The New Testament is very focused on describing the Kingdom of God, and the Church. Often times we use these terms interchangeably with Christianity. However, one of the most notable shifts in my Biblical understanding has been in seeing these concepts as very distinct in what they describe, and their function and purpose (for better or for worse). I wanted to describe how I currently understand these words. Some of these differences may seem minor and even pedantic, but I believe that these distinctions are indeed important in making well-informed decisions on our priorities and goals.
The church isn’t a building, its the people, right? Well, kind of, but not exactly. The word “church” is specifically for describing the greek “ekklesia” in a Christian context. And while the English word “church” is religious, the meaning of “ekklesia” isn’t actually a reference to a group people, nor did it originally have a Christian connotation. It literally means “assembly”. It was most often used to refer to something like a town hall meeting, or other gathering. And when we talk about an assembly or meeting, we don’t mean that the people are equivalent to the meeting. They obviously exist outside the meeting as well. The main meaning of this word was focused on the gathering of people (and the teaching, discipling, worshiping, etc. that we do together), more than the people themselves. Now to be fair, scripture does use the term somewhat loosely, and sometimes it is used to refer to people (like the churches of the different cities), but the reference still draws its basis from these people’s gatherings.
The assembly or gathering of believers has two purposes, a functional purpose and a representational purpose. The functional purpose is centered around the equipping of the saints (Eph 4:12), and is focused on the discipleship, teaching, training, and exhortation that will help fellow believers to obediently follow Christ. The representational purpose means that the church not only exists to facilitate the action and participation in the mission of God, but it also exists as an an example or demonstration of the outcome of the mission of God. The church gathers to train people to follow Jesus, and following Jesus ultimately leads to people gathering in harmony. The gathering is both a catalyst for a means and an end to those means.
I used to think that the church represented and was responsible for the whole mission of God. However, I have changed my view, thinking of the church in much narrower terms, as the training, enabling, and support part of the Kingdom of God. I believe the church should be the main catalyst and instigator for the ways of God, but carrying out the efforts of the Kingdom isn’t primarily done by the church, but the people who the church has shaped. This doesn’t lessen the importance of the church, but more tightly defines its scope. Like a productive business, the direction, training, and organization is absolutely critical and defines the success or failure of the business, but it must also not be the majority activity. Any company whose employees all endlessly spent the majority of their time in training and vision-casting, rather than putting their training in practice, will quickly fail. The major focus should be on actually carrying out the mission.
Often there are exhortations that the Church should rise up to fight poverty, slavery, and other forms of oppression, and to evangelize the world. I certainly agree with this sentiment. However, I am not sure if this is technically precise. It is not the direct responsibility of the church to do these things, rather it is the direct responsibility of believers to evangelize and fight poverty and oppression. The church, on the other hand, as an indirect responsibility, it’s responsible to call and equip believers to action in these areas.
Another important note about the distinction between the Church and Christianity is that one can be a Christian, but if you are not gathering with other Christians, you aren’t a part of the church. Likewise, you could gather with the church, and not be a Christian. Being a part of the church is not synonymous with being a believer.
How We Gather
I believe it can be naive to think of gathering in only physical terms. While we certainly have traditionally done church in terms of physical gatherings, if we actually think about the key elements of the church, physical presence is pretty minor and petty compared to the elements of communication, encouragement, forgiveness, and love that are not dependent on physical presence. In fact, it is interesting to remember that the much of the foundation of the church, established in the New Testament, was actually done in physical absence, from prison cells (where Paul and John wrote much of their letters).
Likewise, just as the church grew through “gathering” with the apostles who were imprisoned, and communicating remotely, the church can easily exist in our remote communication, like email and even social media. Any medium where we communicate and encourage each other to follow Christ is place where the church can exist and function.
