What was the church supposed to be?

Infant Jesus and John the Baptist, Museo del Prado
Image via Wikipedia

What was the church supposed to be?  I heard a pastor ask that question once, years ago, and it’s stuck with me. Often we think about the church as something we Christians do. What I like about this question is its assumption that the church’s purpose doesn’t originate with us. God has an idea about what the church should be. We need to consider,in what ways might we have missed the point and purpose of the church?

What do you think the church was supposed to be?

A common answer today is that the church is supposed to be a missional community.  What is a missional community?

To answer than many would quote Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19,20)

But what do you think Jesus had in mind when he said that?

Sometimes it helps to consider the additional meanings of some of the words in their original language.

The Greek verb that we translate as “make a disciple” has the sense of teaching and instruction as part of it.  To be a disciple (the noun) invokes being a learner, a pupil, one who follows the teachings of another. The word translated as “obey” also means observe or keep or take care of.

What are we supposed to instruct others in? What are we supposed to learn? What are we supposed to take care of?

The commands of Jesus.  And we know what they are, don’t we?


Love God. Love each other. Love every other.

Back to  the original question, What was the church supposed to be?

Shirley Guthrie in his classic book, Christian Doctrine ( a pedestrian name but a really good book) says the original disciples didn’t set out to create or develop the church, they discovered they were the church. If Guthrie is correct, church isn’t something we do, it’s something we are. It is something we become as we follow the teaching of Jesus. Let’s start there – the church is what community of disciples becomes. The church may be (and ought to be) more than that, but it’s hard to see how it could be less than that.

What does this community of disciples look like?  What is the church supposed to be?

Here is a proposal. What follows doesn’t say everything there is to say about what the church is meant to be. It doesn’t say everything about what it means to be a disciple. But I think we have mostly missed something important about being the church.

To be a disciple, a follower of Jesus means that we try to live, all of us as the church, like he did. To love God and each other. And this means the church is called to be the welcoming, forgiving, including, reconciling community of God.

Think about what Jesus did. Who did Jesus talk to?  Who did Jesus spend time with? Who did Jesus eat meals with? Just about anyone and everyone. Those who were “in” and those who were “out”. If people were separated from the community of faith, Jesus worked to include them. If disease kept them out, he healed them. If they were in the wrong kind of work or engaged in the wrong sort of activities, he forgave them and included them. If they help positions of power and authority, he challenged and encouraged them to expand their vision of God’s reign. People might decline to join Jesus, but he didn’t exclude people.

As you well know, if you have spent any time in a group or organization or family, it can be hard for people who like each other and agree about most things to get along. Once you start crossing class, economic, political, sexual and any other boundary you can think of, things get infinitely more difficult.

It’s no surprise the church has had a difficult time of this. It’s hard to do. But I believe this is an important part of what the church is supposed to be. I wonder what the world would look  like, what the world would be like if we Christians could figure out how to live like Jesus.

I’d like to know, what do you think?  I’d like to know how do we do this?

4 thoughts on “What was the church supposed to be?

  1. Wow- what a challenging question! … and I’m actually a bit stuck. BUT, these words of yours best say my thoughts: “To love God and each other. And this means the church is called to be the welcoming, forgiving, including, reconciling community of God.”

    Love and forgiveness are powerful words – yet accurate descriptors of what we are supposed to be. Then again, both are tough to live up to because of the depth of their meaning and the shallowness in which we (as a whole) tend to look at them – especially in a society that shows itself through “reality” shows on tv.

    So here it is, the morning with the breaking news about the bin Laden’s death, Here I sit in a surreal mood, wondering about what lies ahead – yet seemingly appalled (but not surprised) of the celebratory reactions.

  2. It is a tough question! That’s why I thought I would share it- too tough for me alone.

    Yes this morning’s news brings the issues of justice, revenge, forgiveness, punishment, reconciliation to an interesting place.

    The command to love our enemies is not for wimps! It is difficult, difficult work.

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