What is the Church? It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is not simple at all. To most people, a church is a building where Christians go to worship. But for many Christians, a better definition is not the building but a body of people united together in the service of God. It was this sense of the word that John Wesley used in his sermon “Of the Church“.
This Church body is more than a single congregation. For example, when Paul writes, “To the saints who are in Ephesus,” he doesn’t necessarily mean they are all worshiping at a single location. When he writes “To the Churches of Galatia,” he has in mind all the congregations of believers in that region. By extension, the Church includes not merely the Christians of one city, one nation—or for that matter, one denomination—but all Christians throughout the earth who are united by a common faith. Wesley found the definition of the Church in Ephesians 4:1-6.
I beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
The universal Church of God is animated by one Spirit. The Holy Spirit distributes gifts to the members of the Church to build up and sustain the entire Church body.
We have one hope, namely, the hope that this life is not all there is. Jesus’ resurrection serves as both a reminder and a confirmation of that hope.
We have one Lord, Jesus Christ, who has set up his kingdom in our hearts. To belong to the Church means to follow the commands of Christ with a joyful and willing heart.
We have one faith, which is the free gift of God. This faith is not merely an intellectual belief that there is a God who is merciful and just, who showers rewards on his followers. This faith permeates every aspect of our being; it transforms our very lives. Members of God’s Church can testify with the Apostle Paul, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
We have one baptism, an outward sign of an inward grace which God has bestowed upon us.
We have one God and Father. To belong to the Church is to be adopted into the family of God.
In summary, Wesley’s answer to the question “What is the Church?” is this:
The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world as to entitle them to the preceding character; as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”
But the Church does not merely exist for the sake of defining its membership. As Christians we are given a calling, and are expected to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.”
This is no small thing. Wesley explains that to walk, in the New Testament usage of the term, “includes all our inward and outward motions; all our thoughts, and words, and actions. It takes in, not only everything we do, but everything we either speak or think.”
This walk involves “lowliness,” “meekness,” and “longsuffering,” according to the King James translation—or in modern language, humility, gentleness, and patience.
In humility we can do no better than to follow the example of Christ himself,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. [Philippians 2:6-8]
Gentleness comes from making wise choices and not following our own passions:
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. [James 3:13]
In exercising patience, we follow God’s own example:
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. [2 Peter 3:8-9]
If we walk in humility, gentleness, and patience, we will be able to “forbear one another in love,” and in so doing, live up to the calling God has placed on each of his followers:
Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” [1 Peter 1:14-16]
There are many strands of Christianity today, and we may disagree sharply on the finer points of doctrine. But we must not let doctrinal differences get in the way of living up to God’s calling. Scripture makes it clear that we are all to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” This unity is the fruit, not of intellectual agreement, but of holy living. Wesley concludes:
In the mean time, let all those who are real members of the Church, see that they walk holy and unblamable in all things. “Ye are the light of the world!” Ye are “a city set upon a hill,” and “cannot be hid.” O “let your light shine before men!” Show them your faith by your works. Let them see, by the whole tenor of your conversation, that your hope is all laid up above! Let all your words and actions evidence the spirit whereby you are animated! Above all things, let your love abound. Let it extend to every child of man: Let it overflow to every child of God. By this let all men know whose disciples ye are, because you “love one another.”