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Lesson 1: What is the Church? (Various Scriptures)

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April 2, 2017

Since I plan to spend the next few weeks preaching on what the Bible says about the church, it’s important that we begin by making sure we’re all on the same page regarding the question: What is the church? The answer is not as simple as you may think!

If you were to ask people on the street, “What is the church?” you’d probably hear, “It’s that building on the corner of Beaver and Benton Streets.” Sometimes we use the word in that way: “I go to the old stone church that is next to NiMarco’s Pizza on South Beaver Street.” But we all know (or should know) that the church is not a building, but rather the people who meet in that building. The building may look like a typical church, with a steeple and a cross on top. Or, it may be an industrial building remodeled into an auditorium and classrooms. In many countries, churches meet in houses, as the early church did. So buildings are not the church. Rather, it’s the people who are the church.

But, even if we all agree that the church is the people, we still need to clarify what the church really is, or at least, what it’s supposed to be. Some might think that the church is the place where you go to meet other nice people. Hopefully, the church generally has a crowd that’s a notch above the local bar! So the church meets a social need.

Others might go to church in the hopes that if they attend church, God will help their lives go better. He will help their businesses. He will bless their families. Some guys go to church because it makes their wives happier. As long as his buddies aren’t doing something more interesting, he’ll tag along to please his wife.

Among those who claim to be born again, the prevailing American view is that you attend church to worship God and get spiritual nourishment. It’s a lot like going to the theater, but with a spiritual focus. When you go to the theater, you sit and watch the show that the film makers and actors have put together for your enjoyment. You may see a few of your friends in the lobby before or after the show and stop to chat. But that’s about the extent of your involvement. You’re a religious consumer and the church provides religious goods. So you attend the church that provides what best meets your and your family’s needs.

Over thirty years ago, I wrote an article titled, “The Best Show in Town?” (You can read it on our church website.) I critiqued the way that many pastors cater to this consumer mindset by trying to put on “the best show in town” every Sunday. The goal is to attract more and more people to attend your “show” so that the offerings increase and you can hire more staff to make the show even more attractive to potential customers. So pastors and their staff members rack their brains and comb through ministry magazines for new ideas on how to get more people to come to your “show.” The church with the most people wins.

The result of this approach is mega-churches with parking lot attendants, a coffee bar that rivals Starbucks, professional “worship” teams that perform with concert level quality, short sermons that speak to the felt needs of the “customers,” and facilities offering midweek exercise programs, along with free babysitting.

But even with all these amenities, many millennial Christians would rather just stay home in their pajamas, sip gourmet coffee, and maybe catch their favorite preacher online. They think, “Why do I need the church? The church is out of touch with where I’m at. It’s full of judgmental old people who are obviously uncomfortable with my tattoos and body piercings. I’d rather just stay home and surf the web for spiritual input or meet with my friends and talk about subjects that concern us.” They don’t see any point in being committed to a local church.

One of my aims in this series is to change your understanding of the church from the prevalent consumer mindset to a biblical view so that you will commit yourself to a local church that, although imperfect, is seeking to be what the Bible prescribes. In this message, my main point is that …

To be committed properly to the local church, you must understand biblically what the church is.

I’ll offer biblical definitions of the local and universal church and then cover a few of the biblical metaphors used of the church.

1. Biblical definitions of the local and universal church:

A. The local church is a gathering of those who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, who are committed to meet regularly for worship, teaching, fellowship, and prayer, and who help make disciples of all people.

There are simpler definitions, but in my opinion, they either are not comprehensive enough or they miss the mark in other ways. For example, Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 853, italics his) gives a succinct definition: “The church is the community of all true believers for all time.” While that definition recognizes that the Greek word, ecclesia (literally, “assembly,” but usually translated “church”) is used of God’s people in the Old Testament, it fails to recognize the distinct nature of the church as beginning on the Day of Pentecost, consisting of all who are under the headship of Jesus Christ, having been baptized by the Holy Spirit into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:22-23).

While I agree that God has always had a community of true believers, we need to understand that there is a distinct difference between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament church, which is the body of Christ. James Boice (God and History [IVP], p. 63) points out:

… the church has characteristics that cannot rightly be applied to the Old Testament assembly and which therefore set it off as something new. The church (1) is founded on the Lord Jesus Christ, (2) is called into being by the Holy Spirit, and (3) is to contain people of all races who thereby become one new people in the sight of God.

