Once upon a time, we were not a people, but now we are the people of God. Once we were without mercy, but now we have mercy. That’s what Apostle Peter says: God’s mercy has made us God’s people (1 Peter 2:10). Amen!
Paul speaks about this people-forming mercy too, even more vividly: God’s church was purchased by God’s own blood (Acts 20:28). It’s extraordinary! What a costly, generous gift to be called and claimed as His own.
But what does it mean to be His? In our conflicted, confused post-Christian culture, it is more vital than ever that we know our true identity as God’s people — and regardless of nationality, sex, race, or any other identification that the world elevates as essential (Galatians 3:28).
So who in the world are we, and why does it matter?
The answer is not easily grasped in one word. Peter and Paul were inclined to speak about the people of God, this church of God, by metaphor — each one, in its own way, a name-tag that pinpoints who we are in relation to God, the world, and each other.
We are called body and bride, flock and family, virgins and vineyard, house, temple, building, and by Jesus himself, a city on a hill. Back in 1 Peter 2, we find four metaphors strung together: “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people . . .” (2:9; Exodus 19:5, 6). Notably, these are all rooted in the story of Israel.
Each of these could be profitably explored to help locate our true character as a distinctive community, resistant and resilient, witnessing and welcoming, in the face of mounting worldly pressures eager to conform all to its fallen image. But we focus here on just one word.
The best word is the one the New Testament uses most often, a word we’ve already noted and the one Jesus first called us: My church.
Peter is in the middle of that story too. It was to Peter, after confessing Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” that the Master spoke: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:16-18).
It’s not accidental that the first mention of the church in the New Testament included opposition. Jesus didn’t say that hades would not try to prevail — it has and it is — but that hell would not succeed! This tells a basic truth about being the church: We are hopeful but never simply at home in the world.
A chief reason for asking the “Who are we?” question is that after many generations of false comfort, the church, particularly in North America and Europe, is waking up to a world culture she does not recognize and in which she is not at home. This is good, I think. It’s the opportunity to recover all it means to be church.
But this raises a critical question: Is our present identity as the church robust enough to withstand a steamrolling culture such as ours? The church in the West is so vulnerable precisely because she has accommodated, and is now largely assimilated into, a politic of individualism, rights, and consumption that dissolves the very virtues necessary to sustain the church in our world. Many fall asleep or fall away. We need a fuller view of what church is.
It is easy to take the common word church for granted. It is not a place we go to, but who we are; not a building to assemble in, but the embodiment of Christ; not just voluntary association, but God’s elect. We see this in the word itself. Church is translated from the Greek word ekklesia, meaning “called out.” God’s new community finds its identity shaped by a required departure.
This definition orients us. But called out of what? Again 1 Peter, after his list of metaphors: “called . . . out of darkness into His marvelous light” (2:9). Can Israel be Israel in Egypt? Exodus must occur. This is a start. As we dig deeper into the word ekklesia, we see why Jesus chose it and how it further informs our identity as the assembled covenant people of God.
Two key contexts, common and theological, unpack the meaning of ekklesia. In common first-century use “ekklesia connoted an assembly, the citizens of a given community called together to tend the city affairs.”1 Behind this, its theological shape was given by its link to Israel. In the Greek Scriptures that the apostles read, ekklesia rendered the Hebrew word qahal, or “assembly,” as the gathered congregation of the Lord (Numbers 20:4-12; Ezra 10:1-14).
We glimpse these contexts in Stephen’s reference to Israel after the Exodus as the “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38, KJV). So the church shares in that ongoing story of God’s covenant people: His earthly representatives, unique citizens amid competing identities and citizenships (Philippians 3:20).
