Focus on the Family

Why Study God?

byRobert Velarde

"Does theology really matter? I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. I believe in the Bible. Isn't that enough?" Reactions to theology are mixed, but more often than not, theology is viewed with suspicion. After all, isn't theology responsible for divisions among Christians? Don't theological arguments result in more heat than light? Given all the negative aspects associated with theology, does it really matter? This article will explore the meaning and relevance of Christian theology, both on a personal level as well as in general terms in reference to the church as a whole.

Know the Truth

Jesus called his followers to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24, NIV), later adding, "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32, NIV). But what sort of God are we to worship and how do we know we are worshiping "in spirit and in truth"? If the truth will set us free, then it seems quite reasonable to want to determine what truth, specifically, will set us free.

This is where theology can help us a great deal. Far from being an area of study reserved only for academics or the clergy, theology is important to every Christian. In short, theology is the study of God, encompassing concepts such as His nature, the nature of reality, the human condition, the person of Christ and more. But our study of theology must extend beyond merely learning facts and information. That's where applying theology on a practical level - often called practical theology - also comes into play.

In Philippians 3:10, the Apostle Paul wrote, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection …" To know Christ is to know theology. C.S. Lewis once said, "Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." Similarly, good theology must exist, not only because bad theology needs to be answered, but also because good theology ensures that we are indeed worshiping God "in spirit and in truth," and that we "know Christ" as He would have us know Him.

Doctrine and Dogma?

Still, theology makes some Christians wary. Dogma and doctrine are not usually perceived as pleasant and inviting words or concepts. Instead, they tend to bring up a distaste for the "establishment" of "organized religion" and the seeming rule of some elite faction over the masses. This, however, is far from what true theology is supposed to do.

As Robert Bowman has written, too often we perceive doctrine as "irrelevant, impractical, divisive, unspiritual and unknowable."[1] But is this really the case? It's true that sometimes doctrine and theology come across this way. However, the abuse and misuse of theology and doctrine does not mean that the proper and positive uses of it are to be ignored.

Theology, in fact, is extremely relevant, practical, uniting, spiritual and knowable. Through it we learn truths about God, His Son, our individual and collective human predicament, the nature of salvation and much more. Understood properly, theology equips us with the tools we need to cope with every aspect of life.

Theology: Our Foundation

For instance, we may not think of prayer as theology, but the foundation of prayer is theology. We pray because we know a loving and personal God exists and hears us. This is not a distant, indifferent God, but the all-powerful God of the universe who is active in His creation, wanting the best for us. As Gerard Manley Hopkins has written, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." Theology, then, is both practical and relevant. It is practical in that it should influence our lives on a very real and daily level. But it is also relevant in that it applies to every aspect of life, not just nitpicking points of theological disagreement.

Biblically-based theology unites God's people and has done so throughout the centuries. The idea that Christians can't agree about anything is a myth. Ever since the first Christians gathered in worship, until now, they have agreed on a core set of beliefs and essentials. Knowing that we are in theological agreement about concepts such as the nature of God, the person of Christ, and issues of salvation and redemption, provide unity to the Church. Granted, there are areas of disagreement, but if one takes a step back and looks at the great points of agreement throughout the centuries, as gleaned from the Bible as well as historic creeds, what we agree on is far greater than what we disagree on.

Spiritual and Knowable

Moreover, theology is deeply spiritual and knowable. Healthy theology leads to healthy spirituality. God has called us to love Him with not only heart, soul and strength, but also with our minds (Mark 12:30). Thinking through what we believe about God and why - the "doing of theology" - is not unspiritual, but in fact will lead us to worship God in spirit and in truth. Our feelings and experiences have a place within worship and within our daily lives, but it is theology that will keep us on the proper path, ensuring that we are indeed serving and knowing God in a manner that is honoring to Him and His Word.

But is theology knowable? Aren't aspects of it simply beyond us and, therefore, not applicable to us? After all, even God said, "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the LORD. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55:8-9 NIV). It is true that God is infinitely wiser and more knowledgeable than we are. But this is not the same as stating that we cannot know anything about God, including the study of theology. Indeed, God has taken it upon Himself to reveal great truths to us through His Word. In short, we are limited in what we can know, but we can know. Thus, theology is knowable.