Mack Stiles is on target when he writes (9 Marks online article, “Nine Marks of a Healthy Parachurch Ministry”),

The church is the God-ordained local assembly of believers who have committed themselves to each other. They gather regularly, they teach the Word, celebrate communion and baptism, discipline their members, establish a biblical structure of leadership, they pray and give together. Certainly the church may do more, but it is not less than this.

Going back to my definition, note first that the local church is a gathering of those who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. This means that the church consists of those who meet together because they believe the gospel. Each member believes: I am a sinner who deserves God’s righteous judgment. He sent His eternal Son, Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, to pay the penalty of death that I deserve. He promises that all who believe that Jesus died for their sins and was raised from the dead receive forgiveness of all their sins and eternal life as a free gift. Genuine saving faith includes turning from my sins and growing in obedience to the commandments given by Jesus and His apostles in the New Testament. This belief in the gospel is at the core of true local churches.

Also, those who have believed in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are committed to meet regularly for worship, teaching, fellowship, and prayer. Acts 2:42 reports of the early church, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Elsewhere, Paul instructs the church (Col. 3:16), “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” These and other similar texts spell out the essential activities of the church when we gather each Lord’s Day.

Also, from my definition: The local church is a gathering of those … who help make disciples of all people. This is the Great Commission that the Lord gave us (Matt. 28:19-20a): “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” This command was not just for the apostles or for missionaries who are called to go to foreign cultures. Every Christian should be involved in the process of making disciples (obedient followers of Jesus), whether locally or globally. This includes sharing the gospel with those outside of Christ, helping other believers grow in Christ, and being informed and committed to the cause of Christ worldwide.

Also, it’s important to note that the Bible never uses the word “church” to refer to the building where God’s people met, but almost always to the cities where they met: The church in Jerusalem, Philippi, Corinth, Rome, etc. In many cases, there were probably too many believers to gather in one location each Sunday, so they met in numerous houses throughout the city. Probably each house church had at least one pastor or elder who was responsible for shepherding, oversight, and teaching that flock.

But the church in a city was viewed as one local church, governed by a plurality of elders. Watchman Nee put it (The Normal Christian Church Life [International Students Press], p. 59), “A local church is a church which comprises all the children of God in a given locality.” To be honest, with all of the many Protestant denominations in every city, I don’t know how to recover this as a reality. But the overall point is, the local church is a gathering of believers in Jesus Christ, under His lordship, and committed to one another to help fulfill His saving purposes.

B. The universal church consists of all believers worldwide whom Christ has saved from the Day of Pentecost until He returns.

After describing God’s people at Mount Sinai (Heb. 12:18-21), the author of Hebrews (12:22-24) draws this contrast:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

The author was trying to impress on these Jewish believers in Christ, who were tempted to return to Judaism, the superiority of the church over the Old Covenant people of God. We are a part of this great company of all people everywhere who have believed in Jesus and His shed blood. While in one sense that includes Old Testament believers, who looked forward to Christ, in another sense there is a contrast between them and us, in that we are actually members of His worldwide body, the church.

You have no doubt had the same experience that I have had, where you have met someone from another country who is very different culturally than you are. They may only speak broken English. But when you discover that he or she is a believer in Jesus Christ, there is an instant bond of fellowship. Although you both normally meet with believers in very different places around the globe and your church meetings may look very different, you both are members of the one universal body of Christ.

To further help understand what the church is, let’s look at a few biblical metaphors for the church. There are dozens in the New Testament, but I pared it down to seven. Even at that, I can only comment very briefly:

2. There are many biblical metaphors that help us understand what the church is.

A. The church is the body of Christ, the head.

This is perhaps the most familiar description of the church. Paul uses it extensively in 1 Corinthians 12 to make the point that all believers are members of the one body of Christ. He states (1 Cor. 12:13): “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” He doesn’t mention in that chapter that Christ is the head of the body because his aim is to emphasize both the unity and diversity of the church. Just as in a human body there are many members but each has a different function, so in the body of Christ. Each member has a spiritual gift to be used for the overall good of the body. We’re different, yet we’re one body.

Going along with the point that the church is Christ’s body is the truth that Christ and the church make up the “one new man.” Adam, the first man, fell into sin. But what Adam (“the old man”) lost, Christ (“the new man”), recovered. While most modern translations convey an individual sense to the “new man” (NASB, ESV, NIV = “new self”), Paul’s point is that the new man is corporate: Christ and the church (Col. 3:9-11):

Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self [man] with its evil practices, and have put on the new self [man] who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.

