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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

A Church Is Not Just a Truth-Dispensing Center

Community and Mission

A church is not just a truth-dispensing center but a spiritual family. As Paul explains why he’s written his first letter to Timothy, he provides this theologically concentrated definition of the church: “If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

A friend of mine was walking past a church as its service was concluding. As the people poured out of the building, he noticed that none of them were talking together. There were no conversations. Whatever this congregation had come for, they’d come for it individually, and they’d gotten it, and now they were leaving. The presence of the rest of the congregation was apparently incidental. Sadly, it appeared to be a privatized spirituality. But that’s not the spirituality of the New Testament. The church is the household of God, so we can expect relationships, interaction, and shared identity to be fundamental aspects of its life. Moreover, because this is the church of the living God, we can expect the family dynamics of this community to be energized by the life of God himself.

This is relevant given the final definition of a church in these verses. Paul goes on to say that the church is the pillar and buttress of the truth. Pillars and buttresses support large buildings. On vacation last summer, I visited Palma Cathedral on the Spanish island of Mallorca. It’s one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world, and it has beautiful pillars and buttresses. They’re essential for a building of its size and dimensions, but they aren’t just functional, they’re ornate. They’re part of the beauty of the building they support.

A church is to be the same for God’s truth. It is not that the truth needs a church’s stamp of approval. Nor is it simply that a church is the outlet for God’s truth in the world (though that is true). Far more, a church validates and embodies God’s truth in the world. The beauty of community in a church is meant to be a plausibility structure for the gospel, lifting its social visibility as a pillar, reinforcing its persuasive power as a buttress. A church makes the gospel known and even compelling. And it will not be a captivating voice for the truth if it is not living as a beautiful family.

Jesus himself shows us this when he says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). If we didn’t already know how it ended, we might instinctively complete this sentence differently. In our heart of hearts, we sometimes believe the world will know we’re Jesus’s disciples if we’re more impressive than our surrounding culture, if we have a mic-drop answer to every skeptic’s question, if our people seem more put together than everyone else, or if our preacher is always telegenic and our music team always gives a virtuoso performance.

But Jesus puts his emphasis elsewhere. What will most clearly show the presence of heaven on earth—that God is alive and well and right here—is our love for one another. Our shared love is not an afterthought, as though what really mattered were these other things and our love for one another was added as a bonus. No, the quality of our relational life in our churches is to be an apologetic for the world around us. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “Jesus is giving the world permission to judge whether we are true Christian disciples on the basis of whether we love one another.”

Jesus expresses a similar idea in his prayer just a few hours later:

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:22–23)

This is a sacred moment. We are listening in to the eternal Son as he prays to the eternal Father. He prays for us. We are the “them” to whom Jesus refers. We are those who would come to believe through his apostles’ message. And what does Jesus pray for? He prays for our unity, praying that the oneness he and the Father share will mark his people as well, that we would “become perfectly one.”

What’s astonishing is the impact Jesus prays our loving unity will have. He’s not praying for our sakes alone. No, Jesus prays for our unity “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” In our love for one another, the world around us is meant to see evidence that Jesus has been sent from heaven. They’re meant to see that something of the eternal love that the Father has for the Son now rests on us.

Our love for one another is not only meant to be clearly observable by the watching world. It’s to be so strikingly Godlike that it cannot be explained except by the reality of the gospel. The gospel doctrines of the incarnation (“you sent me”) and of justification (“and loved them”) will become more visible and nonignorable through the love we show one another in Christ.

The church is the household of God, so we can expect relationships, interaction, and shared identity to be fundamental aspects of its life.

This article is adapted from You're Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Weary Churches by Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry.

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