I ended a previous blog (“What is Church?”) by referring to Paul’s statements about the church in the book of Ephesians. I said: “[The] church is the fullness of God on earth, the very presence of the risen Lamb, according to Ephesians 1:22-23, 3:10, and 4:11-15.” I want to open up this thought a bit more, since I think Paul says something profound and profoundly relevant for our culture today.
It’s no secret that Christians are becoming increasingly burned out on church services. Statistically, this is just the facts. It’s also indisputable that the Millennial and Gen Z generations are leaving the church in droves. Add to this the increasing disdain for authority, the lack of commitment among (especially) younger people, the growing individualism within evangelicalism, and the ability to find information and (a form of) community by tapping your phone—yeah, the church is facing some tough challenges.
But Paul says that the church is the fullness of God’s presence on earth:
God put all things under his (Jesus’s) feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph 1:22-23).
I’ve read this verse dozens of times but only recently realized its radial and counterintuitive implication. The fullness of God is not a you thing, or an I thing, but an us thing. You can find God on a mountaintop. You and see Him in the trees and rivers and other pieces of creation that scream His presence (Ps. 19:1). But if you want the fullness of God, you don’t run from church. You run to church. Not the building, and not the service. But to the redeemed people of God (who, as it turns out, often gather for a service in a building; so let’s not make too harsh a distinction.)
Now some of you are thinking: Yes, but Paul is talking about the universal church, not the local church. And this is true—sort of. Paul’s words in Ephesians 1 are cosmic and universal, and since Ephesians is a circular letter, it often looks above the steeple of particular church and to the horizon the churches, or the church scattered throughout the nations. But Paul also believed that the universal church is nothing more that the totality of Christians who gather in local churches. In fact, when he returns to encourage the unity of the body in Ephesians 4:11-15, the distinction between the local and universal church seems to fade away. Yes, what Paul says there applies to the church at the 30,000 level, but also at the 10-foot local level. The gifted teachers and leaders that God gave to the church for equipping and leading (4:11-12) exercise their gifts most often on the local church level. The end goal, again, is that we would grow into the “fullness of Christ.”
I’m not sure how else to read this passage and others in Ephesians than to say that unless you’re part of a body, you cannot grow into the “fullness of Christ.” Of course, there are thief on the cross type exceptions, but these are exceptions based on extraordinary circumstances. They are not the norm.
This is why Paul often refers to the church as “the temple” (1 Cor 3:16-18; 2 Cor 6:16-18). He rarely talks about individual bodies as little “temples” (1 Cor 6:19 is the only place in Paul), but the corporate body as “the temple.” When believes gather, they bring heaven to earth by manifesting the presence of God through their corporeality. God is most fully manifested and encountered most corporately rather than individually.
Christianity is inherently an us thing, not an I thing, and it’s held together by Spirit empowered unity and grace-gifts given to the body for its growth. Yes, it’s messy. Sometimes crazy messy. But God is more present in a messy church than in an individual who has it all together. Because Jesus, from manger to cross, seems to be drawn to our messes.
To reiterate, I’m not saying that you can’t experience God individually. (I’d want a good, clear definition of “experience,” however.) What I am saying is simply what Paul says over and over when talking about the church. The corporate, meal-partaking, sin-forgiving, fasting, praying, teaching, praising, serving, and gathering church is the fullness of God on earth, the temple where His presence resides. Like Sinai, the church can be a scary place. But it’s where God takes up residence on earth.
I want to return and talk about two other aspects of “church” that we sometimes under-emphasize: 1) diversity and 2) structure.