It’s been almost seven years since I launched my quest to find the church I see when I read the New Testament.
This quest grew out of a deep frustration. As I studied the New Testament, I got a distinct image of the church which was very different from “church” as I experienced it, here in the 21st Century. At the time, I couldn’t articulate my frustration any more explicitly than that, but I knew I wanted what I saw in the New Testament.
Another thing I knew was that this was not a journey to be taken alone, so, I invited a friend and his family to join me and my family in this pursuit.
The journey has not gone as I expected. It seemed reasonable to begin with a study on the nature of the church in Ephesians, but that really didn’t help. Our approach was too academic. Not that an understanding of the Ephesians is not critical, but we needed more than just the textbook–answers.
So, we began a study of the Story—a study that follows the pivotal developments of the narrative of Scripture as it unfolds in the Old and New Testaments. Afterward, we moved on to more in–depth studies of Romans, Daniel and Revelation.
By this time, others had joined our group. I felt like everybody enjoyed getting together each week, but that there was a deeper connection that we were missing. In light of this, we agreed to focus on relationships in our next study.
Although I considered a topical study on the issue, I knew that a book study of the Bible dealing with relationships would be best. In topical studies, it’s too easy to let your current understanding of the topic influence where the study takes you.
So, is there a book in the New Testament that deals with relationships?
Well, it turns out that Ephesians does. It wasn’t until we were in the middle of the study that I realized that we were back where we started.
But now, we were asking a different question—not, “What is the church?,” but, “How do we relate?”
With this realization came another—The church of the New Testament was defined by its relationships.
And, this realization was followed by third—At it’s core, the disconnect I was struggling with is rooted in differing concepts of church.
By concept, I don’t mean the answer we give when directly asked, “What is the church?” Many of the believers I encounter are biblically literate enough to know that the correct answer to that question is that the church is people—believers who make up the body of Christ.
But that technical definition is very different from how we use the term in everyday conversation. We go to church on Sunday morning, enroll our kids in the church preschool; we are active in our church’s women’s/men’s ministry, serve in our church’s youth or children’s program. When we move (and even when we don’t) we look for a new church to join.
See, despite our technically correct, Sunday School answer to the question, its hard to escape the concept of church as characterized by our culture. If I were to summarize this concept of church, I would say it is an organization which provides programs and services for our consumption. The particular structure may vary—it may have members, officers, boards, trustees, employees, and/or facilities, but its existence is not defined by, nor ultimately dependent on, those things. At the end of the day, the church, as we think of it today, is an organization—a corporation—an independent legal entity.
By contrast, the New Testament Church is not an independent legal entity—it is simply a group of people—followers of Jesus Christ. As such, it is defined by the relationship of these followers. On its face this definition seems pretty broad and loose, so it will be important to examine it biblically, but for now, let’s simply note that in the New Testament concept of church, relationship is fundamental. The church does not exist apart from these relationships.
Now, in the organizational church, relationships are often valued, championed, promoted, and encouraged, but in the final analysis, they are not essential to the existence of the organization. You can become a member of most “churches” without having much of a relationship with anyone in the organization. And although most of these organizations make the development of relationships a goal, you can attend services, Sunday School, even participate in small groups, without developing any substantial relationship with anyone. Others may know your favorite sports team, all the things your kids are involved in, where you’re going for vacation—that kind of stuff—but the kind of fellowship found in the New Testament, the kind that defines the church—that kind of relationship is pretty rare.
To carry this a step further, I have seen any number of churches where the organization existed in spite of broken, hostile relationships. Someone might take the long way from Sunday School to the sanctuary in hopes of avoiding a person who has offended them, or with whom they have a long–standing feud.
Worse yet, how many churches have been “planted” as the result of a church split—a situation in which the relational divide is so deep that the two factions form separate organizations? We may call them “churches” but they are not functioning like the body of Christ of the New Testament.
All this to say that, for all the emphasis that may be placed on the development relationships in an organizational church, those relationship are not critical to its existence.
So, if relationships are essential to the New Testament concept of church, and if organizational churches place such an emphasis on relationships, and yet, are unable to effectively develop them, where is the disconnect?
To answer that, we need to take up that biblical examination of the New Testament church. We’ll do that next.
©Copyright Garth Oliver