Session Eight: The Community of Faith
Ephesians 2:19-22, So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Ephesians 4:4, “There is one body and one Spirit,”
Colossians 1:18, “Christ is the head of the body, the church.”
John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
Romans 8:9, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to the church.”
Matthew 16:18, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Romans 12:4-5, “For as in one body we have many members… so in Christ we who are many are one body.”
Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Ephesians 5:25-27, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
1 Peter 2:5, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.”
The ancient Creed affirms that we believe in “one holy catholic church.” The word “catholic” here is an adjective meaning “universal” or “general” and should not be confused with a proper name of a denominational institution that applied the adjective to itself later.
We affirm the “mystical union of all believers,” “the communion of saints,” the “community of faith.” ALL believers in Jesus – across the centuries and continents – are united by our common faith in Christ as our Savior, united into the “household” or “family” of God, united as the “Body of Christ.” This communion, the church, this family is not limited by time or geography or institutional affiliations. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is the family of all CHRISTIANS – in this sense, not an institution. This is the primary meaning of “church.”
We affirm in the Creeds that this corpus of Christians (past and present) is “one, holy, catholic, communion of saints” Note it’s all one expression, one truth. Christians are bound together as one community of faith in Christ. We are holy because through this faith in Christ we are forgiven, we are catholic because together we are the whole corpus of believers, and we are a communion or community or fellowship of saints (those made so by faith in Christ).
Galatians 1:2, “To the churches of Galatia”
1 Thessalonians 1:1, “To the church of the Thessalonians.”
1 Corinthians 1:2, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
Revelation 1:4, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia.”
Christians usually associate together, congregating or assembling typically for the purposes of public worship, mutual cooperation, edification, support and accountability. Such a gathering in a given place and time is technically called a “congregation” (although the term “church” may be used here in a secondary sense as in Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church; this use is seen in Scripture, too).
These associations may assume some institutional aspects (as in our congregation) but the “church” is the people in that place and time, not the institution. Actually, the Christians who associate in that congregation are but a small, tiny part of the “church catholic” – the whole family of believers, past and present.
By their very nature, congregations also include non-believers in their midst (some seekers, some “hypocrites”), Matthew 13:47-49 seems to indicate we should not be too obsessed about that, just preach the word and love all people (God will sort it all out). Of course, clearly unrepentant sinners and heretics should not be embraced since they can harm or even destroy the fellowship, and give a “false witness” to the community.
Because Christians are spread out all over the world, it’s no surprise that that are literally millions of congregations – some huge, some tiny, some with institutional aspects, some just an informal gathering in a living room.
A good congregation is where the Word is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered. Too often, people join (and leave) congregations for reasons that are secondary – at best. They may even overlook the important thing for irrelevant things.
The function of the church is to teach (Matthew 28:20, Deuteronomy 6:7, 2 Timothy 4:2), make disciples (Matthew 28:19, Ephesians 4:12-13, Acts 1:8, 1 Peter 2:9), worship (Hebrews 10:24-15), share Holy Communion (Acts 2:42), forgive the repentant (Matthew 18:21-22, Matthew 18:15-20), offer comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), care for the sick and needy (James 5:14, etc.), encourage and hold each other accountable (1 Thessalonians 5:14), serve and minister for the Gospel since ALL CHRISTIANS are ministers – everyone is a part of the team (1 Corinthians 12:4-26, 1 Peter 4:10). It is a cooperative, community ministry. To misquote President Kennedy, “Ask not what your church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church!”
Congregations may be denominational or non-denominational.
“Non-denominational” congregations are autonomous, independent, isolated and separate – with no formal relationship with any other congregation and with no accountability beyond itself (and perhaps directly to God).
“Denominational” congregations have bonded together with others, usually for reasons similar to why Christians bonded together with others in congregations. These congregations work and serve together, provide mutual accountability and support, etc.
Denominations are a corpus of congregations that have joined together. Some are “episcopal” in nature meaning they are “top down.” These have a strong “chain of command,” often the local congregation is legally owned by the denomination, and often ministers are placed into congregations by the denomination (albeit nearly always with input by the congregation). Some are “congregational” in nature, “bottom up”, meaning each member congregation is somewhat independent, owning their own facilities and calling their own ministers (although usually from an approved list and with denominational assistance). Many denominations are a combination of both.
Our denomination (The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) helped start our congregation (including with very generous financial aid), loaned us the money to build our facilities, trained and supervises our pastor. It operates two seminaries and ten colleges and one of the largest Lutheran publishing house in the world, it sends out missionaries around the world – and much more. Our denomination consists of about 6,000 congregations in the US, which together have about 1.5 million members.
Usually denominations have a common “Confession” (statements of doctrines and beliefs), a common name and a common governance and polity. In some, this is well developed and regarded as binding, in some it’s pretty loose with a lot of “room” for the local congregation to apply such as they wish.
There are no examples of denominations in the New Testament. While some historians argue there were none until the 4th century, we do see at least some elementary aspects of cooperation in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and the collection for the saints. For the first 300 years, Christianity was an illegal, underground religion – more a movement than anything – often on the run and meeting informally and occasionally even secretly in “house churches.” This changed when Christianity was made legal and then the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.
Today, there are literally thousands of denominations, although about 90% of Christians are in 8 or so groupings of such. The fact that there are billions of Christian people, millions of congregations and thousands of denominations has no relevance to the fact that there is ONE, holy, catholic, communion of saints. Irrespective of our institutions, WE are ONE by virtue of our one Lord Jesus, our one faith in Christ, our one baptism (Ephesians 4:5-6, Romans 12:5, Ephesians 4:25, 1 Corinthians 10:17 and 12:12-26).