Ask people what a “church” is, and be prepared to be surprised … disappointed … saddened … perhaps even shocked. What’s a “church”? A society of hypocrites. A social club. An enabler and protector of sexual predators. A useless, vestigial organ from an earlier, more primitive age. A bunch of weirdoes, holy-rollers, holier-than-thou-ers. A quiet and innocuous place for old ladies. A group that only serves and cares about itself. A bad mistake. A corrupt, corrupting institution.
And maybe an occasional expression of appreciation or even praise.
In all events, “church” carries a whole lot of baggage. I have good friends, Christians, who won’t use the word anymore, because it creates far more communication problems than it solves. I wish them well and hope they will develop some new ways to describe and talk about this thing we call “church,” but for now and the immediate future, I think the term will stick around. We’ve forgotten that there was a time when “church” was a brand-new, never-before-heard-of thing. Maybe we should go back to those earlier days and fresher usage, and see if that could help us move forward in our day.
“Church” is how we translate the Greek New Testament word ekklesia. Ekklesia means “called out ones,” an assembling of those who have been called out and then gathered together for a particular purpose, something like a deliberative public meeting or body. “Church” is perhaps not a great translation of ekklesia; it’s more a way in which we read our culture back into the Bible. We think we know what “church” means—it means how we “do church”—and so that must mean what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the ekklesia in Corinth or Ephesus or Philippi or Rome.
But when we read what Paul actually wrote, when we read how the NT speaks about the people of Christ, we have to face the fact that how they wrote, and how they put the truth they wrote into living practice, differs in some significant ways from what we do.
One way the NT talks about “church” is as a building:
[You] … are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling where God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:21-22).
… you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a spiritual priesthood … (1 Peter 2:5).
It’s a cliché: “the church isn’t a building, it’s the people!” True enough, as far as it goes; it doesn’t go very far. When Jesus thinks “church,” he’s thinking about building people—building a particular kind of people into a particular kind of “building” (which actually is not a physical structure).
Churches don’t need bricks-and-mortar structures. Those may be helpful, but the real bricks and mortar of the church that Jesus builds is the people. The phrase that both Paul and Peter use is “built together.”
Imagine a building site where the bricks never get built together. There’s a small pile here, individual bricks here and there, perhaps even a well-organized bit of a wall over there. But nothing is really getting “built together.”
For Jesus to build a church, there needs to be a solid, deep foundation—Christ himself, and the teaching of the apostles and prophets; in other words, Christ and his Word—and each “living stone” needs to be joined both to that foundation and to his or her fellow living stones. Built together. It’s a picture of lives connected, joined, linked, united, to Christ and to one another. This doesn’t mean having more “meetings” or spending all our time and energy looking inward, at one another, instead of outward, towards the world.
The single best tool I have discovered that Jesus loves to use as he builds his church is the “one anothers” (https://overviewbible.com/one-another-infographic/). The NT contains more than thirty “one another” commands: love one another; pray for one another; submit to one another; be patient with one another; accept one another; don’t judge one another, and so on. Picture the “one anothers” as the fasteners, the clamps, the binding agents that hold the bricks safely and securely together.
The “one anothers” speak to our independence, our various stratagems for avoiding being truly “built together” by Christ in the Spirit. I like being in my small, select pile of bricks; often, I can be perfectly content being a brick-by-myself. But Jesus is building something magnificent: a place where God dwells by his Spirit. A temple—in fact, The Temple, the “place” where people, insiders and outsiders, might draw near to God. Bricks by themselves, and small “independent” groupings won’t become that kind of temple.
A “good” church doesn’t need to be big or rich or famous; it doesn’t need a lot of money or ministries or facilities, though all these can be helpful. It does need all the one anothers securing each and every brick in the right way into the right placement in the overall structure. We don’t get to pick and choose our “favorite” or “preferred” one anothers and ignore the rest; all 30+ need to be practiced, by each of us and by all of us together.
And a “good” church recognizes that we the bricks don’t get to choose the people who are our “one anothers”; Jesus makes those decisions. We are called by Christ to “one another” with whomever he brings to his building site. A Christ-community that actively and intentionally lives the “one anothers” will receive a steady flow of new bricks, especially as we “older” bricks are reminded that many of the newer bricks that are needed for Jesus to build aren’t yet on site: we need to “one another” towards those who aren’t yet our “one anothers”!