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May 17, 2020

Just What Is 'the Church'?

Passage: Ephesians 4:1-32

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Covid-19 Challenges

Keywords: church, community, leadership, assembly, gathered


As people begin to ask questions coming out of the COVID-19 quarentine about the need for actually returning to church as we have known it, God's people need to understand what being the church is all about. Failure to have a Christ-driven, biblical view of the church will lead to very inferior experiences going forward out of this massive change happening to the church. See what God says about what being the church actually involves.


Just What is ‘The Church’? 

May 17, 2020

Welcome to day 57, week 10 of the Covid quarantine.  Since we could all use a little more levity in our lives throughout this somewhat stressful experience, I wanted to share a few comments about this experience that were passed along to me by Colleen and Tina.  Enjoy!

  • Tomorrow is the National Homeschool Tornado Drill.  So parents, at the beginning of your schooling experience tomorrow…lock your kids in the basement until… you feel it is safe for your kids to come out.  You’re welcome!
  • Speaking of that, I read just this week that 50% of dads feel they are doing the majority of the homeschooling of their kids during the quarantine. 4% of their wives agree!
  • The world has turned completely upside down: Old folks are sneaking out of the house, and their kids are yelling at them to stay home!
  • Please do not call the police on suspicious people in your neighborhood!  Those are your neighbors…without makeup and hair extensions!
  • Day 57 at home and the dog is looking at me like, “See? This is why I chew the furniture!”
  • Does anyone know if we can take showers yet or should we just keep washing our hands???
  • I never thought the comment “I wouldn’t touch them with a 6-foot pole” would become a national policy, but hey, here we are!
  • Here’s a conversation you might be having with your smart phone:

Me: Alexa, what’s the weather this weekend?  
Alexa: It doesn’t matter – you’re not going anywhere!

  • When this is over, which meeting do I attend first: Weight Watchers or AA?
  • Quarantine has turned us into dogs.  We roam the house all day looking for food.  We are told “no” if we get too close to strangers.  And we get really excited about car rides, and now we understand why our dog gets so excited every time someone comes to the door.

Well, I hope you haven’t stopped laughing during this crisis.  We’re all going to need a lot more laughs before this thing is over. 

            So today I want to address a question that is critical for all of us to be able to answer in and coming out of this crisis.  How you answer it may determine WHEN or even IF you reengage with God’s people.  It may determine HOW you reengage and even WHERE you choose to do that going forward.  And it will certainly determine WHAT reengagement looks like for you in the future. 

            The question is:  JUST WHAT IS ‘THE CHURCH’?

If you’ve been doing much thinking at all about the impact the COVID-19 quarantine has been having on your faith, at some point you have to be asking yourself, “So what difference does it make whether I ever ‘go back to church’?”  And if that question hasn’t crossed your mind, certainly a few other related ones have, things like…

  • Can’t we be the church over the phone…or on Zoom calls…or listening to podcasts, on-line services or TV preachers?
  • Can’t I experience church when just 2 or 3 of us find each other at the park and hang-out…or have a Bible study group on Zoom once a week… or join a prayer meeting on Zoom in the evening?
  • For that matter, can’t I experience God by taking a walk in the woods or sitting home alone with my Bible and cup of coffee?

Those are all very good, legitimate questions.  How you and I answer them will determine both what we are currently doing with the Covid-quarantine and what our faith will actually look like after it is over. 

            Let me put it this way:  what we believe is the nature of something determines how we use or abuse it.  For example…

  • If you give me a surgical scalpel that a surgeon may use to perform heart surgery, I may end up using it to cut up meat for my stew…or clean out the gunk that collects on the bottom of my sliding shower door…or scrape moss off the bricks on my chimney. But if I really knew the value of the surgical scalpel, I wouldn’t use it for any of those things… and I certainly wouldn’t use it for surgery on my wife or dog or best friend.  I would find an owner worthy of it…a heart surgeon…and give it to her/him.  We have to know the nature of something in order to know how to use it properly.
  • Take a human being, for example. If you don’t know what the God-given nature of a human being is, if you don’t understand why God created us physical and sexual beings, people who also have feelings and thoughts and consciences, you are going to probably use and abuse the human being you are and the human being other people are.  You may come to very different conclusions about how life should be lived than someone who understand the biblical view of personhood and humanness.  You may be so confused about who you are that you decide you can choose your sex…or use sex any way you want…or decide that people are basically good and that your human reason is the ultimate determinant of what is true and not true.  OR you can take your cue about human nature from what God has told us it is—male and female, good and evil, valuable and with inherent worth regardless of disabilities or mental capacity or looks. 