Humbly Approaching God

Being a theologian is the task of every Christian; being a professional theologian is not. This, however, does not excuse us from using the mind God has given us to seek to understand and know Him better. As we seek to learn more about theology and God's wonderful truths and their relevance to our lives, we must do so with a sense of humility and awe, desiring "to know Christ" (Philippians 3:10) and to worship God "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). To this end, other articles in this series on theology will address Jesus, the human condition, the solution to the human predicament (salvation) and the nature of the Christian church. While not an exhaustive look at every aspect of theology, the goal of this series is to offer an introductory overview of theology accessible to everyone.

Does theology matter? It matters a great deal. Knowing the truth about who God is, who Christ is, and how we can be saved and reconciled with God is not only important, but also eternally relevant and significant.

[1] Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy (Baker Books, 1992), p. 15.

Who do you say I am?

Without Christology, there is no Christianity. Jesus is at the center of the Christian faith. Knowing about Christ is essential, as well as personal.

byRobert Velarde

During a discussion with his disciples, Jesus asked them, "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:15, NIV). The answer to this important question is related to a critical area of theology known as Christology. As its name indicates, Christology is about the study of Christ - his nature, his purpose, and more.

Theology lays the foundation for God, His nature, and His plan involving redemption for human beings and restoration of a fallen creation. It also tells us some important things about God such as that He is personal, loving, transcendent, active in His creation, all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing.

But without Christology, there is no Christianity. Jesus is at the center of the Christian faith. As a result, knowing about Christ is essential, as well as personal. Our relationship to Christ, for instance, is tied to our human condition, redemption, and salvation.

Christ and His Claims

Despite isolated criticism to the contrary, one key aspect of Christ that we must agree on is that he actually existed as a historical person. This means he was not a legend, myth, or fictional hero. He really lived in the first century and the New Testament contains the fullest, most reliable record of his life and ministry.

It's also important that we understand his nature. Christ claimed divinity. There are many passages that support his claims to deity. Two such passages include passages in the Gospels wherein Jesus forgives sin, receiving the response, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Matthew 9; Mark 2; Luke 5). In John 8, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am!" (John 8:58). In the next verse, the individuals he was interacting with "picked up stones to stone him." Why? The options are limited, with the best explanation being for supposed blasphemy. John 10:33 underscores some of the reasoning behind wanting to put Jesus to death: "We are not stoning you for any of these … but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God."

Human and Divine

But Jesus also has a human nature, which leads to another important part of Christology. Jesus is fully God and fully man. He is not fifty percent God and fifty percent man or some other strange hybrid. But attempting to fully understand Christ's divine and human natures is challenging. A challenge, however, is not a contradiction. Seeking to understand the relationship between Christ's divine and human natures is part of what is called the hypostatic union. There is not button or switch on the back of Jesus that one could push or flip in order to put him into God-mode or Man-mode.

As one scholar put it, "In the incarnation of the Son of God, a human nature was inseparably united forever with the divine nature in the one person of Jesus Christ, yet with the two natures remaining distinct, whole, and unchanged, without mixture or confusion so that the one person, Jesus Christ, is truly God and truly man."[1]

This may seem like some nitpicking is going on, but when it comes to Christology, it is far too easy to deviate into error. If in fact the nature of Christ and what he did for us is key to our salvation and redemption, we'd better make sure we are correct in what we believe about Jesus.

Purpose and Proof

But what did Jesus come to do? He had a specific mission, established by God. Jesus came to die for the sins of humanity. This is known as the atonement and will be addressed in more detail in another article in this series ("What must I do to be saved?").

Not only was Christ's birth miraculous, born to the Virgin Mary, but also his life was also full of miracles. From walking on water to giving sight to the blind and allowing the lame to walk, Jesus filled his ministry with the miraculous. These signs were meant to confirm his divine origin. Christ's greatest miracle was his own bodily resurrection following his death on the cross. Related to this is his ascension to heaven and his promised return.

 Who is Jesus?

If some aspects of Christology seem impersonal, irrelevant, or distant, it's important to keep in mind that what we know about Jesus is highly relevant and, more importantly, distinctly personal. John 3:16 is often quoted, but its richness is worth quoting again here: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Jesus claimed to be the only way for individuals to be redeemed, when he said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

Jesus did not come to preach a "feel good" message, but the reality of human sin and the radical measures God takes on behalf of our redemption. Jesus is indeed a great moral teacher, but he is much more as well. He calls us to repent and follow him.

