The term church in the English edition of the Holy Scriptures is translated from a Greek word, ‘ecclesia’ which means “called out ones” and refers to the body of Christ. As head of this body, Christ directs and commands what is composed of many members with different gifts. Each member is directly connected to the head, Christ Jesus, and so all members enjoy fellowship with each other through their relationship with Christ Jesus.
In function, the body of Christ is not unlike the human body. Indeed, Paul used the example of the human body to explain the essential nature of the body of Christ. Although the ecclesia is not physical, it is real and practical, just like our human body.
The ecclesia, or body of Christ, is a spiritual organism with real existence, and is one body. For this reason it must never be divided. Just as the human body cannot live if it is divided into parts, even so the body of Christ cannot live in the way Christ intended, if it is sectionalized. For this reason, a divided church is not a church in the scriptural sense. Nevertheless, that is the state of Christian churches today.
Even in Paul’s day, Christians in the city of Corinth began to fragment. Some said they were for Apollos, others for Cephas, others for Paul, and some were for Christ. Paul expressed great concern over such sectarianism, and told them that their behavior was fleshly, unspiritual. He admonished them to speak with one voice, not succumbing to division. His admonition was, “Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you should all speak in agreement, and there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
Rearing its ugly head in Paul’s day, division became more and more prevalent after the death of the apostles. Under Roman influence, Christianity became very institutional. It also picked up philosophical tendencies from the Greeks and, under those influences, Christianity spread far and wide. Unfortunately, however, such expansion was accompanied by institutionalism, and this in turn fueled sectarianism, which has proliferated until our day.
Fortunately, this problem does have a simple solution. Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians was that they focus on Christ. It was really that simple. He reminded them that it was Christ that died for them. It was in his name that they were being baptized. Why then, should they be induced to follow some other person? Furthermore, they knew and believed that God’s promises would be fulfilled through Christ, the King of God’s future Kingdom. They were also personally attracted to Christ, because he was loving and merciful. Why then, were they losing that focus?
In the early ecclesia, they practiced baptism. They shared in the Lord’s supper, preached the good news of the kingdom of God, and met together for Christian meetings. So can it be said that these acts of fellowship were the center of their faith? Not at all! The real center was fellowship with God through Christ, and the Corinthians had lost that focus.
It is most important to note that authority, as exercised by the New Testament ecclesia was never of a legal or institutional kind, such as we see in the churches today. Like Christ before them, those who took the lead among early Christian believers possessed only heavenly or spiritual authority. And such authority was recognized only because it was evident that they spoke the truth in the power of the Holy Spirit. Even the authority of the apostles was not legal or institutional. What they said was in the power of God’s Holy Spirit and enforced only by the conviction of that same Spirit in the hearts of men.
Christians in the apostolic age never dreamed of making an institution or organization the center of the church. Nor did they substitute human service or earthly authority for the activity and authority of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Why then, have Christians lost that focus? Why have they strayed so far away from the ecclesia that Jesus, himself, established? Actually, this sinful development was foretold. It’s recorded for us in the book of Luke chapter 22:35-36 and this is what Jesus said:
“When I sent you forth without purse and food pouch and sandals, you did not want for anything, did you? And they said “No”. Then he said to them, “But now let the one who has a purse take it up, likewise also the food pouch, and let the one having no sword sell his outer garment and buy one.”
Please note that this advice is in direct contrast to what Jesus said earlier. When Peter used a sword to defend him at his arrest, Jesus rebuked Peter, and said,
“Return the sword to its place. For those who take the sword will perish by it.”
What is the reason for this seeming contradiction in the advice Jesus gave on those two occasions? Apparently, this is a prophetic statement as to what his followers would do. Jesus seems to be saying that his followers would exchange their outer garments for a sword. How so? Well, as the scriptures show, outer garments represent a Christian’s identification. At Revelation 3:18, Jesus admonished his congregation to acquire white, outer garments. And in Revelation 19:8, Jesus explains what that means. He says, “Yes, it has been granted to her [that is, the ecclesia, the church], to be arrayed in bright, clean, fine linen. For fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the holy ones.”
