As educated Christians, we have often heard that a church is not merely a building. However, when we refer to a “church,” we still point at an ensemble of solid, concrete walls and elevated ceilings with a cross on top. For practical purposes, it is not wrong to do so. But this image is so ingrained into our minds that the practical definition of “church” as a building is more prevalent than the original definition of “church” as a gathering of Disciples.
Consider this: in the past, some churches were but houses of Christians, who offered their place up for worship and prayer. Even now, in different third-world countries, some churches start out as small, plain buildings made out of adobe bricks and bare grounds where Disciples of Christ meet. So what is a church?
A church is neither a building nor us. It is us in Christ. As A.W. Tozer puts it in Man: The Dwelling Place of God, “One hundred religious persons knit into unity by careful organization do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team. The first requisite is life, always.” And that Life we know as God.
The purpose of the church is then the purpose of the disciples that conform it: to be a place of discipleship, that is, to be disciples and make disciples together. This is how through the church, Jesus continues to live and give out the good news to the world.
One of the widely used Bible verses to describe how the structure of a church should look like is Corinthians 12:12-13.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves[a] or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
Paul used the image of a living body instead of an inanimate machine for a reason. It was to show that a church should function organically, not mechanically. And indeed, in the passage of One Body with Many Member, Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ deals with living, unique disciples working united in Christ.
But Paul was not the only one who used the image of the human body to show the value of an individual and the strength of togetherness. One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of the belly and the members. And this is how it goes:
One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food. So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to strike work till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work. So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do. But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest. So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body, and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces.
In both Paul’s letter and Aesop’s fable, each part of the human body has a different function in contributing to the health of the whole. They are interdependent and definitely not self-sufficient. The church and its members are no different. As members of the church, we have different gifts we can use for the church, and we need each other to help each other in our brokenness and loneliness.
But in Aesop’s fable, there is no mention of the head. And perhaps it is the exact absence of this character in the story that the strike of the members happens. In the church, every member’s movement is able to become functional and work in harmony thanks to the coordination and guidance of the head, Jesus Christ. Without the head or without obeying the head, we would be as lost as the members of Aesop’s fable before they found out they had to work together.
3 Ways a Church Should Treat Its Disciples
We have said that the church is a place of discipleship. It is up to the church to foment discipleship and maintain a loving community of disciples. But how do we do that? How should we treat our disciples? Here are three great ways to consider:
- Like Sons and Daughters: Paul was a great example of intimate involvement, and tender and disciplined love. In 1 Thessalonians 2 he writes that he did not only share the gospel but his life (v8), and in a similar fashion, missionaries dedicate themselves in sharing a life with the people of their new home shoulder to shoulder. Like both of them, we are not to act like distant supervisors to each other, but like a gentle “nursing mother caring for her little children” (v7) and “as a father deals with his children” (v11) by constantly encouraging, disciplining, and teaching each other our trades as disciples right next to them.
- Like Siblings: When Paul writes to the church of Philippi, he addresses them as if they were family, calling them brothers and sisters. He urges them to think the same, love each other, and be united and humble (Philippians 2.1-4). In his commentary Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, N.T. Wright writes that even in the midst of theological differences, resentments, variations in worship style, leadership style, and different personalities, Paul promoted a sense of belonging that should be found in the love for Christ and the gospel. Like a family united by blood ties, Paul shows that church members are united by Christ ties.
- Like Individuals: This is a tricky one. In order to encourage discipleship, churches often engage in different practices such as bible studies, small groups, conferences, retreats, and out-reach programs. However, at one point we have started to rely on them to make disciples, as we would rely on a paper machine to mass produce sheets of papers out of living trees. It becomes all about making people complete tasks rather than the people themselves. It is essential to create programs tailored for intelligent, feeling individuals. The nail clipper was made for the hand, not the other way around. So Bible studies? Instead of simply selecting a random book to study, let us discuss our spiritual needs and find something matching. Small groups? Let us not end them in answering prescribed questions but get to know each other’s lives through genuine interest. Retreats? Let us focus less on being on schedule and remember to build unity and community more than anything. Outreach? Let us see it less as a program but as an act of love for people.
There many other things to consider when it comes to the church. It is, after all, a complex, living thing. But what we need to remember is this: Without Christ there would be no disciples, and without those disciples there would be no church. In the very beginning and at the very end of it, the church is not really about the church. It is about Christ.