What is the church?

“Church” is an integral subject to Christianity. During His earthly ministry, Jesus addressed this topic. He said, “upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).

The Greek word which is translated church in our New Testament is “ekklesia,” which means “called out.” Let’s consider first what the church/ekklesia is not, then look at what it is. The church is not:

A physical building, made of wood and nails or brick and mortar.  We might use a shorthand “church” to refer to the church building or house – the place where the church meets. But in no sense is the building “the church.”

A state organization. In some countries, the church is the  government-sanctioned religion. Our Constitution discourages this type of approach to religious matters, so those in the United States would likely not have much confusion about this subject.  Jesus emphasized the non-worldly aspect of the church when He said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36).

A denominational organization. “Denomination” is used with money to indicate different values, and in a religious setting, it indicates different parts of a larger “church.”  Earl Radmacher, in his work The Nature of the Church, wrote: “People often speak of the various denominations or church, as, for instance, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church; but this use of ekklesia is never found in the Scriptures” (p. 150).

Now let’s look at how “church” is used in the New Testament.

In a general sense, “church” refers to the body of baptized believers over whom Christ reigns as Head and in whom His spirit dwells.  We can follow this definition by carefully reading Acts 2, especially beginning in verse 36 and continuing to the end of the chapter, verse 47: Jesus is Lord (v. 36), those who believe this should be baptized (v. 38), those who are baptized are added to His body (vv. 41, 47), and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, which includes salvation from past sin and all its attendant blessings (vv. 38, 47).

“Church” is used in two senses with regard to this group: 

Church is used in a local sense, in which it refers to Christians who assemble and function together in a particular geographic area. Revelation 2 contains letters from Jesus to seven different local churches, each of which is identified as a church at a particular place. Jesus had this in mind in Matt. 18:17, in which a dispute would be resolved among members of a local assembly.

Church is also used to describe the universal, collective group of all Christians wherever they may meet.  Jesus gave Himself for this entity (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25). We can be part of it today (I Cor. 12:13).