Church: What is it? (Philemon 1-7)
[In the month of April our church’s (Reconciliation Road Church) ‘s Bible Reading Plan we will be reading through the books of Philemon and Colossians. If you want to track with us you can download the BRP by following this link – RRC BRP for April]
Philemon is a very personal letter written by the Apostle Paul to someone called Philemon. Remarkably, the letter was read out to not just Philemon but also to the whole church that met in his house in Colossae!
In the next few days, we will uncover the vital issue the letter dealt with that needed to be challenged.
Today, however, we will concern ourselves with what can be gleaned from the introduction regarding a question that is so pertinent South African Christ-followers at present – what is a church?
We are on day 6 of a national lockdown (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). All public meetings have been banned, including church gatherings!
A unique situation indeed, one that strikes at the very core of what the church is. So in this unique time, it is worth considering what the church is?
Now, Philemon is not a treatise defining & describing the church – however, tucked away here in its introductory verses, are three answers to the question – ‘What is the church?’
What is the Church?
1. A Gathering/Community of Saints (vs1-2, 5&7)
The church is more than, but it can never be less than the gathering of those who have been rescued & redeemed by Jesus.
The church is a gathering, an assembly of believers in Jesus. People who have no righteousness of their own but through their common faith in Jesus are rightly referred to as ‘saints’ in Christ Jesus (vs5&7).
Meeting together as Christ-followers is integral to the church; it isn’t an optional extra that can be easily replaced by some online experience.
There are times when the church is scattered, but it is defined by its gathering together.
In our world so increasingly filled with isolated individuals, the church stands out as a community that gathers together physically in regular rhythms of meeting for worship, prayer, God’s word & fellowship – and those meetings shape and define us.
In this unique time, when we can’t meet physically all together as a church – we ought to feel like something is wrong. The present situation should rub us the wrong way; it should leave us feeling like something is not quite right. It should make us long for the day we can physically gather together in one place all together again – and not just in our homes tenuously connected by some online experience.
And yet from vs2 we can also be encouraged in this time of being apart, that there was a church that met in the house of Philemon!
So, may we remember at this unique time that Jesus promised that He would presence Himself anywhere where two or three people gathered together in His name are (Matthew 18:20).
And, so as you gather as the scattered church know this – Jesus is amongst you as you gather to worship, pray and listen to His word. So meet as the scattered church with faith and expectation for the presence of Jesus amongst you in your homes!
2. A Community of Faith, Love & Mission (vs5-6)
This church Paul wrote to, was known to him – it was a community and a family of faith. Philemon’s family are greeted in the letter, Apphia his wife & Archippus his son.
Paul knew the people in the church; he knew details about their lives. They were defined group whom this letter was addressed to(vs3), a community of faith working out their salvation and working out God’s purpose for their lives (vs6) alongside one another.
The Gospel always creates a community! Wherever the Gospel is preached and received a church, a community of faith is born. The Gospel had been preached in Colossae, and this community which had previously not existed was now a definable group.
In this church, there was faith and love (vs5). The church does not exist to meet our felt-needs. Rather, together, we as the church care for one another’s needs, loving each other as prompted by the Holy Spirit.
The church is not a building, a programme or a random group who all happen to Livestream at the same time!
The church is an identifiable community of people joined together by their common faith in Jesus, commitment to Jesus’ mission (vs6) and by their love, care and commitment to one another(vs5&7).
3. The church has defined leadership (vs2-7)
These people didn’t just meet in Philemon’s house; he led them. Philemon’s faith and love for Jesus overflowed into their lives so that they were encouraged and spurred on in their faith (vs5) and in sharing the Gospel (vs6). Leaders ought to inspire those they lead through their own devotion to Jesus, calling people to do what they are doing!
Philemon’s faith in Jesus and love for Jesus inspired the church he led (vs5) to follow. Similarly, at one point Paul as a leader wrote to the Corinthian church he helped lead, saying; “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
More than this, we read that their hearts were refreshed through his leadership (vs7). They were revived, encouraged, spurred on in their faith walk. Leaders have a crucial role in spurring on and encouraging believers in Jesus and urging them to urge one another as well!
In this time of church scattered, it is vital to remember the relationship God has established between a church and its leaders God has appointed.
It is not God’s will for people to float around leaderless, unaccountable and drinking from every stream of content. In God’s wisdom and love, God gives leaders, shepherds to His church for the good and the benefit of the church. Their role is to shepherd, guard, guide & govern the people God has entrusted to their care (1 Peter 5:1-5 & Hebrews 13:17).
At this time, may you know who it is you relate to as your leaders! God intends that you know your leaders and that they know who you are and that God has entrusted you into their care and that you are committed to them as your leaders.
In closing, these are not obviously all the answers to the question posed, however, they are some of what resides in today’s passage and are relevant to this present moment. God bless you and keep you!
Gareth is one of the elders at Reconciliation Road Church in Amanzimtoti, South Africa – click the link to get more information about our church.