but they are not part of it.
The church is made up of individuals. Yet, as soon as they come together, they form a group which is distinct from its individual members. (Similar to the way that a policeman is not the police force, though he is part of it.) Something unique happens when the church comes together as a corporate entity. Though Jesus is present with individual Christians, He is present in a different way when two or more come together. The corporate experience of the Lord’s presence is different from the individual experience.
Individuals may engage in some of the same things that the church, as a body, does. Consider these: Individuals pray and churches pray. It’s the same and it’s different. Individual believers worship and the church worships. It’s the same and it’s different. Individuals study and learn from the scriptures in private. The church studies and learns from the scriptures corporately. It’s the same and it’s different.
Checks and Balances
Let’s take a closer look at learning. In private, an individual Christian mines the biblical texts for flashes of truth—insights to encourage and refresh. However, when Christians come together in community, they have the opportunity to test their insights—comparing and contrasting them with those of others. Most of us have been encouraged and/or convicted as someone shares a scriptural insight which we affirm as being from the Lord. Some have also experienced situations in which the collective knowledge of Scriptures of a community of faith reveals that the speaker has deviated from the broad sweep of biblical truth, usually because of isolating or emphasizing a particular text. The church provides checks and balances as it receives input from individuals.
While there is room for both private and corporate spiritual exercise, as we have seen, there are some things that the church must do corporately. Even the most ardent Christian is not able to engage in fraternal fellowship without at least one other Christian present. It is certainly true that an individual could be remembering the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ while eating a meal of bread and wine, but it would not be the same as a group of Christians coming together to do so and experiencing the Lord’s presence in His body.
Evangelism seems to be in a category by itself. While an evangelistic meeting may be endorsed by the church, it is not, strictly speaking a meeting of the church. Members of the body of Christ may be present, but the purpose of evangelism is to address UNbelievers. We preach the gospel in partnership with the convincing and convicting work of the Holy Spirit who drives the truth home in the heart of the unbeliever and prompts a response to Jesus as Saviour.
Is the church simple as a concept? Yes. Millions of the young, simple, and theologically unsophisticated people are part of it and enjoy the benefits it offers.
Is the church complex? Yes. It is complex in the way that a living human body is complex. It is made up of innumerable individuals all interacting in such a way as to produce a single, unified whole. When individuals fail to do their job the church becomes sick, just as when an internal organ fails to function a person becomes sick. When an individual believer refuses to accept the checks and balances of the community, the church experiences what, in a physical body, would be called “cancer”—the runaway growth of mutant cells.
Like the old iron bridge, referred to at the beginning of this piece, the church needs every member firmly attached to the adjacent members to provide an integrated, sturdy structure which can fulfill its function of getting people from one side of the river to the other. Iron beams lying on the bank, though they are exactly the same as the ones used in the bridge, are not part of it. Beams dangling from one rivet may be part of the bridge, but add nothing to the whole, because they are not integrated into it.
Unlike the old iron bridge, the church is the dynamic, living, manifestation of the presence of Christ on earth. How do you fit into it?