So back to ‘the church.’  What you believe the ‘church’ is, why it was created, why it exists, what it is to be doing, what it’s future is and what its relationship is to Jesus Christ will determine a host of things going forward, things like…

  • how you grow or don’t grow in Christ during COVID-19.
  • how you grow or don’t grow in Christ after COVID-19.
  • How you decide to invest your life in the kingdom of God, in the lives of others, in or outside the church…and much more.

So let me start with a very brief biblical description of the 3 ways the N.T. uses the term ‘church.’  Some of you may have heard some of this before, so I won’t spend much time on this part today. 

            Essentially, when the N.T. uses the word “church” (ekklesia), it is adopting a Greek term that simply means “an assembly of people.”  It is used to describe in the N.T. anything from a riot in Ephesus in Acts 19:32,39,42 to a religious gathering of Christ-followers in someone’s home.  It’s used about 115 times in the N.T. 

            We will limit our discussion of ‘the church’ to the way the N.T. uses it for religious purposes to describe the people of God from Pentecost (past) to the return of Christ (future).  The N.T. uses this term in 3 ways:

  • The “church universal”:  this is all followers of Jesus Christ from every century after Christ in all parts of the world—essentially every person from every nation, tribe, tongue and century who are disciples of Jesus.  16:18—“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  I’ll represent this by the biggest circle on this little graphic. [See slide.]  The Bible uses this form of the term “church” about 20-30 % of the time.  (See also Eph. 1:22; 3:21;
  • The “city-church”: all living Christ-followers in a geographic area most commonly defined as a ‘city.’  This is about 65-70% of the usages of the term ‘church’ in the Scriptures.  Thus we have Luke talking in Acts about “the church in Jerusalem” (8:1; 11:22; 18:22) or “the church in Antioch” (11:26; 13:114:27; ) or in many of the Epistles that are identified by the name of “the church in…” Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1).  Then the N.T. ends with instructions to “the 7 churches” identified by the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (Rev. 2-3), all cities of ancient Asia Minor or modern Turkey. 

I’ve pictured this as a second level of “church” inside the universal church.  It actually should be pictured by a myriad of smaller circles grouped together in this second level of “church.” 

  • “House/local churches” that are identified by people who have chosen to gather together in some location usually determined by the size of the house/building in which they meet, the people who are there, the leaders they have identified and the activities they engage in together. This is usually what most of us think of when we are asked, “Where do you go to church?” or say something like, “My church is…Mosaic/New Community/Orchard Chr/City Gate/etc.”  Surprisingly, while this is probably what most people in our culture think of almost exclusively as “church”, it is the least used in the N.T.  You will find it in places like Romans 15:5—“Greet also the church that meets at [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house.”  4:15—“Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea [a city church], and to Nympha and the church in her house,” [a house/local church]. 

This level of “church” is the smallest inner circle in my diagram.  To be more accurate, it should be pictured by a bunch of smaller circles of people within any of the city-church circles that comprise the second level of “church”.

Questions:  WHEN did you/I become part of “the church” at each level?

EX:  For me, I joined the Church universal, all the followers of Jesus from all places and centuries post-Pentecost when I surrendered my life to Jesus in Santa Barbra, CA in the summer of 1965. 

At that moment, although I didn’t realize it, I also became part of “the church in Santa Barbra, CA”. 

When I returned home with my family from that vacation, I became part of “the church in Spokane”, again although I didn’t realize it. 

