Some background for this may be necessary. I work for a para-church organization. In raising my initial support years ago, a very close pastor friend of mine told me, "I cannot give money to [organization name here] because I believe it is a sinful organization because it is operating outside of the church. I do not give to para-church organizations." At the time I was confused by it, but I didn't really know why. Was he right? Is there something inherently sinful about para-church organizations because they operate outside of a relationship with a group which meets between certain walls on a Sunday? This man would perfectly willingly have given money to a missionary who was sent out by that local congregation, even one who would do the very same things as me. Because then it would have been a "church" activity as opposed to "para-church."
More recently I was reading the Southern Baptist Convention's definition of a church (scroll down to VI. The Church), and I was wondering what might make a campus fellowship different from an actual church. According to this definition, many campus fellowships I know may qualify as a church. Or fail to qualify only because they do not include the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
My work is not campus, but city focused. A large part of what we do is training local church leaders in theology, and church planting. I've realized that among them (and this is true in America as well) a very common attitude is, "I'm in this for myself, for the sake of growing the biggest church in this city." This is something we work very hard to combat. Specifically we want people to instead have an attitude of, "We're in this together for the sake of furthering God's kingdom in this city."
What I'm to suggesting is that our ecclesiology (the study of the Church) should be one of the Church as the body of Christ (period). Not the church as the body of Christ which happens to meet from 9:30-11:00 AM on Sundays in your renovated warehouse.
The implications of this are much bigger than you might think.
The opening line to the Wikipedia entry on ecclesiology has this sad statement: "Today, ecclesiology usually refers to the theological study of the Christian church. However when the word was coined in the late 1830s, it was defined as the science of the building and decoration of churches and it is still, though rarely, used in this sense."
Books on ecclesiology today are about how to build a big church. Or the better ones may be about how to build a healthy church. But they're still talking about the "building and decoration of churches." The body of Christ does not need decorating. It has been washed clean by the blood of Christ. The buildings in which the body of Christ meets on Sunday mornings need decorations. But is worrying about such details where we should be spending our time?
Shouldn't we instead be studying the body of Christ. How we as the body of Christ work together; how we as the body of Christ function together. How we as the body of Christ can love one another and reach and transform the world. Para-church is a misnomer inherently because those who are of the body of Christ (no matter who employs them) are a member of the body of Christ. I am not offended when someone refers to me as working for a para-church organization. But it should concern all of us when the hand says it refuses to support the foot because it doesn't believe it is a part of the body. Just because the hand says the foot is not a part of the body does not mean the foot ceases to be a part of the body.
Okay, but before this drifts further into rant-that-only-quotes-wikipedia territory, lets look at the Biblical evidence. I would like to state that this is something I'm still just formulating in my head, and I would love feedback about it. If you think I'm way off base let me know, or making a big deal out of nothing let me know. But I think this has huge implications.
The Biblical references to the word church (ecclesia) are the following (if I'm missing something let me know):
|Universal Church||A Body of Believers||A City Church|
|Matt 16:18||Matt 18:17||Acts 8:1|
|Acts 8:3||Acts 5:11||Acts 9:31|
|Acts 12:1||Acts 11:26||Acts 11:22|
|Acts 20:28||Acts 12:5||Acts 13:1|
|1 Cor 10:32||Acts 14:23||Acts 14:27|
|1 Cor 11:22||Rom 16:23||Acts 15:3|
|1 Cor 12:28||1 Cor 4:17||Acts 15:4|
|1 Cor 15:9||1 Cor 6:4||Acts 15:22|
|Gal 1:13||1 Cor 11:18||Acts 18:22|
|Eph 1:22||1 Cor 14:4||Acts 20:17|
|Eph 3:10||1 Cor 14:5||Rom 16:1|
|Eph 3:21||1 Cor 14:12||1 Cor 1:2|
|Eph 5:23||1 Cor 14:23||1 Cor 5:12|
|Eph 5:24||1 Cor 14:28||1 Cor 11:18|
|Eph 5:25||1 Cor 14:35||2 Cor 1:1|
|Eph 5:27||1 Cor 16:19||Col 4:16|
|Eph 5:29||Phil 5:15||1 Thess 1:1|
|Eph 5:32||1 Tim 3:5||2 Thess 1:1|
|Phil 3:6||1 Tim 3:7||Rev 2:1|
|Col 1:18||1 Tim 3:15||Rev 2:8|
|Col 1:24||1 Tim 5:16||Rev 2:12|
|Col 1:25||Philemon 1:2||Rev 2:18|
|Heb 12:23||Jam 5:14||Rev 3:1|
|3 John 1:6||Rev 3:7|
|3 John 1:9||Rev 3:14|
|3 John 1:10|
I've divided every usage of the word church in to one of three categories: (1) the Church universal, (2) a body of believers, and (3) a city church. These lines are not particularly clear cut, and there are a few of these which might easily have fit more than one category. But in the above references how many do you see which match a specific meeting location (other than a city)? While I didn't list them, there are actually two: Romans 16:5, and Col 4:15. In both these instances Paul actually references the church that meets in a specific house.
Now, I'm not saying the groups that meet in buildings on Sundays should no longer be called "church." I think any gathering of believers is well defined by the word. But unless each city had only one church the entire third column also fits in with the first two in the sense that the word Church is used for body of Christ. Believers, as we relate to one another. This is ecclesiology.
If we are the body of Christ why are we not united? Why is First Presbyterian completely ignoring First Baptist down the street? We can disagree on the finer points of our theology but we cannot disagree that we are the body of Christ. Jesus said in John 13:35, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." By this, I would argue, He did not mean, "When Senior Pastor A loves executive Pastor B at Bob's Bible Church they will know you are my disciples." But rather, "When Senior Pastor A from Wesley Methodist Church loves Executive Pastor B at Calvin's Presbyterian Church they will know you are my disciples."
Our ecclesiology has become fundamentally inward focused. We are concerned with the structure, authority, programs, and decorations of our buildings rather than the expansion of God's Kingdom through cooperation with the other members of the body of Christ. Our ecclesiology is fundamentally flawed.
What if your church saw itself as a part of the body of Christ in your city? What if your church actually said, "Not everyone will agree with us theologically, but as long as we can agree on the majors of the gospel we will work with any evangelical church in this area to expand the Kingdom of God."
One of the beauties of the interdenominational para-church organization I work for, is that we are required to agree on the majors and agree to disagree on the minors. We are a large organization which I think demonstrates the body of Christ in a beautiful way. Wesleyans work alongside of Calvinists. Dispensationalists work alongside, well, non-dispys and they seek God's Kingdom over their own theological agenda. Have an opinion. Please do. But don't let your opinion convince you that the foot down the street is not a part of Christ's body. Because it will not then cease to be a foot. And for you to try to operate in the body of Christ without the foot, you are crippled dramatically.
What would it take for us to shift our priorities from individual interior decoration to cooperative disciple making? Can we unite over the gospel, disagree on secondaries, and move forward with common mission? Or are we so convinced of the way the hand works, looks, and that we cannot accept our body may need a foot to get around? Where are we spending our time and energy when we think about the church? Are we focused on our pretty building and the kind of coffee we serve, or the body of Christ, it's function, purpose, and unity?
It's an embarrassment that even Wikipedia knows our ecclesiology is flawed.