I talk a lot about ‘the Church’, and this concept isn’t really always clear. Often by ‘the Church’ what we mean is ‘my church’, or ‘my denomination’, or even just ‘the people I agree with’. Sometimes we use the term ‘church’ to mean the entire body of Christianity, but this raises the question: what makes one a Christian? We could argue that to be Christian is simply a matter of personal identity (i.e. if I think I am a Christian then I am, regardless of my beliefs), and certainly there are many variations of orthodox Christianity (try comparing Baptist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christian practices sometime). There are differences in theological belief, differences in practice, differences in focus, and differences in understanding. There are liberal Christians who don’t believe that Christ is necessary for salvation, and there are conservative Christians that believe that if you don’t wear a tie to church on Sundays you are going to hell. So, how can we talk about ‘the Church’ in any meaningful way?
Scripture, however, does speak of ‘the Church’ as a universal. Well, technically it talks about the body of Christ as a universal, and declares that ‘the Church’ is the body of Christ. However, this brings us back to the question, what do we mean by that? If the body of Christ and the church universal are the same thing, then what does that mean in practice? The clarification offers no actual clarity because it raises all of the same questions. The clarification tells us that we have some scriptural support for speaking of ‘the Church’, but doesn’t actually give any clarification as to what ‘the Church’ is.
We clearly can’t argue that ‘the Church’ includes everyone who calls themselves a Christian, because there are plenty of ‘Christians’ who aren’t actually Christian. I call myself a Red Sox fan, but I don’t think I’ve watched a baseball game in three years. If I do see the Sox playing I’ll root for them, but clearly I’m not a fan. Similarly, there are plenty of people who identify themselves as Christians, but don’t actually engage in any form of Christian practice on a regular basis. Christianity is a religious faith, not a birthright. If I move to China and live there for the next 30 years, I will still be an American citizen by law. However, being born into a Christian family doesn’t make me a Christian, that is a choice that I have to make for myself, just like being a Red Sox fan.
So, can we simply say that ‘the Church’ is made up of everyone who is truly saved? Perhaps. Technically I would argue that this is true, but this then raises the question of what it means to be ‘saved’. Am I saved simply because I was moved at a Church service, went to the front of the church, and repeated some words? I think the majority of theologians would reject this. Salvation is not simply the repetition of words, it is a commitment, a surrender of will and an acceptance of the authority of Christ.
So, bearing this in mind, can we say that ‘the Church’ is made up of those who are truly seeking to follow after Christ? This, I think, is getting closer to the mark. Christians are those who are seeking Christlikeness. Those who have surrendered their lives not to a particular denomination or theological worldview, but to the true and living God and seek to live in communion with him every day. Try reading 1st John sometime and you will find this born out within its chapters. 1st John chapters 1-3 are filled with continuous present verbs (i.e. if you keep doing…whatever or if you make a practice of …this). When I speak of ‘the Church’ I speak of those who are making a true and honest effort to live their lives in communion with God and to portray a similarity to Christ in their attitudes and actions. They don’t even have to be good at it, I think its clear from this blog that I’m not, but that is the goal of their lives.
The body of Christ is made up of his followers, and his followers come in every shape and size. Some are well-to-do church members in good standing, some are tattooed, some are drug addicts struggling to be better, some are lawyers, politicians, missionaries, doctors, beggars, pastors, teachers, and thieves. The key is that they are all trying to live like Christ, even if they fail. Hell, even if they don’t know how, they are trying. Consider Christ’s story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector if you think that some of the above are more ‘worthy’ of being called Christians than others.
Christianity, for all it’s many varieties, holds a body of unchanging core beliefs. The fundamental beliefs (where the term Fundamentalist actually comes from) include the virgin birth, the dual-nature of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the second coming of Christ, and the authority (not inerrancy) of the Scriptures. If you call yourself a Christian and fundamentally disagree with one of these then you might have some thinking to do, or God might just be working in you. He knows that I’ve believed plenty of heresies over the years, but he always brings me back to the truth eventually.
I would add the doctrine of the triune nature of God (i.e. that the father, son, and holy spirit are three persons in one being), the doctrines of personal and natural sin, a belief in Satan and the demonic, a belief that Christ is the only means of salvation, and an understanding of prayer as important (essentially fundamental) doctrines and practices. However, there are relatively few churches that would disagree with any of these, and there are plenty of believers who may not be a part of a local church who do believe in these.
Of course, this brings us to the question of whether a person should be a member of a local church, but I’m going to leave that one for another post.