As I write this article, many churches in Singapore are welcoming the return of their members to on-site Sunday services as Covid-19 measures are further relaxed by the government. The excitement of being able to gather physically in the sanctuary in such large numbers for worship is palpable, as many Christians experience a renewed sense of togetherness—the joy of being a community.
The Church is indeed an assembly (ecclesia) and a fellowship (koinonia) of believers. However, it is a special and unique community that can never be reduced to a social club. Neither is it an association formed on the basis of common human desires, interests or cause, however noble.
Indeed, the Church as the assembly of God’s people defies all sociological, cultural, political and phenomenological definitions. It can only be understood theologically.
The magisterial reformers of the 16th century—Martin Luther and John Calvin—described the Church as the creatura verbi, a creature of the word of God. The Church, in other words, came into being because of the divine initiative—it is the product of God’s grace.
Gathered in the name of Jesus Christ, the Church is so profoundly and intimately united with her Saviour by the power of the Holy Spirit that she is described in Scripture as the body of her Lord (1 Cor 12:27; Rom 12:4-5; Eph 4:4).
“The image of the body of Christ”, explains theologian Millard Erickson, “emphasises the connection of the [C]hurch as a group of believers, with Christ. Salvation, in all of its complexity, is in large part a result of union with Christ.”1
There is a real sense in which the Church—as Christ’s visible body—is where the Saviour can be found. In his “Sermon on the Gospel for Early Christmas Service” Martin Luther explicates this profound truth in this way:
“The Christian [C]hurch… keeps all the words of God in her heart and ponders them, compares one with the other and with Holy Scriptures. Therefore [anyone] who wants to find Christ, must first find the [C]hurch. How would one know Christ and faith in him if one did not know where they are who believe in him?”
Echoing the teaching of the early fathers of the Church, Luther adds that the Church has “Christ in [her] midst, for outside the Christian [C]hurch there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.”2
Furthermore, as a community of believers united with Christ, the Church is a providential sign and symbol, indeed a mediator of God’s grace and love for the world. As the Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright has put it so well:
“It is as men and women find, with the help of the liturgy, ‘centre of gravity and value’ in God that they are able to orient their lives, as themselves a kind of sacrament of the divine love, towards the welfare of all persons created in the image of God and called to his likeness.”3
As God’s people gather to worship and to listen to God’s Word read and proclaimed, they are continually being transformed by the truths and the values enshrined in the Holy Scriptures. They become a “community of character”, to borrow Stanley Hauerwas’ arresting expression, manifesting love for God and for one another, and displaying authentic joy, peace, freedom and justice.4
The Christian life is not just about personal devotion to God. It has to do also with that profound sense of what John Wesley calls social holiness—that genuine agapic concern for each other.
This includes making a deliberate effort to embrace those in the Christian community whom we have consciously or unconsciously marginalised—and there are such persons in every church! The Christian community, shaped by God’s Word and energised by his Spirit, must embody the undiscriminating and self-giving love of Jesus Christ.
And as the Church becomes by God’s grace what it has been created to be, it can reach out redemptively to the world. It becomes “a kind of sacrament of divine love” (Wainwright), a means of divine grace, a witness and an instrument of God’s mercy and love.
For as Luther asserts, “The church is not wood and stone, but the assembly of people who believe in Christ.” The Church is the communion of believers living the cruciform (cross-shaped) life and being transformed into the image of their Lord (2 Cor 3:18).
It is the body of Christ, where the Saviour of the world can be found.
1 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House, 1985), 1037.
2 Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Gospel for the Early Christmas Service”, in Church Postil (1522), in Luther’s Works, 55 Vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehman (Philadelphia and St. Louis: Fortress and Concordia, 1955-1986), 52:39-40.
3 Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 123 (emphasis added).
4 Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, In: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).