God Believes in Organized Religion

Why and how God designed the church to be the body of Christ.

Photo credit Pexels

The Church is Not a Building

You may remember the ditty. With hands interlocked, index fingers meeting at a point, you’d begin, “Here is the church, here is the steeple.” Then, you’d turn your hands over, saying, “Open the doors and see all the people.”

That ditty may be sweet but it is theologically inaccurate.


Because the church is not a building; it is a people. The church is not a Sunday event we go to; it is a family we belong to.

Getting this backward has messed so many of us up.

The Ecclesia

The English word “church” in the Bible is translated from the Greek word, ekklesia, which means assembly or gathering. This is why the study of the church is called ecclesiology. Ekklesia-ology.

Ekklesia is a compound word formed by the Greek preposition ek (out of) and the verb kaleo (to call). This compound word for church teaches us that the church is a group of people from all tribes, nations, and languages who have been “called out” from the world to be disciples of Jesus.

Red and yellow, black and white. And all shades in-between.

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, being part of God’s “called out” people was never merely an individual experience. It was always communal. Therefore, in the Old Testament, God’s people were members of a huge, extended family called Israel.

In the New Testament, individual believers were gathered as members of God’s new Israel, the church, not an ethnically defined family, but a spiritually defined family — defined by each member’s profession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Therefore, in order to grasp the significance of God’s design for the church, it will help to recognize that Jesus is more than a personal Savior. He is the Savior of a people, a fellowship, a family whom Jesus calls to gather in defined communities with membership boundaries — communities we call local churches.

Participation in the Church is not Optional

In my twenty-five years as a pastor, I have encountered many genuine Christians who see the church as an optional part of their lives. Some say that they are Christians but don’t believe in “organized religion.”

I get it. As an introvert, I kind of prefer a “me and Jesus” approach, too.

But the larger gospel narrative of the Bible and history was never intended to be me and Jesus but we and Jesus. Christians were not meant to be followers of Jesus in isolation but in community.

While a “me and Jesus” mindset may be partly due to the influence of an individualistic western culture, I believe there also is a need to help believers recover a more biblical understanding of what God designed the church to be and why their (your) participation in the church is not optional but is at the very center of God’s will for a Christian’s life.

You see, the God of the Bible does believe in organized religion. In fact, he designed it and calls it the church. Other images are used as well. The body of Christ. The family of God. The flock of God. And more.

While we will not get into the minutia of how the Scriptures describe the “government” of the church, with officially recognized officers such as elders and deacons and formal processes for care and discipline, we are hard-pressed not to see the organized, skeletal aspect of the body in both the Old and New Testaments.

It is the skeletal which is organized and structured. Yet much of the church’s life is organic and relational. But the organic needs the organized, much like a vine needs a trellis to grow and flourish.

The solution is not to see the church as organized or organic, but to see the church as organized and organic.

My desire in this post is to help provide a biblical framework of the church (global and local) so that individual followers of Jesus will have the theological tools necessary to connect, serve, and grow within the context of a local church. Not as a rule or a law, but as a gift — as God’s ways with his people are always wise, gracious, and for our good, with overflow blessings for the world as believers live as salt and light.

If you are ready to spiritually flourish for your good, the church’s good, and for the good of your broader community, then let’s get started.

While we’ll pull from several places in the Bible, our foundational text for answering the question What is the Church? is Ephesians 2:11–22.

The three headings we’ll consider are:

  • The Nature of the Church
  • The Unity of the Church
  • The Mission of the Church

The Nature of the Church

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men) — 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

What stands out in these verses is the contrast between “formerly” in verse 11 and “but now” in verse 13.

For someone whose life wound centers on rejection (long story), I remember the day I got a bid to join a fraternity in college. I was so excited. They wanted me. They wanted me!

There was a day I wasn’t in. Then I was — given a new family of friends with whom to do life.

The gospel is a bid into the family of God. Can you believe it? God wants you to belong to his family!

1 Peter 2:9–10 the apostle writes,

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

If you are a believer, you belong to this chosen people — chosen not on merits, but by grace alone — a people of grace who live to praise and honor Jesus.

The essential nature of the church is a redeemed community of grace, where the common testimony is: “Formerly, but now…”

Formerly we were “without hope and without God in the world.” But now all that has changed.

Isn’t this what the world is longing for? We read the news and despair. Sickness. Divorce. War. Scandal. Crime. Death. Sometimes, we look at ourselves and the world… and feel hope-less.

However, Peter assumes that believers are a hopeful people. In 1 Peter 3:15, he writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

The reason for hope is not religious sentimentality, but the historical, literal, bodily resurrection and present reign of Jesus as King. He is sovereign. In him, we are forgiven, with the promise of eternal joy before us.

Of course, we have hope!

As a community of hope, the church has been designed by God to function and thrive in an atmosphere of grace. This is the force of verse 13, “But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.”

Notice the verbs. We have been “brought near.”

In school, we all learned the difference between an active verb and a passive verb. An active verb describes an action we do, but a passive verb describes an action done to us. Something we receive.