Obviously, then, Jesus was predicting that his ecclesia would exchange its righteous acts for a sword. In the first place, this meant they would lose their identification as true Christians. They would cease to be the true footstep followers of Jesus Christ. How? By exchanging their garments of identification, their righteous acts, for a sword, that is, for the sword of the state. Historically, that’s exactly what happened.
In his book, The One Body in Christ, Kokichi Kurosaki comments on this period, and he has this to say:
“When the emperor Constantine made Christianity a national religion, using it as a means for the spiritual authority of the whole empire, the bloody persecutions of the Roman empire stopped at last. After that, Christianity spread rapidly over the whole territory of the Roman Empire. In this expansion Christianity developed the organization that made it the Church. And this institutionalized system became more and more centralized, until at last, the Roman bishop became the father of the whole Roman Church, and in this way, Imperial authority, now getting its power from the political as well as the ecclesiastical union, could declare all citizens of the state Christians, members of that Church. As a result, the true nature of the ecclesia, as the living body of Christ, was lost within that church, and the latter just became a legal body, regulated by church law, instead of God’s Holy Spirit. Faith, like the laws of the state, was reduced to a creed, formulated for and remembered by the common members of the Church. Those who did not accept the creed, just as those who did not obey the law, were punished.”
“When Christianity was transformed into such a legal institution, it could no more be expected that communion, or fellowship with God and Christ would be the center of the ecclesia. The center of faith was transferred. It was taken from God and Christ, a spiritual union with Christ as head of the ecclesia, to the legal government of the Pope. The spiritual ecclesia was replaced by the earthly institutional church whose center was the Pope. In this church, the fellowship of Christians was no longer in the body of Christ that has life-giving union with him, and Christ was no longer the head of the body, his Church. With the establishment of the institutionalized Church, the worship of God in spirit and truth died out and was replaced by ritual and formal worship. The words at 1 John 2:27 could no longer be applied to Christians, for John had said, “and as for you, the anointing that you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to be teaching you. The anointing from him is teaching you about all these things.”
Well, under the rule of the institutionalized church, these words no longer applied to its members. The Roman church insisted that outside her fellowship there could be no salvation. Not only did people lose their membership for disagreeing with church dogma, they were not even considered to be Christian. This is what the church taught. These became her laws, and those who refused to obey them were excommunicated. They lost their legal rights as citizens, and in turn, the protection of the state. To stand against the Roman Catholic Church was far more serious than to stand against the state. Men were deprived of the right to seek truth freely. Those who did hunger and thirst for faith and the spiritual life had to seek it at the risk of their lives.
This severe punishment deeply impressed the masses, for to reject Church belief was considered the worst sin a person could commit. And so men were led to think that it was their Christian duty to obey such laws and to persecute any who disagreed.
In the reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin established new churches in many parts of Europe, separate from the Roman Church. In this way the Roman Pope and the Roman Institution lost its position as the center of Christianity. Luther’s faith was Sola Scriptura, or the Scripture alone and union with Christ in spirit and life. And it was, indeed, Holy Scripture that led him to this conclusion.
Other reformers likewise found, in the Scriptures, the whole source of truth. But gradually, the position of the Scriptures as God-inspired testimony of the Apostles’ personal faith in Christ changed, and became the source of Protestant dogma, and the criterion of acceptable faith. Replacing the Roman Pope, the bible became the center of Christianity in Protestant churches. But like Catholicism, it tried to make a clear-cut distinction between orthodox and heretical faith, and to exclude “heretics” from this new “purified” church. In their eyes, they alone had the true faith, so all others must be opposed as those in error.
The real cause of this confusion and the disaster of sectarianism is actually due to an erroneous view as to the true nature of the ecclesia. The center of Christianity is neither institution nor is it organization, nor is it the bible itself, as the reformers made it, for the ecclesia existed before the formation of the New Testament canon. Christians were already in fellowship with God and one another, centering their faith in Christ and thereby being the ecclesia. Of course, they did have the Hebrew Scriptures, but they certainly did not, as yet, have all of the teachings in canon form as far as the work of Christ was concerned.
