Every generation struggles with devising a thoroughly biblical definition of the Church. Previous generations defined the Church through ecclesiastical hierarchies. Others shaped their characterization of the Church around her distinct separateness from the world.
Today, we tend to err by defining the Church as a mere organizational social structure. To arrive at an accurate definition requires us to look into eternity past when the Church resided in the mind and heart of the triune God.
There is no more doxological foundation upon which we can formulate a definition of the Church than the eternal work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church is not a Trinitarian afterthought in response to Adam & Eve’s fall in the garden—quite the contrary. The Church is the focused domain where all God’s presence, promises, and purposes are unveiled and eternally realized. The Church is the central body where all God’s grace, forgiveness, and love are revealed and infinitely enjoyed.
In the words of 18th century New England pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards, the whole world was created so that “the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse.”
The beautiful love so evident between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in creating, selecting, and sustaining the Church creates more than a mere earthly organization. Instead, the Church is fashioned into a community of love reflecting the same love characteristic of the Triune Godhead.
This love is most evidently seen in her oneness. As the Church is a love gift from the Father to the Son, the Holy Spirit is a love gift from the Son to His church.
We don’t have to read far into the N.T. until we find Jesus speaking of the oneness of His bride. The content of His high priestly prayer in John 17 abounds with oneness petitions. He prays that believers “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn.17.21). His people’s oneness offers a flawless testimony that He is the Son of God.
Not only are we to be one, but we are to be “perfectly one.” In v.23, Jesus prays, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Proceeding out of the divine Trinitarian oneness – “I in them and you in me” – is the injunction that believers are to mirror such oneness perfectly.
This perfect oneness is bound up in the Father’s expression of love to His Son and the Son’s declaration of love to His Church through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, His people’s perfect oneness is a brilliant testimony to the legitimacy of love expressed within the divine Trinity. As a community of love, the Church is a community of the Gospel that rightly reflects God’s love through Christ to sinful creatures.
Without this unity, the world will likely see the Church as a human organization devised by creative ingenuity, not a body of divine origin. In Jn.17, Jesus is praying that when the world views the Church, it will see not a man-made organization but a divine organism born from God. The Church’s growing oneness defines the Church as having a loveliness.
The Hymn by Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation” captures the idea well!
Yet she [Church] on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
The Church is one with “God the Three in One,” and we reflect outwardly the beauty and love that emanates within the Trinity.
The Church is a community of love “because He first loved us” (I Jn.4.19)
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org