Thought Question: What Is the Church?

At his Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight is working through the textbook Church: A Guide for the Perplexed by Matt Jensen and David Wilhie. I’ve not bought this one (yet), but I found a particular point about the church worthy of some reflection —

They make five points:

1. The church is a mystical communion.
2. Institutional elements are here to stay.
3. The church must be externally focused – mission, preaching, etc.
4. The church must be visibly manifested: institutional elements, sacramental practices, evangelical proclamation or missional deeds.
5. The church is ineradicably local.

They finally appeal to Hütter: the church invisible becomes the church visible through its practices.

The church is a mystical communion.  “Mystical communion” might be rephrased as “spiritual fellowship” if we were to take “spiritual” as “Spiritual” — that is, we have to accept that the community/communion/fellowship that is the church is not entirely human. The Trinity is part of the fellowship, not just in theory but in presence and influence.

Institutional elements are here to stay. Protest all you want, but the fact is that the church necessarily has an institutional manifestation. It’s a communion of many millions. And it has a mission. God gives the church leaders. God gives the church gifts. These presents from God can only work to their fullest in an institutional form.

That hardly means that the present institutional realizations of the church are optimal, but there must be some institutional form. And we see this from the inauguration of the church at Pentecost throughout its history.

Radical, Western individualism does not fit well within God’s Kingdom. We have to be willing to join and be accountable to a larger community, working within in that community to serve God’s mission.

The church must be externally focused. This is simple and it’s big. We want to sit within our four walls, celebrating how very holy we are, how very sound our doctrine is, and how very much superior we are. We want to protect our children from the evil, sinful world that surrounds us. We want to do business with Christian businesses, buying Christian products, playing Christian softball. We want to escape the world and live in a man-made heaven on earth. We even want to be able to buy and sip our coffee apart from the world, in our church foyers, separated from the wickedness that is without.

It hasn’t worked. It isn’t working. It won’t work. Indeed, that attitude reveals a sad lack of faith. A lack of faith that God will protect us, that God’s message can and will change the world, that others will believe what we believe and be changed as we have been changed.

The church must be visibly manifested. We’re uncomfortable being visible to the world. We want our Christianity to be our little secret, our special, private pact with God. We might put a fish symbol on our cars, but only if we’re salesmen calling on Christians. We’re a little embarrassed for football players and politicians who wear their religion on their sleeves. It’s not really, you know, appropriate.

We struggle to find a comfortable way to express our Christianity publicly. We don’t want to be rude. Telling everyone they’re going to hell is pretty rude, you know. And Christianity certainly violates the Postmodern mood of tolerance and multi-everything-ness.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “The only way the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will be resolved is for both sides to follow Jesus by turning the other cheek and letting vengeance belong only to God.” No, we want to deal with spiritual problems as though they can be solved politically. We want to use the world’s methods to solve the world’s problems.

It doesn’t work. A cloistered Christianity is powerless.

The church is ineradicably local. We sometimes want to think of “church” as our denomination. We therefore define the mission of the church in denominational terms — doctrinal distinctives, positions held, that sort of thing. We keep fighting the wars of centuries past, because those wars created our denomination.

As a result, we sit in our hometown congregations, re-fighting denominational battles of centuries past while people go hungry or need housing or education — and just plain need Jesus. We become people who care about the identity of our denomination more than the needs of those who live next door.

The church isn’t just local, of course. Foreign missions and cooperation across the globe is important. It’s just that we can never be not-local. We must always have a heart and mission to our own communities. Not just our own communities, but first to our communities.

The church invisible becomes the church visible through its practices. Our beliefs matter very much indeed! But until beliefs become practices, they are nothing. Until the church is seen by our hometowns as lights to the world, as places of refuge and sustenance, of healing and comfort, we are invisible to the world and, therefore, irrelevant and worthless.

But when the churches in town work together to each be the church, and cooperate and share, the church-universal becomes visible. Sometimes it takes a tornado for this to happen — but that’s only because we’re blind to the disaster that the fallen world is. But by the power of Jesus, that can change.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to Thought Question: What Is the Church?

