Sometimes we hear variations on the theme, “Jesus yes, church no.” It may be someone saying they believe in God, but can’t stand religion. Others say they can worship God anywhere, so they don’t need the church. All of them present an unrealistic and unnatural view of Jesus.
These statements indicate that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what the church is. Even among Christian preachers we find these misunderstandings. A lot of articles have been written about what the church is not. Sometimes there is validity in defining what the church is not; however, that provides an incomplete picture of the church. To define the church by what it is not is sometimes like trying to define an automobile by its dissimilarity to other things. You can say an automobile is not a horse, it is not a boat, it is not an airplane, and it is not a box. These are all valid, and sometimes descriptive, statements about a car, but they don’t give any idea about what a car is. In the same way, defining the church by what it is not in unhelpful in dealing with people who do not know what it is.
The church is a body. It is a collection of organs working together for common survival. Paul was particularly fond of this picture.
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13-14)
More precisely, the church is the body of Jesus. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” (1 Cor 12:27) And lest somebody miss the concept that the body is the church or the church is the body, the very next verse speaks about God putting various organs in the church. Furthermore, Jesus is “the head of the body, the church.” (Col 1:18) Now this puts the holders of the “Jesus yes, church no” doctrine in a precarious position. It makes them say of a woman, “I like her head, but I can’t stomach her body.” Even more, it would separate the head from the body. We all know what happens when the head and the body are separated. The body without the head is dead; but equally, the head without the body is dead. If you want Jesus without the church, you might as well put him in a jar of formaldehyde on the mantelpiece. Jesus without the church is merely a trophy on the wall.
In another picture, the church is the bride of Christ. Based on historical and textual context, the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21 is probably the church. “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2) But we don’t have to depend on that probability. Paul says without a doubt that the church is the bride of Christ. After describing how a wife should relate to her husband, and the husband to the wife, Paul says he is not describing a mere earthly marriage.
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31-32)
The story is told about Mark Twain’s being invited to a gathering. The invitation specified that it was for Mr. Twain, but his wife was not invited. Shortly after the event, he sent the host a bill for his standard personal appearance fee. When the host objected, Twain pointed out that he was invited, but his wife wasn’t. In his mind that meant that the host wanted him there as Mark Twain, the writer and humorist. If he had invited him in a non-professional capacity he would have asked the couple, rather than the individual.
Those who want Jesus without the church are like the host at this event. They want the husband, but not the bride. They want to show off Jesus, but don’t want to get to know him personally. The head without the body. The husband without the bride. It is just unnatural.