There is only one center of Christianity, and one alone, and that center is: spiritual fellowship with God through Christ. That’s it! When there is such fellowship, that is the ecclesia. In the absence of it, there is no ecclesia. There may be fine clerical people, elegant buildings, scholarly dogmas, doctrines and so on, but if there is no true fellowship with God through Christ, there is no ecclesia. On the other had, if such fellowship exists with God through Christ, Christians will love one other, and they will be one in Christ, despite some doctrinal differences.
Faith is the gift of God that produces in us fellowship with Him and His Son. It cannot be created, nor can it be maintained by human effort. With the Spirit of God governing us directly, we love one another, and we do God’s work by obeying Him. Faith is but another word for fellowship—fellowship with God. In this relationship the power of God works through us. For that reason, neither priest nor pastor is necessary. The one thing required is that we repent and come to Christ for forgiveness of sins and the newness of life he gives freely.
When our Lord walked the earth, he praised the faith of one and blamed the small degree of faith in another. He acknowledged the faith of a sinful woman, a leper, a woman with a flow of blood, a blind man, and then he would say to them, “Your faith has saved you.”
Do you know that in all such instances, there was no particular foundation of doctrine, nor institution, nor ceremony that was involved? Those who relied entirely on Jesus Christ, exercising faith in him, had their sins forgiven. It was as simple as that. The only condition was faith in Christ Jesus. If such faith existed, and they joined other believers, that was the beginning of the ecclesia, because through this fellowship they became one with Christ and he became their Lord.
Now, then, in a manner of speaking, I’m just cutting to the chase. Naturally, more was involved, but I’m talking only about the main things. In a word, then, Christianity has its center in our fellowship with God through Christ.
When this centrality of God in fellowship with men through Christ becomes clear to us, we will see at once that all other elements, such as an institutional church, interpretation of Scripture, doctrine, and so forth, cannot be the center of Christianity. Moreover, when this fact dawns on us, we will come to realize that we cannot judge others by any such standard. Indeed, we shouldn’t be judging others in the first place. That is not our prerogative. Both our Lord Jesus and his servant Paul remind us of this.
Rather than judging other believers, we should show love for them. That requirement, given by Jesus himself, is recorded at John 13:35, and reads, “By this all will know you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” That’s it. No judging of another, just loving each another. It is such love that identifies the true disciple of Jesus Christ.
How important our fellowship with God is! It is the very essence of the new life we have in Christ. To the Jews, Jesus said, at John 5:39, “You are searching the scriptures, because you think that by means of them you will have everlasting life, and these are the very ones that bear witness about me.” Yes! Our relationship with Christ—that’s what leads to God.
Redemption by the blood of Christ is, of course, the most fundamental truth of Scripture. It is the very basis on which we are allowed to come near to God and to have communion with Him. Nevertheless, although we may acknowledge the doctrine of Redemption, it does not necessarily follow that we are experiencing the fellowship that it allows. And yet, this is what God really wants for us, for this was His purpose in our creation.
In view of this, we must never make doctrine the center of our worship even though the things we believe are critically important. It is the life of Christ and our fellowship with God through him that should always be central in our lives. For example, to believe the resurrection is one thing, but to have fellowship with the risen Christ is quite another. There are many Christians who for one reason or another may not subscribe to some statement of doctrine, but they still keep standing very close to God, and they keep obeying Him from their hearts.
I believe that when we discern that the real center of Christianity is fellowship with God through Christ, we will also see more clearly the real cause of division. But even more importantly, we will understand how to eradicate such division. Very frequently, institutional churches, instead of helping believers to develop the life in Christ, actually smother such life, or worse, they drive it out, and this gradually produces lifeless institutions, instead of the living ecclesia. Consequently, Christians who truly have the life in Christ cannot exist within such a corpse, and, usually, they will finally find themselves coming out of it. But sad to say, in many cases I have observed, those who leave dead institutions simply set out to build a better institution, or to embrace a new set of doctrine, thereby repeating the same error. Instead of turning to God in Christ as the center of their life and worship, once again they seek fellowship and spiritual security on the very basis that already failed them in the first place. In view of this, we may well ask, How can we determine who are having true fellowship with God through Christ?
