What is the church?
The Greek word which is used in the New Testament for “church” is ekklesia. Ekklesia means “called out.” The church is a community of persons who are called out of the world to be God’s people. Presbyterians, as well as many other Christians, believe that God created us to live in community with each other and that God intends for us to care for each other with the same compassion and love which God shows us in Jesus Christ. God calls us into a community in order to nurture, encourage, and support each other, to comfort each other in hard times, and to celebrate with each other in times of joy. Presbyterians also believe that it is important for us to gather as God’s people to worship God in community. It is for these purposes that the church exists.
The church is the community of faith. When we refer to the church, we do not mean just a single congregation of believers; nor do we mean a building. Rather, the church is a community made up of all Christians around the world, connected to each other through a common faith in Christ.
We believe that the Church is the body of Christ; that as individuals coming together as a whole, we carry out the teachings and ministry of Jesus and the work of God in the world.
Why does the church exist?
The church is not just some frivolous body. Christ has called the church into being for a purpose. Presbyterians recognize six preeminent goals for the church, which we often refer to as the “great ends of the church.” These are:
1) The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
2) The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
3) The maintenance of divine worship;
4) The preservation of the truth;
5) The promotion of social righteousness; and
6) The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.
Why is the church referred to as “the body of Christ?”
One of the main images used in the New Testament to refer to the church is that of the “body of Christ.”
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12 & 27)
This image implies that Christians are related to each other as parts of the human body. Now, just as it is impossible for a hand or an eye to live and function apart from the body, so also it is impossible for a Christian to live and function apart from Jesus Christ.
To have faith in Christ is to join the community of faithful followers whom Christ has called to Himself. To be reconciled to God in Christ is to be reconciled also with other persons and to be drawn into the community where all barriers which separate us from each other are broken down.
To be a Christian is by definition to belong to the church as a member of the body of Christ. Presbyterians believe that there is no such thing as a private Christianity. To be in Christ is to be in the church, and to be in the church is to be in Christ. Being saved from sin is more than the promise of heaven. To be saved is to enter into a new relationship with God and with fellow human beings in the community of God’s people.
Is the church essential for salvation?
It would be a very difficult thing for a Presbyterian to say that it is possible for persons to be Christians by themselves. In many ways, the faith of the individual is dependent upon the faith of the community. No one would be in the church today, had it not been for the work of Christ through faithful parents, teachers, or friends who nurtured us. And, where those persons have touched our lives, the church was there. Where those persons have touched our lives, Christ was there. There is an inseparable connection between having faith in Christ and belonging to the church. Thus, when we talk about the church, we are talking about the context of our own salvation.
This has led some theologians (such as Martin Luther and John Calvin) to take the position that there is no salvation outside the church. In taking such a position, Luther and Calvin were not asserting that it is the church which saves us from our sinfulness. Rather, they were affirming that it is Jesus Christ who saves us and that the church is intimately bound to Christ.
Although it is true that the church is bound to Christ, it is not true that Christ is trapped in the church. Presbyterians believe that Christ is at work not only in the church but everywhere, even among persons who do not recognize or acknowledge His reconciling work.
No! Christ is not bound to the church, but we Christians are bound to it. And, insofar as we are bound to the church, we believe that we are also bound to invite others into the church so that they too may recognize and acknowledge their salvation in Jesus Christ.
Is the church a “human” institution?
As previously mentioned, the church is a community of persons who are called out of the world to be God’s people. And, insofar as the church is called together by God, the church is not a “voluntary organization.” It is not a voluntary association of believers who get together and decide to form a church. Presbyterians, believe that it is God Who creates the church and calls persons into it.
The church is not like a club or a fraternity. It is not an organization which human beings form for their mutual benefit and enjoyment. It is not an association in which human beings set up policies and goals to suit themselves. Although its members are human, the church was not created by nor does it belong to humans. The church was created by God—it belongs to God.
Who is the Head of the Church?
The church does not belong to clergy nor to the laity. It does not belong to the local congregation nor to ecclesiastical courts and agencies. It does not belong to liberals nor to conservatives. No! The church belongs to God—it is God Who initiates, governs, and maintains the church through Jesus Christ. Presbyterians believe that Christ is the Head of the church.
“God put this power to work in Christ When He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places. And He has put all things under His feet and has made Him the head over all things for the church, which is His body.” (Ephesians 1:20, 22-23)
Just as the head governs the parts of the body, so also Christ governs the members of His church. Thus, as members who share a common life in the body of Christ, we are to express our life together according to the will of God, not according to the will of the clergy, nor the popular will of the church’s members. This we do through representative bodies which govern the church.
We believe that Christ (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is at work in the voice and actions of governing bodies whenever they lead the people of God in the mission of the church. These governing bodies derive their authority to lead the people of God not by the common consent of the people, but by Christ, Who is at work in the voice and actions of church’s members.
We also believe that Christ is at work in the voice and actions of the church’s members whenever they elect representation to these governing bodies. Those who are elected as representatives are not obligated to govern according to the will of those who elected them. As representatives, they do not reflect the will of the people. Rather, they represent the people by their faith in Christ. They are free to lead the people according to their conscience as they are led by the Holy Spirit in the will of God. As we affirm in our church’s constitution, “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (G-1.0301a).
What happens when God’s people come together as the church?
As the people of God, we come together primarily to worship and glorify God; to enjoy God’s presence; and to learn about God’s purpose for our lives. Indeed, worship, fellowship, and education are central to the life of the church.
Presbyterians believe that the worship service is centered in the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ through Scripture. The reading of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments, a sermon based on Scripture, and prayer are central to our worship. In prayer, we praise God, confess our sins, thank God for the many gifts we have received, and offer ourselves to continue God’s work. Our prayers may be spoken or silent, sung or enacted. We share the joys and concerns of our community of faith. Finally, we offer ourselves to God. We offer not only our money, but also our own special gifts and abilities and the promise of our lives in service to God. The style of worship may vary from congregation to congregation, reflecting the culture and traditions of a particular group of people, but the essential elements of worship remain the same.
Presbyterians also celebrate two sacraments—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called Communion). Through Baptism, our sinful nature is symbolically washed away, and we are welcomed into the family of God. In the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate the new life Jesus gave us by giving His life for our sins.
Can’t we worship God without the church?
There are many ways to worship God. We worship with our own private prayers, when we work in our gardens, visit shut-ins, or read to children. We worship God when we care for the environment or work to correct an injustice. Ultimately, however, Presbyterians believe that we are called by God to worship as a community of faithful people rather than as isolated individuals. By coming together as people of faith, we can gain strength from one another, join together in seeking God’s will for the community, keep one another accountable to God’s revelation through Scripture, and work together to show God’s love to the world.
Through the church, we are able as a group to do much more than individuals. We believe that, through gathering together, we are renewed and strengthened to continue the mission of the Church.
Does the church have a mission?
Presbyterians, as well as other Christians, believe that the Church—the community of believers—is called by God to tell others about God’s love for us through Jesus Christ and to teach them what God has taught us. We are also called to show God’s love through our caring for and nurturing of each other.
We believe that we are to continue God’s work through worship, prayer, and mutual sharing of our lives and experiences. We are to heal wounds and bring people together. We are to care for the poor and lonely, to fight hunger and injustice. And, we are to work toward a just, peaceful, and loving world.
“The church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ” (G-3.0400)
RETURN TO WHAT WE BELIEVE