Belonging To God: The Church
Lesson 1

Lesson One

The Church in the First Century: The Concept

Text: Matthew 16:17-19

When we use the word church today, many (in some regions most) people think, “That is the place Christians go on Sunday.”  If we are fortunate, those people have a neutral impression of the church—they do not regard Christians as being good or bad.  It is fortunate because there are no negative images to be faced before the gospel is shared with them. If we are very fortunate, those people have a good impression of the church—they regard Christians as a blessing to the community at large.  Unfortunately, many people have a negative view of the church and Christians who attend churches—many Christians would be shocked to hear how negatively they are regarded by many average, non-religious people.


The easiest thing for Christians to do is to react to what they regard as unjust criticism.  Our basic reaction is some form of this:  “How dare we be regarded as a negative influence in the community?  How can anyone look at all we do as the church, and view Christians negatively?”


Do you like everyone who is a Christian?  Honestly?  Do you differentiate between good and bad Christians?  On what basis?  Do you regard some church arguments as petty?  Why?  Do you abhor Christians that act one way in church and quite another outside the assembly?  Can you sensibly follow all the different rules that exist from one church (congregation) to another?  If such matters are problems for Christians in the church, why would we think such is not even more confusing for those who have been without spiritual influence for at least two generations?  Do you realize how many teens and adults can say, “To find a person who regularly attended church in my family, you have to go beyond my grandparents.”


Consider what non-religious people see on a too common basis.  They see priests sexually molesting children.  They see televangelists assuring people their souls will be saved if they will send money.  They hear preachers say people can receive healing if they will give generously.  They are assured the gospel is the avenue to wealth for the poor. They see divisions of congregations.  They hear people who go to church creatively ask the non-religious to bail the church out of a financial crisis. They see Christians who regard church affairs as business opportunities.


Yes, we Christians know all Christians are not like that.  Yet, those are some of the things the non-religious see and hear.  Consider some things Christians need to realize: (a) If salvation is for the troubled, salvation will be a messy affair.  It will never be a nice, clean, clear contrast effort.  Spirituality is a growth and maturing process that never stops.  (b) The ultimate expressions of good never reside in people.  They always reside in the Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father (who Christ represents). (c) Human failures are human failures, not divine failures.  (d) Christian goals in our dedication to holy lifestyles are an unachievable commitment given by God, not a human accomplishment.  (e) Though we seek human perfection in Christ, the person who considers self perfect will be a great spiritual disappointment.  (f) Pretended humility is not a virtue.


Christians need to exercise thoughtful care in presenting the gospel to people with no religious background (they surely need hope in Christ, but we need to be careful about the promises we make for God and the spiritual expectations we generate).  We need to be certain we present Jesus Christ as God’s message, not our human religious views and desires.  Christians need to exercise great care not to give non-religious people wrong impressions or incorrect expectations.


We have entered a period of two distinct spiritual needs.  (a) We need to promote spiritual growth and development among those who have accepted Jesus Christ [edification].  (b)  We need to be understandable as we attract those out of Jesus Christ to Jesus Christ [evangelism].  Those are not the same thing. Those who come to Christ are expected to develop in Christ.  In the New Testament, there are more letters that focus on Christian growth than letters that focus on evangelism.  (That is NOT to suggest that evangelism is unimportant, but to declare that the spiritual maturing of Christians is a valid, divine concern.  Churches filled with spiritual infants do not achieve God’s purposes in Jesus Christ.)


It is amazing to honestly examine the vocabulary of the church today.  Consider just a few words: church; salvation; sin; holy; sanctification; redemption, baptism; Christian . . . whatever.  How many of those words are used in a non-Christian context?  Just consider the word church.  “That is a lovely church.”  “The church is located at such and such address.”  “They are members of a fabulous church.”  “I invited six people to attend church with me.”  Then there are phrases like “going to church; the church disillusioned me; you need to make the church aware of the need; communication in the church; church appointments; etc.


So what is the church? A building? A street address? A place? A civic organization? An economic opportunity?  A people?  Or, is it merely a part of the unique Christian vocabulary?  Without a lengthy discussion on the biblical concept of one church, can you see how confusing the situation is for a non-religious person who is not a Christian, has no desire to be a Christian, and comes from a non-religious background? 


The primary usage of church in scripture referred to a people who came to Jesus Christ to adopt the lifestyle and values he taught.  The word church is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia.  It was a common word with a common meaning that was used in everyday situations.  It simply meant “the called out.”  Thus, anytime people were “called out” of the general population to serve a special purpose or function they could be called church.  There is indication of this common usage in scripture when the Israelites leaving Egypt were referred to as “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38, KJV—most English translations translate ekklesia in that location as congregation or assembly).


Basically, church in the New Testament referred to people who accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and wished to live in him by his values as they pursued God’s will.



For Thought and Discussion


1. Discuss the word church as a negative, neutral, or positive word.


2. What do non-religious people see or hear on a too common basis?


3. List the six things that Christians need to realize (as given in this lesson).


4. Discuss the care Christians should consider in presenting the gospel to people with little religious background.


5. Give two distinct spiritual needs.  Why are both needs essential?


6. Use the word church to illustrate the confusion the Christian vocabulary can create among non-religious people.


7. In the New Testament, what did the word church typically mean?

Link to Teacher's Guide Lesson 1

Copyright © 2009
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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