I recently gave a talk at my church’s college and career group. Typically when I give talks that are not a simple exegesis of a particular text, I write out a manuscript. Since I wrote almost 4,500 words, I thought it made sense to rework the content a little and split it up into blog posts. What follows is the first of those posts.
It has been said that whoever defines the terms wins the argument. I generally agree with this, especially if by “defines” you mean “wins” and by “terms” you mean “argument.” Because it’s cliché, I don’t want to say that the church is not the building, but the people. But because it’s true, I rather have to.
The building that you go to every Sunday morning is only a church-building in the sense that it is a building that is owned and maintained by the church. It’s not special, per se, except in the sense that a chair might be special because a king owns it. Your church building is the property of God’s people, and as such set apart for His purposes—but if that were to change, it would just be a boring old building with nifty windows.
Now, Scripture speaks of the church in two ways and a lot of people get hung up on this. The church is, in one sense, all the people of God who will be raised on the last day to spend eternity with Him. In another sense, the church is just the group of baptized people who attend church on Sunday. Some people like to distinguish these as the visible and invisible church, which works, but I’m going to use a different division here that I think is more a little bit more helpful.
If I were to draw a big circle and then put a smaller circle inside of it so that the diagram looked like a donut, I’d likely distract you and make you hungry. But if I were to do it, that would serve as a sort of Venn diagram for the church. The big circle would represent the current church—the church in time. This is everyone that you see on Sunday when you go to church—well, and everyone that everyone else will see when they go to church on Sunday. It’s basically all the baptized people who go to church.
The smaller circle inside the larger one (which would make the diagram look like a delicious donut) would then represent what some theologians call the eschatological church. That’s a big fancy term that means the church at the end of time. This is everyone you’ll see in the New Heavens and New Earth, flexing their resurrection muscles. They are the Christians who have truly put their faith in Jesus Christ and received salvation.
I should point out that there are also believers who put their faith in Jesus and don’t have a chance to get baptized before they die, like the thief on the cross and many others. That could be represented if I made a bunch of little dots outside of this big circle. These people are saved, but they never joined the church formally through being baptized.
Now, I have the spiritual gift of complicating things, so I feel compelled to mention that before baptism, under the old covenant, circumcision served as the mark of God’s people. Before circumcision, there were a variety of things that set apart God’s people visibly from other people. Probably most noteworthy of these was the building of altars to and the worship of the one true God who made heaven and earth.
Something you would notice immediately if you saw my diagram is that the eschatological church is smaller than the church in time. This means there are people who call themselves Christians, called themselves Israelites, or worshiped God in the correct way who didn’t have true faith.
Because of this, you might be tempted to ask, which is the real church? The answer is, they both are—depending on when you’re asking. Scripture refers to the larger circle (the church-in-time) as the church, and so should we as well. It’s okay that there are unbelievers in the church; Jesus will deal with that. But of course, in the resurrection, we’ll only have the smaller circle, so that will be the real one then. For now, no one can really quite tell who’s in which circle. That’s why, when I’m talking about the church throughout this series, I mean the bigger circle.
So then, to make things simple, I’m defining the church as the people of God who have been visibly set aside from other peoples. Right now, that means all the baptized people that go to church on Sunday.
Now, I’m of the opinion that the reason Scripture doesn’t give us neat little definitions like the one I just gave you is because God very often prefers to speak by way of metaphor, symbols, and pictures. We in the twenty-first century like to define things, but God likes to describe them. This makes sense because we can only speak in words, whereas God can speak in things; He can bellow forth galaxies and mention cows into existence.
Now that we have our neat little definition that satisfies the deep longings of the inner-rationalist who was given to us by our philosophical forefathers, we’re not going to actually refer to it a whole lot this evening. Throughout Scripture, the church is symbolized or explained by various metaphors and symbols. We see the church represented as a garden, a city, a body, a bride, a building, a tree, a lump of dough… I could go on and on. These pictures help us to understand the character and purpose of the church, so we’ll be looking a lot at them moving forward.