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When Is Something the Church?

I once sat in the boardroom of a prominent Christian business leader who proclaimed that his business was just as much the “church” as any other enterprise.

I thought to myself, “Um, no, it’s not.”
A company is not the body of Christ instituted as the hope of the world by Jesus Himself, chronicled breathtakingly by Luke through the book of Acts, and shaped in thinking and practice by the apostle Paul through letter after letter now captured in the New Testament. 
A marketplace venture which offers itself on the New York Stock Exchange is not the entity which is so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell can withstand its onslaught. 
An assembly of employees in cubicles working for end-of-year stock options and bonuses is not the gathering of saints bristling with the power of spiritual gifts as they mobilize to provide justice for the oppressed, service to the widow and the orphan, and compassion for the poor.
But it is not surprising that an evangelical, Bible-believing follower of Christ would think that it is. The research of D. Michael Lindsay on the leaders of evangelical Christianity found that - among Christian Presidents and CEO’s, senior business executives and Hollywood icons, celebrated artists and world-class athletes - more than half had low levels of commitment to their congregations. Some were members in name only; others had actively disengaged from church life. 
But it’s not just leaders.
A recent survey of American Christians found that the majority deemed each of the following to be “a complete and biblically valid” way for someone who does not participate in a conventional church to experience and express their faith in God in place of the church:
*engaging in faith activities at home
*watching a religious television program
*listening to a religious radio broadcast
*attending a special ministry event, such as a concert or community service activity
*participating in a marketplace ministry
Some may celebrate such changing viewpoints in an acceptance of the notion that the idea of the church in the New Testament is either so embryonic, or so ethereal, that there is a license to define the church in almost any way desired. 
I am not one of them.
Here is my assessment: With jaw-dropping vigor, ignorance, and at times unblushing gall, increasing sectors of the evangelical world are abandoning two thousand years of ecclesiology in the erroneous opinion that the church is some malleable human construct that can be shaped, altered, redefined or even disposed of as desired. 
This, coupled with a radical revisionism in terms of biblical interpretation and ecclesial history that would seem more in line with The Da Vinci Code than Christian theology, the doctrine of the church is being reformulated apart from biblical moorings, or simply dismissed as if not a part of biblical orthodoxy at all.
As a pastor, such matters are far from academic. Knowing what is, and is not, the church is often at the heart of daily life:
          ...the energetic young man who makes an appointment, casts a vision for a parachurch marketplace ministry, and wants the 
            church to support his efforts and platform his seminars;
          ...the small group which asks if they can take the Lord’s Supper together;
          ...the homeschooling family who asks about “home-churching”;
          ...the father who asks about taking it upon himself to baptize his son in their backyard pool;
          ...the opportunity to offer satellite campuses with video teaching throughout your city, and even around the world;
          ...the volunteer who is interested in leadership, but does not want to become a member.
In the Bible, you have three primary understandings of the church: the local church; the universal church as she exists around the world; and the church as she exists throughout time and history, incorporating all of the saints that will one day be gathered together in heaven. 
Without question, the dominant biblical use is in reference to a local church or collection of local churches as defined bodies of believers that were gathered with both intent and order.
So how do you know when you have one?
Let’s call them the five “C”s.
Community. To be a church, you must be a true community of faith. There is no sense that this community was to be segmented in any way, whether by race, ethnicity, gender or age. It is to have clear entry and exit points, making it clear (as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians) that there are those “inside” the church and those “outside” the church.  
Confession. The second dynamic which constitutes the church involves confession. The idea of “confession”, in the sense being suggested here, is related to the Greek homologeo, which means “to say the same thing” or “to agree.” For the church to be the church, it must be a place where the Word of God as put forward in Scripture is proclaimed in its fullness. 
Corporate. The third mark of the church is corporate. The Bible speaks of defined organizational roles, such as pastors (a term which is used synonymously and interchangeably with the terms “elder” and “bishop”) and deacons, as well as corporate roles related to spiritual gifts such as teachers, administers, and, of course, leaders (Rom. 12; I Cor. 12; Eph. 4; I Pet. 4). These corporate dynamics allowed money to flow from one group to another (II Corinthians 8); decisions to be made by leaders as to doctrine and practice (Acts 15); and the setting apart of some individuals for appointed tasks, mission and church plants (Acts 13). 
Celebration. The fourth dynamic of the local church is celebration. The church was to gather for public worship as a unified community of faith, including the stewarding of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for these were far from being “public domain.” In the New Testament, believers were to “come together” for the Supper, and its proper administration fell under apostolic teaching and direction which was then delegated to pastors to oversee. 
Cause. The final mark of the local church relates to cause. The church is on a very specific mission, given to it by Jesus Himself, to reach out to a deeply fallen world and call it back to God. According to the Bible, this involves active evangelism with subsequent discipleship, coupled with strategic service to those in need, such as the poor. 
That is when you have the local church.
And no, you will not find it on the New York Stock Exchange.
James Emery White
“A gated community in the evangelical world,” D. Michael Lindsay, USA Today, Monday, February 11, 2008, 13A.
“Americans Embrace Various Alternatives to a Conventional Church Experience as Being Fully Biblical,” The Barna Update, February 18, 2008 (see www.barna.org).

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