And since then, I’ve actually been an active part of 4 “house churches” in Spokane over the past 50 years—Plymouth Congregational Church, Heritage Congregational Church, Fourth Memorial Church and Mosaic Fellowship. 

  • I will never stop being part of the Church universal.
  • Whatever cities I’m living in will always make me part of “the church” in that city.
  • I may or may not chose to be part of a local church within the realm of that city-church in which I’m living.

Q: So we could now ask, “What level of church is actually most important/impactful when it comes to my growth in Christ and ministry in the world?” 

  • While it’s important that you and I are a part of the church universal, that is in many ways the least impactful on our lives. (True, that reality should make me care about helping other believers all over the world with my money, time, prayers, etc. and care about sending missionaries all over the world to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus in Mt. 28:18-20. But it doesn’t affect my life a lot beyond those issues.)
  • While most of us live in Spokane and are thus part of “the church in Spokane,” that reality doesn’t really change that much of our day-to-day experience with Christ and growth in him except perhaps when we are fellowshipping with other believers from other local churches…or going to a conference or prayer meeting with other believers from other local churches…or working side-by-side in a city-wide evangelistic campaign or worship experience. (I would say that this level of church should probably be, in practice, more important to us than it has been in America for the past 200 years…but that’s a topic for another day.)
  • It’s the local church that is intended by God to impact you and me most deeply on a day-to-day or weekly basis. But that ALL depends on what you think the church IS and DOES. 

ILL:  If you think the local church is primarily a place you drive to a couple times a month, park your car, go in and grab coffee, chat with a few people about the latest Seahawk’s game or concert you went to, sit and listen to a few people play some music and somebody else get up and give a 40 minute lecture and then get back in your car and leave, then these past 10 weeks have probably been somewhat of a welcome relief.  After all, you’ve been able to stay in your pajamas…all day, if you want, on Sundays…save time and gas commuting, surf the internet for your favorite worship music and preaching podcasts…all while eating your favorite snacks, fast-forwarding something you don’t like and not having to interact with people that may be very different from you. 

            Contrast that with a very different view of “church.”  If “church” for you isn’t primarily about a place but rather about relationships and experiences you have with other Christ-followers and with God when we come together at the same time and place, then these past 10 weeks have probably been, at best somewhat disappointing and at worst utterly empty and frustrating. 

            That’s not to say that God isn’t or can’t use weeks of quarantine and isolation to grow us in Jesus or teach us things about Himself and our walk with Him that are important and may more likely or only happen in times like this. If you had a living, growing relationship with Christ going into this, I’m betting this Covid-quarantine has held some great blessings.  I can tell you it has significantly grown my prayer life.  It has grown my understanding of the importance of personal relationship and connection in the church.  It has pointed out some deficiencies and weaknesses in my leadership at Mosaic and our experience together as a spiritual family. 

            What you and I decide to DO with church and with “BEING the church” going forward from this experience will be largely shaped by what you understand the church to BE and BE DOING.  If it isn’t anything more in our thinking than an entertaining time of mental stimulation and emotional encouragement, then you may well decide to stay home indefinitely in your comfortable pajamas and tune into far more entertaining and hip preachers and musicians than what we are at Mosaic. 

            Which brings us to back to our leading question in a slightly different form, “Just what should the church BE?”  Let me suggest 3 key, core experiences ‘the church’ should be according to Scripture.  I won’t spent long on any one of them.  But together they form a concept of ‘the church’ that is perhaps significantly different from what our concept or experience may have been up to this point. 

            As we work through this list of core experiences, just ask yourself, “Can I be this kind of church…have this kind of experience…without leaving my home…or by staying isolated at home?”  The answers to that may surprise you and change the way you think about church. 

Remember, the first couple of centuries of the church met primarily in homes and secondarily in the Temple, synagogues, outdoors and other larger meeting places.  But they did meet together in homes in groups larger than single households. 

            By asking that question, I’m not taking a shot at people who have temporarily, for health or medical reasons, decided not to participate in larger-church gatherings.  That is a decision everyone has a right to make on their own before God.  But when other people start making…or continue making indefinitely…that decision for others, that too is wrong.  Love of neighbor doesn’t make a decision for someone else that God has given the individual the right and responsibility to make for themselves. 