  1. John says:

    I very much like the statement, “The church is a mystical communion”; and, while I understand why you do, there is no need to rephrase it. It is time that the CoC and other conservative denominations stop being terrified of the word “mystical”. If God’s presence and our awareness of God’s presense is not real then the church simply becomes a legalistic platform for great boasts from little minds, regardless of how much the words faith and grace are pitched.

    The view that the spirit exists in God’s people simply by the word is a dry, suffocating killer of souls; creating mistrust of anyone who actually trusts the one who is “above all, through all, and in all.” And the sad part of all, is the “champions of the faith” within the CoC who have held to the word only position used agruments that can only be described as embarrasing. I remember one, who has passed on, stating in a lectureship, that the Holy Spirit cannot be in each believer because Paul says “Christ is not divided”. Even some of his own followers hung their head with that one.

    At the risk of frightening some people let me suggest the books by Thomas Merton. Yes, he was a Trappist Monk. But one can read around his Catholic theology like we do anyone else’s. His belief and his way wrilting of Christ in you, Christ in me, Christ in us will keep you in awe.

    Institutional elements, sacramental practices or doctrines do not kill. What kills is being empty, starving to death while scripture is on the tongue.

  2. John says:

    Let me make the point that Thomas Merton, in his spiritual journey, became very progressive. Many conservative Catholics wanted nothing to do with him. What made him such a progressive? It was his ever growing conviction of “Christ in you”.

  3. David P Himes says:

    I certainly acknowledge that the institutional manifestation of the “church” is not going away.

    But at the same time, it’s not completely unfair to acknowledge that the same institutional manifestation of the church may be the single largest obstacle to unbelievers becoming acquainted with Jesus.

    The most common perception of non-believers is that to become a believer, they must accept the institutional church.

    Jay, while I agree with you about the need for local congregations to “get over themselves” and work together, the more foundational goal is for believers to focus on truly modeling their lives on Jesus. If each of us tried to do that, the “church” thing would take care of itself.

    So, do we treat the symptoms or do we treat the disease. I vote for treating the disease.

    “A new command, I give you,” said Jesus, “love one another, as I have loved you.”

    The standard for a disciple of Jesus is not the Golden Rule. The standard is “how Jesus loved us.”

    Jesus repeatedly reminded us that organized religion (the Sadducees and the Pharisees) missed the point. What counts is how we serve those whose needs are greater than our own.

  4. Jim Goodman says:

    Nice post – the orig over Jesus Creed didn’t unpack the points and I haven’t read the book either.

    David you bring up a great point regarding the “institutional manifestation” being an obstacle. This is one, along with the points in the OP that I have been thinking through lately. However, I do think the “mystical communion” will work to redefine the church institutionally to the outside world through it’s incarnational presence which is sorely lacking.

    John on Merton – he was chided for being dangerously progressive in his interpolation of Buddhist philosophy influencing his ideas. Having read a few of his later writings it was warranted criticism.

  5. John says:


    It is true that Merton found interest in Buddhist teaching. But only in areas that he could reconcile with what the incarnation does for the believer. He was kind to most anything that could be a healer of the militarism and commercialism that was choking the life out of this country.

    He was critical, in his gentle way, of how Buddhism does not have the “person” as does Christianity.

  6. guestfortruth says:


    This video show the truth about the church, I invite all to see it .
    I hpe everyone enjoy it !!

    In christ,
    Guest for truth!

  7. Alabama John says:

    I enjoyed the video.

    Its what we preached and were taught all my life but doesn’t consider that sadly, the churches of Christ are the most divisive, split, of all the denominations.
    Wasn’t that way back in the 40-60’s when that teaching from the video was by far the majority.
    That church position which leads to the conclusion that we are the only ones going to heaven and the numbers that believe it among the members of the churches of Christ has gone downhill badly since then.

  8. Jay Guin says:


    Yes, becoming individually more Christ-like is essential, I think one reason we fail to do so is the lack of models of men and women who’ve done this. If we break down barriers of fellowship among churches, we’ll individually see more examples of Christ-like individuals. We desperately need a larger, more united community of faith so that we can better see God at work among us and so be individually changed. It all works together.

