What is the Church? Dr. Jeffrey Kloha asks this question at the beginning of his essay, “Making Christ’s Reign Known: Church in the New Testament.” Some would say the church is a building. In God’s left hand kingdom, it is certainly that—a non-profit organisation. But a more theologically correct answer would be God’s people. Whilst the Church is certainly these things, Dr. Kloha finds these static nouns unhelpful. “The problem with using nouns to describe ‘church’ is that they are defined not by themselves but by the things around them, the people that use them” (36).
Dr. Jim Voelz would call this “conceptual signifieds,” which is a concept located in the mind. For example, when I say “father,” what comes to mind? To one, it may be a man who has sired a child. To another, it may be a priest—a spiritual father. And still to another, it may be God the Father. Every word is a conceptual signified in a person’s mind—what a word means to one person will mean something entirely different to another.
Another example is the word “magician.” In our times, we think of a magician who plays tricks on the mind of the audience for entertainment. In Old Testament Israel, however, a magician was an expert in the occult (cf. Exodus 7:22). They didn’t perform tricks to entertain, but to deceive. The occult is a very real thing in which these ancient magicians had dealings with demons.
So then, defining the Church as a noun is ultimately unhelpful because everyone has a different image of what the Church is in their mind. To some, it is an organisation like many other non-profits who beg people for money in order to survive in the economy. To others, it is where the people of God gather. And to others, it is a place for self-righteous hypocrites to gather with their holier-than-thou attitudes.
How, then, are we to think of the Church? Rather than a noun, Kloha offers to think of the Church as an activity. What is the activity of the Church? Drawing from Ephesians 3:10, Kloha contends the activity of the Church is “the making known of the reign of Christ to all creation” (36). The “reign of Christ” is synonymous to the “kingdom of God” in the gospels, also the “kingdom of Heaven” as the gospel of Matthew calls it.
Jesus’ first words in the gospel of Mark are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). So then, wherever Jesus is, the kingdom of God can be found. Wherever Jesus is, things of the kingdom begin to happen. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the hungry are fed, and unrighteous sinners are forgiven. Jesus accentuates this to John the Baptiser’s disciples when they ask if Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 11:4-5). But isn’t “kingdom” also a static noun? Kloha answers:
“Kingdom” may sound like a static term—a “thing word” that we criticized earlier. If it sounds static, that is because we are used to thinking of kingdoms as things that have boundaries, palaces, laws, and taxes. The kingdom of God, however, is not defined politically, geographically, or by its constitution and laws. Rather, the church is defined by its Lord, who reigns in and through his church. The kingdom of God is the reigning of Christ, both in the Gospels, in the present day, and into the last day. (37, emphasis added)
American evangelicals often think of the reign of Christ—God’s kingdom—as a future event. The Left Behind series, for example, falsely views Christ’s reign only as a future event rather than a present reality. “Rather, the biblical teaching is that Christ’s reign began specifically with his baptism” (38). If Christ’s reign—if the kingdom of God—were not a present reality, why would we bother praying to Him, asking His will to be done? Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Wherever God’s people are gathered, therefore, Christ is found and, furthermore, the reign of His kingdom and His kingdom activities. God’s kingdom is already present among us today—as it was since the beginning of His ministry—but not yet fully until the Last Day.
So then, if the Church is to be an inviting community, we need to acknowledge the reality that Christ is reigning today in the world and in His Church (think left hand kingdom and right hand kingdom theology). Regarding this, Kloha continues in what it means that Jesus is our Lord and the kingdom activities of how God provides and seeks the lost through His Church, why He gathers His Church, and why the Church will suffer. His essay is a fascinating read in this book, and I highly recommend it for all Christian readers.
Kolb, Robert, and Theodore J. Hopkins. Inviting Community. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2013.