The early church encapsulated their belief by saying merely, "Jesus is Lord." This statement, however, and commitment to it could have resulted in severe persecution (and often it did). But either Jesus is Lord or he is not. Christians believe that indeed he is who he claimed to be, which brings us back to the opening questions Jesus asked, "But what about you? Who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:15) Our individual answer is of eternal importance.

Christ, the Son of the Living God

All of the evidence for Christianity presents a solid cumulative case argument for the truth of Jesus and his claims. Far from being judgmental and narrow-minded with regards to the exclusive claims of Jesus, Christians are merely seeking to share the truth. The claims of Christ are not a matter of taste and are not meant to make individuals comfortable. Instead, they are matters of truth, designed to make us uncomfortable in the realization that we are fallen beings in need of serious redemption.

Who do you say Jesus is? Christology helps us find the right answer and, by doing so, changes our lives for the better and, in turn, allows us to change the world for the glory of God. what was Peter's answer to the question? "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). Did Jesus rebuke Peter or correct him? No, instead Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:17).

Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God. As Jude wrote, "To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy - to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen" (Jude 24-25).

[1] Walter Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Books, 1984), under "Hypostatic Union" by C.A. Blaising.

Helping families thrive with the support of friends like you.

Rebels Against God

A reading of Genesis 3 will inform us that the "good" in human beings became not so good as a result of human rebellion.

byRobert Velarde

Mention "anthropology" and most people probably think about Indiana Jones raiding the lost ark or about dry studies of the development of cultures and societies. But anthropology in relation to theology covers an entirely different set of topics such as the origin and nature of human beings. Where did we come from? Are people basically good? Are we blank slates? Are we fallen and corrupted by sin? And, if so, how do we get out of our predicament?

The word anthropology is derived from anthropos and logos, with the former meaning human being and the latter referring to the study of this subject. A proper anthropology within the context of a proper theology will result in a proper understanding of our place in God's creation, as well as an understanding of how to resolve the human predicament.

Human Origins: Theism or Atheism?

But before we address the human predicament, some basic questions about anthropology in relation to theology must be addressed. Was God involved in the creation of human beings or not? Obviously, if God does not exist, as atheists claim, then human origins have nothing whatsoever to do with God, religion  or spirituality of any kind. But if God does exist, then this fact allows for other possibilities. If we grant the position of Christian theism, then not only does God exist, but He is also personal, loving, transcendent, but also active in His Creation. In fact, His activity in His Creation resulted in Jesus Christ coming to earth for a very specific purpose.

In addition to God's role as Creator, biblically speaking we are also told that human beings are made in God's image (Genesis 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9). While theologians grapple with the finer points of this concept, in short it means that there is indeed something special about human beings. We are, in fact, unique and, by definition, separated from other creatures such as animals. We are able to think deeply and express magnificent creativity. Consequently, human beings write books, paint works of art, compose music, worship God via religious expression, and more.

Human Nature and the Image of God

But what about human nature? Biblically speaking, we are told that everything God created was "good," but a reading of Genesis 3 will inform us that the "good" in human beings became not so good as a result of human rebellion. Known as the Fall, this event resulted in a negative change for the human situation. No longer in harmony with our Creator, we are at odds with Him. While we still carry God's image in us, it is now marred or impaired. Sin is now the dominant inclination of every human being or, as some theologians describe it, our sin nature or depravity gets the best of us. This does not mean that everything we do is bad, evil or depraved, but that our inclinations - our behavior and choices - have a marked tendency away from God and His truth and toward ourselves. The only way to get ourselves out of this predicament is to accept God's plan of salvation through Christ.

What Are We?

Getting back to various views of human origins, remember that earlier we mentioned the option of atheism. This perspective views human beings as material beings. That is to say, everything about us is mechanical and material. In a world without God or the supernatural, we are reduced to being accidental machines. But theologically speaking, we are more than just a collection of physical parts brought together by chance. In fact, we are creatures made by God. In addition to this fact we are also made up of both material and immaterial aspects. Obviously we have physical bodies. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God likes matter because, after all, He invented it. But God also made us with an immaterial aspect or soul. Our brain is indeed a physical organ, but what is mind? Knowing that we are material and immaterial beings helps us understand not only ourselves, but God's solution to our predicament. Not only are we dying physically, but spiritual death can only be turned to spiritual life via a solution that incorporates the spiritual (addressed in more detail in the next article in this series).

