If, as I argued before, the Greek word ekklesia just means a gathering, then what makes an ekklesia into the Christian Church?
Being an adult convert, I never actually went to Sunday School, but I am told that there is often a single answer that works for every question. I enjoy a little joke which plays on this observation: A new Sunday School teacher comes and tries to start his relationship with the class to a good start, and so asks a simple question: “What’s gray, runs in trees, eats nuts, and has a large bushy tail?” No student raises a hand, but one girl in front has a big frown on her face. The new teacher asks her, “What’s wrong?” and receives the reply, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel!”
It is not a squirrel which makes a gathering into the Church (except perhaps sometimes); the Sunday School answer is correct. It is obvious, and true: Jesus Christ is what makes a gathering into the Christian Church.
Jesus himself was clear on this point, when he said to Peter and the apostles, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The Church is built by Christ as his special workmanship, and belongs to him.
There are many ways to describe the relationship of Christ to the Church, and the Bible fleshes out several of them:
- The Church is Christ’s body, and individual Christians belong to one another like parts of the same body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:12). This means we are all different from each other, and have our own abilities to contribute to the Church, and also that we aren’t competing with one another but are cooperating in the service of God.
- Conversely, Jesus is the head of the Church, which conveys notions of authority (Ephesians 1:22), honor (Colossians 1:18), nourishment (Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 2:19; after all, we eat through our mouths), and submission (Ephesians 5:22-32).
- The Church is Christ’s bride (implicit in the parable of Matthew 9:15; explicit in Revelation 19:7; 21:2,9; and 22:17), conveying notions of mutual love and consummation, a hint of what eternal joy may be like.
- Jesus is a grape vine whose branches are Christians (John 15:1-8), reminding us where our life comes from.
- “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Okay, I couldn’t resist the hymn reference. Elsewhere, Paul refers to the foundation of the Church as the “apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). This isn’t a demotion of Christ, but an acknowledgment that the earliest Christians lined up with Christ, and we later Christians depend on them. But Christ is immovable; removing Christ destroys the Church.
- The Church is a holy temple for the Triune God “in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21-22), reminding us of God’s very real presence with us.
- The Church is the herald proclaiming God’s salvation plan accomplished in Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11).
- Christ is the model for the Church (1 Corinthians 11:1, mediated through Paul; Ephesians 5:1-2; Hebrews 12:2-3).
- Christ is the high priest of the Church, mediating to us the blessings and forgiveness from God (Hebrews 4:14-16; 8:1).
There are other ways Jesus Christ is related to the Church, but you get the point. A gathering without Jesus is not the Christian Church. A gathering which exists in these relationships to Jesus is the Christian Church.
Now, there will be disagreements among Christians about how you know a particular gathering has this or that relationship to Jesus, or what some of these biblical texts mean in practice, or a host of other things. I am not making a point about how to recognize the Church; I am making a point about what the Christian Church is. Humans disagree on matters important to them, almost reflexively, and Christians are not a complete exception to that law of humanity.
These disagreements become a problem when we major on minor points and lose sight of major issues. Christians, in their disagreements (and I am guilty of this myself), often forget that we are arguing about a secondary issues, about how to know Jesus is present, or how to respond properly to his presence. The main thing is his presence! What makes a gathering into the Christian Church is Jesus Christ. Our arguments with each other get heated when we lose sight of this main point, which is Jesus Christ, God incarnate, sent to rescue real messed up people like you and me, who died on the cross for us, was buried in a tomb, and was raised from the dead three days later. So may Jesus Christ our Lord be the unifier now as he once was for faithful Jews and believing Greeks (Ephesians 2:14-18), “and to [God] be the glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.”