What is the church?
The word for the church in the Greek is ekklēsia. This means those who are called out and set apart. The church is not a building. So the question is not ‘What is the church?’ but rather ‘Who is the church?’. We as a people are the church. We are the ones who have been called and set apart. In times gone by people have taken this meaning too far and have actually separated themselves from the world. But that’s not what God intended. We are called to be in the world, but different from the world, so we can influence others for God. He has chosen you and me to be part of a church and to accomplish His purposes here on earth. It’s a huge honour. But where there’s a calling there’s also a responsibility. Spiderman also realised this. He said, ‘With power comes great responsibility’.
The definition of church also indicates it is a group. We are not alone. In the Old Testament when someone started to believe in Jehovah, the God of Israel, they became an Israelite, they immediately became part of the community of Israel. This is important because the Hebrew thought is always plural. When the Bible talks about saints, it’s always plural. Not Greek philosophical individualism, where one person is the hero the hero. In Hebrew thought God is the hero. We are a community of God, and God is the hero.
So we can summarise it into the fact that the church is the Christ centred community of God’s people.
The Universal Church
The Bible uses the word church in 2 different ways:
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.Eph 1:22,23
There is only one church and it is made up of believers. These are all the redeemed who look to Christ as their Saviour, in all places at all times. There is only one church, one ‘body’.
The local church
The Bible also refers to specific churches in specific places at specific times. Acts 11:22 refers to the ‘church in Jerusalem,’ 1 Corinthians 1:2 refers to the ‘church of God which is at Corinth,’ and 1 Thessalonians is addressed (in 1:1) ‘to the church of the Thessalonians’. So we can see that the universal church is subdivided into believers that are gathered in a geographical location in one place at one time. God has given us brothers and sisters, relationships, so that we can gather and worship God together. We love each other, and want the best for each other.
The moment someone is born again, they automatically become part of the universal church, one of God’s redeemed children. But God also intends for them to become a member of a local church, a particular community, which is a specific expression of the universal church in a particular place.
In liturgies in some of the more traditional churches, the church is described as holy, catholic and apostolic. We are a holy people, set apart for God. We need to be different, because it’s the difference that attracts people to God. If the church is similar to the world, why would anyone want or need to become part of it? We are a catholic church in the sense that we are universal. This is not referring to the Roman Catholic church that works in parts of the world. The original meaning of the world means that we are universal, we are all members of the body of Christ. We are apostolic because our faith is built on the teachings of the apostles and prophets, ie the Scriptures.
As local churches we need to keep true to the Biblical model that God has given us for the governing of the body of Christ. In Rev 2 and 3, we see the early church falling away from God. It’s important for us to stay true to the structure and pattern that God has given to us.
The Local church is not a para-church or Christian ‘organisation’. Para-church organisations are not in the Bible. God wants to work through the local church. These organisations should collaborate with, strengthen and train the local churches, in order to build the body of Christ.
There is a difference between the essence of what we believe and the form in which we express it. We all believe in worshipping God, but our expression of how we do that changes through the ages. Essence is the doctrine, life, ministry and mission of the church – it is unchanging through the ages. The form is the “external clothing” giving a cultural flavour to the church. Trying to be culturally relevant in form should never dent or undermine our essence.
Biblical pictures of the church
The church is multi-faceted. No single picture depicts or fully expresses the richness of what the church is. God in His wisdom has shown the church as a metaphor of many different things in order to highlight different aspects. We need to take all the pictures together in order to have a full understanding of the church. Here are some of the metaphors used in Scripture to describe the church:
1. People and Nation of God
God always had a universal agenda for the salvation of all the nations. Israel played a key role, as he called them to be an example to the nations around them, and the nation through which the Messiah came. Now there is one way of salvation for all, through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, and believers are now the people and nation of God.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.1 Peter 2:9
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.Eph 2:19
What does this mean for us? We have supernatural origin. God has called us, He has elected us. With this comes a sense of privilege and responsibility, as we represent Him here on earth.
