What is the Church?

A couple of people close to me recently asked me a question which seemed to betray a misunderstanding of church. The question was: “Why do people get hurt going to church?” The implication was that if the church is part of the Body of Christ how could God’s body do anyone any harm?

I think the misunderstanding is most easily cleared up by using a diagram.

In the diagram I show a large circle in the centre which shows the Body of Christ worldwide. Around the edges and to one side I draw three other circles that represent what most people call churches. The first thing to note is that no church (as the term is commonly understood) consists fully of people in the Body of Christ. I can say with confidence that there is no large group of people meeting on a Sunday morning on this earth whose members are all members of the Body of Christ. There may be smaller bodies of people who meet together, particularly in countries where the church is persecuted, that are all members of the Body of Christ but, even then, it can be a very hard thing to assess. How do you know whether everyone you meet with knows Jesus or not? (Part of the answer to that question can be found in 2 Timothy 2:19, i.e. “The Lord knows those who are His” and He can tell you and “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” – you can know a believer by their consistent behaviour and character manifestation over a long period.)

Among these churches I have drawn a distinction between three types of congregations.

Type 1 is what I would call “life giving”. These are churches you need to go to if you are a member or aspire to be a member of the Body of Christ.  They encourage you to love Jesus and through Him to love the Father , your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and your neighbour as yourself.

Type 2 is what I would call “life sucking”. These are congregations of people that do not encourage you to love God with all your heart or your neighbour as yourself.  They are often dying in the sense that they are reducing in numbers but that isn’t always a reliable sign.

Type 3 is just plain dead. There actually may be some people in it (unlike in the diagram) that are in the Body of Christ but they might as well not be since the church itself is doing nothing related to Jesus. These types of churches are all too common. There main distinguishing feature is that they are more interested in continuing their existence than they are in the well being of their attendees.

Diagrams like the above are of course limited in reflecting reality which is often more complicated and messy. Anyone, whether a believer or not, is capable of walking in the flesh and, as a result, either hurting someone or being hurt by someone.

The main point is this: don’t expect people in churches to act like the Body of Christ should act.  Not even most of the time. They are not the same thing. Be prepared to be hurt by people in church and you will be a bit more prepared and less disillusioned when it happens.


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