I was only about 5 or 6 years old. But I still remember vividly how we children entered the church that day. “A sword for the Lord and for Gideon!” (Judges 7:20)* We sang as we marched along the aisle to the front. The cardboard sword in my own hands left no doubt about which side I was on. “Oh, when the saints go marching in…!” I haven’t forgotten that moment from my early childhood days.
Has it remained so clear because as a shy little boy I suddenly felt big and strong, like children do today when they act as computer game heroes to compensate for experiences of defeat in their everyday lives? Or was I so deeply moved, because in playing the role of one of Gideon’s soldiers I experienced for myself that God is indeed powerful and mighty?
Whatever the reason, as far back as I can remember, the church has been an integral part of my life. You could almost say that I absorbed it with my mother’s milk. When I was 15 years old I got baptized, becoming one of the 1.5 million members belonging to the Seventh-day Adventist Church at that time. The “little flock” had become an international movement. While we were not (yet) called a “church” (Kirche) in Germany where I was born and raised, we certainly were part of a “fellowship” (Gemeinde) in which we felt at home. What others looked for in a sports club or clique was what we found in “our” community.
The “True” Church
Many years have passed since I joined the Adventist Church. I still belong to it—out of conviction. However, my childish conceptions and youthful idealism have long since given way to a more realistic way of looking at things.
The dream of a safe haven may manage to stay alive for a long time despite experiences to the contrary; but the sobering reality will eventually overwhelm it or even completely wash it away, giving way to disillusionment, frustration, bitterness. The “first love” vanishes, the relationship grows cold. All too often this marks the end of a sweet dream, when our idealized concept of the church gives way to a more critical perspective, when we finally see the church in a new light.
But what is the church really like? Is it the way it’s described in Sabbath sermons and baptismal preparation classes? Or is it rather the way it appears to an impartial observer: human, imperfect, narrow-minded, lethargic, superficial, insensitive, divisive, boring, naïve…?
If we could ask God to tell us the true story about His church, what would He say?
The “Assembled” Church
Whenever the “church” is mentioned in the Bible, it denotes the “assembly” of believers—whether in a house, a city, or a region. Therefore, the church of Christ is not a building or an institution, but a meeting of people who, in the words of the Fundamental Belief, No. 12, “join together for worship, for fellowship, for instruction in the Word, for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, for service to all mankind, and for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel.”
This is the biblical description of the church: believers—that is, those “who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour”—gathering together. No cathedral, no priest, no pastor is needed. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus declared (Matt. 18:20). The biblical use of the word ekklesia (Greek for church) refers to the gathering and fellowship of the believers (those called together). This becomes clear when we consider the various metaphors that the New Testament uses to describe the church (body, bride, family, flock, army, priesthood, etc.).
This community of faith does not consist just of those Christians who are physically gathered in one place. They are bound together, not merely by a certain place or time, and by language, culture, or church membership, but rather by their belief in Jesus Christ and their personal confession of faith in Him as Lord and Savior. That’s why Christians know that in Christ they are one community of believers and united with each other across all boundaries.
The “Embodied” Church
While the church is universal (Rev. 5:8ff.) and its members cannot be counted (Rev. 7:9ff.), it is nevertheless not invisible and—except in times of persecution—does not exist in secret. Jesus made this clear to His disciples: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14).
Paul liked to use the illustration of the body with its head and many members (1 Cor. 12:12ff.; Eph. 4:11-16). As the body of Christ in the world, the church is a visible sign of His continuing presence and loving care for the human race. Without the church, the proclamation of the gospel would have no clear evidence that the kingdom of God has become a reality here and now, even if still only in part.
Yet the church is not just a visible sign from God, but is itself the “object” of His love. The image of a dearly loved and beautifully dressed bride illustrates this in a way that goes beyond any rational explanation. Like a bridegroom who has fallen in love, Christ is concerned for His church (Eph. 5:25ff.; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9). He sustains it and protects it like the apple of His eye (Deut. 32:10; Zech. 2:8).
Similarly, the comparison with a family is an expression of the close and caring relationship God seeks to have with His creatures. Like a “Father,” God lovingly looks after His own (Jer. 31:9; Eph. 3:15), like an older “brother,” Jesus intercedes for His sisters and brothers (Matt. 25:40; Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11, 17), and, like “children,” we belong to the family of God (1 John 3:1).
Those who wish to see the true church must search with eyes of love, otherwise they will not recognize it. “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes” (Saint-Exupéry).
The “Perfect” Church
In Revelation 21:2 John sees a vision of the New Jerusalem as it descends from heaven “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). It is the victorious, perfect church that is represented by a large city (21:9ff.). It is clothed in “splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind … holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27).
We often don’t have the eyes of love to understand what we see. From the perspective of objective realism and critical detachment, the earthly, imperfect—even the sinful—side of the church stands out clearly. But still it is “the purchase of His blood.” He gave His life for it and took it as His bride. That changes everything, creates a new reality, and gives weight to the words: “not even death will ever be able to overcome it” (Matt. 16:18, TEV).†
Will the church succeed? From a human perspective, a positive answer is rather unlikely. The church lacks so much: credibility, authenticity, persuasiveness, enthusiasm, courage, determination, love, unity. Yet, if you look at the church through the eyes of God, you discover a hidden beauty so fascinating that it never lets you go.
There is the radiant gem of faith, the precious pearl of hope, the sparkling jewel of love, the golden ring of steadfastness, and the bracelet of mercy. Can you see her, “the bride of the Lamb,” when you encounter other believers? Do you recognize the “body of Christ” during the worship service? Are you aware of the fact that you belong to the “family of God,” and that others are your sisters and brothers? Yes, if you really want to come to know the church of Christ, you have to get close and look carefully!
Note: This article is a shortened version of the author’s chapter on Fundamental Belief, No. 12, taken from a 30-part series on the Adventist faith published in German and scheduled to be released in book form in the latter part of 2007. Translated by Brent Blum.
*Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
†Bible texts credited to TEV are from the Good News Bible—Old Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1976; New Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976.
This article originally appeared in Adventist World in July, 2007.
Rolf J. Pöhler is theological advisor to the North German Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Hannover, Germany.