“To me… this grace was given… to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Paul’s words in the third chapter of Ephesians are breath-taking. He’s saying that God uses the church (ekklesia) as a theatre to display His multi-faceted wisdom. You would think that because God doesn’t need the church, He would show His wisdom without them. But to grasp this truth is jarring
What the Church Is
We can define the church as essentially being “God’s gathering”. Here, it’s assembled in two ways: visibly and invisibly.
The visible church relates to the ekklesia that can be seen. In other words, the local church. This is where Christians gather to hear the preaching of the Word and to receive the administration of the sacraments (The Lord’s Supper and baptism). Of course, there are unbelievers in the local church who will not ultimately be saved. However, this doesn’t dismiss the fact that the visible church is God’s assembly. It’s here that He dispenses grace to His children, and primarily manifests His presence on earth.
The invisible church relates to the ekklesia that we can’t see. If salvation is primarily a work that’s done within by virtue of our union with Christ, then it follows that it’s impossible for us to identify with certainty who is a Christian. Therefore, the invisible church is the full number of God’s elect. In other words, it’s all of those who were united with Christ in His death and resurrection.
It’s both a visible and invisible organism that will culminate in the return of Christ. Here, the false believers will be removed, and the invisible church will finally be seen.
It is extremely important that you know this for two reasons. Firstly, if we elevate church to be invisible only, this produces neglect of the visible church. In other words, the heavenly gathering ends up consuming the earthly gathering. Here, we see some professing Christians meeting with others in a café and calling it “church”; others refuse to gather at all because they claim to “be” the church. But this is rooted in a failure to understand the nature of the visible church. Do you take the visible church seriously? Are you committed to your local gathering?
Secondly, other professing Christians collapse the invisible
Together, the visible and invisible church
How the Church Functions
Let’s continue unpacking our understanding of the church by discussing how it functions. Here, we will emphasise the ministry of the visible church.
God has not abandoned the church to figure out its own way around the maze. He has appointed a way for the church to grow in Christlikeness and remain healthy. Through the preaching of His Word and the administration of sacraments, the church is given a fountain of grace to grow in their heavenly journey. Further, church discipline is a blessing to the church’s order and stability.
This is tremendously important for the church. Without these appointed means, the church becomes an unidentifiable entity. There must be established truths promoted and exercised by the church. It has to know and preach about who it is, what it does, who it serves, how it gathers and why it exists. This is precisely what these means and methods accomplish. Have you been baptised? Do you partake of the Lord’s Supper? Do you come to church to engage all your energy in hearing the Word preached and sing together? This is so important to individual and communal growth.
However, with the above means, we assume that there must be people to enact them. God has not only appointed the means, but also the ministers of the church who implement these means. They are to shepherd the congregation into Christlikeness by preaching God’s Word well, conducting church discipline with wisdom, and administering the sacraments biblically. Such men are qualified for the office by displaying exemplary godliness and unique teaching abilities. They are selected by God through the church and placed in a position of authority and responsibility in order to keep it healthy and bring it back to order when it strays. This is how the church functions.
Understanding this is vital. Surely, we don’t think that people will baptise themselves? Or that the Word will preach itself? Or that discipline will happen automatically in a black hole? Indeed, there are many professing Christians who deny the need for pastors altogether. However, how will the church be steered biblically, or brought back to the centre when it’s straying, without an appointed team of men to do so? That is why pastors and elders are crucial to the life of each congregation, and to your spiritual growth. Do you honour your pastors? Do you understand that they have been appointed by God Himself? If not, then you won’t see the importance of the sacraments. And if that’s the case, you’ll be hindered in your heavenly journey.
Therefore, it becomes clear that the church is important to God and should also be important to us. We have seen what the church is, how it functions properly and biblically, and why these are important. And we can be confident that God is displaying His glorious and manifold wisdom through the church – what a riveting and heart-exploding thought!
Resources for more in-depth research
- Grudem’s, “Systematic Theology”
- Peter O’Brien’s, “The Church as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity”
- Michael Horton’s, “Pilgrim Theology”