This is one of the questions that has been under the surface of my thinking during much of the second half of my sabbatical, and now that I'm back in my office it has leaped to the fore. By the way, here's a picture of my first day back, the welcome balloons (only three had water in them and I found 2/3 of them before I popped them) and you can begin to see the very cool redecorating work that many people did for me while I was gone. Many thanks to Pam who headed up that project and made my office look AMAZING!
So what is the church? When Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon answered this question in the Augsburg Confession in 1530, they said the church is "the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly" (Augsburg Confession Article VII). This statement has led Lutherans to argue and angst over the years about what it means to do word and sacrament "rightly". So we have had a nasty tendency to exclude from our fellowship other churches that have slightly different views of how to teach the gospel purely or how to administer the sacraments rightly. We have set the bar pretty high for what it means to be the church. The very next article goes on to say that the church is "the assembly of saints and those who truly believe" but the reformers also acknowledged that "in this life many hypocrites and evil people are mixed in with them" (Augsburg Confession, Article VIII). One wonders if, by our scrupulous church-dividing attention to the pure gospel if we have not crossed over the line from being saints to being hypocrites. When we divide churches because of tiny, minor points of doctrine, this is a real problem. But it happens every day.
However, I want to come at this question in a slightly different way. My question is this: Is it possible to be a Jesus-follower -- a Christian, saved, "in Christ," whatever terminology you want to use, though they all come with baggage -- is it possible to be a Jesus-follower and not be part of a church?
Maybe it's more accurate in this sense to talk about "the" church instead of "a" church. Instead of a whole bunch of little clusters of like-minded believers who meet in Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Foursquare, Assemblies, Nazarene, Independent, Bible-believing, Lutheran, Community, or other kinds of churches, maybe it's better to talk about the church of Jesus. This church is composed of all those who "are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins" (Augsburg Confession, Article IV). The Protestant Reformation claimed that all of Christianity hung on this article, Article 4 in the Augsburg Confession. We have emphasized this piece of things -- this act of putting faith in Jesus -- to the exclusion of all else in Christianity. Instead of saying, "This is the entrance by which one comes into Christ," we have made the mistake of saying, "This is Christianity." Justification -- being made right with God through faith in Jesus -- is hugely important. But it is not biblical to say that it is the whole Christian faith.
If justification was everything, why then does Paul talk so much about "maturity", about growing into the whole fullness of Jesus, about learning to imitate God, about sanctification, about working out our salvation with fear and trembling? Take a look, just for example, at Ephesians 4 and see how Paul speaks to those who already believe. Read how he says that the reason for the church's existence is so that we might grow toward maturity in Christ. God's plan is far more than just saving sinners. Read the New Testament and you'll find that God's plan goes so far beyond that. Saving sinners is just the start. God wants to not only save us, but re-create us, grow us into the image of Jesus so that we begin to grow into the image of the God who created us. (See Colossians 1:15 -- if A=B and B=C, then A=C, right?) The way we grow into the image of Jesus is to be incorporated into a real-life group of imperfect believers who are on this same journey, and God -- by the presence and power of his Spirit -- works in the community to re-create us all. Then God gives us jobs to do in this church (NOTE: I am NOT talking about managing the church's need for new carpet. Church buildings and their furnishings are at best a necessary evil in this church that belongs to Jesus, and they have WAY too much potential to turn into idols and derail God's agenda). Not only does God give us jobs in the church, but God also gives us work to do through this church in the world. So the church goes on mission trips or opens a food shelf. Or better yet, the "church" -- remember, it's not the organization but rather that diverse collection of people who do God's work in a million -- a billion -- tiny ways that transform the world.
If you want to see a good example of this church in action watch this video, that I received via email from literally the other side of the world, from believers I have not met.
The thing is, it's not about our agendas or our work. The church belongs to Jesus, and it is his Spirit that coordinates and guides the work that is being done. We don't get to see more than just our tiny corner.
You don't join this church by taking a membership class or signing a pledge card or membership covenant. Instead, you join this church when you put your faith in Jesus and he in turn puts you into himself, like putting a letter in an envelope or putting a document in a file. In this sense you can't be "in Christ" without being part of his church, his body, the collection of people who live by trust in him.
So what is the church? It is the collection of all those who are "in Christ," who belong to Jesus, who have put and continue to put their trust in him. Jesus lives and breathes in this body of scattered people across the world, living the new life of his resurrection, confronting evil, healing hurts, bringing freedom and light into the enslavement of a dark world. I don't believe you can be saved without being part of this church, and I don't believe that you can be part of this church without being saved.
Which means, by the way, that those who say that they have faith but are not part of a church are fooling themselves. One way or another.