What Exactly Defines A Church?
Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the one who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. Revelation 3:14
Should you ever have the opportunity to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, you must see the painting done by artist Holman Hunt—one of my favorite religious paintings. The artist pictures Jesus, a lantern in his left hand, knocking on the door of an English cottage. He based his painting on the closing words of a letter to a backslidden church in the city of Laodicea. In this, Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Most evangelical pastors have quoted that verse, suggesting that Jesus stands at the door of your heart and wants to come within, taking up residence in your life. While that is true, the context conveys another thought.
Jesus was not standing at the door of an English cottage, but He wanted back into the midst of the fellowship in Laodicea. It seems that the church leadership had pushed Jesus right out the door, and he wanted back in.
John wrote that they were “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” Blind? In this ancient Roman city, an eye-salve was manufactured which was famous the world over. But they needed corrective eye-surgery.
I’ve been thinking recently of where Jesus Christ is in relationship to a vast number of our churches. It’s true that in the last days a large number of people will fall away from the faith in a great backsliding we usually call an apostasy. It’s also true that some simply give up because (quote) “the church no longer meets my needs.” “Irrelevant” is the catchword we often hear.
This brings up a related question? “Just what is a church?” The Greek word, the same one found 88 times in the book of Acts, means “called-out ones!” The same word was used of the mob of people who shouted against Paul in the city of Ephesus. But in the context of the faith, a church is a kind of sinners anonymous where none are good enough to stay out and none are too bad to come in.
It isn’t a club, a holy huddle of individuals who have nice clothes and relate to people who are moving up in society. It embraces all kinds of people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Is it possible, I ask, that some no longer bother with church because they can’t find Jesus Christ there, and they’ve given up on pursuing him the traditional way? For 300 years churches were home fellowship—much like the hundreds of thousands of small groups who yet meet in homes in China, sometimes registered with the government and sometimes in defiance of the same.
Many groups today, not able to afford a building, meet in shopping centers, restaurants, schools, hotel ballrooms, and yes, in homes. Are they not churches in every sense of the word?
A closing thought. I’m glad, no matter how bad things were in the church in Laodicea, that Jesus wanted to get back inside, to the center of the group. He still cared. Revelation 1 to 3 records letters to seven churches. Plot those seven on a map geographically and you will find they form a rough circle, and, according to what John wrote, the churches were represented by lamp stands and Christ stood in their midst. In every nation of the world you will find churches—some small, some very large, but in every true one within you will find the Risen Lord who still touches hearts and lives and still wants to be worshiped.
One more thing about Holman Hunt’s picture–there’s no door handle or latch on the outside of the door. Hunt once explained that when Christ knocks, the door can only be opened from within. It’s still true.
Resource reading: Revelation 1:8-20.