Descending into the valley that is Clarksburg, WV on Highway 50, I see a few mountain peaks, treetops and an occasional chimney peaking up through the blanket of clouds that cover the valley, hiding the city beneath. The morning sun, just cresting the eastern horizon brightens the clouds giving them the appearance of a pure, soft, gentle coverlet that tenderly embraces the valley. Underneath this blanket of clouds the business of life was slowly stirring. It happens gradually; lights coming on, showers running, breakfasts cooking, lunches being packed, Dads leaving for work, kids getting ready for school and Moms overseeing it all, as well as planning for their day. Each home, awakening with a stir of activity, is isolated from all the others on the streets of the city. Yet, above the clouds, all was serene, simple and clear; a sweet beauty that sang out to my soul, that all was well with the world.
As the highway dipped lower into the valley, I too entered the cloud and for a few moments my Chevy Vega and I were enveloped in the misty body of the cloud itself. It was ethereal, illusively obscuring my vision, filling me with a sense of uncertainty. Unable to gauge distance or find my bearings, I carefully made my way by following the lines painted on the center of the highway. Soon I emerged into the bustling activity of the city. Driving past neighborhoods, schools, places of business, labor and commerce, I couldn’t help but wonder at all the lives that moved, mingled and functioned with such necessary diversity. The mental image was mind-boggling. How can they keep it all straight? In the mix, both saints and sinners needed order and organization. The logistics of providing utilities, roads and police protection to all these people seemed a gargantuan task. Who is in charge, who keeps it all together? Ah, how I wanted to go back above the cloud where it was bright, clear and uniquely simple in its beauty.
When you are in a plane high above the earth, looking down upon the clouds they look solidly substantial, like you could step out and walk on them with springy steps. But, when you are in the cloud, it is an obscuring mist. An intangible, illusive something that remains just out of reach. When you are in the city beneath the cloud, in the midst of all the busyness of life, the cloud looks like a canopy reigning over all that live beneath it like some medieval monarch.
When I set out to describe the vision of church, that I believe the Lord has taught me; this is the picture that was recalled from my distant memory of a particularly glorious morning. I have struggled for sometime with the images that are consistently put forth by preachers, teachers, writers and scholars of all sorts regarding God’s glorious institution, “The Church, the Body of Christ”. Most everyone that I have spoken to in recent years and everyone that I have read in the same time span hold to the idea that there is one church, universal and invisible. They also acknowledge that there are within that institution, denominations and local congregations as well as independent congregations of the same names and in addition all kinds of non-denominational churches. Without fail each of them lay claim to Biblical authenticity and doctrine. Many of them are gracious enough to allow that some of the others are also acceptable, even if not quite as good as their own specific group. I do have a distinct position that I have received from the Lord, through multitudes of hours in Bible study, prayer and meditation on the same. However, before sharing my insight, let me point out what troubles me most about the commonly held position of “The Church”.
I once read a story that went something like this. A small town had an issue with potholes in the streets. ‘Everybody’ thought something should be done and ‘Everybody’ thought ‘Somebody’ would do something about it. As a consequence ‘Nobody’ took care of the streets. You get the point; vagueness of responsibility generally leaves the job undone. This is the trouble I see with the commonly held position regarding “The Church”. People from all spiritual persuasions, even unbelievers, have no problem with identifying the problems of “The Church”. It is common to hear ‘The Church’ blamed for everything from apathy to gross immorality and to hear people say, “something must be done about it”! But, whom do you take it to? What is the address of “The Church”, where is the office in charge of problems? Who has the authority and ability to make changes in an invisible body? The end result is that there is a great clamor for change and no feasible way to see it take place. Again, ‘Nobody’ is the one that gets the job done. There is genuine concern in the hearts and minds of many people, but the ability to effect change escapes them. What remains is a mystical hope that something deeply spiritual will overcome the world and somehow magically transform the souls of mankind. That sounds good, even very spiritual, but such an idea is greatly conflicting with the Word of God.
It is not my purpose to try to persuade everyone to my point of view. It took quite sometime for the Holy Spirit to instruct me of this and I feel insufficient to teach you something that is so different from modern traditional Christianity and it's position on ecclesiology. Therefore, I will share as simply as possible what I have learned and let the Holy Spirit do the teaching. I know where I have learned this and my accountability to Him is sufficient for me. However, I do expect that you will see the practicality of implementing at least some of these principles for the Lord’s work.