Good or Evil?

Given what we've looked at thus far about human origins and nature, we would have to conclude that human beings are not basically good. This fact contradicts the views of philosophies such as secular humanism. While we are still beings of intellect, emotion, will, morality, and more, after the Fall everything that we are or could be is now misaligned and in need of what the Bible terms redemption and restoration.

Unfortunately, the philosophies and ideologies of our world tend to fall into two opposite errors about human beings. Either, they say, we are basically good and have great positive potential, or we are basically bad and incapable of doing good. Of course, there are those who recognize both the potential for human greatness, as well as our potential for wretchedness. But what best explains this situation? One solution offered by Christian philosopher and man of science Blaise Pascal is that only Christianity explains our greatness and wretchedness. We are great or have the potential for greatness, such as doing good, because we are made in God's image. But we also are wretched or have the potential for wretchedness because we are Fallen. The best explanation of our condition, argued Pascal, is found in Christianity.

Rebels in God's Image

Our potential for choice resulted in the choice of sin. Freedom bestowed upon us also allowed for the freedom to actualize sin. In short, we made the potential and actual. Fortunately, God is not caught off guard by our behavior, but established a plan not only for each of us, but for the course of history. This plan grants us an opportunity to be redeemed, but this requires humility and repentance on our part.

Understanding anthropology in light of theology is critical. If we have a corrupt view of God and Christ, this will result in a corrupt view of ourselves that, in turn, will result in a corrupt view of the solution to our predicament. Human nature and the human predicament (fallen and in need of redemption) can only be solved by understanding ourselves, God, and Christ correctly. Far from being an obscure aspect of theology, anthropology is of great significance.
What are we? We are rebels made in God's image in need of redemption that only Christ has provided. Yes, we have the capacity for greatness, but also the capacity for wretchedness. The solution to the human puzzle is found not in secular humanism or other philosophies that remove God from the picture, but, rather, the solution is found in God's Word.

Human conscience points to a transcendent source for morality. These laws of right and wrong are written on our hearts (Romans 2:15) because God has placed them there. They are but one set of clues pointing to our Creator, underscoring our rebelliousness and need for help that is beyond us not within us. This help comes from God and His Son, Jesus Christ.

What Must I Do to Be Saved?

Strict adherence to a list of do's and don'ts is not what Christian salvation is about. Romans 3:20 reads, "no one will be declared righteous in his [God's] sight by observing the law;"

byRobert Velarde

Acts 16 provides one example of the many adventures and challenges faced by the early Christian church. It recounts the preaching of Paul and Silas, their persecution, and their imprisonment. Rather than feeling discouraged, while in jail the two Christians prayed and sang hymns. An earthquake shook the prison, the doors opened, and the chains of all the prisoners were loosed. The jailer, greatly concerned, approached the two, falling before them and pleading, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved …" (Acts 16:30-31, NIV).

The passage is important in relation to the topic of salvation or, technically, soteriology. In everyday language, salvation has to do with how we are saved or delivered from our fallen condition. We are, as noted in another article in this series,[1] rebels in God's image, fallen and in need of restoration. In Christian terms salvation refers to this restoration - setting right what is wrong.

What Salvation is Not

Before clarifying salvation in biblical terms, it will be helpful to look at ways of "salvation" that are not in line with Christian theology. Probably the most common approach is works-based. As the name suggests, this approach to salvation relies on human works and what we can do in order to save ourselves. But when it comes to salvation Christianity is Savior-centered, not self-centered: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV). Good works are the natural outcome of following salvation through Christ.

Neither is salvation universal, meaning that not everyone will be saved. This does not mean that God does not love everyone. Indeed, He "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4 NIV). But only Christ is "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6 NIV).

Salvation is not found in legalism, either. Strict adherence to a list of do's and don'ts is not what Christian salvation is about. Romans 3:20 reads, "no one will be declared righteous in his [God's] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." We all "fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23 NIV).

Some beliefs claim that salvation in a biblical sense is not required. Instead, terms such as "spiritual liberation" or "enlightenment" are used. Most of the time this is found in variations of Eastern worldviews such as pantheism. Usually the core idea is that human beings need only realize that they are perfect and divine, resulting in "salvation." But we are far from perfect and deep down everyone knows this fact. God exists, but He is not us and we are not Him.

