What is the church? Part I

Published 10:45 am Wednesday, March 1, 2017

We ask the question, “What is the church?” as we begin our Membership 101 articles. 

David Platt defines the church this way: “the church is the body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify him by serving him in this world.” I think Jonathan Leeman’s definition is also insightful: “a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.”  But let’s dig in a little deeper with eight characteristics of the church found in the Bible, five of which will be addressed in this first article.

First, the church is a creation by Jesus (Matthew 16:18).  Jesus built and builds his church. 

Second, the church is both universal and local. Ephesians 5:25 gives an example of the universal usage of the word, “husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church. …”  This is referring to all Christians in all places, not one particular local church.  But then the church is local, referring to a specific congregation.  Out of the 109 times the New Testament church is mentioned, at least 90 of them refer to a specific local gather of believers.

Third, the church is both visible and invisible. The visible church is those who are on the membership roll of the church. It is who we say this side of heaven is a part of a local church. But the invisible church is the true church as God sees it.  2 Timothy 2:19 states, “The Lord knows those who are his. …”  There are false believers in every congregation.  Some will even be false teachers (Acts 20:29-30). And God knows who truly has repented and believed in Jesus and who truly has not. 

Fourth, the church is an assembling of people, not a building.  1 Peter 2:9-10 refers to the church as “a people for his own possession.”  The Greek word that we translate as church is “Ekklesia.” This word is used 114 times in the New Testament.  It literally translates as an assembly, a gathering. The “church” we meet in is not the church but the meeting place for church, the gathering of God’s people.

Fifth, the church is both institutional and organic. The church is institutional in that it has structure. It is to have overseers (pastors) and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13). It is to practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper (See Matthew 28:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). And Jesus even requires the church to distinguish who is a believer and who is not a believer (Matthew 18:17, a text we will explain in detail in another article). In other words, having a Bible study in your home is not a church if it doesn’t have such structure.  But the church is also organic. For example, evangelism should overflow from our passion for Jesus like it did in John 4 where the Samaritan woman went back to the town and told everything that just had happened with Jesus. Through the spirit, community naturally grows between believers as we see in Acts 2:42-44.  Organic means some things should not be programmed. Some things don’t need to be put in the church constitution. They should just happen because we love Jesus.

In the next article, we will continue with three more characteristics of a church to finish answering our question “What is the church?”

Matthew Homan is the pastor of Eureka Baptist Church. His email address is matt@eurekabckeysville.com.