So here are some of the fundamental teachings of the N.T. about WHAT THE CHURCH IS:

Ephesians 4:16-17:  “…speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

#1.  The church is to be a lovingly interconnected, mutually supportive organism of people growing up into Jesus Christ. 

            Paul borrows here from the visual-aid of the human body as a metaphor for the church.  Christ is the head.  We are the “ligaments” in this illustration—the muscles, sinews, bones, joints, etc. that must work together if the body is to function.  It won’t work if just one or two ligaments grow and the rest atrophy. And it won’t work, even if all the ligaments are growing, BUT none of them is connected to each other. There must be both individual muscle growth and connected muscle growth.  You don’t have to be a doctor to figure that one out. 

            Paul says that this interconnectedness is vital for “growth,” for “becoming in every respect the mature body” of Christ in this world.  It is vital for “build[ing] itself up in love.”  That would seem to indicate that we can’t become ‘the church’ as God intends us to be if we are not in actual relationship with other members of the body of Christ…if we’re not “building ourselves up in love.”

            Since agape love has to be a self-sacrificing kind of love, it is not a love that can be experienced or developed without ongoing relationship with others. 

ILL:  I know some believers who for years have told me that their “church” is to tune into various TV preachers on the weekend.  They haven’t been a regular part of an actual group of believers who know each other’s names, pray for each other, go do ministry together or argue through issues of life from a biblical perspective for years.  But they think they are “doing church” or even “going to church” when they turn their TV on Sunday mornings. 

            Now if you are an invalid or confined to your home because you can’t get out or go out, if this kind of “church” experience is the closest you can get to a church experience, then I’m very grateful that such an option is available.  I may be there some day. 

            But when people have the capacity to actually become part of a living, breathing church family and chose not to, it is deception to call that “being the church.” 

            Tell me, what does actually having to relate to people different from you, people of different ages, people with different ideas and beliefs about spiritual things, with different experiences with Christ…what does that DO to you?  It GROWS you up!  It forces you to grow in the fruit of the Spirit—love, patience, gentleness, meekness, self-control.  Watching TV doesn’t require that!  Only being in relationship with other imperfect saints does.

            That may be why lots of people who even do “go-to church” choose churches where they don’t have to be in relationship with others or where everyone there is just like them.  It’s why some people keep changing churches over and over again.  They don’t really have to grow, change and become more like Jesus if, when something rubs them wrong, they move on to the next place…at least until something there bothers them enough to move them on to the next place…and so on. 

            Notice the words “lovingly connected” and “mutually supportive.”  Can you say that has or is your relationship to a few other people in the church you are a part of?  If not, you probably need to change.  Yes, some churches are super-hard to break into or get around the already-formed and fossilized cliques and groups.  But most churches have other people who are hungry for meaningful relationships in Christ with others.  You just have to find them.  You have to decide YOU are going to make that group or start that friendship. 

And it will take time…probably more than you are currently willing to give. But it will pay rich growth dividends when you do and when you stick with it. 

One final thing about this characteristic of a genuine church:  …it is an organism (living) growing up into Jesus Christ. 

Vs. 16—“…we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”  Don’t make having a lot of friends or getting connected to a lot of people your goal in church. Make becoming more like Jesus…growing up into Him…the goal.  If that is your goal, virtually any church, no matter how dysfunctional it is, can help lead you to Christ.  Let their dysfunction drive you to Jesus more. 

ILL:  First church we attended in Spain and where we interned—felt dead as a doornail to us.  The worship sounded every Sunday like a funeral dirge!  It was THE worst day of my week…until I got out of myself enough to hear God whisper, “John, no one can keep you from worshiping me…unless you let them.”

The church is to be a lovingly interconnected, mutually supportive organism of people growing up into Jesus Christ.  “Can I be this kind of church…have this kind of experience… without leaving my home…or by staying isolated at home?” 

