WHAT IS "THE CHURCH"?
By Eddie Cloer
"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" (Ephesians 1:22,23).
A man from another country
and culture wanted to come to the USA for an extended visit. Having worked hard to
learn English, he believed that he was ready for his trip. He made his
trip to America, and soon after his arrival, his knowledge of English was put to the test.
He went into a small grocery store to buy several items. At the check-out
counter, he was told how much he owed. Efficiently, he reached into his pocket,
took out his money, counted the right amount, and handed it to the clerk. He put
his groceries in a sack and started to leave. As he was going out the door, the
clerk kindly said, "Come back!" The visitor stopped, turned around. and
came back to the counter. The clerk said, "May I help you?" Somewhat
confused, the man said, "You told me to come back!" The man had taken an
expression which meant "Thank you for your business; let us help you again
soon," and had interpreted it literally. His
mistake in understanding the
clerk's intended meaning resulted in a failure in communication.
All of us have had his kind of experience. We knew the words which were spoken to us, but we did not understand how those words were being used by the one speaking to us. We understood the words but completely missed the meaning that was being conveyed.
Anyway you look at it, communication is difficult. Much is required of the speaker and of the hearer for actual communication to take place.
Honesty with God demands
that we carefully search for the
meaning which God intended
for his message.
Let us apply the process of communication to the study
of the Bible. For profitable communication between the Bible and us to take place, we must
not only listen to the words that we use, but we must also seek the meaning which the inspired writer had in mind as he chose these words. This
means that we must make an effort to understand the context in which a word or sentence
appears. Honesty with God demands that we carefully search for the meaning which God
intended for His message.
The word "church" is familiar to most of us. God talks to us at length about this word in the Scriptures. For communication to occur between God and us regarding this word, we must be willing to go into the biblical world and see the word meanings, illustrations, and thought forms which were used by Jesus, the apostles, and the other inspired men who wrote the Bible through Gods Spirit.
What is "the church"? As the New Testament uses this word 114 times1 in various contexts, in seventeen of its twenty-seven books2 , what is being communicated to us? When Jesus established the church, what did He build?
1 Ethelbert W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975), 153.
2 Ibid. Mark, Luke, John, 2 Timothy, Titus, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John, and Jude do not have the word "church" in
A SPIRITUAL BODY
First, we must recognize that the church is a spiritual
body, the very spiritual body of Christ.
A picture which usually comes to our minds with the word "church" is a physical building in which worship takes place. The word is never used in the New Testament, though, to convey this meaning.
In the Scriptures, the word "church" denotes the body of those who have yielded to the gospel of Christ and have been redeemed by the blood of Christ in their assembled, local, and universal senses.
First, the body of the redeemed as they assemble or gather to worship God is called "the church." As Paul rebuked the church at Corinth for their lack of unity when they gathered, he used the word "church" for the assembly of Christians. He said, " when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; " (1 Corinthians 11:18).
Second, "church" is used for the body of the redeemed in a definite locale. The body of redeemed ones at Corinth is called "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:2).
Still further, "church" is used for the totality of the redeemed ones throughout the world. Paul referred to the church in a universal sense when he said, "For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body" (Ephesians 5:23).
Let us apply these New Testament uses of the word "church" to a specific event in Acts. The many residents and visitors in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) heard the external manifestations of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and gathered around the apostles to see what was taking place. As Peter preached to the multitude, he convinced them that Jesus was both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). In anguish of soul, many cried out, "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). Since faith prompted their crying out, Peter did not need to tell them to believe, but he did need to tell them to do what they had not done--to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38). Three thousand gladly received the way of salvation, repented, and were baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, 41).
Notice how Luke described what took place on that day. He first described the converts in terms of what they had become (Acts 2:41). Those who were obedient to the Word of the Lord were made into the Lord's church. They became part of a fellowship, a group. Second, Luke described them in terms of their new behavior. They had a new life in their behavior toward God (Acts 2:42). This body of redeemed people worshiped God and received divine apostolic instruction. They had a new life in their behavior toward each other (Acts 2:44, 45). They looked out after each other, by bearing, sharing, and caring--bearing each other's burdens, sharing with those in need, and caring for each other. This body of believers is referred to later in Acts as "the church" (Acts 5:11).
When these redeemed ones in Jerusalem came together to worship God, they were "the church" (in the assembled sense). All the redeemed in Jerusalem could be referred to as "the church in Jerusalem" (in the local sense). As that church grew and spread, all the redeemed people in the world at that time could be referred to by saying, "When Jesus comes again, he is going to receive His church (in the universal sense) and take it to heaven."
A LIVING ORGANISM
Second, we need to see the church as a living organism.
Some think of the group of saved people called "the church" as an organization, as some kind of human club. They view it as something one joins or pledges himself to, and nothing more.
As a body of redeemed people, the church is a living organism, not a human organization. The church which Christ established is living and vibrant with God's life and blessings; it is not a manmade group which is energized completely by man's wisdom, designs, and activities.
Paul described the church at Corinth as the temple, the sanctuary, or the dwelling place of God. "Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwells in you?" he said in 1 Corinthians 3:16.3 Later, in 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20, Paul pictured the individual Christian as the temple of God as he condemned fornication as a sin against a person's body. First Corinthians 3:16 is a reference to the church, not the individual Christian.4 Paul was affirming that God dwells among His people. He dwells in His people individually (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20) and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16). In Old Testament times, God's dwelling place was the tabernacle in the wilderness and later the temple in Jerusalem; but in the Christian Age, according to Paul, God dwells in His church, His people.