“Brought near” is passive, indicating that we didn’t find our way to Jesus on our own. It was not our intellect, moral superiority or spiritual sensitivity.

God found us in our sinful, condemned, spiritually dead condition and brought us to himself, not to condemn us, but to rescue us from the judgment our sin deserves through “the blood of Christ,” where Jesus was condemned upon a cross in our place so that we could be forgiven, cleansed and reconciled to God as beloved sons and daughters.

Christians do not belong to the church because we are good, but because we have received the mercy and grace of God in Jesus. This means that we will not un-belong when we blow it. If we didn’t earn or deserve our membership in the church, we can’t unearn or undeserve it.

We can put it this way. If oxygen sustains us physically, grace sustains us spiritually.

The reason why it is so important to understand the dynamic of grace in the life of the church is that when grace is diminished, the weeds of legalism, hypocrisy, gossip, and conflict are given freedom to grow like kudzu. But when grace is magnified, the fruit of honesty, humility, repentance, forgiveness, and unity begin to grow, crowding out invasive vegetation.

The Unity of the Church

Before we address unity we may need to face the apparent lack of unity in the church. Not only are there divisions denominationally, but on a local level, there is often disunity and conflict among Christians — disunity that has led to a great deal of disillusionment among Christians and has opened the church to the charge of hypocrisy from the world.

This is why Paul emphasizes the point that unity is experienced through the cross.

14 For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Seven years ago, The Washington Post ran a story about Chris Simpson, a white garbage collector and former Marine whose life had been dominated by racial hatred. On his knuckles were tattooed the letters P U R E H A T E.

Providentially, his family watched the movie Courageous and felt compelled to begin attending Sunday services of a nearby congregation of believers. Soon, his racial hatred was overcome by the love of Jesus and he decided to undergo the painful and expensive process of laser tattoo removal, demonstrating in a practical way that the change in his heart extended to the extremities of his life — even his fingers.

The cross tore down his hostility and replaced hatred with love.

Paul knew that human hostility and animosity was largely due to our propensity to defend our self-righteousness, something to which we look that we believe gives us a name in the eyes of the world.

The racism we see expressed in fringe groups such as the KKK and the Neo-Nazi movement is just a warped form of self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness can be racial or it can be religious and moral. It can be secular, where we achieve a praiseworthy name for ourselves through vocational success — or through academics, athletics, or just being right.

But the cross annihilates self-righteousness, enabling us to receive the gift-righteousness of Jesus.

This is the impact of Paul’s use of the Greek word katagresas in verse 15, a word that may be translated “abolish.” What was abolished by the cross was the measuring stick that the Jews had used to feel superior to Gentiles — the law.

Paul says, “[God’s] purpose was… to reconcile both [Gentiles and Jews] to God [the same way]… through the cross.

The cross utterly and absolutely destroys the measuring sticks we use to compare and rank each other. Morality, material wealth, worldly prestige, race or denominational affiliation.

In leveling the ground before the cross, we are able to experience peace, where the only boast we can make is in Jesus and his righteousness, not our own.

The gospel is our unity. Not sentimentality, but grace.

With such a gospel foundation, it is not surprising that unity in the church is to be experienced in the context of diversity. Look in verses 17–18.

17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Have you seen those license plates that have the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech on opposites sides, or Michigan and Ohio State, or Auburn and Alabama? The tag line reads, “A House Divided.”

In the church, this applies to socio-economic diversity, ethnic, gender, generational diversity, etc. With such diversity of background, temperament, and the remaining sin nature, the question is not whether conflict is going to rise up in the church, among roommates, or in marriage, the question is how we are going to handle it?

We have two options.

Either we will face conflict from a position of self-righteousness or of gift-righteousness. If the later, keeping the cross of Jesus front and center, there is the hope of repentance, forgiveness, and genuine reconciliation where unity is restored and celebrated.

This is why we must preach the message of the cross week in and week out as we gather for our Sunday morning family reunions.

The Mission of the Church

The mission of the church is to grow and glow.

In Ephesians 2, Paul describes how we are to grow in three ways: relationally, theologically, and missionally.

We are to grow relationally.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.

According to Paul, those who are members of the church are not just names on a roll but are members of a family, united in relationship not by physical genetics but by spiritual adoption.

At one time, we were not in the family. But now we are. How? In the same way that anyone joins a new family — adoption.

Earlier in Ephesians 1:3–6, Paul makes much of the adoption analogy, saying,

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Notice that spiritual adoption, and human adoption, is a gift where the parent chooses the child. Adoption is grace and beautifully explains the doctrine of predestination. Just as the adoptive child does not choose the parent, neither do we choose God.

Yes, God chooses us.

Or as Jesus would tell the disciples in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last.”

Those who are chosen to be included in the family of God will find that, while being from different backgrounds and having a variety of wounds, what they share is redemption in Jesus and worldview that centers on God’s grace.

This enables us to know each other deeply, as all pretense is removed by the cross, allowing us to be vulnerable and real so that we may really know others and be known by them in the safety of a cross-centered family.