  9. guestfortruth says:

    Jay ,

    Are you talking about Ecumenism? Did jesus teach that the many are going to be save?

  10. guestfortruth

    Jay can answer for himself, but Jesus did teach that we are not the ones who will judge someone else’s salvation!

  11. Jay Guin says:


    The World English Dictionary defines “ecumenism” as —

    the aim of unity among all Christian churches throughout the world

    I thought that was the aim of the Restoration Movement. What am I missing? Sounds like a really good idea to me.

  12. guestfortruth says:


    The Restoration movement plea has been perverted by the years, mainly for those who are looking fame and glory in this world (2 Cor. 11:13-15). The world council of churches is a Mockery of what the Lord Jesus prayed in Jn. 17:20-21. So, you believe that the church of Christ should add to the World Council of Churches? There is not authority for such religious body. Paul asked our brethren the Corinthians to “ Speak the same thing” and be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement” (1 Cor. 1:10-13). First all there can be no “ Christian Unity” unless we believe, teach and practice what Christ authorize in the New Testament. It is one thing agree upon the teaching of the bible; it is something else to just to agree to disagree. In Ephesians 4:3 we are commanded to keep “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace” If the entire religious wordl were united on some doctrine that violate the Scriptures it would not be the unity Christ desires. The recent Ecumenical council evidently have over looked this fact. Were we to tie two cats together by their tails and throw them over a clothes line that would be union but certainly not unity! There is only one way to acquire unity in the Lord. It can not be a matter of legislation by hierarchy. Synods and councils cannot vote it into reality. In fact such complex system in religion help to create the babel of voices already in our mist. The only answer is an open heart toward the Word of God! Until men are willing to put aside denominational allegiance and sectarian strife we shall see division running rampant. The creed books and cathechism which have produced the problem must be left behind as we let Christ, the author of Christianity, rule our lives by the New Testament.
    In the United States, at the beginning of the World War II, a fervent appeal was made to the entire nation. They were urged to be just Americans – not German-americans, Japanese –Americans or French-Americans – just an American, nothing else. We must drop the hyphenation in Christianity, Too!
    If we teach, practice and obey the same message that was preached in the first century we will be exactly what Paul, peter, Philip and Stephen were. They were Christians, members of the Lord’s church. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else! What denomination were they member of? Why none of course! We can read all about the church they were members of in the New Testament.
    This is Unity as Christ prayed for it (Jn.17:20-21). Nothing short of it will suffice (1 Cor. 1:10) Are we willing to pay the price? How glorious it is to be neither Catholic, Protestant or Jew – but Just a New Testament Christian.
    Christians are united upon the divine platform of unity. The inspired apostle Paul (Not Theologian) wrote:” There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you[a] all.” (Eph. 4:4-6).
    Christians affirms: there is ONE GOD- Unity in worship (Jn. 4:23,24). There is ONE LORD- unity in Authority(Mat. 28:18; Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18;Col. 3:17 ). There is ONE FAITH- Unity in message and doctrine (Rom. 10:17, Acts 2:42; Jn. 16:13-14). There is ONE BAPTISM- unity of practice (Acts 2:41;Acts 10:48;Acts 8:38; Acts 9:18; Acts 8:12;Acts 16:33). There is ONE BODY- unity of organization. ( Mat. 16:18, Eph. 4:9-16 ) There is ONE HOPE- unity in plan and desire (Heb. 6:19). There is ONE SPIRIT- unity in life and unity in revelation (1 Cor. 12:13; 2 Cor. 13:11-12; Col. 3:16).
    Like an Elder of the church of Christ instead to desire be part of the “denominational religious world” you should accomplish your office and take care of the Flock for which Christ die. Are you practicing this teaching? Titus 1:9-11. I hope you choose eternity instead the temporary glory of this world.
    9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.
    10 For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, 11 whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain.
    Remember the charge of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians elders, “29 For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29-30). And we ask why there is so much division in the world today. I blame it on false doctrine.

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