What is the Church?

June 14, 2017

Ekklesia, the Greek word often translated in our Bibles as “church,” means “an assembly” or “called out ones.” The Church are those sanctified in Christ Jesus—called to be saints—who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). Christians are the Church.

 

There is only one Church in the universal sense; the saved believers in Jesus of all generations are the Church. Jesus refers to the Church in this sense when he says, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). There is also the church in the local sense: an assembly of believers in a particular region. For example, the apostle Paul mentions “the churches in Galatia” (Galatians 1:2). The Book of Revelation was originally written to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 1:4). Paul taught his ways in Christ “everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). One Universal Church made up of all believers, many local assemblies of believers in all places.

 

In scripture, we learn that the Church is the Body of Christ. Christians have been baptized into one Body and are individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:13, 27; Romans 12:4-5): Jesus baptizes those who believe in Him into His Body—the Church—with the Holy Spirit. Everyone in the Body of Christ is made to drink of that one Spirit, equipped for service to God (Eph. 1:13; Luke 3:16; 1 Cor. 12:13). Jesus is the head of the Body and its Savior (Eph. 5:23; Col 1:18).

 

The Church is also the Bride of Christ, who has made known the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 5:32; Eph. 3:10). Jesus died for His Church, the Bride (Eph. 5:25). He gave himself up for her, having purchased her with his own blood, that he might wash and sanctify her--redeeming from lawlessness and purifying for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works, to be presented to himself without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish (1 Peter 1:18-19; Eph. 5:27; Titus 2:14). He nourishes, cherishes, cleanses, and clothes her (Eph. 5:26, 29; Rom. 13:14). The Bride of the Lamb—the holy city to come—will have the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, when she descends out of heaven from God at the revelation of the New Heaven and New Earth (Rev. 21:11).

 

Not only is the Church described as the Body and Bride of Christ, but also as His Temple. The Church is the household of God and a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). It is a spiritual house of living stones built upon Jesus Christ, its Rock and foundation: a Holy Temple in the Lord, in which God’s Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 3:11; Matthew 16:18; 1 Peter 2:5; Eph. 2:19-22).

 

The Church is led by Jesus Christ though the Holy Spirit that indwells His Temple (1 Cor. 3:16). The Holy Spirit apportions a variety of gifts as He wills to each member of the Body of Christ for its common good to be built up and cared for (1 Cor. 12:11). “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28). The Body is “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, caus[ing] the growth of [it] for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). The gifts and offices of the Church are supplied “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

 

This Universal Church that is being built up consists of many local assemblies. The local church is to meet together often (Hebrews 10:25). Jesus says that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Though assemblies today often meet in buildings, the buildings are not and do not define the Church: rather God’s people do. The Early Church of the first century often met in homes (Acts 2:46; Col. 4:15), scattered due to persecution (Acts 8:1). Paul says to the Romans: “Greet also the church in their house” (Romans 16:5). The Early Church, for the first few centuries, had to deal first with opposition from the Jews and then later from Rome. Persecution of the Church was not uncommon (1 Cor. 15:9). Perhaps “house church” was and is a needed safe-haven for the persecuted Body of Christ.

 

In the United States, there is freedom of religion and a separation of church and state. As such, people can openly worship how they choose. However, some are skeptical that registering as a church under the state makes it susceptible to state control: that Christ should be the head of the Church, not the state. That does not currently seem to be the case in America, but times can change. How far would a church today go to maintain its “501c3” status if the government became more involved in the Church’s affairs with strict regulation?

 

There are some countries, however, where the Church is persecuted or controlled by the state rather than protected. The Chinese government, for example, does not allow unregistered churches to have church buildings. Any gathering of believers with more than 40 people is required by law to register with the government, meaning the government can monitor and maintain social control of such gatherings. For this reason, many members of these churches congregate in their homes, forming "house churches."[1]

 

Recently, the Chinese government is clamping down on registered Christian Churches. “Zan Aizong, a local journalist who became an Evangelical, says the government is trying to clamp down on churches and faith without causing a global outcry. Officials ‘use the legal system,’ he says. ‘They go after crosses and building codes because it will not cause an uproar abroad. They want to turn Christianity into Chinese Christianity, controlled by the party.’”[2] We can see from history what happens when the state takes control of the Church; starting with Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, Christianity became Rome’s state religion (Catholicism) for many centuries.

