I’ll never forget sitting in the boardroom of a Christian business leader as he boasted of his company as a Christian enterprise. He spoke of the mission trips taken by employees, investments the company made in select parachurch ventures, their corporate chaplain, and the Bible study offered on campus. All well and good; but throughout his discourse he took more than his fair share of shots at local churches that were not as “alive” as his company was in their faith. In the midst of one of his personal asides about the state of the church as compared to the pristine faith-culture at his business, he maintained that it was for this reason that he wasn’t involved in a local church. Churches were, he intimated, beneath his spiritual level. But it was this next line that crossed a biblical line: “After all,” he added, “we’re the church, too.”
Everything within me wanted to leap from my seat and shout, “No, you are not!” A company is not the body of Christ instituted as the hope of the world by Jesus Himself, chronicled breathtakingly by Luke through the book of Acts, shaped in thinking and practice by the apostle Paul through letter after letter now captured in the New Testament.
A marketplace venture that offers itself on the New York Stock Exchange is not the entity that is so expansive with energy that not even the gates of Hell can withstand its onslaught.
An assembly of employees in cubicles working for end-of-year stock options and bonuses is not the gathering of saints bristling with the power of spiritual gifts as they mobilize to provide justice for the oppressed, service to the widow and the orphan, and compassion for the poor.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised by his statement. After all, I’ve heard it all:
“My small group is the church.”
“My family is the church.”
“My men’s group is the church.”
And if people are not making the grievous mistake of designating anything they want as the church, they are making the equally grievous mistake of dismissing all things “church” as if it is some kind of man-made business entirely out of the Kingdom plan.
Let me be clear.
With jaw-dropping vigor, ignorance and at times unblushing gall, increasing sectors of the evangelical world are abandoning 2,000 years of ecclesiology as though the church was some malleable human construct that can be shaped, altered, redefined or even disposed of as desired. This, coupled with a radical revisionism in terms of biblical interpretation and ecclesial history that would seem more in line with The Da Vinci Code than Christian theology, the doctrine of the church is being reformulated apart from biblical moorings, or simply dismissed as if not a part of biblical orthodoxy at all.
In the Bible, you have three primary understandings of this church—the body of Christ: 1) the local church, 2) the universal Church as she exists around the world, and 3) the Church as she exists throughout time and history, incorporating all of the saints who will one day be gathered together in Heaven. Without question, the dominant biblical use is in reference to a local church or collection of local churches as defined bodies of believers that were gathered with both intent and order.
But what is this “local” church that functions as the body of Christ? As a theology professor explaining this to my seminary students, I wanted to convey the specificity inherent within the nature and definition of the church. I came up with five “C’s”of church: