This past Sunday our catechism question was “What is the church?”. The answer was “A community elected for eternal life and united by faith, who love, follow, learn from, and worship God together.” To be clear, I don’t believe there is any problem with this answer, however, it seemed to me there may be a problem with our understanding of it. I endeavored to briefly lay out a biblical explanation for the sake of clarity. For the sake of all who were not there or anyone who might desire to read back over what I said, I’m posting it here in basically the same form with a few slight edits.

Unfortunately, because our culture is so awash with what we might call a sort of “radical individualism” which is foreign to the Bible, this definition can be easily misunderstood and we often don’t even realize it. While the catechism defines the church as “a community elected” we tend to read that statement as “a group of elected individuals”. 

To be sure, God regenerates individuals, bringing individuals to faith, and unites individuals to Christ.  But then these individual members are connected to an organic whole… “a community elected”. The Church.

Biblically we see this in that we are grafted into the community as branches into a tree (Rom. 11:17-18), we are made citizens of the commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2:12), adopted as children in God’s household (Eph 2:19), stones in a building (1 Pet 2:5), members of one body (1 Cor. 12:12-27), and part of one connected vine (Jn 15). 

God establishes this community through covenants, the heart of which is expressed in a single phrase repeated throughout Scripture, “I will be your God and you will be MY people.” Our identity as a community and our connection as individuals to that community is defined by a covenant relationship with God. This covenant community spans all time and space. So we could say that the church is the covenant people of God in all ages. 

But someone might wonder, “How can that be since I know that not all of God’s covenant people in the Old Testament were true believers?” (Rom. 9:6) Not only this, but every covenant God makes includes offspring or households, although this natural lineage does not guarantee it. This includes the new covenant as it was prophesied, for example, in Jeremiah 32:38-39:

And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them.

But also as it was applied by the apostles in the households of Cornelius, Lydia, and the Philippian jailer, as well as expressed, in passages like Acts 2:39:

For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

This is where the difference between “a community elected” and “a group of elected individuals” is so critical. Every Christian agrees that there are and have been individuals in the church who are not believers and thus are not elect.

Historically the church has used the terms “visible church” and “invisible church”. That is, the church as WE can see it at any given moment and the church as God knows it will be for eternity.

But if we define the church as a group of elected individuals then we must say that those individuals who didn’t have faith were never actually part of the covenant community, that is, the church. The problem with this conclusion is it isn’t what the Bible presents to us.

Jesus says that some branches have a real connection to the vine but don’t abide. Paul tells us that Gentile and Jewish branches are really on the olive tree and can be removed. The writer of Hebrews repeatedly warns his readers not to break from the new covenant like the wilderness generation broke from the old covenant.

But if we rightly define the church as “a community elected” then we understand that the visible and invisible church are not two different entities but one covenant community which, at this point in history, is yet to be completed. If you came to Proclaim Church last month and then visited again last week you would see some of the same individuals and some different but we would not say it is a different church. 

The covenant, by which we enter into this covenant community, has a condition, namely, faith. Those individuals who are elect meet that condition and God promises to keep them in the covenant. Non-elect individuals do not meet that condition and God removes them. Either way, God is glorified in revealing His faithfulness to the covenant. Under the old covenant, the people of God were graphically described as an unfaithful wife (Ezek. 16; Jer. 3:1-8) but under the new covenant, the Groom is purifying His Bride (Eph. 5), a community elected for eternal life.