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If you were to ask someone “what is the church?”, it is very likely that they would answer that it is a building. Most people think of a church as a particular building located at a certain address. And, in a way, that’s what a church is – a building.
However, it is much more than that, but we will begin by thinking of the church as a building. The church is a building where people come to worship God on Sundays and on other occasions. It is a place where people gather for a variety of activities, ranging from worship to Sunday school and from Bible studies to bazaars.
Church buildings began to be constructed after the Roman Emperor Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians in the early 300’s A.D. and Christianity was legalized. Before this time the “church” was an illegal gathering and, to keep from being arrested, the people would meet in small groups in their homes.
After Christianity was legalized, church buildings began to be built throughout the Roman Empire. Many of them, initially, were built over sacred shrines – for example, places believed to have been the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial in Jerusalem, his birth in Bethlehem and over the grave of St. Peter in Rome.
They were also built along the great pilgrimage routes that ran from northern Europe to Spain and then to Rome. Before long, church buildings seemed to be going up nearly everywhere.
Early church buildings combined the architecture of private homes and public buildings. Their builders believed that churches should be large and beautiful.
Today, church buildings are found in any number of designs. Many people can look at a building and know it is a church, but sometimes this is not the case. Have you ever seen a particular church building that doesn’t look like a church, at least to you?
Actually, where we worship has less meaning than how we worship. The New Testament book of Acts tells us that the early Christians met in each others’ homes and, in the Old Testament, the Hebrews worshipped God in tents, which, for them symbolized the fact that God is always on the move and that their church had to be on the move if they were to keep up with God.
When someone says that the church is a building they are partially correct. But the church is far more than a building!
In our Presbyterian denomination, we have four branches or four governing bodies that direct the movement of the church: the Session, Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly.
The Session is made up of the Pastor (or Teaching Elder) and the Ruling Elders, chosen to lead by the congregation. These people are elected to oversee the ministry and program of the church. They are chosen because the congregation believes that they are spiritually mature and responsible.
The word we call elder comes from the Greek word Presbuteros, from which the word Presbyterian comes. Thus the Presbyterian Church is a church governed by Elders.
The Session is responsible for the mission and government of a local congregation. It receives new members, provides for the worship and sacraments of the church, oversees the pastoral care and educational programs, challenges church members about the responsible Christian stewardship of money, time and talents, establishes the church’s budget and leads the congregation to discover what God is doing in the world and what God wants the church to be doing.
The next highest governing body is the Presbytery, which is made up of all the Presbyterian Churches and Ministers in a certain geographical area. When a Presbytery meets, its Pastors and Elders chosen by the Session represent each church. The name of our Presbytery is The Presbytery of Kiskiminetas.
The Presbytery is responsible for coordinating the work of its member churches and developing a plan for the mission of the church in that area. It also helps in providing resources to aid its churches in their programs.
The Presbytery is also responsible for establishing new churches, for receiving under care its candidates for ministry. This means that when a man or a woman decides that they would like to be a Presbyterian Minister, they begin their formal training at a school called a Seminary. When they begin this training, they ask their church and the Presbytery if they will help them through this process. This is what “coming under care means.”
The Presbytery is also responsible to ordain, receive and dismiss Ministers who have completed their training at a Seminary. The Presbytery must also install a Minister in a church.
Sometimes Ministers do not do what the local church or the Presbytery wants them to do. When this happens, the Presbytery comes to the church and tries to sort out the problem. If the problem cannot be sorted out, the church holds another type of Worship Service to dissolve the relationship between the Pastor and the Session.
Finally, the Presbytery is responsible to elect commissioners or representatives to the Synod and General Assembly.
The third governing body of our church is called the Synod. We are part of The Synod of the Trinity, which is made up of NO fewer than three Presbyteries within a specific geographical region.
The Synod oversees the work of the various Presbyteries and provides services and programs for Presbyteries, Sessions, and congregations within its area. It also develops mission strategies and works to carry out the joint missions programs with other denominations.
The fourth governing body of the Presbyterian Church is called The General Assembly. This is the highest governing body, but not the most powerful governing body of the church.
It consists of an equal number of Elders and Ministers from each Presbytery. The General Assembly sets priorities for the world of the whole church and develops objectives for mission and a plan of action to guide the church at every level of life.
In all of the governing bodies of the Presbyterian Church, their members, Ministers and Elders act on behalf of the church members, making our form of government is representative democracy. It is this feature, which distinguishes the Presbyterian form of government from others.
The Presbyterian form of government is neither a dictatorship, nor is it a pure democracy. The Ministers of the Word, as Pastors, serve as leaders with the Session and together with the Elders, they make the decisions which guide the church.
The entire congregation, on the other hand, has the responsibility of calling its Pastor and electing those who govern as Elders. In both these actions, only church members are entitled to vote. So, as Paul says, “when all the parts of the body are doing what they are supposed to be doing, the whole body prospers.”
