What is a Church?

November 25, 2005

by Steve Owen

Following on from a discussion of “What is a Christian?”, comes the question, “What is a Church?”.

I suggest that it is nothing else but an assembly or gathering of Christians.

The Greek word translated ‘church’ is Ekklesia. It has a secular meaning, that of ‘assembly’, which is found three times in Acts 19 to describe the Town Council in Ephesus (vs 32 & 41) and the Court of Law in that city (v 39).

When used in its Christian connotation, it has two meanings. Firstly, it designates a single congregation. Paul writes to ‘The church of God which is in Corinth’ but also to ‘The churches of Galatia’. Nowhere are the congregations of one area put together and called a ‘church’. Paul writes, ‘I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea…’ (Gal 1:22 ). The church in Corinth may well have been split into ‘House Groups’ for much of the time since it did not have its own building, but it was able to meet together as a body on regular occasions (cf. 1 Cor 14:23 ), and so Paul refers to it as a single ekklesia.

Secondly, ekklesia is also used to describe the whole people of God, the entire body of Christ. Paul writes that, ‘I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it’ (Gal 1:13 ), but when he met the Lord on the Damascus road, he was asked, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ This usage may be said to represent that great assembly of all Christians which is described in Rev 7:9ff.

So we can see immediately that when we speak of, ‘The Medieval Church’, ‘the Church in Europe’, ‘the Church in Iraq’, ‘the Afro-Caribbean Church’ or, God forbid, ‘the Gay and Lesbian Church’, we are using ekklesia in a way that is unknown in the Bible. We should use the plural, or speak of ‘Christianity in the Middle Ages’ etc. Nor should we speak of buildings as ‘churches’. The church is the people. There is the story of the evangelical minister of a church that met in a beautiful old building. As he was opening it up in preparation for the morning service, he was approached by two tourists. “May we see your church please,” they asked. “Certainly,” he replied. “It will be along in about an hour!”

We make a serious error if we describe denominations as churches- ‘The Methodist Church’ or ‘the Church of England.’ Far too often when people speak of ‘my church’, they are thinking of their denomination. Most denominations are utterly different from what they were when they were founded; rot and decay set in, and they rarely come in through the pew- a denomination is like a dead fish; it decays from the head down.

People often say, “I will never leave my church while it keeps to the Confession of Faith.” But a confession is not a church either. Confessions are not abandoned openly, or not at first. They are made of no effect when men affirm them whilst making ‘mental reservations.’ The man in the pew imagines that he is still in a confessional church, while the Bishops or Presbyters have secretly abandoned the confession and are busy training up ministers who have no allegiance to it. Within two generations of the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Presbyterian churches in England were utterly apostate. The same thing happened even in Geneva.

But even where a church is utterly faithful to its confession, it can still be a dead thing, because it is possible to subscribe to every jot and tittle of a confession and to have no spiritual life, but only a dead orthodoxy. A church is not a confession, it is Christians. It is an assembly of people as described in my previous article- those who have been born again by the power of the Spirit, who have repented of their sins and trusted in Christ crucified for salvation.

A church is the people described in Acts 2:41-47. They have gladly received the word of God, been baptized, and now they meet together, learning more of the faith, joining together in the Lord’s supper and in prayer, looking to each other’s needs, having joy in their hearts and praising God together.

A church is the people described in 1 Cor 1:2-8. They have been set apart in Christ, called in holiness, have received undeserved favour and peace from God; their knowledge of God and their witness to Him comes from the Holy Spirit, who has given them corporately all the gifts they need to function as a church, as they eagerly await the return of their Lord who will preserve them in Him until that day.

In other words, a church is Christians. There is much talk of a ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ Church, but this finds no support in Scripture. Many commentators have tried to import the concept into the Bible, mangling most wretchedly the Parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:24-30 ) by claiming that the field represents the ‘visible’ Church. It does not! Our Lord has given us the interpretation of that parable, and ‘The field is the world’ (Matt 13:38 ). The Church, as we have seen, is made up of Christians.

That there will be those who join a church but are later found not to be Christians is admitted. Jude writes, ‘For certain men have crept in unnoticed’ (Jude 4 ). Those who prove themselves not to be Christians, whether by their behaviour or their doctrines are to be put out of the church (1 Cor 5:13; Titus 3:10 ). Discipline is an integral part of a true church. Initially it is aimed at producing repentance (2 Cor 2:6-11 ), but if that is not forthcoming then exclusion is made permanent, because unbelievers are no part of the Church of Christ (cf. 1 John 2:19 ). We are instructed (2 Cor 6:14-17 ), ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of the Lord with idols?………Therefore, “Come out from among them and be separate,” says the Lord. “Do not touch what is unclean and I will receive you.”’ There are two sorts of men in the world- those who ‘walk according to the flesh’ and those who ‘live according to the Spirit.’ How can these two sorts of men enjoy spiritual unity? It is impossible. We may and should invite our unbelieving neighbours to attend church services so that they may hear the word preached (1 Cor 14:24-25 ), but we must not knowingly tolerate unbelievers within the church membership.

Did the Church exist in the Old Testament? Well, in the sense that the Church is the people of God, then, yes. There were true believers in Christ before Christ. But they did not assemble together as believers. Israel was not the Church. Presbyterians point to Acts 7:38, which describes Israel as the ekklesia in the wilderness, but all that this means is that the Israelites assembled together as a body before the Tabernacle. But Israel was a ‘mixed multitude’; some indeed were truly the Lord’s people, but the large majority knew nothing of the Lord experientially (eg. Isa 1:9; Jer 5:1-2 ). Israel by no means met the definitions of a church that we have seen above.

