When I was a child, my grandmother taught me an old saying, a little rhyme that she would act out with her hands. It went something like this:
“Here is the church.”
(She interlaced her fingers, hiding them inside a two-handed fist.)
“Here is the steeple.”
(She pointed her two index fingers upwards to make a steeple.)
“Look inside, there’s all the people”
(She turned her palms upwards, revealing her wiggling, interlaced fingers.)
With all due respect to my loving grandmother, is it fair to divide the church and the people that way? What does the Bible say about what, or who, the church is?
The New Testament gives no formal definition of the church. However, looking at contextual clues for the church's own understanding of itself provides important insight. From its origins, the church understood itself as a gathered group in, and for the sake of, the world. The term used in Acts to describe the gathering of Christians, the church, is ekklēsia. At the time of the writing of the New Testament, the term was already in common use to describe the gathering of the people of the city at the bidding of the municipal leaders. Ekklēsia was used in Ancient Greek to describe the assembly called by the town clerk. It was the role of this clerk to call the people to assemble for his purposes—to make an announcement, dictate a policy change, or conduct some business. The gathering, the ekklēsia, was called together by their leader for the purposes that the leader wanted to fulfill.
However, the early church was not just a gathering of people to fulfill a political purpose. Rather, they were the gathering of the people at the request of the highest authority—a Christian community proclaiming that God was calling all believers for his purposes. Such a bold proclamation said that Jesus's lordship is over all aspects of life. As such, they were publicly declaring all other religions and societal structures were inferior to God, Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son of God. Even the government and its leaders were to be molded and shaped by the teaching of the Scriptures and lived out by the people gathered and scattered—the Christians, the church. What made the members of the early movements of Christianity distinct from the world was that they saw themselves as not just as a gathering of people, rather as the gathering of the people of God.
By choosing to call themselves ekklēsia, the New Testament church desired to be a group gathered among the whole city. And they desired that they could, one day, be a gathering of the whole city. Christians, from the very beginning, were a movement of people launched into public life. They lived in such a manner that the social, political, and economic structures would reflect Christ’s teaching. They expected others to be transformed by Word (the teaching of Scripture), Deed (acts of mercy and service), and Sign (the divine works of the Holy Spirit). They did not leave this work to a select few, what we today might call the “clergy.” Rather, they understood this to be the work of every Christian.
John Wesley understood this at many levels. For Wesley, the empowering of the laity in ministry was the way God’s kingdom is demonstrated through a community of believers demonstrating the love of God and neighbor, therefore fulfilling God’s commandments. Wesley sought to revitalize the church by reenergizing the laity in the Christian faith they professed but failed to demonstrate. The early Methodists exemplified the lesson that the laity embodies the church, visible in the world. The Wesleyan Methodist movement continues to thrive where this happens today.
It is important to remember that, from the earliest foundations of the Christian movement, the church is not first a building or the clergy leadership. Rather, the church is just that, a movement of people transformed by Christ who invite others to experience that transformation as well. The church is not merely the building, nor is the church merely the clergy. Rather, as another old saying goes, “If the building burned down and the preacher left town, what you would have left is the church.”