Paul also states that Christ is the head of His body, the church (Eph. 1:22-23): “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Among many practical applications is that each member of Christ’s body must be in submission to Him as the head and in a complementary relationship with other members of the body.

Also, the most important characteristic of bodies is that they are living. While bodies are highly organized, the organization is useless if there is no life. The church is the organic, living body of Christ. Its members must be alive spiritually through the new birth.

B. The church is the bride of Christ.

Paul presents this image in his discussion of the respective roles of husbands and wives (Eph. 5:22-33). Lest we think that he is limiting his discussion to marriage, he states (Eph. 5:32): “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” The apostle John presents the same imagery (Rev. 19:7-8; 21:2, 9; & 22:17): the church is the bride, the wife of the Lamb. The main application is that we are to relate to Christ in love, as a bride relates to her husband, and that we are to thrive in the knowledge that He loves us and chose us to be His bride.

C. The church is the family (or household) of God.

In Ephesians 2:19, Paul states, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.” (See, also, Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:17). The family imagery is also seen in the many places where God is called our Father and we are called brothers and sisters in the Lord. We are God’s children through the new birth (John 1:12-13; Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 3:26; 1 John 3:1-2) and also through adoption (Rom. 8:15, 23; Eph. 1:5).

In addition to assuring us of God’s fatherly love and care for us, this truth affects our mindset toward the church. If the church is a Sunday program that you attend, then you go for what you can get out of it. But if the church is the family of God, then you’re a member with your brothers and sisters. Families gather for fundamentally different reasons than audiences do. Families get together for relationships because of the common family bond. Family members don’t threaten to go join another family if there are conflicts or if the family gatherings aren’t meeting their needs. The family bond keeps them together so that they work out their differences in love. Or at least that’s what should happen in Christian families and in the family of God!

D. The church is the temple of God.

Referring to the church, Paul writes (Eph. 2:21-22): “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” In one sense, a believer’s body is individually a temple of God, but in another sense, the entire church is God’s temple (1 Cor. 6:19; 3: 16-17). This means that He dwells in our midst and thus we must be holy in all our behavior.

E. The church is the flock of God.

Paul challenges the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28): “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Peter commands the elders (1 Pet. 5:2), “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.” This means that the church belongs to the Lord, not to any pastor or elder, and that church leaders are shepherds, responsible to the Lord to care for His flock.

F. The church is the pillar and support of the truth.

1 Tim. 3:15: “but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” Paul mentions the metaphor of the church as the household of the living God, but then adds that the church upholds and supports the truth. In this day of widespread departure from the truth of God’s word, the church must stand firm in proclaiming and practicing the truth. A main task of elders is that they must hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

G. The church is the kingdom of God.

The relationship between the church and God’s kingdom is complicated, and many books have been written on it (George Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom [Eerdmans], is helpful). In Colossians 1:13-14, Paul writes, “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:12, Paul states his aim, “so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” (See, also, Acts 8:12; 19:8; 28:23; 1 Cor. 4:20; Rom. 14:17). God’s kingdom has broken into the world through the church, but it awaits a completed form when Christ returns and rules over all the earth (What is the Mission of the Church? Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert [Crossway], p. 117).

The practical application for us is that in the church we live under the rule of Jesus Christ, our King. We serve His purposes. We proclaim His rightful lordship to others, seeking to bring them into submission to His rule. We do not make up our own ideas about what the church should be, but rather submit to the teaching that he has given us in His word.


The main thing that I want you to see in this message is that the church is not a place you attend for spiritual input two or three times a month if you don’t have anything better to do. We’re not here to provide the best show in town for your spiritual enjoyment. If you’ve trusted in Christ, you’re organically joined to other members, so that you’re one body with them under the Head. You’re a member of the family of God, related to other family members, with a God-given ministry to fulfill.

The idea that a Christian could live his or her independent spiritual life separate from the life of a local church is foreign to the New Testament. God wants every part of the body to work together, causing “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16).

Application Questions

  1. How would you define “the church”? How is the New Testament church different than God’s people in the Old Testament?
  2. Think about and discuss some other applications for the various New Testament metaphors of the church. Which ones do you need most to apply?
  3. Discuss the implications of this statement: Families gather for fundamentally different reasons than audiences do.
  4. How can we change the common mindset of Christians so that they change from being spiritual consumers to serving members of the body of Christ?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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