Wait! Put down the stones. I didn’t come up with this statement. It’s actually been around for a long time. And as much as we (21st century Western Christians) may squirm at it, there’s something in these words that is vital to recover. (By the way, by “Church” I mean the universal, and by “church” I mean the local)
In the 3rd century, under the fear of Church division, Cyprian of Carthage coined the Latin expression “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus,” which translates to “Outside of the Church there is no salvation.” But Cyprian wasn’t alone. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin are just a few others who endorsed this teaching.
The obvious danger is to suggest that the Church itself saves us. This is ludicrous to those of us who grew up going to church in the same way we go grocery shopping - to the store we want at our convenience. Today, we can even order our groceries online to get what we want without leaving the house; unfortunately, many of us see spirituality in that way too.
To be sure, Cyprian wasn’t suggesting that the Church gives us salvation, but that we can’t be Christian without being part of the Church. If you disagree, we don’t need to redefine “salvation,” but rather our definition of “Church.” How have we misunderstood the Church?
The Church as Business - We may not consciously look at our churches as businesses, but in many ways that’s how we treat them. We go church shopping to find which one we like best or has the most to offer us. We say a service is good depending on the quality of the music or the sermon. We try to market our churches with nicer buildings, better shows, and cooler programs. But what if the money ran out? Without all of that, would we still have church?
The Church as Club - Again, this may be more implicit than explicit, but when we see the Church as an organization where we can serve or a club where we can improve our relationship with God, it becomes something that we join on our terms to fulfill our needs and desires. But what if we no longer feel like it’s meeting our need to belong, serve, or grow? Do we leave?
The Church of One - Whenever we think of faith as only “my personal relationship with God,” we believe that we can be Christians without being part of the Church. We can be spiritual without being religious because the only thing that matters is that we have our own personal ticket to heaven. We will get there as long as we believe individually, whether or not we belong to a church. But what if that perspective is just a result of our hyper-individualistic culture?
If these are some of the ways we’ve misunderstood church, then we need to define what the church actually is and understand why salvation is impossible apart from it. There are many images the Bible uses to describe the Church, but let’s focus on three.
The Church actually is:
1) The People of God (1 Peter 2:9-10)
When we talk about the Church, we need to begin with God, not us. The Church isn’t a building or a human institution. The Church is the communion of people who have been called by God to be God’s people. God created everything, and just like God called Israel to be His people and represent Him to the world, the Church is called to be a people whose core identity is being part of God’s family. The community is drawn together because it proclaims its allegiance and worship to no one else but God. No race, gender, social class, or experience stands in the way of being called by God into the Church. It belongs to God, who formed it and sustains it.
2) The Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
When we choose to become followers of Jesus, we become united with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. To be the Church is to belong to Jesus, and therefore, if we belong to Jesus, we are a part of His body. This doesn’t just include you and me, but all Christians throughout time. This body of believers, filled with different members and roles, is united under Christ - the head.
The Church as the body of Christ is the representative presence of Christ here on Earth. When people encounter the Church, they should encounter Jesus. After all, the only way for people to come into relationship with Him is through His body. The Church has kept the tradition of Jesus and Scripture alive; without that, none of us would be Christians today.
3) The Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 2:5,9)
The temple in Jerusalem was where the presence of God dwelt. But in the New Testament, we are given the image of the Church as that temple, where each of us are living stones built on Christ, the cornerstone. The Church is the place where the Holy Spirit dwells, not individually, but corporately. The Holy Spirit is the one who binds us together, forming a communion of saints. It’s not that Christians are perfect, but we are saints in the sense that we have been set apart for the purposes of God’s glory. In so doing, the Church worships and bears witness to God.
The Church will never die as long as God’s alive. As Christians, we have been called by God, are members of Christ’s body, and have the Holy Spirit within us. If we want to be followers of Jesus, we are a part of the Church. It’s not a choice to be in the family, but we choose what kind of family member we want to be. This is what Cyprian was getting at, and what we need to recover today. If we think we can be Christian without being a member of the Church, then it’s most likely that our understanding of “Church” is sub-Christian.
Many Christians today have become comfortable with consuming the “church product,” being involved when it fills our needs, or simply deciding to go through the journey alone, apart from a local embodiment of Christ’s body. But the more we move away from individualistic, consumeristic understandings of “Church,” the more we’ll be able to live out our call to be Christ’s body together.
“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” - 1 Corinthians 12:27
So, what kind of member do you want to be?
Most of the information in this blog came from a class I took on Theological Foundations by Robert J. Dean at Providence Theological Seminary last winter.