You’ve seen that Latin phrase, and like me, you probably bleeped right past it. Over the years, though, I’ve found it to be very helpful. It’s a Latin term that means “without which, it is not.” It’s used to describe the indispensable essence of a thing. We’re going to use it as we think about church.
Over the centuries, millions of Christians have attempted to be and do church, thousands of missionaries and church planters have attempted to start churches, and hundreds of theologians have endeavored to define church. We’re indebted to all of these who have gone before us, but we’re going to go behind them to the essence, the sine qua non, of church.
To descend from my faux scholarly use of the Latin phrase sine qua non, I direct the reader to early episodes of the TV show “Our Gang.” One of the many memorable characters was the little boy named Stymie. Handed an artichoke, which he had never before encountered, the suspicious but hungry Stymie began pealing off the leaves and tossing them away in search of the fruit or nut at its core. When all of the leaves had been discarded and nothing was left, Stymie observed, “It may have choked Artie, but it ain’t gonna choke Stymie.”
Stymie didn’t know that the essence of the artichoke was in the leaves. If we don’t know what we’re looking for, we just might miss it. The same is true for church. Peel away the stained glass, the liturgy, the location, the staff, and even the congregation and what do you have? That is the essence of church, the indispensable thing without which it is no longer a church.
I want to submit to you that the sine qua non, the deepest indispensable essence of the church, is Christ himself. Peel away everything else that we’ve come to identify with church and if we fail to find Jesus Christ at its core, it is simply not … a church. A church at its essence is a community of disciples who are continuing what Jesus began: the life, teaching, and work of Christ on earth.
From this core identity everything else builds. We baptize because Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:15-16), instructed us to do the same (Matthew 28:19), and in the act of baptism we imitate Jesus’s own death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:4). We observe Communion because Jesus did so with his disciples, and instructed us to continue to do so until we drink and eat with him anew in the kingdom of God (Matthew 26:26-29).
Everything that it means to be church goes back to Jesus. We worship because Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment was to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). We minister because Jesus taught us that loving our neighbor was the second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39). For the same reason, we fellowship as an expression of Christians loving their Christian neighbors as themselves. We disciple because Jesus directed us to observe everything he has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We engage in evangelism and mission because Jesus commissioned us to bring the very ends of the earth as well as our fellow citizens under his lordship (Acts 1:8).
The Jesus essence of church is not just because we have chosen to identify with him, but rather because he has chosen to identify with us. When Saul of Tarsus was struck down on the Damascus Road, Christ rebuked him, not for persecuting churches, instead he was explicit: “Why are you persecuting me” (Acts 22:7; 26:14)? He chose us.
The lesson was not lost on the born-again Paul the Apostle whose favorite metaphor for the church was the body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ,” Paul declared, “and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). And when John frequently refers to the church as the bride of Christ it is with full knowledge of Jesus’s teaching that a husband and wife “are no longer two, but one” (Matthew 19:6a).
This is more than a metaphor; it is an existential reality. The essence of church is the person of Christ. This has staggering implications for theologians, church planters, church leaders, and everyday disciples. It is, and should be, humbling, frightening, and awe-inspiring to realize that we, the church, are Christ’s vicar – his earthly representatives – on earth. The sine qua non of our very existence as church is Jesus Christ.
This is why I’ve begun here, with Jesus, the sine qua non, the essential core, of what it means to be church. For it is Jesus – his life, his work, his example, his teachings – that will measure and qualify everything about church that follows.
Dr. David Garrison is the Executive Director of Global Gates, a ministry that reaches the ends of the earth through global gateway cities. Learn more about Global Gates at www.GlobalGates.info. Mission Nexus member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.