The Bride of Christ
This term is used in Revelation (and a similar analogy is found Ephesians). It does not come with a precise description, but Ephesians does equate it with the church, and their future union with Christ. This metaphor seems to be focused on describing the representational purpose of the church. Revelation does make a specific description of the adornment of the bride as “the righteous deeds of the saints”, which would presumably be what Christ savors in His bride. This term similarly adds a relational connection with Christ, but with a strong emphasis on an anticipation of union together. Again, the church represents what Christ anticipates, a harmonious gathering of His people. We are looking forward to greater union with Christ. This anticipation that the term “bride” indicates, might be obscured in Christian culture, because for some strange reason, Christians commonly misuse the term “bride” to refer to their wife, even after their wedding and honeymoon (and associated anticipation) is long over and past (I have no idea why the wrong of use of this term is common in Christian culture).
The term “bride” seems to be reference to the representational purpose of the church. I think it is fair to say that Christ’s anticipation of the bride isn’t about the functional purpose of the church. I don’t think He is looking forward to sitting in on sermons and Sunday school lessons through eternity. Rather, as the bride, the church is representation of the family-like assembly that foreshadows our future society under Christ.
Kingdom of God
Jesus used this term frequently, which refers to that which is in accordance or subjection to God’s will, His purpose, His plan, and His vision. Again, a kingdom is not technically really a reference to a group of people, but a subjection to a King. Of course we can talk about the subjects of kingdom, but those who are subjects are not defined by the Kingdom directly, but are derived from their obedience to the ways of Kingdom. The laws of the kingdom are not defined by what the subjects do, but rather the subjects are defined by who follows the laws of the Kingdom. If you choose not to follow His ways, that doesn’t mean you are still a subject and changed His ways, it means you are no longer acting as a subject.
When I described the church as the catalyst of a means, and an end to a means, the Kingdom of God fills in this gap: the Kingdom is the means. To follow the way of the Kingdom is what the church is to train people for. The church points people to the Kingdom. The Church equips people to follow the way of the Kingdom. The mission of the Kingdom is the real substance of our calling.
This also means that the Kingdom of God is perhaps the hardest to pin down. One can’t isolate the Kingdom of God to the church or too a certain people. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to yeast in bread. You can not look at rising bread, and say “there, that’s the part that’s do the rising”. While we can look at a can of yeast, and say that is where it comes from, but once it is actually in use, mixed and in action, it is transparently permeated through the bread. The yeast itself, once activated, is nearly impossible to see, but its affects are plainly visible. Likewise, the Kingdom of God is something that can subtly permeate lives, organizations, and cultures, and we can’t pin the Kingdom down to a group of people.
This isn’t just an idea illustrated by yeast, Jesus himself makes this aspect of the Kingdom very clear and explicit:
“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
When we pray that God’s Kingdom come, this is not a prayer for the growth, victory, growth, or promotion of any earthly group of people, institute, political party, or even church. We see Christian groups “win” or “lose” battles against non-Christians, this is not wins and losses of the Kingdom of God. Jesus clearly taught that the Kingdom can not be identified in this way. Rather the Kingdom consists of the various acts of compassion, mercy, grace, and justice performed in the world. These can not be identified by the people, they can only be identified by their fruit.
And again, one can be a believer but rebel against the Kingdom in behaviors and areas of our lives (we basically all do this), and one can be a non-believer and yet have behaviors that are in accordance to the Kingdom (and virtually all non-believers have these areas too).
The terminology of the Kingdom also highlights the struggle against or opposition to the kingdom of evil. The Kingdom represents not just rule within the Kingdom, but united battle against the opposition. And again, just like the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of evil isn’t something that we can pin down to a group of people, it is not ISIS, non-Christian religious groups, or a political party. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12). We battle the forces of evil like greed, oppression, exploitation, arrogance, and entitlement. We are called to “destroy the works of the enemy” (1 John 3:8).
Not only are the Church and the Kingdom referenced in scriptures, they are used in distinctive ways with distinctive meanings, and the these differences provides insights into how we relate to each. Again, I am still trying to learn more about what these mean, and I would love to hear what you think. In my next post I want to look at a few other terms that are often used to describe different aspects of Christianity, or Christianity itself, for the purpose of contrasting.