The simple answer is that such a judgment call is not ours to make. Actually, it’s a problem that has been created but need not exist, for no final decision can be made on a person’s faith at this time. If one believes the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of God and that God gave his Son as a ransom for mankind, that is all that is needed for the simple fellowship that we can have among Christians, and which God intended us to have. The drawing of man-made boundaries and distinctions is needed only for organizations and institutions. However, once we lay aside that sort of thing, and the necessity for objective judgment, we can in actual practice, although imperfectly, still tell whether one is a true Christian or not.
The most important basis for such recognition is, of course, that they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord, with the sincerity of a life that demonstrates that Lordship. There will be the reality of loving God and loving men in practical experience. It is a lamentable fact that thousands upon thousands who belong to the different churches have very little love for other Christians. This fact alone calls into question their claim to being Christian, because we are told at 1 John, 4:8: “He that does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
Following John’s logic, then, if one does not know God, one can hardly be having fellowship with Him, right? How important it is that Christians love fellow believers! It is such love, one for another, that brings us into the body of Christ, for all true Christians are one body in Christ. We cannot create this. No religious institution can create such true fellowship. That is something God, Himself, brings about through Christ. We must recognize that this is the way God has done it, and then, we must practice it. We must place our differences aside, into a secondary position. Why? Because fellowship with true believers, something God intended for us, will also result in opportunities to share things we have learned from the Scriptures as well as consider the viewpoint of fellow believers.
Furthermore, when there is true fellowship with God, unity will come naturally, of itself, provided that we don’t raise any man-made barriers. We must receive one another on the ground of mutual fellowship with God. That is the essence of the true ecclesia, and in such a free fellowship the truth will surely triumph. And what is more, this alone is the pathway to the uniting of Christians, those who are true Christians indeed. It cannot be otherwise, because the head and the members are actually connected spiritually, and it’s because of this connection that we have this true fellowship with God through Christ.
Such fellowship is faith in its purest sense, and having this kind of faith means that we are relying on Jesus Christ with all of our heart. For it is to Christ that God gave all authority. It also means obeying his command to love one another. For this reason Christians must not allow doctrine and theological opinion and other things like that to come between them, thereby preventing Christian fellowship. This is most critical, because the absence of such fellowship means there is no ecclesia, even though there may be baptism, the Lord’s supper, good works, or anything else. Human activities cannot make up the ecclesia, and it does not exist outside the fellowship of Christians with Christ.
Because it is spiritual, and it’s a relationship in fellowship with God through Christ, it cannot be seen with human eyes. However, the reality of this fellowship reveals itself in the life of the believer by his confession of faith in Christ Jesus, by his Christian love towards others, and by his obedience to God as demonstrated by his conduct. Moreover, if one is truly Christian, he is sensitive to this faith-fellowship in fellow Christians.
Christian institutions often record baptism to keep track of Christian membership. If we could conclusively know whether one is a Christian by their baptism, wouldn’t that be convenient? But as most of us would acknowledge, there are many baptized non-Christians. It is obvious then, that no human means exists for distinguishing clearly between believers and unbelievers, especially in borderline cases. The methods of distinction upon which the churches and many church groups are based can only result, as experience continually proves over and over again, the inclusion of some who do not actually know Christ, and the exclusion of others who have a life in Christ. In this sense, the existing churches cannot be considered to be the same as the ecclesia, the true body of Christ. And for that reason, we must clearly distinguish between them, that is, the churches of men, and the ecclesia of Christ, the body in which he lives.
To those who are used to the practice of churches, this may seem confusing, and very difficult, to think of a Christian fellowship with God and Christ as something that happens without an established institutional church organization. However, such anxiety is not necessary. God’s purpose in creating a fellowship with Him through Christ is a real and practical foundation for its realization. Our problem lies in the fact that we have come to doubt the spiritual fellowship that God has given us through Christ, to Himself and with one another. However, such fellowship as provided by Him is sufficient basis for true and full fellowship. Of course, some may doubt this because such free and simple fellowship has long been hindered and hidden by institutionalism. It is especially for this reason that we must let the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit set us free from this false ecclesiasticism. For only in this way can we ever hope to realize the true, Christian fellowship that God provided for us.
