Matthew 16:18 : “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The passage has been a subject of religious controversy throughout the ages. In this post I will not touch the usual subject which has been disputed. Rather, I will try to define what the “church” really is. This is the subject of another unspoken controversy!
Two millenniums have passed since the promised Spirit descended upon a small group of men and women in the upper room. These few individuals went forward in God’s Power and favour and proceeded “to turn the world upside down”. They conducted no military strategies, political campaigns or intellectual revolutions. Instead they were a closely knit community of ordinary people. Their leaders, mostly “unlearned and ignorant men”, carried the distinction that they had “been with Jesus”. Yet the movement spread with unstoppable tenacity, often in the face of violent persecution. It fills the world today, yet to the observer it exists in a multitude of fragmented, unassociated divisions. What has happened?
First let us look at the Greek word, Ekklēsia, for which almost all English translations use the word, “church”. It means “called out assembly or congregation”. The Luther German Bible uses the word “Gemeinde” which means a community of fellowship. The English word is more one of ambiguity which can conjure a variety of images in the hearer’s mind. One may think of a building used for worship, an institution involving specific religious rituals, a denomination, etc. However, none of these portrays the original thought of the Greek. Therefore it is important to remember when Scripture uses the word “church” it refers to a specific community.
A basic but comprehensive description of this community is found in Matt.18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
What does the Name of Jesus signify? First, it is not about a system of beliefs, a tradition or a religion. Rather, it is about a Person – the Son of God Whose shed blood alone can reconcile alienated mankind to their Creator. The “Ekklēsia” is the community of people who through Jesus have been restored into fellowship with the Heavenly Father. In addition to their position in Him, God Himself has promised His Presence when His people gather.
The foretold manifestation of His Presence was first experienced at Pentecost in the upper room. There was no question regarding its reality. It followed the believers to the streets where God’s Spirit enabled them to declare the wonderful works of God in the varied languages of the hearers. The result was that thousands were brought to a living faith in Christ. The Spirit fell upon those as well who now believed. An atmosphere of love, joy and mutual caring prevailed in their new community. Acts, 4:33: “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.”
When deacons were chosen to look after the widows and needy, individuals were sought out who exhibited the same Divine Presence – “men filled with the Holy Ghost and wisdom”. A most dramatic display of the power of the indwelling Spirit of God was shown through one of these men, the martyr, Stephen.
Thus continued the story of the early church. Their theme was Jesus Christ Who suffered, died and rose again so that all who believed in Him could have their sins forgiven and be reconciled to God. God manifested Himself among them with miracles and by giving them boldness to proclaim the Good News to the world. This was the Ekklēsia – a mighty force of men and women, who as Jesus had said were knit together by love. Their message was one of love and reconciliation. Try as they might no army or weapons could stop the progress because it was empowered by God Himself.
So how can we explain the fragmentation and chaos which often characterized the church in the following ages? Too quickly in history the two foundational pillars of its structure were pushed aside (the work of Jesus and the Presence of God) . The personal, regenerating work in the life of each member through Christ was overshadowed by the performance of rituals such as baptism and communion. These rituals were right because Christ Himself instituted them. Yet they were never meant to replace what they represented. The Presence of God through the Holy Spirit in the assembly was taken for granted whether or not it was a reality. Decisions were made by hierarchies of leaders rather than by the direction of the Spirit in response to the prayers of the brotherhood. The result was another religion and institution directed by man rather than by God. II Timothy, 3:5: “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.”
However, Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. In the environment of all this falling away, God preserved pockets of believers who recognized Christ as being central to their faith. The power of His salvation transformed their lives and manifested the reality of God. Sometimes these people stayed within the organized churches but spread their influence to others. Upon occasion they were forced to leave the existing institutions and begin their own community of faith. Many times God called intercessors who saw the dead state of the church and proceeded to cry out to Him until He responded by sending a powerful awakening to existing churches. Often in history, severe persecution of believers separated those who had a living faith from such who only gave mental assent to a religion. The result was always the same – Jesus Christ and His salvation became central and God’s Hand was visibly with them. So is the essence of His Church, the community of faith.
The conclusion is this: the community of Christ is made up of those who have been born into it through repentance and faith in the work of Jesus and are filled and led by His Spirit. Exactly where they find themselves is where the Spirit leads them which may vary according to circumstances. Many times in my life I have met total strangers who were true believers. We soon felt a close kinship in Christ. Regardless of denomination, we were part of the Ekklēsia.
Usually, when persecution arises the barriers between followers of Jesus diminish. Under these circumstances, Christians encourage one another in the faith, rediscovering what truly matters. Likewise, revival and spiritual awakenings cross the lines which men have made and make believers aware again that Jesus and His redemption are the reality upon which their faith stands. The religious chaos in which we currently find ourselves may be the beginning of God drawing those who truly know Him back to Himself and in unity with one another.
I am by no means referring to modern ecumenism. Ecumenism appears to be an attempt to draw the religious institutions of men into a strange theological stew of a common denominator. Long on hyperbole and religious tradition and short on the reality of Christ and His Word, it bears no semblance to the unity of the Spirit.
The unity of the Spirit occurs when those who have found real faith in Christ are collectively led by His Spirit to build up His kingdom together. Love for one another is the automatic outcome of His Presence. The Word of God becomes alive and central when God’s anointing rests upon such who teach and proclaim it. When the encumbrances of men are laid aside and Christ descends upon His people, He will draw men and women to Himself. May we seek out those who truly belong to Him and together form His community, the Ekklēsia!