3 The Greek language has two words for "temple": naos and hieron. The word Paul uses for "temple" in this passage
is naos, not hieron. Naos refers not to the temple proper, the sanctuary, not the temple complex as does the word
hieron. Paul is affirming that the body of Christ is the dwelling place of God.
4 In this sentence the "you" is second person plural in the Greek text, indicating that a group of people are under
consideration, not just an individual as in 1 Corinthians 6;19, 20.
church can be likened to a living building. As Paul was illustrating what
the Ephesian Christians had become, he said that they comprised a building which
was made up of Christians and was in a constant stage of growth. Paul
said, "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" (Ephesians
2:21, 22). The building he described rests upon the foundation of the
apostles and prophets, with Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.
The superstructure of the building is made up of Christians. The building
has no top or roof; it continually ascends upward as people obey the gospel and
are added to it.
The church, then, is not an organization--it is a living organism inhabited by the Spirit of God. It is a body of Christians who are alive with the life of God and who form a dwelling place for God's Spirit. you could say that the church is God's earthly residence.
AN INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP
Third, the church should be thought of as an intimate relationship with Christ.
From the earthly viewpoint, it would be easy to think of membership in the church in terms of entering a special relationship with a group of people, with the people who make up the church. This view of the church, however, misses a significant truth. The church involves a vital, intimate, ongoing relationship, to be sure, but that relationship centers on an intimate relationship with Jesus.
This relationship which the church sustains to Jesus actually is so close to Him that it is described as a body/head relationship, with Christians being the body and Jesus being the head. God has made the church the spiritual body of Christ, the invisible part of the invisible Christ on earth today. As surely as the Lord while on earth needed a physical body in which to accomplish His work of redemption, He now needs a spiritual body in which the fruit of His redemptive work can e made available to everyone, everywhere. On the first Day of Pentecost, therefore, ten days after His resurrection from the dead, the Holy Spirit descended to form the church, that spiritual body of Christ. From that day until this, every redeemed person, at the time of His redemption, is placed by the wondrous grace of God in that body.
Thus, the church in the New Testament is commonly called by the inspired writers "the body of Christ" (Ephesians 1:21,22; 5:23). Those who obey the gospel of Christ become, and literally function as, Christ's spiritual body on earth, led by the head, Christ Himself. So true is this that when one is baptized, the New Testament specifically says that he is baptized "into Christ" or "into His body" (Romans 6:3; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27.
As a body of redeemed people,
the church is a living organism,
not a human organization.
church has the closest relationship to Jesus into which a person can enter upon
this earth. The church is the fullness of Christ, for his body is the
fullness of Him who fills all in all
(Ephesians 1:23), and Christ is the
fullness of the church, for we are complete in Him
(Colossians 1:18). All
that the head of the church is and has is the possession of the church, and all
that the church is and has in the possession of Christ, our head. As His
church, therefore, we experience a daily, continual partnership with
Jesus. In Christ, we are not just professors of Christianity; we are
possessors of Christ. In His body, the fountain of the fullness of Christ
is open to us.
As Paul discussed the church in Ephesians 5, he compared its relationship to Christ by using the figure of the husband/wife relationship, with the husband illustrating Christ and the wife illustrating the church. He referred to this relationship first in principle. Christ is the head of the church even as the husband is the head of the wife (Ephesians 5:23). He spoke of this relationship second in practice or function. As the wife is to be subject to he husband in everything, even so the church is to be subject to Christ. it is to look to Jesus as its head, leader, and guide (Ephesians 5:24). Finally, Paul discussed this relationship in purpose. As a husband loves his wife, Christ loves the church and is preparing this body of believers in Him to live with Him in eternity (Ephesians 5:25-27).
The church of the New Testament, at its heart, is a relationship with Christ. It is not initially a relationship with people, but it immediately results in a relationship with other Christians, the other members of the church, even as the children of the same father are secondarily related to each other. Members of Christ's body are members of each other, but, first and foremost, the church is Christ's body. To be members of Christ's church we must enter a relationship with Christ, a relationship so intimate and special that we are part of Him even as a body belongs to the head.
Many are confused on the proper meaning of the word "church."
Such confusion need not exist, for the Bible is clear on its meaning.
What is "the church"? It is a spiritual body made up of those who have obeyed the gospel of Christ, have become His people, and are worshiping, and working as His people in a given community. They wear His name and are His spiritual body on earth. They honor Christ in all things. This spiritual body is a living organism in which dwells the spirit of the living God; it is not a human organization. it is not just membership in a group. It is an intimate, ongoing relationship with Christ.
The church, the body of Christ, is entered by faith. This faith response involves repentance
QUESTIONS FOR STUDY
Think of a time in your personal experience when a failure on your part
notice how a word or phrase was being used by another person resulted
in a breakdown in communication. Relate the instance.
2. Discuss the significance of the context in understanding a given verse of
Scripture. Is the meaning of various words indicated by the context?
3. How necessary is it to ascertain how the Holy Spirit is using a word in the
Scriptures? Relate this importance to His use of the word "church" in the
4. Give a simple but complete definition of the word "church" as this word
is used in the new Testament.
5. Discus the different ways the word "church" is used in the New
Testament, and give examples of each use.
6. Apply the different uses of the word "church" to those who became
Christians on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
7. What implications does the truth that the church is the temple of God
have for our lives today? Does this designation suggest how we are to
live, work, and worship?
8. In what sense is the church a "living" building?
9. What does the "body" concept suggest about the nature of the church?
10. In what ways can the husband/wife relationship illustrate the church's
relationship to Jesus?
11. Describe clearly how one enters Christ's church.
12. In what sense does the church uniquely belong to Christ?