Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to talk to many different people about various aspects of the Christian religion. Some of these people have claimed to be Christians and others have claimed no faith. Of all the multiple aspects of the Christian religion that I find misconceptions about, one of the most universal seems to be the church. Almost everyone I talk to falls into one of to camps. Their first thought is that the church is that building where people go to meet on Sunday mornings, or that the church is like a club that you join. In many ways, these are the same. They both inevitably are treating the church like any other group that they know of. One of the things that can make it difficult to understand what the scripture teaches about the church is that we do not understand that there are essentially two distinct yet connected understandings of the church. It is important that we understand what the Bible teaches us about the church because it affects the whole of the Christian life. The Apostles Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism speak to both and can help us to understand what the Bible is teaching us.
The Holy Catholic Church
The first way we will look at the church is in the broad sense. In question 54 the catechism asks;
"What do you believe concerning the "holy catholic church" of Christ?"
Many of us might balk at this, having an almost instinctive response against the word catholic. To be clear thou, the catechism is not referring to the Roman Catholic Church, which is a specific organization, but it is using the word catholic as it was used by the church fathers. The word catholic is simply the Latin word for universal. So the question could be asked, "what do you believe covering the "holy universal church" of Christ?" In a broad sense, all Christians are members of the universal body of Christ. As the catechism teaches us to answer;
"That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof." (A. 54)
The catholic (universal) church consist of brothers and sister that span the entirety of time. It is the group that on the last day will stand justified with Christ. We talk about the catholic church to remind ourselves that we are not alone. From creation till completion, God has been and will be gathering and preserving his people. Nothing can separate us from the Lord who has saved us. We are his forevermore purchased by the blood of Christ. The church catholic is a reminder that we are Christ no matter where or when we were born. But this is not the only way we need to understand the church.
The Communion of the Saints
The second understanding of the church has to do with the local body of the church. Once again we can look to the catechism to help us understand this. Question 55 asks;
"What do you understand by "the communion of the saints"?
And the answer we are supposed to give is;
"First, that all and everyone, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members."
The first part essentially reiterates what we talked about with question 54. But the second part deals with the local church. See God has given each of his children gifts for the building up of the body of Christ. What that means is that we are supposed to be together to help one another. We are a family that holds one another accountable and seeks to grow one another. Sometimes, this means that we need to be corrected or help to correct another brother or sister. Other times it means that we need to encourage one another or be encouraged ourselves. If we treat the church as something we do on Sunday or Wednesday evening, then we are missing out on what Christ has called us to. The church is supposed to be our everything. The people of God who are united in all things. If one is in need the rest come around and support them. If one is broken, the rest seek to build back up.
This is Important
Membership in the local church is not an optional thing. If you claim to be a Christian but do not seek to be an active member of the local body, then you have lied to yourself. Christians obey their master, that is Christ, and he has commanded that we are not to neglect the gathering of the body. That we are to come together for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. All of this comes through the word rightly taught. So I encourage you, where ever you are, to find a local church. Find one that teaches the scripture. Where the pastor believes in the sufficiency and inerrancy of scripture in all things. One that understands the sovereignty of God in salvation and evangelism. Be nourished by the word, and help to build up one another in love. Live life together, supporting each other to holiness each and every day. Come together on the Lord's day (Sunday) and worship the Lord in prayer and proclamation of the word. Worship the Lord as he has commanded, for his ways are always best.
Soli Deo Gloria
Psalm 129:1-5; Matthew 16:18; John 10:11, 10:28-30; Acts 20:28; Romans 8:32; 1 Corinthians 1:9, 6:17, 12:12-13; Ephesians 4:11-13, 5:26; Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 1:3;