#2.  The church is to be a family of saints living in mutual submission to each other under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the leadership of spiritual shepherds (overseers/elders/ pastors). 

Listen again to Paul in Ephesians 5:21ff--21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

In this book of Ephesians which is all about how the church is to function and live together, Paul talks about how husbands and wives and children are to live together.  MUTUAL SUBMISSION is how it happens.  And if you read that whole passage, Paul keeps going back and forth between the talk of loving submission of spouses to each other and the loving submission of the church to Christ. We learn submission to Christ in a living church.

The writer of Hebrews makes it even more clear how that happens when he writes in Hebrews 13:17--Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.

  • We are to be a “family of saints living in mutual submission to each other under the Lordship of Jesus Christ….” Dear friends, Mosaic IS the only family some of us have…and it is the closest family some of us will ever have!  Living as family…at least healthy, loving, enjoyable family…requires learning to practice submission…just like we talked about with government last week.  We won’t have a happy society nor happy families if we don’t learn the heart, attitude and actions of Jesus Christ who lived and died out of submission to the Father (Phil. 2).  Since, as Paul says in Gal. 2:20, “we’ve been crucified with Christ” and “the life we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself up for us,” THAT is to be our new life together. 

APP:  When was the last time you had to die to yourself in order to love someone else in the church?  You won’t do that sitting at home.  You can’t!  That will only happen as we learn to live together as a spiritual family in mutual submission to one another. 

But there is one more component in this statement:  “…under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the leadership of spiritual shepherds (overseers/elders/ pastors).”  Biblically you cannot call a group of “2 or 3 people gathered together in Jesus name” OR even a singular family “a church.” That is a gross simplification and misunderstanding of the N.T. concept of church.

Also, trust me, I didn’t add that in because I love lording it over other people.  Yes, I do like to lead and I love independence as much as the next guy.  But the older I get, the more I realize that leadership means sacrificing yourself for others in ways that will help them mature, not that make me feel powerful or important.

Just as God has ordained government over all mankind, so God has ordained church leaders over all churches.  If there are not some church leaders shepherding your soul, then whatever experience you are having isn’t the “full-meal deal.”  It may be a portion of church; but it’s not the kind of ‘church’ experience God says is necessary and best for us. 

Even if you are simply part of a ‘house church’ of a handful of people/families, a church needs under-shepherds and overseers. Just like in marriages and families, their needs to be leadership and followership.  Without that, you have weak, dysfunctional marriages, families and churches.  And even with it, you have imperfect marriages, families and churches.  But the latter is far superior to the former. 

Good leadership won’t abuse that power.  They won’t have to demand you recognize it.  They will usually wait for you to say, “I want and recognize your leadership.  Will you please help me come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ?” 

NOTE: there may be times when you can no longer live under the leadership of some church or pastor.  Who knows, the decision I as a Pastor and other Mosaic leaders have made to support me in reopening the church next week may lead some of you to say, “You know what.  That is such a terrible decision that I can no longer trust Pastor John and the other leaders at Mosaic. I don’t think they have enough biblical support to take this step nor enough concern for my soul.” 

And you may eventually feel that you must leave and find another spiritual shepherd who will care for your soul better.  That is one reason why multiple “local/house churches” exist in virtually every city of the world.  God allows for that. 

But I would simply say to anyone on either side of this issue:  in the name of being submissive to a secular government, how might you be compromising your submission to your spiritual “government”/ leadership God may have put over you in whatever church you are in?  Have you really talked through the issue with your church leaders/pastors?  Have you allowed them to sharpen your understanding of Scripture and submission and cared enough for them to challenge their understanding/interpretation of Scripture if you are convinced they are wrong…either way?

There are times to leave churches, but it should be after working very hard and sometimes long to get to a place where Christ’s heart of submission is truly yours…and where continued submission to a human leader would require you not to submit to Christ.  (ILL:  Leaving a previous church for me?)   

#3.  The church is to be a gathering of God’s people who share spiritually significant experiences together such as the sacraments, teaching, ministry, prayer, fellowship, worship, service and witness.