We have already looked at the church as a building and an organization. Now we are going to see that the church is people who have responded with a “YES” to Christ’s call to discipleship.
Christ needs a strong, healthy and well-conditioned body to do the work in the world – and that is exactly the function of the people who make up the church: they are to be the Body of Christ in the world.
Together, in their worship, study groups, programs and living, these people are to learn of God’s will and purposes for their lives and follow them.
When your body no longer houses you, it will serve no purpose and be buried or cremated. Likewise, the church serves as the Body of Christ. When the church does not house Christ, it no longer is the church and is literally dead.
In chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis, we can read that when the first man and woman called Adam and Eve broke God’s law and sinned, God did not destroy them.
Instead, God provided a plan by which Adam and Eve and all their children and descendants might be restored to the right relationship with God.
God’s plan was to work through a particular community of people through whom all humankind would come to know God and God’s will for their lives.
Later on, we come across a man called Abram – he will later be called Abraham. God called Abraham to be the father of a new nation and here we begin a new story in the life of God’s people. It is the story of a people’s faith and failure, their rising to great heights and praise, but also of a stubborn rejection of God’s will and purpose.
It is the story of how God’s people grew from small to great numbers over and over again, but each time there were always a few who survived who remained faithful to God. This will go on for many years and many people until – finally – God’s plan to bring all humankind together and reconcile them with their Creator was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus was ready to begin his work, he called together his followers to be his disciples – his church – and prepared them to carry on the work and to spread his kingdom throughout the world.
So, the church is not the creation of people but of God. And you and I, along with other Christians in the church, carry on the tradition and work of living and serving God’s people.
By reading the Bible’s story about the people of God who lived before us, about their successes and failures, their temptations and trials, we are given a clearer understanding of what it takes to live as God’s people today.
The church is also an organization. The Apostle Paul refers to the church as the “Body of Christ”.
I think Paul is reminding us that the church can be best understood if it is compared to the body. It is as if the church members are the hands and feet of Christ, doing his will in the world and carrying out his work and witness.
Every person in every congregation of every church throughout the world is also sharing in the writing of the record of God’s faithful people. Together, we are a people living, working and learning what it means to be God’s people. Every one of us has a share in the work of the church. For the church is people and the mission of the church is to work with people in the name of Jesus Christ, sharing God’s love and God’s word with them.
Jesus best summarized the nature of the church’s work in the story which we can find in Matthew 25:31-46.
The church is people. The purpose of the church is to minister or help people, and to proclaim in word and deed the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Every story has to have a beginning. Beginnings are important because they provide the background against which a story is to be told.
The story of God’s people is no different. It, too, has a beginning – one that takes us as far back as possible – back to the VERY beginning. We will read the story of God’s people in the Bible. But, before we begin, there are a few things we need to understand.
The Bible began to be written more than 3,000 years ago. At first, the stories and songs which we can read in the opening books were repeated from father to son, one generation to the next. It wasn’t until much later that the stories were written down.
The Bible is divided into two major sections: The Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament, which is made up of 39 books, covers the period of time from Creation to the period just before the birth of Jesus.
The New Testament, which is made up of 27 books, covers the period from the Birth of Jesus onward, including the accounts of his crucifixion and resurrection and the establishment of the early church.
Altogether, there are 66 books in the Bible.
In the first book of the Old Testament, the book of Genesis, we read the Creation Story. There are all kinds of ideas of how the world came into being. You have probably read and heard about some of them in school.
In the Bible, we are told that “in the beginning, God created the world…” (Genesis 1:1). It is important to notice that the ways in which God created are never explained as that was unimportant to the writer of Genesis. What WAS important was that creation came about – not by chance – but by God’s power.
How do we know it was God who created everything? Well, we don’t “know” in the scientific sense. We “know” only by faith. As the writer of Hebrews says, “to have faith is to be … certain of the things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1).
The testimony of the writer of Genesis and the conviction of those who have come to believe in God is that there can be no other satisfactory explanation for the world that exists than to believe that it was created by the one we call God.
In Genesis 1, the writer says “so God created human beings, making them to be like Himself. He created them male and female…”
This verse tells us two things. First, it says that we are made like God. This doesn’t mean that you and I LOOK like God. Rather it tells us that we were given such characteristics as imagination and freedom.
Second, it tells us that neither man nor woman was made subordinate or less to the other, but that each was made equal to the other.
One of the words to pay special attention to in the Creation story is the word “day”. The Bible tells us that God created all things in six days and rested on the seventh. Since scientists believe that the earth evolved over millions of years, many people have been troubled by the Bible’s account of God’s creating the world in six days.
The key to this problem is deciding how to understand “day”. We can take it literally (24 hours) or we can understand it to be figurative and thus an unspecified amount of time. No matter how we understand day in the story of Creation, the important point is that Creation came out because of God.
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