The spiritual ontology of the Church

There is a certain view of church that regards it (especially as expressed in the local congregation) as a ‘voluntary association’. The idea has been notably prevalent among Christians in the United States, but has been embraced more widely in other parts of the world. Interestingly this perception of church only began to increase in popularity in post-colonial America with the growth of Non-Conformist churches.

For a variety of reasons this notion of church has become the norm for the majority of churches in the Western world generally, but more widely as well. So much so, that it is basically assumed rather than justified in light of biblical teaching – even by pastors. The very fact that it has become the unquestioned norm surely demands that we revisit it and probe it in the light of Scripture.

One of the main catalysts towards this view of church was the emergence of a more congregational understanding of church polity over against the Establishment view that had prevailed in Roman Catholicism and then in the various branches of mainstream Protestant churches during and after the Reformation. In this understanding, the church local was always understood in light of the church universal, as confessed in the Creeds. When the shift towards congregationalism began to gather momentum, there was a corresponding shift towards a reversal of this emphasis.

It was only with the spread of Enlightenment philosophy that the emphasis, not only on the local church’s having precedence over the universal church, but also on the personal freedom of its individuals over their responsibility to the body to which they belonged, spread as well. All this came of age in the aftermath of the cultural revolution that began in the 1960’s. The focus on the individual mutated into ‘individualism’ and has become de rigeur ever since, not just in the world, but also within the church. It is now rampant in popular evangelicalism as well as increasingly so among the Reformed.

How does it express itself? At the most basic level in church attendance. Even though many churches, when they admit new members, will ask those being received to be faithful in their attendance at the stated services of the church, what is promised is all too often not followed through in practice. At another level, this new perspective on the nature of the church impacts the willingness of members to actually play a meaningful part in the life of the church. (A problem that is exacerbated in churches that can afford to have a leadership team or staff – on the premise, ‘If we’re paying people to do the work, let them get on with it!’)

The bigger question is how we begin to challenge and rectify this situation in churches. And the answer to a large degree lies in how we understand the nature of the church.

The Bible’s simple but unequivocal response to the idea that the church is nothing more than a spiritual version of the Rotary Club, Boys Scouts or any other voluntary organisation is captured in Paul’s words to the Corinthians. ‘You are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1Co 12.27). For the apostle it is fundamentally a question of spiritual ontology. Because each of these Christians in Corinth had been united to Christ in their conversion, they were simultaneously united to every one of his blood-bought children – throughout the world and across the span of history.

The idea is echoed in all kinds of ways throughout the Bible. It is implicit in the Old Testament manifestation of the church in ancient Israel (so that those who came to faith in Yahweh from outside the covenant community were added into it with the accompanying covenant seal to signify its binding character on two fronts). It comes out too in the New Testament in the teachings of Jesus – such as the vine and branch imagery (Jn 15.1-17) – but also in the letters of Paul, Peter, John, Jude and in Hebrews and Revelation.

The striking thing about this foundational emphasis on the spiritual anatomy of the church is that it provides the basis of our self-understanding as God’s people. A self-understanding that always precedes our sense of what we are meant to do, or how we ought to live as Christians.

It is not unlike the way our understanding of what it means to belong to our natural family will underpin not only how we live within that social unit, but it will also shape how we function in the wider units of community in which we find ourselves. Indeed, the very fact that, among the various metaphors for church we find in Scripture, its being a ‘family’ is to the fore, should give us pause for thought.

We cannot choose our family. We cannot simply opt in or out on whim. (Though, sadly the post-Enlightenment deconstruction of the idea of humanity is fuelling such attitudes to an alarming degree.) So, in an ultimate sense, we cannot choose our church! Yes, we may choose which local church to attend, but that is always only in the context of recognising we are part of the wider body of Christ into which we have been reborn by the Spirit. The implication of this is that once we appreciate the fact that we belong to God’s family, the only question is where and how is the best way of expressing this meaningfully in relation to our fellow-believers and ultimately to our Lord and Saviour himself.

The imagery of a body with its members, or a family comprise of those who are intimately knit together through their shared DNA underpins our sense of responsibility. Our shared duty to meet with our brothers and sisters on those occasions that are set apart for that purpose. Our duty to use our God-given gifts for his glory, the good of the body and the spread of the gospel.

As Paul makes so clear when he addresses this core issue in Ephesians, churches will only thrive and be effective in their witness to Christ, when,

…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph 4.15-16)

What we are in Christ defines what we are in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in the communion of saints. And this must utterly transform both our attitude to and activity in this new community to which belong in him.

Mark Johnston