by Rabih Hasbany
Since the beginning of nationwide protests on October 17, 2019, the Lebanese have been hearing phrases like “the civil state is the solution”, and “our main demand is to have a secular state”. In the squares where the demonstrations are taking place, one hears chants like: “We do not want sectarianism, we want a civil state.” However, everyone knows that the system in Lebanon is based on a sectarian consensual distribution, a form of consociationalism in which the highest offices are proportionately reserved for representatives from certain religious communities. Moreover, many are aware that demographic numbers are unknown since the last population census in Lebanon took place in 1932. Things have changed significantly; even the present sectarian representation is no longer fair in terms of the distribution of positions among the components of the Lebanese sectarian fabric.
Whether Lebanese demand a civil state or keep the sectarian representation, Christians face the possibility of losing influence if the system of government undergoes changes or a redistribution of ruling offices. Facing this dilemma, a Christian friend once asked me, “Are you not afraid that we may lose our presence as a church in Lebanon?” The question was challenging, as was my reply. I responded that I am with justice and truth, as stipulated in the Bible, and we are called to seek these in our communities whether we are a ruling majority or a ruled minority.
The complex nature of that question occupied my thoughts and led me to reflect on my understanding of “the Church”. What is church? What is its nature and its role? What does it mean to be a church in our society? How should we think of our existence as a church in Lebanon?
I am not going to provide an in-depth explanation of ecclesiology in this blog. However, I will share with you a thought I shared in a recent public square discussion forum at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, and consider as well theological and biblical studies and readings on the concept of the Church.
When most people hear the word “church”, they probably think of a building where Christian believers gather. However, biblically speaking, a church is much more than a building. In fact, some might say that the church is not a building whatsoever but is all about the people of God. The word “church” is derived from the Greek word ekklesia, which refers to a called-out assembly.
The early Christian church did not have formal buildings, at least not in the contemporary sense of what we might consider to be a church building. First-century Christians were often persecuted as minority faith communities among the Jewish and pagan majority under Roman rule. As a result, they often met in secret, usually in homes. As the influence of Christianity spread, eventually, buildings dedicated to worship were established and became what we know today as churches. In this sense, the church consists of people (not buildings) who devote themselves to teaching, fellowship, ministry and prayer (Acts 2: 42). Buildings facilitate the role of God’s people, but they do not fulfill God’s purpose for His people.
Therefore, the Church is a group of Christ-followers united as one body, spear-headed by Christ. In being so, they have one nature and a specific purpose that can be achieved through the roles they perform together. What are these roles? The key roles of any church are worship, edification and spreading the Good News.
Worship, in its nature, is God-centered and Christ-centered. It is not about entertaining music for Christians or flashy displays or performances, but about expressing our love and honor to our Creator in everything we do. We may worship through praise and hymns, but we may also worship through elaborate work that reflects our faithfulness to what God has entrusted to us. Worship can also be displayed through good behavior, showing obedience to the commandments of our God (John 14:15).
Edification is also a role of the church. It involves urging believers to seek holiness and sanctification by caring for them and helping them to mature in Christ. To this end, church members are entrusted with a variety of ministries such as Bible study, teaching the word of God, praying for one another, and acts of care like hospitality (Ephesians 4: 11-12).
The announcement of the Good News is also a key role of the Church. This means reaching out to the lost world and showing Christ to people. Since there are many people who often have questions about Christ, knowing the truth and being able to proclaim it is part of the church’s role. The Church must imitate Christ, who expresses compassion and love tangibly through helping people, feeding the crowds and healing the sick (Luke 4:18). By following the example of Christ in loving others, the Church must strive to make a real difference in the world while not neglecting to share the message of Christ aimed at the salvation of nations. The world today groans and suffers with hunger and despair. The Church must proclaim the Good News and act as the body of Christ to the world by caring for the sick and praying for their recovery, by feeding the hungry and by giving hope to the desperate.
If a church fails to fulfill any of these key roles – worship, edification, spreading the Good News – then the church is not functioning as God intends. Understandably, there are times when the church faces challenges and struggles to one degree or another, but a healthy church seeks to overcome such challenges in ways that honor God and His intentions for His church.
Many examples of churches that are not made of physical buildings can be found throughout the world in countries that are under non-Christian rule, whether secular or religious. We see that the Church in these countries is active. It works boldly and faithfully to fulfill its role in worship, edification and announcing the Good News. In these countries, the church innovates creative ways to perform its role. It may even endure persecution and martyrdom for the sake of Christ. It does not matter if the building exists or does not exist, or if it is visible or hidden, what is important is for followers of Christ to perform their key roles.
Eventually, when I think about the church in Lebanon, I do not worry about what the future government will look like or what form the state will take, whether it be civil or religious. Church buildings may remain in Lebanon, or we may have to move to underground buildings, secret buildings, or go without any buildings at all. We are the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, i.e. his body consisting of members who unite in one nature and for one purpose to achieve their main roles stipulated in the Bible. The shape of the church does not change its nature and work. I pray that the coming days will witness a revolution in how we perceive our ecclesiastical identity so that we can escape from the fear of losing influence or of playing the role of a numerical majority or a ruling power, and engage more in actions that achieve God’s purpose for us in our country. I hope that our understanding of worship will evolve beyond familiar and traditional forms to become worship that is not determined by any form, but rather by concern for God-centeredness. I hope that we will become more involved in edifying the body of Christ to be transformed into his image. I pray that our main concern will be to announce the Good News in a world full of bad news as we show Christ to a suffering world. In Lebanon and throughout the world, even if the building is absent, I pray the Church remains present. By God’s grace, it will.