To discern the true Church is both needful and delightful. For it is like finding a treasure trove of precious gems, gold and other beautiful and desirable things. Or to use another metaphor, it is like seeing a dear friend and having time to share together in conversation. For the people of God are the Church and the Church is the Body of Christ. And thus in the true Church are God’s gifts and blessings displayed and expressed in relationship with one another.
Is this picture too rosy for you? Does this not fit what you have experienced in past involvement in churches? You are not alone. I acknowledge that many people have not had positive experiences with Christians or churches. Yet the biblical description of God’s purpose, design and witness of the church is extraordinary and beyond any of us to attain to. I think that this is precisely why it is worthy to be embraced and by faith become part of Christ’s Body and learn to do the work of discerning the true Church.
I was talking with a friend who is a personal trainer recently. He commented that people generally are under the impression that regular exercise is the most important factor in losing body fat—particularly in the stomach and buttocks areas where fat is normally stored. Ironically, according to my friend, the best way to “lose” fat is to build up muscle mass generally in the body and then to cut out sugar and limit the amount of carbohydrates you eat. The net effect of increasing muscle mass is that the body can then more efficiently burn fat in the body!
This is not only true for the health of the body but also for the health of the Body of Christ, the Church. For as the human body needs to be active and regularly build muscle to prosper and be at peak functionality so to do God’s people, those “holy ones” in Christ. To do this is not a matter of specific kinds of food but rather a persistent receptiveness to the Spirit as he feeds with the truth and love of the Triune God (see 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). For in God truth and love (and thus grace) are not separated as though they are expressed differently toward human beings. Did not John say, “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17, NRSV)?
When Christ operates as the Head within and among his own people he simultaneously gifts them with his truth in love. This is so because he is the Truth and he expresses God’s nature—which is love (1 John 4:8). And thus, I would suggest, discerning the true Church primarily is to discern authentic love for God and for truth. And to be able to do this a person or a community must believe in truth and hunger and thirst for the practice of righteousness (Matthew 5:6). God desires this for human beings but we cannot seize and experience the gifts of God until we choose to humble ourselves and pursue God himself.
Given that the past couple generations have been so conditioned by principles of Psychology and psychological theories I think that the metaphor of health is helpful here. Not that I am endorsing any particular branch of Psychology but rather that human flourishing and health are clearly God’s stated will. And not surprisingly, the Lord Jesus has made a way for his Body to remain healthy in him.
This health, in large part, is dependent upon the members to seek true spiritual food and drink by discerning true from false doctrine and keeping each other accountable for sinful (and thus destructive) behavior. Paul made this clear when he wrote to Timothy to “[h]old to the standard of sound teaching that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 1:13, NRSV) And God explicitly clarified that to love one’s neighbor as oneself necessarily includes reproof (Leviticus 19:17-18). The history of the Christian Church involves multiple examples of people and leaders doing exactly the opposite. Thankfully, there are also many examples of faithful people who heeded this exhortation and gave their lives for the benefit of Christ’s Body.
The charge that Christians and the Christian church have not lived up to their ideals is to point out the obvious. As one who has been a life-long participant in Christian churches I can vouch that the charge has merit. However, I have also known and seen the character of God himself displayed through others—to me personally and to others. The bottom line is this: The churches are as flawed as the people to participate in them. But this is the mystery and wonderful reality that overshadows all the sins, abuses, errors and flaws of the churches: Christ is the Head of his own people and is continually operating in love by the power of God through the Holy Spirit to convict, communicate and progressively actualize his gift of holiness to his own.
The presupposition of this blog series is that believers need to discern and embrace truth and call out false teaching while conducting ourselves with radical love and respect for the persons we have the privilege to know and speak to. The church(es) is the true Church where love of truth is evident, love is pursued and intentional steps are taken to practice justice. Yet this pursuit is only possible when those persons are rooted and grounded in love (see Colossians 2:2-7). A congregation (church) where this is evident then becomes attractive. Only in so far as we remain in Christ, the Head of the Body, can we resist the overwhelming pressure to avoid and suppress truth and intellectual engagement and counter it with loving engagement. The most elementary marks of the true Church are found in the expression of these two: truth and love lived out in community.
And I believe that the Church, as the Body of Christ, is the primary expression of the Kingdom of God on earth—but not the Kingdom itself nor the totality of that Kingdom! And to be in the Kingdom of God is to know and love what is of eternal significance. The apostle Paul qualified what was the greatest imperative for believers as they relate to one another as the Body.
“For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification.” (Romans 14:17-19, NRSV)
One final point seems necessary to add. The reader will notice that I have not noted that the other aspects which make up the Christian tradition as a whole (the creeds, the leadership structures of churches and the different streams of theological traditions) are part of the “marks of the Church.” This omission is purposeful. I do think that these are crucial for self-understanding and valuable for the formation of believers practice of faith. I have my own opinions and convictions on these various aspects of the Christian tradition(s) but they are not relevant to my task of identifying the core of the Churches identity in the Triune God.
I am aiming to understand for myself and then articulate to others what is the core identity of the true Church. Since one’s identity as a person or a community is always expressed in the way of life I have focused my conclusions pragmatically. In this way I can be about the work of discerning the true Church. And I can also have firm footing for further exploration of a variety of theological ideas.