What is Church?


When we think of “church,” what comes to mind? Most of us have heard many times over that the church is not a building but a people. But we inevitably bring other ideas into our definition. For some of us the church is an institution with leadership, rules, procedures, and committees. Or we might think of the church in terms of programs and activities. These are not wrong, but by themselves fall short of what it means to be a church. 

John Wesley’s denomination, the Church of England, defined the church as the place where “the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly administered.” The United Methodist Articles of Religion faithfully repeats this language, in Article XIII, and our Confession of Faith includes it within a longer statement in Article V.

This is a standard Protestant definition, implying a contrast with the Roman Catholic Church where the Reformers believed the pure word was not preached and the sacraments not duly administered. Wesley would agree with that assessment yet would not go so far as to say Roman Catholics were not part of the universal church. Drawing on Ephesians 4:5-6, Wesley defines the universal church as:

all the persons in the universe which God hath so called out of the world as to entitle them to the preceding character [which he describes as being made holy through the Holy Spirit]; as 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.” (“Of the church,” ¶ I.14) 

To be indwelt by the Holy Spirit is to become ourselves holy, that is, to love God and others as God has loved us in Jesus Christ.

Thus, for Wesley the church is not necessarily the list of persons on the membership rolls, nor is it simply defined by its worship practices. The church is instead the congregation of believers that “is called ‘holy’ because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as he that called them is holy.” (“Of the church,” ¶ III.28) Put differently, the church is those persons who are growing in holiness or are seeking holiness. 

This is what Wesley says. But what he and his Methodists do point to another, complementary understanding of the church: as a Holy Spirit-led event. Church occurs when people gather for worship, for fellowship, and to serve others. In Wesley’s day church occurred in the small group gatherings (the classes and bands), the larger society meetings, and at annual conferences. Church also occurred when Methodists gathered together to visit the sick, or those in prison, and to aid the poor and dispossessed who were seeking work in the new industries or coal mines. 

When persons say after an especially powerful worship service “We really had church today,” I think they are on to something. The people are never more the church than when, empowered by the Spirit, they are worshipping God, supporting one another, and sharing the good news by word and deed to world in need.