I believe in . . . the holy catholic church. (Apostles’ Creed)
I live in a part of the world where any gathering, so long as there is a Bible present, is called church. That means “church” is merely a group of people who share a common passion for something related to the Bible. Sadly, what we find in many of these so-called churches is division, jealousy, unforgiveness, bitterness, gossip, personal hatred, and hatred by association (if your friend hates someone, to maintain friendship, you cannot be friends with that person either).
The true church, however, is powerfully and mysteriously united across the boundaries that define and divide the world. Although we are many, we are one body; we are one body in Christ. Although we have many colors, we are one body; we are one body in Christ. Although we have many languages, we are one body; we are one body in Christ. Every believer in Christ, throughout history and in every place, shares an indivisible blood-union through the blood of Christ. Our bonds stretch through time and space, such that we even share fellowship with saints who died and went to be with Jesus thousands of years ago.
Church of God
We find a great definition of the church in 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.
What does Paul mean when he says that the church is of God? I think he simply means that the church is created by God and belongs to God. How did God make the church? How did he form it? In what way does the church belong to God?
Bought with Blood
In Acts 20:28, Paul calls pastors “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Thus, the church is God’s because he bought her with his own blood. God does not redeem us with money, because no amount of wealth in all creation was enough to satisfy God’s anger against us and purchase our peace with him. We “were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18–19).
Most people use the phrase “going to church.” But the church is not a building; it is a people. You are not part of God’s church because you go to a building every Sunday. There are countless unbelievers who visit church buildings on Sundays but are not part of the church. You belong to God and become a part of God’s church only by being purchased and redeemed by God through Jesus’s blood.
Three times in 1 Corinthians 1:2–3, Paul calls Jesus Lord: he is “our Lord Jesus Christ,” “both their Lord and ours,” and “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, the church, purchased by the blood of Christ, submits to Christ. He governs all they do. The church has only one Lord. All of the church’s leaders must lead in submission to the Lord of the church.
Sanctified in Christ
. . . to those sanctified in Christ Jesus . . .
The church of God is made up of people whom God has himself sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2). To sanctify is to make holy, make acceptable to God. This is an act none of us could perform. God expects perfection. Only perfectly righteous people can dwell in God’s presence. That’s why the psalmist cried out, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3).
How can we become pure? Who can purify sinners? Jesus Christ! Christ loved the church and gave himself for her “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26). When we put our faith in Jesus, Jesus’s blood purifies us from all unrighteousness, making us saints before God! We are first washed of our sins, and then God begins the progressive work of making us sinless. Because he has sanctified us in Christ, he progressively sanctifies us. The church is God’s imperfect people whom God has purified and whom God is purifying.
Called to Be Saints
. . . called to be saints . . .
God created the church by calling unqualified sinners and making them saints. According to 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 God does not look for the powerful, the wise, the rich, or the noble, because there is nothing that any of these worldly standards can bring to the altar of salvation. God does not save based on any human qualifications. It is God’s good pleasure to choose people that the world would never choose to show the world that he is a great and merciful God.
God has compassion on the weak. He cares for the poor and widows and orphans and refugees. He forgives the most wicked among us. He saved a rebel like Paul, the author of this letter. God turns sinners, even the worst of them, into saints. They are made holy by the blood of Christ. God is truly merciful and compassionate. That is why the church is made up of people who are despised by the world, people who have nothing. These despised people are loved by Christ, and, for them, Christ has become everything.
Made into Family
. . . called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .
The church is God’s family, and, as a family, it exists in unity. Note the grammar of the passage. The church in the phrase “the church of God” is singular, but all the other words that depict the church are plural: “those sanctified,” those “called to be saints,” and “our Lord.” There is one church of God made up of many members. The church is one family with one Father and one Lord, Jesus Christ.
And together they “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the Old Testament, to call upon the name of the Lord was a way of describing those who worshiped Yahweh and prayed to him (Genesis 4:26; 12:8; 13:4). Now that Christ has appeared, the church worships and prays to him. This is one way the church glorifies him.
Paul writes to the local church in Corinth but also acknowledges that the church is bigger than the Corinthian church. It includes those who in “every place” call on the name of the Lord. And yet, even two thousand years later, he is still not called upon in every place. There are still places in the world where people have never even heard the name of Jesus. There is still work to do. Only the church has the message and the power, from God, to finish the task and make every place a reality.
Bigger Than Any Church
What if we believed that the church is bigger than our local congregations? What if the church is larger than our denominations? What if the church is bigger than the boundaries of our countries and continents? How would we live differently if we thought of the church that way?
When many of us hear the word church, we are prone to think only of our own local congregations — or perhaps our denomination or those we know and agree with theologically. But the church is universal. It spans time and space. According to the New Testament, the church of God includes every believer in Christ, over whom Christ is Lord (Colossians 1:18). Paul also says the church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23). It is his fullness. To know and appreciate the church universal is to know and appreciate the one whose fullness it represents.
Christ’s majesty is of such a scope that no local congregation in a particular time and place can fully capture and portray it. His majesty, which the church represents, stretches throughout time into eternity.