In the first appearance of ekklesia in the Bible, the Lord Jesus declared, ‘I will build My church’ (Matt 16:18 ). The tense is future. Our Lord laid the foundations of His Church during His time on earth. Ephesians 2:20 tells us that this foundation is that of the ‘apostles and prophets’, and whether we believe that the prophets were of the Old or New Testament, clearly there were no apostles before the time of Christ. If there was a church in Old Testament times, then it can have had only half a foundation! In fact it is clear that Paul is speaking of the New Testament prophets since he couples apostles and prophets a little later in the letter (Eph 4:11 ) in a context that is obviously New Testament.

The Lord Jesus is continuing to build her even at this present time (Eph 2:21-22 ); she is His Church, His bride; He has purchased her with His own blood and she is a chaste virgin. As it is written, ‘In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord of Hosts’ (Zech 14:21 ). It is the duty of the leadership of each individual church to seek to make the assembly in its charge as pure as possible (2 Cor 11:2 ).

The Church is composed of those who have come out of the world to join it. They are no longer what they were (Eph 5:8 ). Peter speaks of them as ‘sojourners and pilgrims’ (1 Peter 2:11 ). Paul told the church at Philippi, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20 ), and to the Colossians he said, ‘[God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love’ (Col 1:13 ). The church at Thessalonika had, ‘Turned to God from idols to serve the true and living God’ (1 Thes 1:9 ). They came out of the world and into the Church. Now some will say immediately, “Ah, yes. But this refers to the invisible church. In the visible church there are many who are in the world and in the church at one and the same time.” Perhaps, but as we have seen, this is simply not the language of Scripture. When Paul writes to the church at Colossae, he is addressing, ‘The saints and faithful brethren in Christ’ (1:2 ) He knows nothing of a ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ church, but only an assembly of true believers. It is true that there are exhortations to the believers to examine themselves (2 Cor 13:5 ), and warnings against falling away (Heb 6:4-8; 10:26-38 ), but the writer to the Hebrews remains confident that the recipients of his letter will remain constant (Heb 6:9; 10:39 ).

A major characteristic of the Church is that of unity. This suggestion may cause a sharp intake of breath, and indeed Paul had to exhort the Corinthian church in this respect (1 Cor 1:10); but a church is not a debating society, she is compared in the Scripture to a body, a family, a building, a commonwealth. All these comparisons point to a unit; and where a unit is, there should be unity. Dr Lloyd-Jones wrote*:-

‘This unity is emphasized right through the whole of the New Testament. We are told by the Lord Himself that it is to be a visible unity, It is to be something that the world can see “in order that the world may know”, he says. “that Thou hast sent Me”, and that He is in us and that we are in Him. The world is to ‘see’ this; the church is to manifest and demonstrate a visible unity. In other words, a church is not a place where men come together in order to seek for truth, or where they may have what is now called a ‘dialogue’ in order that they may be able to smooth over their difficulties. It is not a place of argument and discussion in order that you may ‘arrive’ at something. No, no! The word that is used about people who become Christians is this: “They were added to the church.” Why?………..Because of something that had happened to them………. You can only become a member of a church in the New Testament after the discussion is over. It is only ‘because’ certain things had happened to them that they were added to the church.’

Lloyd-Jones goes on to make a most interesting reference to the building of the Temple at Jerusalem. The stones that formed the Temple were chiselled into shape before they were brought to the Temple site to be placed in the wall (1 Kings 6:7) so that no sound of cutting or hammering was heard as the building was erected. The work had already been done before the stones were put into place. In the same way, ‘You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:5). Our own spiritual ‘chiselling and cutting’ has already happened before we join the church. The people whom ‘the Lord added to the church daily’ (Acts 2:47) were those who had known conviction of sin (Acts 2:37), had repented (v38) and had trusted in Christ for salvation (v44). In brief, they had been born again. Lloyd-Jones declares that the only man who is a member of a church is a man who has got new life, for ‘the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor 2:14). The question is not, ’are you a Methodist or a Presbyterian?’ But, ‘have you been born again?’ If not, whether or not you attend a place of worship each week, whether or not you have a membership there, you are not in the church (Acts 8:21). Christ is the Head of the Church. If He is not your Head, then you are not part of the body.

Therefore, although there may be disagreement between individual assemblies over secondary issues like church government or administration of the Lord’s Supper, there is unity over the basics: the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, the deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His atoning death and resurrection, justification by faith alone and so forth. An assembly that does not hold to these fundamental truths is no church at all, but a synagogue of Satan. These are the very ‘things of the Spirit of God’ of which Paul speaks. It is not a matter of dead orthodoxy, but the unity of those who have been born again. The unity of an individual assembly is not preserved by glossing over contentious issues, but by appointing a church leadership which will ensure the preaching of the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27 ) and lead the church to grow into unity around the word of God (Eph 4:7-16 ).

Another distinguishing feature of a true church is love. The Lord Jesus told the apostles, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ). We are to love all Mankind, even our enemies, but our first duty is to our fellow Christians (Gal 6:10 ). The first church made sure that there was no one within its ranks who was in need (Acts 4:32-37; 1 John 3:16-18 ). The members of a church are frequently a diverse bunch of people! They will often be from different social and economic groups, be of differing intellects, have individual personalities and have come from varying church backgrounds. Some may have very little in common with others, save a love of the Lord Jesus Christ. But that which draws them together is greater than that which separates them. ‘If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?’

* Unity in Truth ed. Hywel Rees Jones (Evangelical Press, 1991 ).

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