2. Family and household of God
(Eph 2:19; Rom 8:14-17; Gal 3:26-4:7; John 1:12; 1 John 3:2)
We are sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters together. We are living in God’s house. He’s our Dad. He cares for us deeply and we have a wonderful close relationship with Him. God has an individual relationship with each of His children. He knows us through and through. His house is a safe place, where our wonderful heavenly Father is looking after us.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.Gal 3:26-29
We are also heirs. Our Dad is the richest Father in the universe. He has incredibly good things for us as part of our inheritance. He has prepared a life eternal for us.
3. Building and Temple of God
(1 Cor 3:9-17; Eph 2:20-22; 1 Pet 2:4-8)
What happended in the temple and who lived there? God! The very presence of God lives in the church. God Himself is present. We have God, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?1 Cor 3:16
Every single person has a special place in His building. God has placed us as living stones in His building. He’s a good architect and knows what to do with us. The Greek word for stone is Lithos. This is not a rough stone, but a stone which has been carefully worked and shaped. Every believer is an important part of His building.
Jesus is the foundation of God’s building. There is no other foundation.
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.1 Cor 3:11
God dwells in the church not only in its individual members, but also in the church corporately. When we meet together in corporate worship, the Holy Spirit is present amongst us. He unites us as a spiritual community, and with His presence we are able to meet one another’s needs and minister to the world.
4. Priesthood of God
(1 Pet 2:5,9; Rev 1:6)
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood.1 Peter 2:9
In the Old Testament, the priest represented the people before God. Only one priest was allowed in to the Most Holy place where God’s presence dwelt. But now we are all priests. We can all enter His presence. And who do we represent? The multitude of unbelievers. We pray for them, intercede for them, and witness to them.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.Heb 13:15-16
As priests we are also called to offer up to God a sacrifice of prayer and worship.
5. Army of God
(Matt 12:29; 16:18; 2 Cor 10:3-5; Eph 6:10-18)
Jesus is the rider on the white horse (Rev 19:11) who is absolutely victorious. He wins every battle He participates in. We are called to be warriors of light. This can be in evangelism, in prayer for healing, deliverance and intercession. As the army of God we also fight ideas, we preach Scripture when others live contrary to what God is saying. The church is in the field of reconciling relationships, and taking social action to fight poverty, injustice and exploitation.
As God’s army we need to be fit and prepared for the battles ahead. We do this through discipline, obedience, training, and using His weapons, armour and tactics.
6. Body of Christ
(Rom 12:4-6; 1 Cor 12:12-27; Eph 4:1-14)
The church being described as the body of Christ is the most commonly used metaphor for the church. This has several implications:
- There is unity of the body. Jesus can only have one body (a head with many bodies would be a monster).
- There is only one head, and it’s Jesus (a body with many heads would also be a monster).
- There is an intimate and essential relationship between the head and the body, between Jesus and His church.
- The body has many different parts; people, gifts and ministries, that are all important for the functioning and growth of the body.
- The church is His body, Christ’s ‘hands and feet’ here on earth to carry on His work in the world.
- One cannot love the head but hate the body, so believers are called to be united as they serve and love one another.
Jesus is the head of the church. This speaks of His authority and pre-eminence over His body (Col 1:18; Eph 1:22-23). He plans, decides and directs. He also resourcing, initiates and sustains His body (Eph 4:16; Col 2:19). He gives life, growth and maturity. Jesus must be the head in all aspects of the church and not in name only. All church ministries, all preaching, all structures, programmes, etc. need to have Jesus as the focal point.
7. Bride of Christ
(Song of Songs; Eph 5:22-23; Rev 19:6-9)
The church has been chosen and elected by God because of His great love for us. As His bride, He showers us with favour, gives us promises, and delights in intimacy. The church is His treasured possession here on earth, and despite all her faults, God continues to love and minister to His bride.
God and His bride have a good relationship in this age, but it will be fully consummated with a life together in the age to come.
8. A Pilgrim People
(Philippians 3:12-16 cf. Ps 84:5-7)
The church is always moving forward, it is always on a journey to maturity, and her the task is never completed. She is always pressing on to take hold of the things for which she is called. Our true home lies elsewhere, so we never fully settle or become fully comfortable here on this earth in this age (Philippians 3:20; Heb 11:10,13-16,39, 13:14; 1 Pet 1:1,17, 2:11).