 

Russia itself has a history for state-dominated religious persecution: “The Soviet Union was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion. Toward that end, the Communist regime confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in the schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by state interests.”[3]  It has been estimated that the total number of Christian victims under the Soviet regime ranges between 12-20 million.[4]

  

And then there’s the Middle East, where Christians are currently the target of genocide. Not only are they not protected by the State in regions, but they are hunted down, persecuted, and killed. Often Christians there must meet in secret or face death. In the face of this adversity from the world, the Church is called to “stir up one another to love and good works” in the local assembly and encourage one another, meeting together often—strengthened in the faith. (Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 16:5). The Church is to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated” (Hebrews 13:3).

 

Whatever the cultural and social conditions surrounding the local Church, the Bride of Christ is called to go out into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel, making disciples and teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded (Mark 16:15; Matthew 18:20). She is to submit to Christ, giving God glory in Christ’s preeminence (Eph. 5:24; Eph. 3:21; Col. 1:18)—eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27; Matthew 26:26), gathering to report and declare to each other all that God is doing (Acts 14:27). She is to be separate and holy—clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27)—enduring afflictions and sufferings for the sake of the Gospel with steadfastness of faith (Col. 1:24; 2 Thess. 1:4).

 

The Bride is to be united in mind—not contentious—and without divisions (1 Cor. 1:10; 1 Cor. 11:16): instructing others, preaching the Gospel, carrying out acts of grace, and giving to the poor (1 Cor. 14:19; 2 Cor. 8:19). The Church welcomes, greets, loves her members, and prays over the sick (Acts 15:4; 3 John 1:10; Romans 16:16; 2 Cor. 8:24; James 5:14). “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). Devoted to the apostles’ teachings while acknowledging their authority (3 John 1:9; Acts 2:42), the Church grows: she multiplies, is built up, and increases in numbers daily (1 Cor. 14:4; Acts 16:5; Acts 9:31), walking in the fear of the Lord and comfort of the Holy Spirit, making intercessory prayer for those in need, and sending out evangelists (2 Cor. 8:18; Acts 12:5; Acts 15:22; Acts 15:3; Acts 9:31).

 

In scripture, the local assemblies of believers are often identified by their geographical location: “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:1). Appointed among the local assemblies are Elders, Overseers, and Deacons (Titus 1:5; Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1, 10; Acts 20:17; Acts 20:28). They teach, lead, serve, and care for God’s Church, helping to ensure it is of a sound mind and in order (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:5; 1 Cor. 14:23; 1 Cor. 14:40). The members are to be subject to the Elders/Overseers of the congregation who labor in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17; 1 Peter 5:5). They are to care for one another, sacrifice for each other, and bare each other’s burdens (1 Cor. 12:25; Romans 16:4; Gal. 6:2).

 

There are some who devote themselves entirely to the ministry of the Word, while others labor to temporally provide for those in need (2 Cor. 11:8; Acts 6:2-4). The Church is to have all things in common, sharing their temporal abundance with each other as there is need (Acts 2:44-45). Called to generosity, the local church assemblies are to enter into partnership in giving and receiving with those who preach the Gospel (Phil. 4:15; 3 John 1:6); they are also to take up collections for the saints in need (1 Cor. 16:1).

 

The local assemblies are not to be completely isolated from the larger Church Body, but are to be in fellowship and partnership with the greater Church, holding others accountable and being held accountable to God’s Word; the churches are to be strengthened by each other. Rather than stagnant islands of local assemblies, the Church should be a living organism, with the gifts among the local assemblies spreading abroad (Proverbs 18:1; 1 Cor. 12:14; Col. 4:16; Proverbs 27:17; 2 Cor. 8:23; Acts 15:41).

 

The Church must purge herself of evil (1 Cor. 5:13). She must judge herself in matters pertaining to this life (1 Cor. 5:12; 1 Cor. 6:3), holding her members accountable to the standard of teaching entrusted her (Matthew 18:17; Romans 6:17). With Christ, she will someday judge the world and angels (1 Cor. 6:2-3).

 

Throughout the age, the Church must guard herself against apostasy, and yet remain assured in the promises of preservation and continuity. The Bride of Christ has been justified, is being sanctified, and will be glorified. This is her destiny—an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven—eternal life (1 Peter 1:4).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] K.K. Yeo, “Church and State in China,” The Christian Century (January 19, 2006): 31-33.

 

[2] Robert Marquand, “In China, a church-state showdown of biblical proportions,” World: Asia-Pacific. January 11, 2015. The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2015/0111/In-China-a-church-state-showdown-of-biblical-proportions (June 19, 2017).

 

[3] Library of Congress, “Anti-Religious Campaigns,” Revelations from the Russian Archives. August 31, 2016. Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/anti.html (June 19, 2017).

 

[4] James M. Nelson, “Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality,” Springer ISBN 0387875727 (2009): 427.