How Many People is your Church?

Bury Parish Church by Michael D Beckwith

Bury Parish Church by Michael D Beckwith

I wonder how you would answer that question? 100… 300… 500? I suppose it depends very much on your counting technique. Do you take an average, or count on your highest Sunday? Do you include ‘every thing that creepeth’ within your building, whether a willing participant or simply there by accident? Children, pets, infestations, angelic visitors?

But really, that’s not what I’m asking. The question wasn’t ‘how many people are in your church?’ but rather ‘how many people is your church?’ There’s a world of difference.

In Ephesians 4, Paul writes the following:

‘And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes’ (Ephesians 4:11-14).

There is much to be said about this passage and the picture it paints of how the church should look: well-equipped, mature, stable and discerning. Paul draws the comparison between a mature adult and a gaggle of immature children and says the church should aim to be like the former, and unlike the latter. But re-reading this passage again today, I was struck by something I’d never quite seen before. Andrew Lincoln, in his commentary, makes the following observation:

‘Not only do silly infants contrast with the mature adult (cf 1 Cor 2:6; 3:1; Heb 5:13,14) but the plural of ‘children’ also contrasts with the singular of ‘the mature person’, individualism being a sign of childishness, unity a sign of maturity.’ (Andrew Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, p257)

Re-read that if necessary. Digest it. Do you see what he’s saying? Paul suggests that the kind of church he wants Ephesus to become, and the kind of churches we should aim to build, are not only mature as opposed to immature, adult as opposed to childish, steadfast as opposed to flimsy, but also one as opposed to many.

Why didn’t Paul keep both references in the singular form? Why didn’t he contrast manhood with childhood? It is for the very simple reason that an immature church is best depicted as a bunch of disparate, childish individuals, all concerned with their own desires and agendas, whereas a mature church is best described as one unified person.

God wants churches that are genuinely one; united in vision, heart, soul, mission, love and service. This theme of oneness comes out elsewhere in the letter far more obviously (1:22-23; 2:14-22; 3:6; 4:3-6, 15-16; 5:23b, 30) and elsewhere in the Pauline epistles (1 Cor 12:12-31). To be certain, complete unity is a difficult thing to imagine, let alone attain, and we must never confuse unity with uniformity. Paul doesn’t want a church full of people who look the same, dress the same and are thoroughly indistinguishable from one another. But he does want them to be so knitted together that they are best described not as many, but as one being. Paul wants our churches to be numerous and diverse, yet also united; one person.

So I ask again; how many people is your church? The fewer the better.

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