What is A "Christian" Church? (October 2023)

This fall I am enrolled in a class called "Seminar in Ecclesiology." Ecclesiology is the academic word for the study of the church: what is the church? How should the church be structured? What does the church do? All of the classes in a Doctor of Ministry program are meant to be relevant to the work we do in the church, so I've decided that, for the next few months, I'm going to use my newsletter article as a chance to apply what I am learning to our congregation--who we are and where we are going.
One of the questions we have been studying is ecclesiality--what is it that makes a gathering into a church, as opposed to a special interest group or social club? While this may seem like a very abstract question, I find it very relevant to what we do as a congregation. In fact, much of what defines us as a "Christian Church" has to do with our understanding of what a church is. Throughout history there have been many different ideas of what makes a church a church. The common theme, however, is that a gathering is a church when Jesus is present. That gets us into debates about how and when Jesus is present in a gathering. Catholics would say that Jesus is present in the bread and cup of communion, which can only be consecrated by a priest--therefore a church is a church when the priest is present. Orthodox churches would say that Jesus is present through his representative, the Bishop, so a church is a church when a bishop of present. Protestants tend to argue that Jesus is present when two or more gather in Jesus' name--provided they have an accurate idea of who Jesus is (accurate doctrine). The problem with these definitions is that they are abstract. You cannot measure the presence of Jesus, and so you cannot prove that Jesus is present when, and only when, a bishop is in the building or the doctrine of the church is accurate. So how do we know when a church is a church?
I am writing my term paper on a man named W. Carl Ketcherside. I'd love to tell you more about him, but I don't have the space. For now, what you need to know is that he was a leader in our movement in the mid-twentieth century, and one of my favorite writers. Ketcherside made a very different argument about the definition of a church. Ketcherside argued that a local congregation was a church only if it was catholic. Now, he didn't mean Roman Catholic. Rather, the word catholic means "whole." For Ketcherside, a gathering is a church only if it is whole--if it is open to all baptized believers. Ketcherside wrote,
"The congregation of God spoken of in the new covenant scriptures is identical with the one body mentioned in the same scriptures. It is composed of all the children of God. Not one saved person on earth is outside of it. God adds to it every person who surrenders to the sovereignty of His Son and enters into covenant relationship with Him on the basis of the terms laid down by heaven. Every person on this earth, motivated by faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, who has turned away from sin, and submitted to immersion of his body in water on the basis of that belief, is a member of God's family, and is my brother."
If God has decided that all baptized believers are part of his church, then a local gathering can only be considered a church if it is open to all members of The Church. Otherwise we are not a gathering of the church, but a gathering of a party. If we require our members to be Christians and Episcopalians, for instance, then we are not a church, we are a club for Episcopalian Christians. We are no more a church than the Republican Party is Congress.
This is why the name of our church is "Turner Christian Church." We are NOT saying that "we are Christians and the others are not." We fully believe that Turner Church of God, Turning Point Community Church, and the other churches in our area also made up of Christians. What we are saying, though, is that our goal is to be simply "a Christian church"--a gathering that is open to all Christians. Therefore the conditions of member in our church are the same as the conditions of membership in The Church (as we see in Scripture): submission to Jesus Christ as Lord, and baptism into Christ. No statement of faith to sign, to catechism to pass. If you are a Christian, you are welcome here.
Now, such an approach to church presents its own challenges, First and foremost, how can a church that is open to all Christians also be faithful to God's word? How can we avoid being a mile wide and an inch deep? How can we move in any one direction if we don't require everyone to agree on all the fine points? 
That's a question for next month's newsletter.

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