The word in the Greek New Testament that is translated as church and churches is, ekklesia (ek-klay-see'-ah); from a compound of NT:1537 and a derivative of NT:2564; a calling out, i.e. (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both): translated as assembly and church. The above is from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. We can see from this that the idea behind church is that it is an assembly of people called together for a specific purpose. It was used for town council meetings as well as various religious affairs. When this Greek compound word was applied to identify God’s institution, certain things must apply, i.e. doctrine, faith, dedication to God and the great commission to identify the group as being uniquely God’s. Yet, certain aspects of the secular usage must remain the same for the word to be effective, those aspects are: 1. A group of people meeting together in one place at the same time, 2. Being called together for a purpose. Does this describe an invisible institution? No pun intended, but I can’t see it. Perhaps you wish to cling to the universal, invisible institution for some personal reason, very well, but please consider also these other issues that may help ‘Somebody’ assist ‘Nobody’ in getting the job done.
In the twenty-one New Testament Epistles, nine of them are addressed to “churches”, eleven are addressed to individuals and one to the Hebrews at large. None of them are addressed to ‘The Church’. Of the epistles that are addressed to churches, Romans and Galatians are addressed to multiple assemblies of believers in a geographical region and metropolitan city. Others include an address such as “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth”, or “all the saints that are at Ephesus, or Colosse, or Philippi. “The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house,” I Corinthians 16:19. There are thirty-seven references to “churches” in the New Testament. Obviously there is a major emphasis in the Bible on the congregational status of assembled believers. I contend that all believers in the world exist as the kingdom of God. All believers in Heaven and Earth make up the “Family of God”. These are distinctive terms used in the Bible and they are not synonymous with each other, or the Lord, who is The Word, would not have used them so precisely. Church is uniquely an assembly of believers, under the authority of God’s Word and Spirit with Christ as the head of each assembly.
What is the origin of the idea of a universal church, “The Church”? This idea most likely had its inception when the Bishop of Rome achieved prominence among churches in Italy. He was looked up to with an aura of excellence because of his prosperity. When Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome became its ecclesiastical head, head of ‘The Church’. Other churches that did not subscribe to the elevated authority of the Bishop of Rome (later called the Pope) have been persecuted consistently down through the subsequent ages.
What does this concept of individual churches do for the problems plaguing Christianity today? It gives us an address to take the problems to. It gives us a focus for change and a scale to measure progress. It gives us a place where ‘Everybody’ and ‘Somebody’ can be involved for the good and ‘Nobody’ is excused. There is no point of complaining if there is no plausible solution; now complaining has a purpose, so do something about it where you are. Please note the emphasis on the seven churches in Asia as referenced by the Lord in the first three chapters of the Revelation. Christ addressed problems and needs of each congregation and the letters were sent to the specific messenger of each church (the angel of the church, the pastor). This reveals great concern and efficiency on the part of Christ, who is the head of each church. When we read in the Epistles, references to church, please keep in mind that the writer was speaking in the context of that particular body of believers; a body where the members can actually rejoice together as well as suffer together. The seven churches of Asia were peaks in the kingdom of God.
Just as the mass of people in Clarksburg were one great city under the cloud and the activity seemed to have no visible order, there were those unique, identifiable points that reached up through the clouds to greet the sun. The same is true for churches, congregations of real people, people that think, care, pray and serve God. Don’t waste your time on the invisible, unknowable, mystical whatever. Get involved in a congregation of Bible believing Christians where you live and make a difference. Let me save you some time in your search, THERE ARE NO PERFECT CHURCHES! However, the church you select needs to be a group of people that honor the Lord Jesus Christ and submit to His headship, not an ecclesiastical hierarchy. They need to be concerned about defending the integrity of the Word of God. Most of all they must have a compassion for lost souls and care for each other. If you cannot find one of these churches in your community, start one in your home. Don’t wait for someone else to do it, be the ‘Somebody’ that gets it done. Men, be the Pastor, Priest of your home and invite others to join you as opportunity arises. Stand up through the clouds and greet the sun of God’s grace. Some will tell you that some sort of apostolic authority is needed to start a church. However, Jesus said in Matthew 18 in the passage on church discipline, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20 When Jesus promises His presence in assemblies as small as two or three, He qualifies them as His Body and He functions as their head.
If you are one of those that find my position untenable, can you at least see the importance of focusing our attention and energy on congregations rather than complaining about things that can never be fixed in the invisible realm? Let us be “Somebody” for God and be a part of “His Body” in your community.
If you read this paper as a theological argument about ‘The Church’, you have missed the point altogether. This is written to encourage us to focus on being a part of an active congregation of believers, benefiting people and honoring the Lord. When we change our focus from the invisible to the visible, changes become possible and our lives have a greater opportunity of counting for eternity.
Pastor John Whitten