The Church: What is it?

Introduction

After seeing how important it is to love the church it is important for us to understand exactly what it is we are supposed to be loving.  So, what is the church?  Have you ever thought about this question before?  On the one hand this is a simple question.  Every Sunday as we pull up into the church parking lot our girls yell out “I see the church!”  But are they right; is what they see what the NT has in mind when it refers to the church?

“The English word church, as is true of the Scottish kirk and the German Kirche, is derived from the Greek word κυριακός, kyriakos, which means “belonging to the Lord.” The Greek phrase τό κυριακόν, to kyriakon, came to be used to designate the place where Christians met to worship and in time was transferred also to the people themselves as the “spiritual building” of the Lord.”[1] So in a sense my girls are right when they say they see the church.  However, the NT has a much bigger view of the church which goes well beyond a building.

Today I want to provide a brief definition of the Church.   The goal of this is to help us better understand the church, and God’s plan for the church.

General Definitions

When it comes to defining what the church is, it is important to understand that the New Testament uses the term church in two senses:

a. The universal church

The first sense in which the NT uses the term “church” is what you might call the “universal church.”  In the universal sense the church consists of all those who have been reconciled to God through the blood of Christ.  In other words, if you are truly a Christian then you are a part of the church.  Hebrews 12:23 refers to the universal church when it speaks of “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.”  Revelation 5:9 teaches reveals that the Universal church consists of individuals from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”  This is an amazing thought.

When we think of the church in a universal sense it should remind us of the incredible work that God is doing throughout the world.  Throughout the world the universal church—God’s called people—are being used to grow His kingdom.   Jesus had this universal sense of the church in mind in Matthew 16:18 when He said, “I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”  Jesus clearly did not have a church building or an individual congregation in mind when He made this statement.

b. The local church

There second sense in which the New Testament uses the term “church” is what you might calls the “local church.”  This is most frequently what the New Testament is referring to when it speaks of the church.  By biblical standards a local church can be indentified by three activities:

  1. Preaching of the Word
  2. The Ordinances Performed (i.e. Lord’s Supper & Baptism)
  3. Church discipline is done.

In light of how the New Testament defines a local church we can say that the local church is a localized and specific manifestation of the universal church. Think about it, if there were no local churches how could the universal church exist?  Without local churches there would be no preaching, no ordinance, and no discipline.  This is only a small list of the things that would be missing from the universal church if there were no local church.  This is why one author said that, “a local church is a visible, tangible, real-world expression of the body of Christ.”[2]

It has become fashionable to ignore the local sense of the church in favor of the universal sense.  Some people even go so far as to say that they do not have to be a part of the local church because they are a part of the universal church.  However, this is an idea that is entirely alien to the New Testament. God intends for His people—the Universal Church—to meet together in a local context to fulfill His mandates for the universal church.  This happened almost immediately in the book of Acts, and became the standard pattern throughout the New Testament.  Throughout the New Testament we find believers gathering together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10) in their local contexts to corporately worship God.  A disciple of Christ not being a part of a local congregation was unheard of to the New Testament authors.  In fact, Hebrews 10:24-25 says,

let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

This passage makes it absolutely clear that in order to be a faithful member of the universal church a disciple of Christ must not forsake the regular gathering of believers.  In other words, you have to be a part of the local church.  Furthermore, as we will see when we look at the biblical images of the church next week, it is impossible to faithfully be a part of the universal church without being a part of a specific local church.


[1] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1998), 804–805.

[2] Joshua Harris, Stop Dating the Church, p. 45.

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One Comment

  1. Once again, excellent post Paul. You’ve really made clear the biblical meaning of both the universal church and local church, as well as the biblical importance of actually being a part of the local church–the manifestation of the universal church. Thanks brother; truly edifying; makes me “fall” in love with the church and the Lord of the church every time I’m reminded of it.

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