            There is a lot of Scripture you and I cannot obey or fulfill unless we are in a body of believers bigger than our immediate household.  Just think of all the different “one another” commands in the N.T.  I don’t have time to give them all so you’ll have to look them up or go to these sermon notes later.  But none of these commands (not suggestions) can be fulfilled well or at all without being in relationship with people in a real, actual, breathing, living ‘church.’ 

            Take just one, for instance: Ephesians 5:18-20—

 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord….

We are commanded to share these and many other “spiritually significant experiences together.”  And these don’t even touch on how we are to minister in the kingdom together, share baptism and the Lord’s supper together (I Cor. 11), experience teaching of the Word and prayer together (I Tim. 2) and support and care for the genuine physical needs of each other (Acts 4:32-37). 

            Just listen to a few of the dozens of things God’s word calls us to DO TOGETHER AS THE CHURCH: 

Unity. One third of the one-another commands deal with the unity of the church.

  1. Be at peace with one another (Mk 9:50)
  2. Don’t grumble among one another (Jn 6:43)
  3. Be of the same mind with one another (Ro 12:1615:5)
  4. Accept one another (Ro 15:7)
  5. Don’t bite, devour, and consume one another (Ga 5:15)
  6. Don’t boastfully challenge or envy one another (Ga 5:26).
  7. Gently, patiently tolerate one another (Ep 4:2)
  8. Be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving to one another (Ep 4:32)
  9. Bear with and forgive one another (Co 3:13)
  10. Seek good for one another, and don’t repay evil for evil (1 Th 5:15)
  11. Don’t complain against one another (Jas 4:115:9)
  12. Confess sins to one another (Jas 5:16)

Love. 1/3 of them instruct Christians to love one another.

  1. Love one another (Jn 13:3415:1217Ro 13:81 Th 3:124:91 Pe 1:221 Jn 3:114:7112 Jn 5)
  2. Through love, serve one another (Ga 5:13)
  3. Tolerate one another in love (Ep 4:2)
  4. Greet one another with a kiss of love (1 Pe 5:14)
  5. Be devoted to one another in love (Ro 12:10)

Humility. About 15% stress an attitude of humility and deference among believers.

  1. Give preference to one another in honor (Ro 12:10)
  2. Regard one another as more important than yourselves (Php 2:3)
  3. Serve one another (Ga 5:13)
  4. Wash one another’s feet (Jn 13:14)
  5. Don’t be haughty: be of the same mind (Ro 12:16)
  6. Be subject to one another (Ep 5:21)
  7. Clothe yourselves in humility toward one another (1 Pe 5:5)

Here’s the rest: (25%)

  1. Do not judge one another, and don’t put a stumbling block in a brother’s way (Ro 14:13)
  2. Greet one another with a kiss (Ro 16:161 Co 16:202 Co 13:12)
  3. Husbands and wives: don’t deprive one another of physical intimacy (1 Co 7:5)
  4. Bear one another’s burdens (Ga 6:2)
  5. Speak truth to one another (Ep 4:25)
  6. Don’t lie to one another (Co 3:9)
  7. Comfort one another concerning the resurrection (1 Th 4:18)
  8. Encourage and build up one another (1 Th 5:11)
  9. Stimulate one another to love and good deeds (He 10:24)
  10. Pray for one another (Jas 5:16)
  11. Be hospitable to one another (1 Pe 4:9)

            When we eventually come out of this Covid-Crisis, we all need to ask some hard questions about what the church really is to be and what we are going to make Mosaic be as a church.  I as your pastor and I know the other leaders as well want to hear from you NOW and GOING FORWARD about what God has shown you in this time of isolation what we really need to grow into as a church in order to really BE the church God wants us to be and our neighbors need us to be.  Please, let us know what God is saying to you.  And let’s all be more passionate about BEING the church rather than just “going to church.” 


BENEDICTION: (Eph. 4:15-17; my paraphrase) “Now, speaking the truth to each other in love, may we all at Mosaic grow to become, in every respect, the mature body of Christ in this world, of which Christ is the head.  From him, the whole church, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each believer does their work.”