by Rayola Kelley
One of the most misunderstood concepts we encounter in Christianity is what constitutes the real church of Jesus Christ. This misunderstanding has caused its share of abuses, accusations and debates about the word, “church”. I know that in my own particular case I use the word “church” to describe three distinct entities.
Because of my past usage of this word, I have been accused of being anti-church which is presumptuous and far from the truth. One individual, who doesn’t even know me, concluded that I must have been hurt by a church because of how he perceived my presentation of church in some of my on Site articles. Such speculation makes it necessary for me to share with readers my perception of church.
There are three popular usages of the word “church.” Sadly, for lack of a better vocabulary, this word is interchanged to put a name and face on these different entities. “Church” is almost a catchall word but people form different pictures in their mind upon hearing this word, which causes confusion or debate.
My approach to this word is simple, I believe that those who have a correct understanding of the word “church” will properly discern my usage and if a person is confused or possesses a limited or incorrect concept, he or she will be challenged or, in some cases, insulted.
The first definition of the word “church” is in reference to the religious system. This is the religious system that is superior in attitude. This system was invented by man, organized by man, is man-centered and man operated. Ultimately it exalts man’s work or leadership as supreme ruler.
This system is a kingdom in and of itself. It conditions man to see it as the solution rather than Jesus Christ. It encourages man to maintain its authority and supremacy in his life.
When I speak about problems in the church, I am often referring to the religious system. It is very worldly and hinders God’s work by replacing Jesus with personal righteousness. It robs valuable resources to promote its own agendas.
In spite of its worldly and idolatrous methods God has used this system to bring people to Himself. Jesus has godly leaders and committed sheep that are working within this system. In fact, I have benefited from this system to some degree but eventually I recognized this system has its limitations and thwarts any work of God that is not done under its auspices. A servant of God can only go so far in it and until eventually he or she will become frustrated, stagnant or discouraged. Some servants have even walked away from service to Him because of the system.
Jesus encountered this system. He showed no real tolerance for it and rebuked it because it was surface, demanded misdirected loyalty and kept people from entering the kingdom of heaven. (See Matthew 15 & 23.)
We see in Hebrews 13:12 that Jesus suffered outside the gate. To me this gate symbolizes the religious system. Jesus accomplished His mission outside of the system and we at GSM realize that God called us outside of this system six years ago. Jesus’ example revealed to us we must sometimes step outside of the system to effectively do God’s bidding.
I believe the real challenge for many struggling Christians is to determine if they have fallen prey to this system’s worldly and idolatrous ways. If so, maybe they need to do what the Apostle Paul declared in 2 Corinthians 6:17: “Wherefore come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord.”
The second definition of “church” is in relationship to edifices or buildings. These edifices vary in size and appearance but their real differences are often defined by denominational preferences. They are often considered beacons of the community in which they stand. When asked for testimonies from those who see their identity in relationship to these edifices, you will hear a testimony about their “church” or in this case building or denomination. In such times I just want to boldly declare, “Your church didn’t die for you!”
It is important to point out I have sat in many buildings. I have learned there is only one thing that distinguishes one edifice from another and that is the presence of God, not the building or denomination. I also know that the godliness of the leaders and the love of the congregation determine whether the presence of God is in the building.
When I encounter people whose hope is wrapped up within the confines of a building, I realize they are probably ignorant of church history. Most Christians have huge gaps in their understanding of history.
The first church that ever came together met in various places such as in private homes. Eventually Christians were forced to meet in the catacombs. There were not great edifices to mark their identity. In fact, there were no such edifices until around 300 AD when Constantine erected buildings where he combined pagan rituals with Christian beliefs. This combination weakened Christianity but Constantine’s goal was not to maintain pure Christian doctrine but to bring people into one place where they could be properly controlled and conditioned into one religion. Sadly, he accomplished this ungodly goal. The buildings contained religious mixture that undermined real faith and subtly replaced the real Jesus. It was after this ungodly mixture took place that the real church had to step outside of it to return to purity. This separation brought a lot of persecution on those who refused to submit to the rule of the great edifices that are usually nothing more than monuments to man. It is here that the religious system came into being.
I have nothing against edifices as long as people realize that Jesus did not die for buildings but for people.
This brings us to the real church of Jesus Christ. According to Scripture, it is not made of an unfeeling religious system or a bunch of buildings but of people (Ephesians 4:4; Colossians 1:18;1 Corinthians 12:12-14). It is a living body that has one head, Jesus Christ, and is bound together by one Spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4-5). This church not only makes up a living mobile building but a lively priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9). This church is in the world but not part of it.
Because of the makeup of the church it is universal. You can find it functioning within the religious system, within all different types of edifices as well as in prisons, work or labor camps, home meetings and elsewhere, often under intense persecution. This church can’t be limited by a system or controlled by a building.
What sets this church apart is not a powerful system but a powerful message called the Gospel that saves souls. It is not set apart by a beautiful building or denominational preference but by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
This church is not established by man’s initiative but by the blood of Jesus. Its symbol is not that of worldly greatness but of an unattractive, insignificant old rugged cross.
People often ask Jeannette and me what church we go to. They are shocked and appalled when we tell them, “We are the church.” If our reply doesn’t silence them, they immediately run behind Hebrews 10:25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.”
I believe this instruction has two goals—preaching of the Word and fellowship. My past experiences of attending church have exposed me to the preaching of the Word but I have encountered little, if any, real fellowship in such meetings.
Few people truly fellowship in churches. Fellowship in most churches is limited and cliquish and the result is many lost souls are falling through the cracks.
For those who are concerned about whether or not we at GSM are forsaking the assembling together, let me assure you that your concerns are unwarranted. We assemble ourselves with other believers at least three times a week. In such times we partake of the word, pray, cry and care for each other. There is love, compassion and hope. In fact, it is a spiritual family that is aware of one another’s burdens and challenges. Now to me this is what Hebrews 10:25 is really talking about.
As I consider the three definitions of church, let me share with you what will happen to these different institutions. The church system will eventually unite with all other religious systems ushering in the one world religious antichrist system mentioned in Revelation. These religious systems will demand all local, independent churches to come under its auspices. Those churches that refuse to cooperate will be disbanded and persecuted. When this happens many edifices will be closed or destroyed and denominational differences will be lost in the midst of the false unity and persecution.
This brings us to the real church. If Jesus should tarry, the real church will go through a refining process as each member must chose whom they will serve. This entity will be driven underground. But in spite of the adversity, this body will emerge as Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, set free from all bondage and spiritually untouched because the great bridegroom will ultimately deliver His bride (Daniel 3).
The question is how do you define the church? Regardless of whether you are part of the system or working within an edifice, make sure you are part of the true church of Jesus Christ. The only requirement is that Jesus is truly your Lord and Savior.