(We return to our previous series on the Church)
The Wonder of the Church: Part 2 – A Different People
Matt 16:18 I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
1 Pet 2:9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Approach: In this second Part we are going to be looking at the things that make a Christian different from a non-Christian, what they believe and what – initially at least – in general terms, they are. The titles within this Part are:
- Repentance and Conviction
- Needing to be ‘Saved’?
- A People of Faith
In the third Part we will go on to consider the things that the Bible says happens to believers when they become Christians, why and how they change. For now we ask the question, what makes your ‘church’ different from a social club?
Different: Very well, I will start this second Part with this idea (which is really so obvious that it should not need mentioning, but perhaps is not so clear in some minds) that ‘the Church’ is different and distinct from those who are not ‘the Church’. The word has become so confused and abused over the years that to ask any individual, “What do you think ‘the Church’ is?” will evoke a wide range of answers from the building on the corner down the road, to the national institution or even an international institution. The Greek word, ekklesia, (from which of course we get the word ‘ecclesiastical’) used in the original New Testament manuscripts, has the meaning, ‘assembly’ or ‘called out ones’, thus meaning a group of people who have been called by God (e.g. Rom 8:28, 8:30, 9:24, Eph 1:18, 4:4, 2 Thess 2:14 etc.) Buildings, organisations, institutions may demonstrate the existence of this group of people but first and foremost ‘the Church’ is people who have been called by God – as distinct from those who have no such recognizable calling.
I did wonder about trying to have different sections within this second Part, the first one headed ‘Different’ but the more I have thought about it the more I realise that everything about church is about difference from those who are ‘not church’. In the studies that are to follow, I hope we will look at those many things that make us different from the people next door who are not part of ‘church’, who are not Christians. The result of this, hopefully, will be to clarify in our minds our identity, our activities and our goals which are all quite distinct (and for good reasons) from people who are not part of ‘church’. It may sound obvious but it needs saying.
A Lasting & Resistant Church: From our starting verse above – “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,” we see Jesus taking ownership of this ‘church’ these ‘called-out ones’ but warning that it (they) will have opposition, but he will ensure that it (they) will stand and not be overcome. That is encouraging, but to enter into the fulness of that assurance we will have to see what else the New Testament says about us, the Church, to live it, experience it, and enter into all that is said about it. Our starting point, therefore, is to see ourselves as a people who are what we are because we have been called by Jesus, called to be a different people, a distinct people, from those who have not been so-called. We’ll see something more about that calling in the next study and then see the differences in subsequent studies. In the meantime, you might like to think about your own experience, your experience of being called, what it entailed and what has followed to make you a different person, a Christian, part of a different group of people.
Not a Club: “But”, someone might ask, “what is the fuss all about? I belong to a bowls club and we the members are different from those who don’t play bowls. We have skills others don’t have, we play the game that others don’t play, and so on; what’s the big deal?” Or someone else might say, “Well, I belong to a ladies’ group that does charitable work. We are very respectable, we do very good things to help the community, and in this we are different from those who are not community minded and not at all like us. What is the fuss?” Or perhaps you may come across a third person who says, “Well, I belong to a yoga group; not one of these exercise groups that might just go by that name, but we enter into all the spiritual aspects of it that come from the East, as well as doing the exercises. We are very spiritual, and we’re disciplined and so in that we are quite different from many other people.”
Not a nice religious group: In the UK we have lots and lots of very old stone buildings with spires and towers and beautiful stained-glass windows. In some of them you may find very nice and very respectable good people who come together at certain set times to go through ancient rites led by a man or woman in black robes wearing a stiff white circular collar. Clearly very distinguished, and by that, I mean distinguished from other people who don’t wear black robes and stiff white collars. Their congregation tend to wear suits (the men) and nice dresses (the ladies) and they tend to be very nice people – and some of them are Christians. But are they collectively ‘church’?
Back to the definition: The Greek word used in the original New Testament manuscripts, ekklesia, we said, has the meaning, ‘assembly’ or ‘called out ones’, thus meaning a group of people who have been called by God. Looking at the two paragraphs above, clearly those clubs in the first of those two paragraphs have not been called into being by God and they certainly make no mention of God. In the second paragraph the activities of the people mentioned there tend to focus on a building and specific ‘services’ and both contribute to what they feel about their religion. In fact, if their building was demolished one night and their services were abandoned, they would feel rather naked and their identity under question.
For the true Christian, building or ‘services’ or liturgy or ritual should not be what defines them. They may all be acceptable add-ons but they are not what defines us, and that, perhaps, is what so often confuses the onlooking world. The danger is almost certainly accentuated by ‘mega-churches’ with their large buildings and car parks, great facilities that compete with the best the world can provide, and a mega-sense of being a ‘big people’ grouping. Unfortunately this sometimes means that the growth of an individual and growth of their relationships with other people can be stunted, as we will see when we come to focus on some of the specifics of what it means to be a part of ‘the body of Christ’.
A Voice from the Past: To focus the distinction between the social club church and the real thing, listen to the writing of an early twentieth-century devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, in his famous devotional, ‘My Utmost for His Highest’: “The experience of salvation means that in your actual life things are really altered, you no longer look at things as you used to; your desires are new, old things have lost their power… If you are born again, the Spirit of God makes the alteration manifest in your actual life and reasoning.”
As you read that, are you uncomfortable with such words as ‘salvation’ and ‘born again’? If the answer is yes, then there is clearly some Bible reading to be done and some serious thinking to be followed through. They are not obscure, irrelevant or hardly mentioned words. Instead, I would suggest, they go to the heart of what ‘church’ is all about, not what I think it is all about but what the New Testament says it is all about, not grabbing at a few random verses to make a point, but catching the entire drift of the New Testament, Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, and the apostles in the ‘Acts’ and letters, and ‘Revelation’ that follow. Those are the fields into which we are going to wander in these days ahead. Stay with me if you will and let’s ask the Lord to open our eyes to see afresh what His word will say to us.