The new life that we are given at our new birth, though it is spiritual, it is a real life, and will express itself in practical living. This new life will reveal our faith, both in words and in deeds. Furthermore, like the early Christians, we will witness to our faith in the God and his Son without hesitation, and we will not find it difficult to locate fellow believers. Indeed, true Christians recognize each other as having the same life.
Church organizations and institutions, need to carry out certain functions and activities—that’s why they’re organized as they are. But remember, Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.” Even when there’s no church building or official leadership as such, Christ will be in the midst of those gathered in his name. That’s his promise. And this is the essence of the true ecclesia, even though there may not be a church organization as such.
When those confessing Christ are living a life of fellowship with the Lord, they will see as a matter of course, and will experience the true fellowship of the ecclesia with other Christians, provided that doctrinal and institutional elements are secondary. Their fellowship then is entirely the result of fellowship with Christ. When united on this simple New Testament basis, Christians will tolerate the differences of opinion and practice in secondary matters. They will love one another with the love Christ said they were to have. And this love will indeed help them to find the oneness for which Christians yearn. In this way, one’s confession of faith, unless belied by his life, is proof that he is living in fellowship with God and has become a member of the body of Christ. But if anyone says, as John said in 1 John 4:20, “I love God, but hates his brother, he is a liar.” Moreover, we can tell by the conduct of a person in his daily life whether or not his confession is sincere. As Jesus said, “A tree is known by its fruit.”
The ecclesia is one body, consisting of many independent, though interdependent personalities. Some believers have deep theological insights. Others have passionate evangelistic tendencies. Some have this gift, others that gift. There are also racial, language, educational, social custom differences and so on. However, these should not be the cause of division. Why do we think that division is the only alternative to having unity? Not only is it unnecessary, it’s actually harmful to try to nullify our differences. Rather than exclude those whose knowledge and understanding are different than our own, we should love them, thanking God for what he has given in them.
It is pride that despises those that are different. If we will respect those with an understanding different from our own, we will love each other, and this will contribute to the body of Christ, rather than hurt it. We should never make our differences a rallying point, substituting for Christ our special expression of Christianity as the center of true faith and fellowship. But because this was allowed to happen, what God meant to be a blessing for us, and to the whole body of Christ, has become a curse, dividing Christians one from another, separating one from each other. Everywhere, we see believers putting fellow believers out of their fellowship—rejecting, condemning, and despising those in whom Christ lives. How deplorable that is in the eyes of God—that people refuse to obey the injunction to love one another.
However, this does not mean that a Christian can believe anything he likes, and that any kind of faith is Christian faith—not at all. There are essentials that we cannot ignore. A living faith through Christ is an essential. Acknowledging our Heavenly Father as Almighty, as Jesus did, is essential. Accepting the Scriptures as “a lamp to our foot and a light to our roadway” is another essential. Equally important is a living fellowship with God through Christ. Furthermore, our conduct must be Christian! That is an essential. Indeed, all of these things are Christian essentials.
There are, however, some scriptural reasons for separating ourselves from others. The first is given by Christ Jesus, himself. In Matthew 18:17 he said that if people behave in an unchristian way, and don’t repent, they should be treated as unbelievers. Paul said we should not associate with those that claim to be brothers, but engage in sinful practice (1 Corinthians 5:13). And John said that, “If anyone does not believe that Christ came in the flesh, we should not receive such a one into our fellowship.” (2 John 7-10) But these are the only reasons for separation. A person’s peculiar understanding of the bible is not one of them.
In summary, let’s read what Paul wrote to the Ephesians, chapter 4. “There is one body and one spirit. Just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all who is above all, and through all and in all.”
This basic truth is reinforced for us in Ephesians 4:15, 16, and I conclude with this. Paul says, “But speaking the truth, let us grow up in all things into him who is the head, Christ. From him, all the body, by being harmoniously joined together, and being made to cooperate through every joint that gives what is needed according to the functioning of each respective member in due measure, makes for the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” How wonderful that is! Amen!
Transcription of a talk given in October 2002.