What should church “look like?” How should we “do church?” I hear these and similar questions bandied about regularly. There are lots of different answers. Some say we should “do church” like they did in the New Testament. In reality, there was no single New Testament way of “doing church.” There was a mosaic of practices influenced by local custom. Leaving that aside, are the church structures and practices recorded in the New Testament normative?
Others think post-apostolic traditions should shape the way we “do church.” Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church practices are rooted in the first few centuries of the church, for example.
Among Protestants, there are as many ways to “do church” as denominations. I’m not sure which is more analogous to the Protestant situation: a patchwork quilt or a pile of mismatched socks.
So what should the church “look like?” We assume the answer lies in emulating some era of the church when they “did it right.” But this is a faulty premise. Nowhere in scripture are we told to conform to the image of the church, whether in the New Testament age or any other. We are told that God is conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). What should the church look like? It should look like Jesus. He scourged money changers and paid taxes. He debated theologians and was silent before judges. He rocked the boat and walked on water. He died and rose again.
Being conformed to the image of God’s Son is of first importance. From there, the outward form of the church will take care of itself. Jesus will express Himself through us. And perhaps the outward expression needs to vary according to time, place, culture, etc. Paul said he became all things to all people that he might by all possible means save some (1 Cor. 9:22). Why shouldn’t Jesus do the same by varying the form of the church?
What shouldn’t vary is Christ in us, the hope of glory, the life expressing Himself. To focus on “correct” externals and evaluate others by appearances is pharisaical (John 7:24). The alternative is: 1) participating with the Holy Spirit as He transforms us into Christ’s image; 2) trusting the Lord with outward appearances as He expresses Himself in us (2 Cor. 3:18). This fits with Ephesians–We maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Eph. 4:13).