The word “church” is used in our culture to refer to the building where Christians gather, in reference to different Christian denominations, and also to refer to the Sunday worship event.
But the biblical word “church,” or “ecclesia,” carries a different meaning. In the first century, the word was used, even among non-Christians, to refer to people that are “gathered” or “assembled” for a certain cause. Early on, the church was a gathering of those who had committed themselves to following Jesus. These early believers were called “disciples,” or “the way,” and later called “Christians.” And the term used when these disciples of Jesus gathered together was “church.” It was the gathering of disciples for the cause of Christ.
We know that Jesus called his followers “disciples.” He also called them something else. In Matthew 12, starting in verse 46, we find Jesus in a packed house surrounded by disciples, seekers, and critics. He is teaching them and then is suddenly interrupted. Someone lets Jesus know that his mother and brothers have arrived and want to have a word with him. I would assume that most would expect Jesus to stop and speak with his family. Instead, Jesus says, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He then points at those who were gathered to be with him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus lets his disciples know that followers of Jesus are to be family. They are to be a family united at the feet of the Rabbi Jesus.
This is important. The church is a family. And families have identities. What is our identity as the church, as the gathered disciples of Jesus? I will tell you what we are not. We are not the church of people, or the church of sinners, or the church of the depressed, or the church of those who are lonely, or the church of the happy. We are not the church “of” people but the church is “for” people. Jesus’ table has always been for all that will go to him. His church is for the sinners and tax collectors. Christ’s church is for the depressed, lonely, happy, broken, and sick. The church has always been a society for all.
But our identity as the family of God is not found in people. Jesus’ gathered followers are the church “of” Christ. It is a family that belongs to, is in service of, and seeks to glorify its Lord Jesus Christ. We are a church “for” all but the church “of” Christ.
We need to make this very clear when we talk about church. To be the church “of” Jesus it must strive to teach what he taught and live how he lived. If decisions in the church are made because of the will of some person over the will of Jesus than it ceases to be his church and it is now the church of those who whine the loudest or flex the most muscle. We are always to be a church where Christ is the head and we are his body. Jesus is to be the church’s Lord, Teacher, Savior and King.
Jesus our Lord taught very clearly that God is our Father and we are his children. And when we gather it is a family reunion. When I say “family reunion,” you might have images of kids throwing the football as Uncle Hank grills hamburgers at a state park. You may think of the event each year where Aunt Sally always brings that potato salad that everyone tries to avoid but she always puts it on your plate. Not that kind of family reunion.
When we gather as Christians, we come together to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ to be in the presence of our Father. And the Father loves this.
My mom and dad love being with me. I am their favorite of course. But they love being with me even more when it’s with me…and my 3 sisters…and my brother…and our spouses…and we better bring the grandchildren. There is something special when the children come together. When they gather something special happens. God is pleased when his children gather to be with him. God loves to be in the presence of his children.
Let’s talk about a couple of wrong ways, or at least incomplete ways we have thought about our church gatherings.
Incomplete View #1: Gathering as an Act of Obedience
In this view God is a global worship inspector. You know those restaurant inspectors that go around and give grades to restaurants that the restaurants have to display? Our family won’t eat at a restaurant that scores any lower than an A. B’s might cut it in school but when you are handling raw taco meat in the back you better score an A. Some of us have viewed our gatherings, or worship services, as needing to meet certain ritual requirements or we will get a low score from the heavenly worship inspector. Historically, in Churches of Christ, we’ve been very careful to always do things just right as to not offend God. Just to cover our bases we even pray something like “we pray that everything we’ve done has been pleasing in your sight.” We want to get good heavenly worship grades. In this view our gathering is mainly about obedience to keep God happy. I think this is a wrong view of our worship gatherings or at least incomplete.
It is incomplete because we do indeed gather to learn to obey Jesus more in our lives but obedience is not the main purpose of worship. Did you know that Jesus never commanded his disciples to gather together to worship? In fact, in all of Scripture God never says, “You shall praise me.” No. God doesn’t command us to praise him any more than you can command your children to appreciate you. One day every “knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord” (Phil 2), but for the time being it is up for us to decide if we will do it or not.
The great thing about our assemblies is that we don’t have to be there, we get to go! In fact, Christians who have been caught by the grace of God can’t help but gather. God has saved us and we want to gather with fellow redeemed children and give him praise. So our gatherings are more than obedience.
Incomplete View #2: Gathering as Pick-Me-Up
Some seeing the flaw in the obedience view, have decided that the main point of our gatherings is edification of the gathered. We know that we many times come into the assembly beat up from our lives in the world and we desperately need a spiritual pick-me-up. The gatherings become mainly about us. We decide that God is pleased when his children gather to edify one another. This means that we need to have well-orchestrated worship, inspiring music, and encouraging self-help messages and testimonies geared toward picking up the worn-down children of God.
This view is incorrect because our gatherings are never to be mainly about us. An important side effect of being with the church is mutual edification and encouragement. Fellowship of the saints is so important to our souls and growth in Jesus, but our gatherings are not primarily about being in presence of one another. God is not just to be the spectator watching us do our thing.
I do want to say again that obedience to God is important and edification is a crucial ingredient in our gathering but it is never to be the main ingredient. If the gatherings of the church of Christ are not simply about obedience and they are also not mainly about edification, then what is it about?
The Jesus Gathering
The word “church” comes from the mouth of Jesus only twice in the Scriptures. The first one is the well-known passage where Jesus tells Peter that he is going to build his church upon the rock of Peter’s confession. The second one is in Matthew 18 where Jesus is teaching his disciples about dealing with sin among the believers. He mentions church in this context, but I am interested in what he says in verse 20 of chapter 18. He says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
This verse may be familiar to you but did you get it? “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
This passage has great implications for all our gatherings. Jesus is saying that every time we gather together we can know that he is present. This has great meaning for what church means whether it is small group, worship services, bible class, having a believer over for dinner, or serving someone together. Wherever we gather in the name of Jesus, he is there.
This is what I want to say: Whenever we gather, especially in our worship assemblies, we do so not solely out of obedience, not just to encourage one another, but to be in the presence of Christ. This is why we gather.
The church is the gathered disciples of Jesus who continually meet as a family where the Father and the Son meet with them. This to me is the correct starting place for our discussion about church. There is much more to talk about when we speak of the church and worship but the conversation must begin here. The church is the gathered disciples around our Lord Jesus Christ, to learn from him, hear from him, remind ourselves of him, join him around the table, and to be transformed by him.