In Defining Church (part 4) I showed how the beginning of the church was a God ordained reenactment of God’s giving of His presence to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. I offered this as proof of the New Testament’s support of the idea that a definition of church must begin with God’s presence in the midst of God’s assembled people (Christians). In this post, I want to further demonstrate the New Testament’s support of this idea.
In Matthew 18:20 Jesus says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”1 This verse is one of the most misused in all of Scripture. Generally people use it in the context of Christians praying together. The idea is that Jesus will hear prayers when two or more people are together praying. This usage completely disregards the context of the verse (not to mention the fact that God hears when we pray by ourselves). Matthew 18:20 comes on the heals of Jesus’ teaching about “church discipline” (at Creekside we think “church restoration” more accurately depicts Jesus’ heart in this passage). In the midst of this teaching is one of two verses that records Jesus using the word “church” (Greek ekklessia, “assembly”). Speaking of people committing continual and unrepentant sin despite being exhorted to change by individuals in the church, Jesus says in verse 17, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church…” In verses 18 & 19 Jesus references the authority of the church in making decisions when people have turned their back on Jesus through blatant disregard to his will. Matthew 18:20 then, seems to declare a reason for this authority: When a church (big or small) comes together, Jesus is present. We believe that Jesus is God in human form. Thus, Jesus shows us that when God’s people come together, God is present in a unique and powerful way.
When a church (big or small) comes together, Jesus is present.
1 Corinthians 14 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible about the assembling of God’s people in a local church. Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians, spends the first 25 verses of this chapter explaining the role and importance of two spiritual gifts in the assembly of God’s people – tongues and prophecy. His conclusion to this section shows the truth and importance of God’s presence in the midst of God’s gathered people. “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. [bra_highlight style=’highlight1′]So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”[/bra_highlight]” The last sentence is the most important for our purposes (hence the highlight) in this post. Paul is telling the church in Corinth that if they will use their spiritual gifts properly when they come together, non-Christians will fall down in awe of the presence of God. People don’t often declare the presence of God in such a profound way when Christians pray at a coffee shop, serve the local food kitchen, or strive to honor God in the workplace. But, according to Paul this can (should?) happen when God’s people assemble.
“God is really among you!”
One final passage of Scripture is worth mentioning in regards to God’s presence being uniquely present when God’s people gather. 1 Corinthians 3:16 & 17 says, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.”2 Since the book of 1 Corinthians is written to a church, the plural form of “you” (demonstrated by the NIV’s translation, “you yourselves” and “you together”) shows that churches have replaced the Old Testament temple. Or, in other words, churches are now the place where God’s presence most powerfully resides on earth. This, as has been sufficiently demonstrated, is made known when churches are assembled.
I have spent almost four full posts attempting to show that a definition of church must start with God’s people assembled in God’s presence. Because of the amount of words I have put towards this attempt, it is probably clear to anyone who has read all of these posts that I believe this is one of the most important aspects of church and what it is.3 But, as I have stated previously, just because a group of Christians gather together it does not mean that they are a church. So, what is the difference between a random gathering of Christians and a church? At the most fundamental level the answer to this question is the promise of gathering together again and on a consistent basis. This was the case for the Israelites in the Old Testament. The presence of God in their assembling made them different from all other people on earth. Overtime, because of this unique aspect of their nation, they started to refer to themselves as “The Assembly” even when they were not gathered together. In fact “The Assembly” became synonymous with “the nation of Israel.” In a similar way, churches today are still churches when they aren’t assembled because of the promise of assembling together again.
…churches today are still churches when they aren’t assembled because of the promise of assembling together again.
Perhaps you have heard church spoken about in terms of “Universal” and “Local.” People use these designations to differentiate between all people in the world who are in relationship to God through Jesus and a local group of Christians that constitute and call themselves a church. Most often in the Bible the word “church” is used in reference to a local group of people, but sometimes it refers to all Christians everywhere. How does this factor into defining church? The truth is, I will not gather with most Christians in God’s presence while alive on this earth. So, how can we all be part of the universal church? The answer to this is found in the promise that someday all Christians will gather together in the unique and powerful presence of God in Heaven and on the resurrected earth. Thus, church, whether local or universal, must be defined in terms of Christians gathering in the presence of God.
In my next post I will finish this series by answering two questions: 1) Why don’t we sense, see, or feel the presence of God when we gather in our churches today? 2) Aren’t there a bunch of other important factors in defining church? These may seem like disconnected questions that don’t belong in a single post together, but I believe the answers to these questions go hand in hand. When you strip church of biblically important aspects, you begin to see less and less of God’s presence.
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1. All Scripture NIV
2. Italics added
3. I say one of the most important aspects because Jesus is the most important aspect. He, through his sacrifice on the cross, is the one who offers us a chance to become “God’s people.” He is the one we serve, worship, and represent. It is his church.