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03 May 2019

Churches, “the Church,” and God’s kingdom.

Sorting out what I (and we) mean by “church.”

Whenever people say church they either mean a building where religious activity happens, or the hierarchy which runs the religion.

Which is way different than what I mean by it. Or what Jesus and the bible mean by it. When Jesus says ἐκκλησία/ekklisía he means a flock of Christians; a group, assembly, crowd, congregation, collection, bunch, congress, whatever term you wanna use for many of us. People like to take apart that Greek word, and note its word-root is καλέω/kaléo, “to call”—and then analyze the significance of Jesus calling Christians to meet together. Yeah, whatever: By the time people used the word in Jesus’s day, it just meant a gathering. And that’s still what it means.

Still, even Christians tend to use it to mean a church building, or the church leadership. Which is why we tend to forget we are the church. Church isn’t a separate thing from us; it is us. It’s us collectively; it’s why I can’t say “I am the church,” because I all by myself am definitely not the church: Other Christians have to be in it. At least two or three. Mt 18.20 The more the better.

Typically “church” refers to a local group. But sometimes we use the word to refer to every Christian, everywhere: The universal church. The catholic church (as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, which is only one church within the universal church, although frequently they forget this). Every human who has a connection with Christ Jesus and is part of his body. It’s hardly limited to one sect or denomination; Orthodox Christians are not the only Christians on the planet. Neither are Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Calvinists, charismatics, Fundamentalists, Emergent Christians, nor Purpose-Driven™ Christians. (Though sometimes we certainly act like it.) We aren’t saved by our affiliations or theology; we’re saved by God through Christ Jesus, and we’re in his kingdom because God adopted us and recognizes a valid, living relationship with us.

Of course, since many Christians are under the delusion we determine who’s a “real Christian” and who isn’t, we tend to limit the universal church to our definitions. If we’re pretty sure real Christians only vote the way we do, every Christian in the opposition party isn’t a real Christian, so they don‘t count as part of Jesus’s universal church. If we’ve got certain doctrines we feel every real Christian holds to, we figure everyone who believes otherwise is heretic, and by definition heretics can’t be in the true church. And so forth. Various Christians like to refer to the visible church, the 2 billion people worldwide who publicly claim allegiance to Jesus, and the invisible church, the unknown number of people whom Jesus really recognizes as his. Depending on how optimistic or pessimistic they are, either the visible church is way bigger than the invisible, or vice-versa.

Meh. I’ve no idea how many people Jesus actually intends to let into his kingdom. I’m an optimist, so I figure God’s way more gracious than we are, and is gonna save way more people than we expect. Not everybody; not that he doesn’t want to; he warned us there are gonna be holdouts. But he doesn’t limit his kingdom like we do. So I expect there’s significant overlap between the visible and invisible churches; and when I say “kingdom” I typically mean his invisible church, which is represented by the 2 billion professing Christians.

The idea of the small kingdom.

I just mentioned how some Christians figure God’s kingdom is small: They’re getting in, and they’re pretty sure many of the people in their church are getting in. They’re not so sure about other churches. They’re definitely not sure about certain churches. They’ve got a lot of caveats in their Christianity. It’s mostly faith righteousness, meaning they imagine they’re saved by believing all the right things—and since so few others believe exactly as they do, heaven’s gonna be really exclusive.

Y’see, Jesus describes the kingdom as having a narrow gate.

Matthew 7.13-14 KWL
13 “Enter through the narrow gate: The broad gate, the wide road, leads to destruction. Many enter destruction by it.
14 The narrow gate, the tight road, leads people to life. Fewer are finding it.”

This, they figure, means Jesus wants a small kingdom. He’s gonna weed out a lot of people who aren’t good enough, aren’t orthodox enough, aren’t committed enough. Apparently God’s grace is limited to those who work for it, and merit it. (Although they’d never, ever put it this way, since “merited grace” is an obvious oxymoron. But they’ll use a lot of synonyms and euphemisms.)

Doesn’t have to be in the words they use: It’s their fruit. They teach if you’re not in their church, you’re getting led astray; you’re going to hell. Certain Catholics say this about non-Catholics, Fundamentalists say this about non-Fundamentalists, cessationists say this of continuationists, and so forth. To them, we’re not allowed to differ in our opinions; God’s grace doesn’t overcome our differences; he’s just as annoyed with our differences as they are. Yeah, they’re projecting.

But does Jesus’s narrow-gate language mean God’s kingdom is predestined to be a small one? Nope. Narrow gates don’t mean only the thin can get in. It means you gotta take off your baggage before you squeeze through. Those who envision a small kingdom, do so because they have a lot of baggage. They’re the ones who are gonna struggle to go through. Not the gracious.

You read the scriptures about who’s getting into the kingdom, and you’ll notice it may have a narrow gate, but it nonetheless lets just about anyone in. It’s not limited to the rich or poor, white-collars or blue-collars, nobles or commoners, freemen or slaves. It’s not limited to Jews; yeah, the Jews are God’s favorites, Dt 7.6 but through Jesus anyone can be one of God’s favorites. Ga 3.28 It’s not limited to nationality or people-group; however patriotic we might be, we’re Christians first, and Americans (or Canadians, Mexicans, Brits, Indians, Filipinos, Malaysians, Australians, wherever you’re from) second. John’s vision in Revelation was mighty inclusive:

Revelation 7.9-10, 13-17 KWL
9 After these things I saw—look!—a crowd of many people, which nobody’s able to count.
It’s of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, standing before the throne,
before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, palm branches in their hands.
10 They called out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation!
By our God who sits on the throne, and by the Lamb!”
 
