What is a church?
By Dr. Hal Knight
The New Testament is filled with many images of the church: people of God, body of Christ, temple of the Holy Spirit, household of God, bride of Christ and many more. It would be beneficial for local churches to prayerfully study these biblical images together as a way to open themselves to renewal by God.
The Protestant Reformation developed its own standard definition of the church as where (as it says in our Articles of Religion) “the pure Word of God is peached, and the Sacraments duly administered.” While not disagreeing with the intent, John Wesley did not accept this definition as an adequate description of a true church. Among other things, as a Protestant in his day, he believed it would exclude Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox from the church universal which Wesley did not want to do.
Drawing on Ephesians 4:1–6 in his sermon “Of the Church,” Wesley defines the “catholic or universal church” as all persons who God has called “to be ‘one body’ united by ‘one Spirit’; having ‘one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.’” In short, the church “is called ‘holy’ because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as he has called them is holy.”
A church for Wesley consists of persons either seeking holiness or growing in holiness. It has persons serving God while seeking to have their hearts transformed in love by the Holy Spirit. It also has persons who, having had this new birth, were daily growing in sanctification governed by love for God and neighbor.
This raises some serious questions for local churches. Is our evangelism focused only on life after death, or is it focused on inviting persons to receive a new life of love which begins in this life and lasts eternally? Are we encouraging persons to develop a daily devotional life to enable Christian growth? Does our worship, community life, education and modes of service provide an environment in which persons can grow in their knowledge and love of God and neighbor? It was because so many churches in Wesley’s day were deficient in these areas that he began the Methodist movement.
If a church is to be a place to seek and grow in holiness, then it must be heavily invested in Christian formation. But if it is, then it is able to do one other thing that is essential to being a church: participate in the mission of God in the world. A formational church is a missional church.
Wesley recognized this in later sermons such as “The General Spread of the Gospel.” What if the entire church — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodoxy — was renewed in holiness? They would truly love one another as well as reach out to those outside the church with the good news of Jesus Christ, in both word and deed. Such a church would not only give a witness through what its people say and do: it would be a witness to the new life God offers us in Christ in the midst of the present age. In the church persons would see the reality of God’s love, and because it is real they would come to believe it can be a reality in their own lives as well.