A Wesleyan Account of the Nature of the Church

A Wesleyan Account of the Nature of the Church

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What follows is a Wesleyan account of the nature of the Christian church. It is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024).

135. The Church of Jesus Christ on earth is the manifest presence of our Lord among the peoples of all nations. The worldwide Church of true believers is expressed in local church bodies existing in highly varied cultural contexts. God established the Church for the redemption and transformation of the world.

136. In the proper sense, the Church is a body of people united together in the service of God. The primary meaning of “Church” is a visible, gathered local congregation assembled to hear the pure Word of God preached and to eat of one bread and drink of one cup. However, in a broader sense “Church” means the catholic or universal church; that is, all the Christians under heaven.

137. The Church is the faithful company in which the means of grace are offered, just as it is the primary location of the gifts of the Spirit and healing. The means of grace are tangible and visible practices whereby God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, forms us in the Image of Christ the Son. The Church, both visible and invisible, participates in the means of grace.

138. Throughout time the people of God have used three metaphors to speak of the nature of the Church. First, the Church is the beloved bride of Christ. It consists of people of all nations and throughout all time—past, present, and future—who have been joined to Christ. Christ loves the Church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the Word so as to present her in splendor and without blemish (Eph. 5:25–27).

139. Second, the Church is the body of Christ. It consists of the people of God, called out of the world to bear visible witness as a body—even a physical manifestation—to the free, transformative gift of grace received in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, the Church represents the tangible and visible witness of Jesus Christ on earth, apart from which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Christ has given to the Church the ministry and orders of God for the gathering and the perfecting of its members in this life.

140. Both of these biblical metaphors demonstrate the visible and tangible nature of the Church. And yet, the Church is not confined to what is seen. The Church is both visible and invisible. The visible and invisible Church should not be considered two separate churches, but rather two aspects of the one, true Church in Jesus Christ. The Church exists as the community of believers throughout the world and across time, once estranged from God but now adopted as children of God, who rejoice in his gracious and mighty acts of salvation. The members of the Church serve as a signpost of God’s final redemption as they profess faith in Jesus Christ and proclaim his peace to those who were once far-off but have now been brought near through his blood (Eph. 2:13). The Church regularly gathers together in the tangible presence of God—and the presence of one another—to hear the Word of God proclaimed and to receive the sacraments duly administered.

141. Third, the Church is the new Israel. When humanity sinned and fell short of God’s glory, he chose a people, Israel, to be his light and to make clear his purposes to a broken and hurting world. He gave them the mark of circumcision as a sign of his covenant, and he gave his law so that they might reflect his holiness to the world. In the fullness of time, God sent his Son Jesus Christ—fully God and fully human—for the rescue and redemption of the entire world, to fulfill as a first-century Jew the calling of Israel.

142. We believe that the good news of Jesus Christ cannot be contained, but is to be proclaimed in word and deed in faithfulness to Christ’s command and for the sake of the world. To this end, the triune God has established the Church. In the Church, God gives us the grace by which the Image of Christ overcomes the image of Adam, reinstating us in his love. The sign of circumcision marked Israel. The Church is marked by baptism. Through baptism we are brought into the Church and, consequently, made members of Christ, its Head (John Wesley, “A Treatise on Baptism”). This tangible mark bears witness to a new way of being God’s people in the world.

143. The Church of Jesus Christ is marked by its oneness. Christ continues to pray for the Church as he did in John 17—that we may share in the same unity that Christ shares with the Father. The Church has “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5–6). Sadly, oneness is often the last thing the world sees in the Church. Nevertheless, if we are to take Jesus’s prayer seriously, we must strive for the oneness of the Church, trusting in the efficacy of his prayer and the empowerment of the Spirit.

144. The Church is holy. This holiness is a gift that flows from Christ’s redeeming and sanctifying work. God gives this gift so that the Church might manifest God’s holy love to the world. We lament that the Church has often failed to live up to the call to be a holy people. Yet we believe that the triune God continues to sanctify the Church for the sake of the world. When we gather together, we encounter Christ as the one who both judges and gives grace to his Church that the Church might be whole in him.

145. The Church is marked by its catholicity. The diversity of the Church is a sign of the kingdom brought to fullness in the oneness of the Church. In Christ, we belong to each other regardless of social status, race, ethnicity, or gender. The catholicity of the Church also extends across time. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). When we gather together in the Lord’s presence, we join our praises with the Church in heaven. As Charles Wesley wrote:

Let saints on earth unite to sing
with those to glory gone,
for all the servants of our King
in earth and heaven are one.
(“Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above”)

146. Finally, the Church is apostolic as it guards the good deposit of faith that was given by Christ to the apostles (1 Tim. 6:20). Just as the apostles were called to bear witness to what they had seen and heard, we are called to bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ, to pass on intact that which we have received.

This is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024). Included are 213 articles of faith centered around:

  1. Section I
    God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  2. Section II
    Creation—Image Given and Marred
  3. Section III
    Revelation—The Image Revealed
  4. Section IV
    Salvation—The Image Restored
  5. Section V
    The Church—Life in the Image
  6. Section VI
    The Fullness of Time—The Glorified Image

An appendix in the back offers discussion/reflection questions for each section. Get it from our store here.


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