“Jesus said to Peter “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I will build you and the gates of hell will not prevail against you.” Actually, without church, the gates of hell will prevail! Not only will the Pentagon of hell steadily launch successful attacks to bring us down, but we’ll also never make any headway against those powers, no matter how furiously we wage war. The promise is to the church. We’re born into family, not as isolated storm troopers. Yet many a Christian has gone down before the enemy onslaught because “church” is not utilized.
When Jesus announced his plan to build “church” what did he have in mind? The best clue we have is how those who heard him understood his meaning. The book of Acts records what they did — they crossed the Roman world, starting local congregations. And they believed Christ was fulfilling that promise to build His Church. There’s a Church universal, including all peoples of all ages who have sworn allegiance to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church on earth and the Church in heaven. But the Church on earth, the Church visible, is actually constituted of local churches and the Apostles took Christ’s words to mean that’s what he had in mind. Poor enough building blocks, to be sure, but he makes it invincible — all the powers of hell can’t defeat it, nor even withstand its assault.
“Church” is ideally expressed, it would seem, in a local congregation. Perhaps there are legitimate substitute relationships with other members of the Body of Christ — the larger Church — to provide the needed nurture and protection of the one deprived of the ideal.
Of the five purposes of the church the first is worship. The church is to worship, meaning corporate worship. The individual worships in private, of course; in fact, his whole life should be worship! But there is a special function of church in corporately seeking God, worshiping him, singing His praises.
The church has other purposes; evangelism and service. Evangelism is what each believer is about, so we partner with all aspects of church in carrying that out. By “service” I mean the salt-and-light ministry of the church, seeking justice, healing wounds, compassionately caring for the hurts of the world.
Of the many possibilities for describing the inward purposes of the church I chose koinonia, accountability, and teaching. By “koinonia” I refer to that family solidarity, that oneness of loving care that takes responsibility for the welfare — spiritual, material, physical, emotional — of other members of the family. By “accountability” I mean the obligation to hold one another accountable for godly living. The extreme would be church discipline if all else fails. By “teaching” I mean leadership in seeing that every member is growing in knowledge of the whole truth of God as found in Scripture.
For years I taught a course on the biblical principles for Christian ministry. When we came to the purposes of the church, I did a little exercise with that large group of graduate students from many denominational backgrounds. I would flash on the screen the name of a denomination or prominent Christian leader and the students were invited to shout out the church function or purpose that first came to mind. It was amazing to see how that variegated crowd would shout the same word in unison, year after year. If I flashed, “Charismatic” the response was “worship.” “Methodist” would bring “service.” “Independent Bible church” was viewed as “teaching.” Do you want to know how outsiders view you? “Southern Baptist” always drew “evangelism.”
You may not join the chorus in any given case, to be sure, but the exercise does point up the fact that we tend to major on one or two purposes of the church, and neglect others. Surely we want to work hard at developing healthy “bodies,” not cripples or basket cases. Our purpose here, however, is not to focus on the ideal church, but to evaluate what functions of church are strongly present in our own lives, what has been missing.
Let us be church-centered, convinced that the local congregation is what Christ is out to build. Some people seem to thrive with or without other humans in close relationships, though the numbers may not be as large as might appear. But God knows we need human companionship. “It isn’t good for man to be alone,” he concluded at the very beginning talking about marriage. And church — we really do need one another even if some of us feel that more acutely than others.