Biblical Salvation

What then is biblical salvation? It's not by works, legalism enlightenment, and it's not universal. What, then, must we do to be saved? It's important to keep in mind that salvation encompasses what God has done for us, not what we can do for Him. God has taken the initiative in His plan of redemption, reaching out to us through Christ. Hence, the answer regarding the question of salvation as given by Paul and Silas is, "Believe in the Lord Jesus …" (Acts 16:31 NIV). The Greek word translated "believe" in the passage is pisteuo, meaning "to believe, put one's faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow."[2] Belief, then, encompasses more than just knowing about Jesus. One must also act on this knowledge, combining faith and trust and acting on it.

Salvation also entails repentance - a sincere willingness to radically change our behavior (see, for instance Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 6:12; Luke 13:3-5; Acts 2:38). There is a certain degree of humility that is also required on our part in order to submit to Christ and receive salvation. In the story of the jailer, for instance, we are told he "fell trembling before Paul and Silas" (Acts 16:29 NIV). He also addressed them as "Sirs," using a term of respect and acknowledging the authority of Paul and Silas in Christ. In other words, the roles are reversed. Rather than the Christian prisoners being under the authority of the jailer, it is the jailer who now humbly submits to them, sincerely seeking God's salvation.

Salvation: Simple But Deep

The Christian message of salvation is simple enough for everyone to understand, but deep enough to entail a lifetime of study. Salvation is very much interconnected to other aspects of theology such as the meaning of Christ's Atonement, the human condition, God's attributes such as His justice and holiness, our eternal destiny and more. "Jesus is Lord" is a simple statement of faith, but in relation to salvation it's important to know who Jesus is, who He claimed to be and what it means to believe and follow Him.

The Apostle Paul summarized the message of salvation - the Gospel - in 1 Corinthians 15, where he wrote, under divine inspiration: "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve" (1 Corinthians 15:1-5 NIV).

In this passage Paul stresses the literal death and resurrection of Christ, "for our sins," the biblical foundations for this (acknowledging the authority of the Bible), and the proof provided by Christ's many post-resurrection appearances.

Christ: The Center of Salvation

But we are not expected to "just believe" and be saved, without any appeal to proof or reason. Certainly faith plays a part in salvation, but there is a difference between blind faith and justified faith. Even Acts 1:3, for instance, observes of Christ, "After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive," while in Acts 26:25, Paul states that his Christian beliefs are "true and reasonable."

When Paul and Silas said to the jailer, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved …" (Acts 16:31 NIV), they understand the centrality of Christ in salvation. The word translated as "saved" is charged with deep theological implications, meaning "to save, rescue, deliver; to heal … to be in right relationship with God, with the implication that the condition before salvation was one of grave danger or distress" [3]

Christ's death and resurrection offers every one of us an opportunity for salvation. When is the right time to accept His offer? As C.S. Lewis said, "Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it."[4]

[1] See, "Human Beings: Rebels in God's Image?"
[2] NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Zondervan, 1999), electronic edition.
[3] Ibid.
[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), Book II, chapter 6, p. 66.

What Is the Church?

The visible and local church is, of course, the physical churches that we see around us and around the world, as well as the members of those churches. The invisible and universal church, however, refers to all believers everywhere.

When most people hear the word church they probably think of a building. Maybe it is a fancy building or a simple building where believers gather. But biblically speaking, a church is much more than a building. In fact, some would say that the church is not a building at all, but is all about the people. But what is the church?

The area of theology that seeks to understand all aspects of the church is known as ecclesiology. It is derived from the Greek word ekklesia that is a general term referring to a gathering or assembly. There are a number of aspects to the subject of ecclesiology, but this article will focus on defining the term church, understanding its nature and purpose, looking at some biblical images of the church and emphasizing church unity on essential truths.

What is the Christian Church?

The early Christian church had no buildings, at least not in the sense of what we would consider church buildings today. First century Christians were often persecuted and, as a result, often met in secret usually in homes. As the influence of Christianity spread, eventually buildings dedicated to worship were established and became what we know today as churches. In this sense, then, the church consists of people not buildings. Fellowship, worship and ministry are all conducted by people, not buildings. Church structures facilitate the role of God's people, but they do not fulfill it.

The Visible and Invisible Church

When speaking of the church, theologians often use terms such as the visible and local church as opposed to the invisible and universal church. The visible and local church is, of course, the physical churches that we see around us and around the world, as well as the members of those churches. The invisible and universal church, however, refers to all believers everywhere and is one church, united in Christ, not many physical churches. Everyone in the universal church is a true believer, but such is not necessarily the case with visible and local churches.