Jonathan Leeman discusses the big implications of this choice of words in his new book, Political Church:
In calling itself ekklesia, the church was identifying itself as fully public, refusing the available language for private associations (koinon or collegium). The church was not gathered like a koinon around particular interests, but was concerned with the interests of the whole city, because it was the witness of God’s activity in history. At the same time, the church was not simply another polis; instead, it was an anticipation of the heavenly city on earth. . . .2
“Jesus’ salvation does not have social and political implications . . . but it is a politics that is meant as an alternative to all social life that does not reflect God’s glory.”3
The church does not just have a social ethic . . . but the church is a social ethic. And this ethic, this politics, witnesses to the kind of social life possible for those who have been formed by the story of Christ. The church’s challenge has always been “to be a ‘contrast model’ for all polities that know not God.”4
We see how the metaphors for the church mentioned above are linked to her identity as a visible, public people in continuity with Israel and in covenant with God. It is at once an alternative politics to the ordinary politics of the world, while an unceasing witness to the ultimate political reality that is the soon-coming kingdom of God.
Jesus drew on Zion imagery, calling His church “a city [polis] . . . on a hill” (Matthew 5:14; Psalm 2:6). Paul used prophetic imagery of new covenant Israel, calling the church a “flock” (Acts 20:28; Jeremiah 31:10-12). Peter echoed the Exodus generation, delivered and instructed, calling the church a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9; Exodus 19:6). The clear and unavoidable conclusion is that by God’s call in Christ, we represent a new citizenship, a polity that is in all and yet transcends all national borders or human identities that would define or divide us.
We also see how the politics of the church is utterly defined by her relation to God in Christ. Our political reality begins and ends with “Jesus is Lord!” This is why the well-meaning but filtered political activism of Christians in secular societies is so ineffectual: The source of our polis is neutralized. We play politics by other rules on someone else’s turf and wonder why society does not look Christian. Can we expect otherwise when Jesus is deemed irrelevant?
Most of us reading today belong to a cultural dominion that has taught us to think that there are only two political options: to either participate or abstain from the politics offered by our resident nations. But our Christ-given name begs to differ. Church means that by definition, we are God’s political reality and resident aliens, a diverse and distinct public pointing to His kingdom within the fallen kingdoms of this world.
Being God’s alternative to the way the world works cannot help but make us feel like the church in the wilderness, in between this world and the world to come. Like Israel of old, that “Exodus out,” however it comes, is difficult and sometimes tempts us to complain. Or it can even make us mistake the land of milk and honey for the land in our rearview mirror, rather than the one we journey to (Exodus 15:24; Numbers 16:13, 14).
Being the church in the wilderness means being a people on a journey with our merciful God, ordered around He who redeems and commands. Such a people and journey as this cannot help but be “sojourners and pilgrims” in this world, as Peter said, praising Him who called us out, living honorably among the very nations who speak against us as evildoers (1 Peter 2:9-12).
In the United States another political season is upon us, and many Christians are struggling to make sense of what they are seeing, not only in the political sphere of the nation but also in nearly every other facet of culture and life. We now suspect more than ever before that there is no “political” solution to the ills that face the world. But it is just at times like these that we recall who we are — His church, a politics of another kind.
Whatever the choices offered or made in presidential elections, the real hope of the world lies elsewhere. I cannot say it better than Leeman at the conclusion of his book:
The political hopes of the world should rest upon the local church — in its life together. Here the pardoning word of the gospel is spoken, and the obedience — giving power of the Spirit is applied. The warfare of the nations begins to end here. It’s a different kind of politics, to be sure. It is the politics of aliens, strangers and unwelcomed immigrants. It is a politics that expects, even embraces, persecution (Mt. 5:10-12). Still, the hope of the nations is to be placed here — in this society gathered around a King who has laid down his life for the world. It is those who have submitted themselves to this crucified King who, in turn, lay down their lives for one another and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.5
This is the church in the wilderness — a mercy-formed people for the world’s sake.
- Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Eerdmans, 1994) 465.
- Jonathan Leeman, quoting William T. Cavenaugh, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP Academic, 2016), 36-37.
- Ibid., quoting Stanley Hauerwas, 37.
- Ibid., 392.