In the cross-centered family of the church, we stand as equals — equally in need of God’s mercy and equally having received mercy. There is no caste system. The high are brought down and the low lifted up so that our spiritual friendships share common ground before the cross.

But we are not only to grow relationally with one another, with God himself as our adoptive Father. Worship services are not formal events where we do our religious duty. They are opportunities for the family to reconnect in the presence of our Abba. Personal devotions are not part of a spiritual checklist but become a means of remembering how much the Father loves us and is with us by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Of course, in order to grow relationally with God and each other, we also need to grow in a second way.

We are to grow theologically.

20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

What we learn from the apostles and prophets, and the ministry of Jesus is that the foundation of the Christian life is not our morality. The foundation is the finished redemptive work of Jesus. As Paul states in Ephesians 1:7–8, “In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.”

Let’s not by-pass that word, lavish. It carries a sense of more than we need. Even overflowing to excess.

Much like the universe, which far exceeds our ability to grasp, is still worthy of exploration. There is so much out there!

The love of God is like that. The cosmic dimensions of the height, depth, width, and breadth of God’s love for the church in Jesus, while surpassing human knowledge, is still worthy of exploration.

This is what growing theologically is about. Learning more about God, his world, ourselves, and the wonder of the gospel, where every theme, doctrine, life experience, and passage of Scripture is to be tied and tethered to the cross.

This means that when we read and study the Bible, we do not come to the text for a merely academic reading of an ancient text. We are mining the Bible for gold of God’s grace in all of its multifaceted dimensions — whether justifying grace, sanctifying grace, or sustaining grace.

The longer you are in the family, the more you will come to understand and appreciate the grace foundation of the church, but you will want to know more about it and share it with others, which leads to a third way we are to grow.

We are to grow missionally.

21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Here the church as the people of God is compared to a physical building, playing off of the dwelling of God in the Old Testament being the physical temple.

Just as the Temple then had to be built, brick by brick so is the church as a family is built believer by believer. As new people are added to the family, the building “rises.”

This is only possible as the Holy Spirit indwells the church as God’s people, using the means of Sunday worship and preaching, personal evangelism, financial generosity, organic friendships and more to draw the elect to himself, regenerating, calling, justifying, adopting, sanctifying, and one day, glorifying the adopted people of God.

Yes, the church is to be about worship and theology.

Yes, the church is to be about nurture and care.

But the church is also to be about mission, extending the grace we have received to those who are not yet members of the family.

As we grow relationally, theologically and missionally, we will fulfill the second purpose of the church, which is to glow.

How the Church Glows

In February 1954, a navy pilot named Jim Lovell set out on a night training mission from an aircraft carrier off the coast of Japan. It was a cloudy night. Pitch black.

Not long into his flight, his instrument panel suddenly short-circuited, burning out all the lights in the cockpit. He couldn’t see the sea or the sky. He had no visual markers to let him know which way to fly.

In his own words, “The blackness outside the plane had come inside.”

Nearing despair, he looked down and thought he saw a faint blue-green glow trailing along below the airplane. His training had prepared him for this. He was seeing a cloud of phosphorescent algae called bioluminescent dinoflagellates glowing in the sea that had been activated by the heat from the engines of his aircraft.

The glow produced from the algae provided enough light for him to find his way back to the carrier.

Jim Lovell would go on to become an astronaut and commander of the famous Apollo 13 space mission around the moon.

His life was saved because of glowing algae!

Bioluminescent dinoflagellates. What a great picture of what the church is to be for the world! Glowing. Showing. Leading people to Jesus.

In Matthew 5:14–16, Jesus said,

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds… and glorify your Father in heaven.

Our mission is to grow in grace and glow with grace — reflecting the light of the gospel to a dark world.

But in order to glow, like the algae, we must be activated, not by the warmth of an aircraft engine, but by the warmth of God’s love expressed to us in the cross of Jesus.

Has your heart been warmed? Has your faith been activated? Are you ready to grow and glow?

Maybe you feel far from God? Unworthy? Weighed with guilt?

Remember this, and don’t miss how the sentence starts (with now… and be sure to catch the how — through the blood of Christ).

Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. — Ephesians 2:13

The way to become a member in the family of God is not by doing anything but by receiving God’s promise of grace by believing. And in believing that Jesus has brought you near for adoption as a beloved son or daughter, you become part of the church, God’s family on earth.

If you have believed, welcome home!

What is the Church — Review and Discussion Guide

1. Discuss this statement: “The church is not a building or a Sunday event we go to. The church is a family we belong to.”

2. Why do we say that the church is “a people of grace?”

3. How is the church the hope of the world?

4. Why is unity such a vital aspect of God’s design for the church?

5. Describe how God has designed the church to be “the light of the world?”

5. How do we deal with the fact of ongoing sin by members in the church, abuse, scandals, etc.?

6. How does the cross destroy the self-righteousness that undermines (1) Christian unity and (2) Christian witness?

I write for folks who are tired of moralistic religion and thirst for the scandalous grace of Jesus — www.gracefortheweary.com.

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