Why is it relevant to understand some basic differences between the visible and universal church? One key reason is so that we do not confuse what we sometimes see fallible churches doing with the reality of the universal church. Not only do visible and local churches often host nonbelievers, but also the believers themselves are imperfect, resulting in challenges and tensions in every visible church.

What Does the Church Do?

The church is not a building, but a body of believers with a specific nature and purpose. These biblical roles or ministries of the church are foundational to it. What are these roles? They are many, but key to any church are foundations in worship, edification and evangelism.
Worship is God-centered and Christ-centered. It is not about entertaining Christians with flashy displays or presentations, but about expressing our love by worshiping our Creator. We are to praise and glorify God in worship. As such, every Christian needs to be part of regular fellowship and worship.

Edification is also a role of the church. It involves edifying believers, but also nurturing, building up or helping believers to mature in Christ. To this end, churches are tasked with a variety of ministries such as Bible study, continuing education in related areas, praying for one another, acts of genuine hospitality and more.

Evangelism is also a key role of the church. This means reaching out to a lost world with the Good News about Jesus. Since people often have questions or doubts about Christ and Christianity, knowing the truth and being able to defend it (apologetics) is also part of the role of the church. But beyond evangelism in the sense of reaching out with the gospel, the church must also express compassion and mercy tangibly by helping others. In following Christ's example to love others, the church, too, must seek to make a real difference in the world while not neglecting to share the message of Christ.

If a church fails to fulfill any of these key roles - worship, edification, evangelism - then the church is not functioning as God intends. Granted, there are times when churches face challenges and struggles to one degree or another, but a healthy church seeks to overcome such challenges in a way that honors God and His intentions for His church.

Images of the Church

There are many images of the church in the Bible, but we will mention just three: the church as the Body of Christ, the People of God and the Bride of Christ. Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:10; 4:15) and Christians are the body. "People of God" is another image of the church. God says of the church, "I will be their God, and they will be my people" (2 Corinthians 6:16; Hebrews 8:10 NIV). The church is also referred to as the Bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7; 21:9), suggestive of a special and sacred family relationship between Christ and the church.

A Church Divided or United?

The concept of the visible and local church also touched briefly on the challenges and tensions that sometimes result in churches. Critics point to divisions and disagreements among Christians as evidence of a lack of unity and, hence, a lack of real biblical support undergirding the Christian church as a whole. Is this true? In some cases Christians do indeed need to admit to shortcomings and, at times, un-Christ-like behavior.

But in looking at the bigger picture, the Christian church has always been united on key points of belief such as the reality of a personal, loving God, salvation that is found in Christ through His death and bodily resurrection, human depravity and the need for redemption through Christ and more. This "mere" Christianity or core of unshakable truths has united Christian churches throughout the centuries and continues to do so.
As C.S. Lewis shared, "In spite of all the unfortunate differences between Christians, what they agree on is still something pretty big and pretty solid: big enough to blow any of us sky-high if it happens to be true. And if it's true, it's quite ridiculous to put off doing anything about it simply because Christians don't fully agree among themselves."[1] In other words, when it comes to the essentials or primary matters, Christians are united, but when it comes to nonessentials or secondary matters, there is room for some disagreement. This disagreement, however, does not change the unity on the foundations of Christianity such as the person of Christ and His role in human redemption.

Making an Eternal Difference

The Christian church is not a building, but a body of believers united in Christ. Its role is to worship God, nurture and edify and reach out to a suffering world with the saving message of the gospel as well as the practical compassion and mercy exemplified in Christ. To this end, ecclesiology is not some ivory-tower, academic discipline removed from the reality of daily life. Instead, learning more about the church helps us make a real difference in the world, not just temporally, but for all eternity.[2]

[1] C.S. Lewis, extract from his BBC radio talks not found in the printed text of Mere Christianity, as cited in Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: Companion & Guide (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 307.
[2] For more insights on ecclesiology consult any number of systematic theology texts such as Systematic Theology, Volume Four by Norman Geisler (Bethany House, 2005), Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem (Zondervan, 1994), Christian Theology by Millard Erickson (Baker Books, 1998), and Integrative Theology, Volume Three by Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest (Zondervan, 1994).