Christ Did Not Die for a 501(c)(3)

I recently completed the membership process with my new church. As our cohort of new members went around the room for introductions, I was surprised at the outpouring of woundedness — from children and parents to ex-husbands and ex-pastors.

If there was one common element among us — one shared tie that bound us together — it was not a high view of the church, but a deep awareness of our need for Christ. It was not the institution of the church that compelled us to become a member, but a desperate, personal awareness of and dependence on God’s very personal grace.

This particular membership class was not a sales pitch for a club, but a welcome-home party for once-lost, now-found sons and daughters. It was deeply refreshing, coming from a Christian subculture that seems to talk about “the church” overwhelmingly in abstract, structural, and impersonal ways. Individual stories of pain and transformation get blurred, or lost altogether, as we talk impersonally about this massive, faceless organization called “the church.”

Christ Died for You

It’s popular today, especially among some within the church, to talk about the importance of “the church” in a very impersonal way. You need to be a member. You need to go. Christ died for the institution. The church is our spiritual home on earth. And so on. These realities are beautiful and true.

But a danger lurks beneath the surface of all our talking about “the church” — a danger the Scriptures address. In immature minds, the church can easily become conceived of as an impersonal institution, rather than as a term for God’s gathered people. If we think and talk about the church simply in the abstract, as if it were only a Christian 501(c)(3), we can forget that “church” is a word for God’s relationship with his great assembly of individual persons, throughout time and around the world, redeemed by his Son (Matthew 16:18).

Over time such a subtle abstraction can subvert our understanding of the good news. A term that God uses to talk about his intimacy with us can easily be abstracted to communicate that what God actually values is a network of buildings or services or mere things. But this equivocation — of a relationship with an impersonal establishment — threatens to undermine the basic facts of the gospel: Christ didn’t die for a building, a non-profit, or a club. Christ died for his bride. For people. For you.

The Church Is “Us,” Not “It”

Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). The church is not first of all an it, but a they. Better, a “we.” God did not die in order to establish a the, but an our — “the church” is an abstract (not inappropriate) way of speaking about “us” — real people with real sin, experiencing real forgiveness and real transformation.

The Bible uses the term “church.” It is a good, basic, indispensable theological term. But the term should never accommodate the depersonalization of the object of Christ’s affection; the term should never replace God’s deep desire for relationship with us; the term should never misdirect its members’ obligation from an actual flesh-and-blood neighbor to a mere organization.

This insight is crucial to the church being the church.

Christ’s Gifts Are “Us,” Not “It”

The way we interpret Ephesians 4 tells us a lot about whether we approach God as “our Administrator in heaven” or “our Father” — and if we see his beloved as “It the Church” or “We the People.”

Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:7)

In the immaturities and insecurities of adolescence, we might read “gift” as if we’re at college orientation, and God’s signing us up for all the clubs in church. But that is not what this passage is teaching us. Paul explains: The gifts are the people: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers . . . until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:11–13). Interpretations that take this as God giving the offices perceive only the tangential aspects of what God gives; they see only the utility — the commodity in God’s impersonal gifts.

Ephesians 4 is not talking first of all about God inventing job descriptions. God’s gifts to us are not skills or mere offices; his gifts are Spirit-filled, Spirit-equipped people. The very reason God gives us these relationships is for the sake of another relationship: our relationship with Christ. “Speaking truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

God’s graces are never impersonal. His most valuable gifts aren’t ideas or offices or competencies, but people — gifting in people that yields unique, supernatural value: teaching, service, generosity, listening, encouragement, and more.

No Gospel for Conglomerates

The nation, the tribes, the flags, the icons, the groups, the movements, the offices, the positions, the giftings, the skills, the grand councils, the prestigious documents, the endowed chairs, the special committees, the key concepts, the five takeaways, and the seven habits of highly effective Christians, all the things that may get associated with church life — they are all less important than people. Jesus Christ is a person, not a concept. You matter to God, and it’s not because you are a tally on a document in a church computer.

There is no such thing as “the gospel” for a mere institution, no matter how Christian its name. The gospel is for people; for thinking, feeling, fleshly, sinful, real-life human beings. Not concepts. Not clubs. People. Christ died for you. And from that flows membership — not primarily members of “the church,” but “we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).

Christ Died for You

“The church” is a good term. It tells us about God’s most beloved possession in the universe, as long as we could easily substitute “the church” simply as the formal term we give to the local assemblies of people who call God “Father,” in Christ, through the Spirit.

God’s mercies are for you because you are made in his image and because God the Father loved you and sent God the Son to become fully human forever, so that you could know what it was like to be loved as a perfect son even though you’re imperfect. This was accomplished for you and is freely offered to you by God the Spirit. This is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), which means that every other religious reality is less important.

Christ died for you, because Christ died to save people — not because he died for a mere category into which you can be transferred if you believe. Christ died for you because God loves you. And he died for others because he loves them. The categories exist because of his personal love, not his love because of the categories. “The church” is merely the word we use for the organized and elder-led sum of those stunningly undeserving people on whom he has set his love.

Indispensable Instrument for Love

Being church-minded is not about sacrificing for the good of any old 501(c)(3). The institution is the necessary consequence of the most excellent love in the universe. The institution is the formal, public way that we as individuals love one another by guarding one another from sin, by receiving communion with reverence and without shame, by hearing God’s own word preached by someone who has been affirmed and commissioned by a collection of believers devoted to this love.

The institutional aspect of the church is necessary like a frame to a house. But we cannot confuse its necessity for its centrality. It is vital, but it is not the point. When we realize that the beauty of God’s home for his people is more about relationships between persons than formal administrative realities, we open ourselves to all of the best aspects of being a member of a local church.

The church as an institution is indispensable because the way God calls us to love is never on our own terms. God protects through public confession, which is why we lean into the church’s liturgy. God puts procedures in place for faithfulness, which is why we trust the process of ordaining worthy leaders. God helps us to savor him by grasping the weight of the Lord’s Supper, which is why we refuse to belittle his Table with crackers and juice in a dorm room.

We need the institution because we would never leave it up to ourselves to love others in Christ most excellently through improvisation alone. And yet, an institution valued at the expense of the collective of individuals is a tragedy.

We walk this narrow path of wisdom and love as church-committed Christians — church-committed because we are committed to God and neighbor. God, give us mercy to love people more than policies, and to trust that your institution is most conducive to our best love.

(@paulcmaxwell) is a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and philosophy professor at Moody Bible Institute. He writes more at his blog, and pretends to like coffee.