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What is the Church?

Based On: The Essence of the Church by Craig Van Gelder, Baker Books (2000).

Often, Christians define the church in one of two primary ways. We may see it as a theological institution, or we may see it as more of a social organization, but we usually lean towards one or the other.

In fairness, the church is a social organization with a theological orientation but placing too much emphasis on one of these aspects over the other can be problematic. We end up missing out on the essence of the church’s nature - what the church was meant to be.

For example, too much focus on the theological aspect of the church can limit our ability to impact our surrounding community. Likewise, too much focus on the sociological aspect of the church can limit our capacity to grow and develop disciples.

too much focus on the theological aspect of the church can limit our ability to impact our surrounding community.

In either case, these aspects tend only to describe what the church does more than what the church is. Somewhere in between and behind these functions we ought to be able to find a more faithful understanding of the church’s nature.

We should begin by recognizing that the church is unique among human institutions. This is because it is not of human origin. The church is God’s idea. He created it, has sustained it, and dwells within it. This means that we cannot understand the church using human categories and definitions. Instead, we must understand the church as something divine.

Indeed, the church is the body of Christ. It serves as the visible manifestation of God’s presence in the world through His people. We who make up the church are members of that body because of His Spirit living in and working through us. This means that the church is also, by definition, a spiritual community.

As a spiritual community, it makes sense that the church would have a theological (spiritual) and a social (community) character. The church is God’s plan for us to know and grow in our understanding of Him, and it’s also His plan for revealing Himself to the rest of creation.

“The nature of the church is based on God’s presence through the Spirit. The ministry of the church flows out of the church’s nature. The organization of the church is designed to support the ministry of the church.” – Van Gelder

So, if God’s purpose for the church is to be His presence in the world alive and at work in His people through the Spirit, then our understanding of how to be the church and what we’re supposed to do as the church must always be informed by that reality.



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