13 One of the elders answered, telling me, “These clothed in white robes—who are they? Whence came they?”
14 I told him, “Sir, you know.” He told me, “These are martyrs who came from the great tribulation.
They washed their robes and whitened them in the Lamb’s blood.
15 This is why they’re before God’s throne; why they serve him day and night in his temple.
He who sits on the throne will encamp among them:
16 They’ll never hunger again, nor thirst again, nor may the sun fall on them, nor any heat.
17 For the Lamb on the middle of the throne will shepherd them and guide them to springs of living water.
God will wipe away every teardrop from their eyes.

If they can’t be counted, it’s a good bet it’s more than the 2 million Josephus counted in the first-century great tribulation. Likely more than the 2 billion we currently estimate. Likely heaven’s gonna have way more in it than any of us expect.

Because Jesus wants, and willingly receives, a whole lot of people into his kingdom. Everyone who believes in Jesus, Jn 3.16 who accepts him, Jn 1.12 who acknowledges him before others, Lk 12.8 who confesses him as Lord and believes he’s alive, Ro 10.9 who confesses him as God’s son 1Jn 4.15 and Messiah, 1Jn 5.1 who trust him and call upon him for help, Ro 10.11-13 who try to live under his teachings 2Jn 9 —the result of this faith is salvation. 1Pe 1.8 He doesn’t want anyone to be destroyed; 2Pe 3.9 he wants a full kingdom, not an exclusive one.

True, it doesn’t always feel like the kingdom is all that large. Mostly ’cause we’re only looking at our own churches, at the Christians who look the most like us, and have a lot of prejudices about the Christians who don’t. Often ’cause we’re looking at our sins: There are a lot of messed-up Christians in our churches, and we wonder whether they have any real relationship with Jesus—they sure don’t act it! So we get pessimistic. We think like Elijah: We’re God’s only followers in an increasingly pagan world. 1Ki 19.14, 18

Much of that negative perspective can be fixed by just getting out of our bubbles: Step out of your own church and start interacting with the other ones. Get to know a Christian who’s not from your tradition. Look at what the Holy Spirit’s doing in their life. You wonder whether Roman Catholics are Christian? Get to know a practicing, Spirit-filled Roman Catholic. You think Arminians are all about good works instead of God’s grace? Get to know a practicing Arminian. You think Fundamentalists are about legalism instead of grace? Get to know a practicing Fundamentalist. Start shattering some of those stereotypes. Start seeing how large God’s kingdom really is. So the kingdom has a narrow gate; that’s only an obstacle to us. Never to God.

Look for the invisible church.

Theologians describe God’s actual kingdom, as opposed to the visible churches in the world, as “the invisible church.” What they mean by it are

  • all the real Christians, as opposed to the phony Christians and Christianists;
  • all the secret Christians who hide their faith, or who aren’t plugged into church, so we don’t realize they exist; and
  • people who have a saving relationship with God, but we (and they!) don’t realize this yet.

Essentially, everyone God recognizes as his, and intends to populate his kingdom with. But they’re below our radar. We’re too busy looking at the visible church.

We shouldn’t presume every spiritual-sounding person we meet is one of these invisible Christians. Plenty of pagans understand God is gracious and Jesus is Lord, but they don’t follow Jesus, aren’t gonna, and we shouldn’t just assume God’s gonna save them because they’re so close to the kingdom. We gotta get ’em off the “spiritual not religious” fence and get ’em to follow Jesus instead of being merely fans.

Same with all the folks in church. There are a lot of incognito pagans in our churches, who think they’re Christian because they’re in church, but they’re just as pagan as anyone outside it. Don’t assume every churchgoer is in the kingdom either. Get to know them, and whether they truly do have a relationship with God. Meanwhile keep proclaiming Jesus. Keep preaching the gospel. Keep sharing. Get the visible church to actually become the church.

But when you find one of these invisible Christians, nudge ’em out of the closet! If it sounds like they have a saving relationship with God, but don’t yet know who Jesus is and that salvation comes through him, introduce them to Jesus. If they’re not going to church, urge them to. If they’re trying to follow Jesus on their lonesome, remind them it’s one of the faster ways to go heretic; we need one another to double-check one another. If they’re nervous or paranoid about interacting with other believers, I get that: They may have had rotten experiences with Christians in the past, so be gentle with them. Remind ’em the Holy Spirit is also gentle with them, and that real followers are gonna strive to be fruitful like God. Be patient. But be persistent: They gotta plug in. Jesus didn’t make it optional. “Love one another” Jn 13.34, 15.12, 15.17, Ro 13.8, 1Th 4.9, 1Jn 3.11, 3.23, 4.7, 4.11, 2Jn 1.5 means we gotta be with one another, not hide from one another.

Either way, we’ve got work to do. Let’s get to it.