This article was written to accompany the ‘The Church’ hangout.
- If you were asked ‘what is the Church?’, how would you answer? Try to explain it in simple terms, without using any Christian jargon.
What Is ‘The Church’?
In the Greek New Testament, the word used for ‘church’ is ‘Ekklesia’. This was not a particularly religious word, and simply meant a gathering of people assembled together in a public place.
Whilst this bare-bones etymological definition of the church is true, it is far from complete. In fact, standing alone it could be quite misleading.
The church is more than a gathering assembled in a public place. Anybody could do that, but it would not make them the church. What defines the church is its relationship to God. Among the metaphors used are a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:22), the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12:27), the ‘bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9), and the ‘people of God’ (Titus 2:14).
One of the striking ways in which God affirms the church as his own people is when Peter takes the same language that God had used in his covenant with Israel and applies it to the church:
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all people for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
Peter is emphatically identifying the church as the people of God.
One of the most common phrases in the Bible is, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7 – see also Leviticus 26:12, Jeremiah 30:22, Ezekiel 36:28 etc.) In some instances, this was applied to Israel, though by the end of the Old Testament it had been prophesied that this statement would apply equally to the nations that had been drawn in. Zechariah, for example, says, “And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people.” (Zechariah 2:11 – see also Zechariah 8:8).
In the New Testament, Paul applies these words to the church (2 Corinthians 6:6), and Revelation celebrates the New Creation as the fulfilment of this promise. “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3)
The church is his people. He is our God.
- What are some of the practical implications for day-to-day church life of the church being the people of God?
What Should the Church Be Like?
Calling the church ‘the people of God’ is not an abstract definition. It is a truth that shapes and defines the church, both in theory and in practice.
Whilst there are verses in the Bible (some of which are shared above) that seek to give definition to what the church is, there are many others that exemplify what it means to be the church.
The Acts 2 Church
A popular example of this is found at the end of Acts 2. Following Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, 3000 new believers are added to the original group of 120 disciples of Jesus. These people formed the church in Jerusalem, led by the apostles, and we are given a description of what the life of this church was like. Given that the description is presented right at the start of the book and in such positive terms, it is very likely that Luke sees the practice of this church as a model for what the church should be like as it lives out its identity as the people of God.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)
In this church, we see the following characteristics:
- They were devoted. Their participation in the church was not just something they did in their spare time, but a core identity as the people of God.
- They were They sat under apostolic authority. Today we are able to benefit from both the teaching of the original apostles (as recorded in Scripture) and the ongoing ministries of contemporary apostles.
- They were As a people, they shared their lives together, frequently spending time with each other, sharing meals and meeting one another’s material needs.
- They were They built acts of worship into their lives, breaking bread as they shared meals together, showing devotion to prayer, attending the temple together, meeting in small groups to worship Jesus and expressing thankfulness for their food, they made sure they were not just a community gathered together but a community gathered together as God’s people.
- They were evangelistic. Every day, new believers were added to this church, no doubt through a combination of people seeing their community and being drawn in, and believers going out and sharing the gospel with others.
THINK IT THROUGH
Look at the list above of the characteristics of the Acts 2 church.
- For each characteristic, describe in what ways you see that characteristic in your own church.
- Are there any of the characteristics that you would like to see your church (or you personally) grow in? What can you do to start this process?
The Mark 1 Church
An interesting question to consider is how the apostles managed to plant the kind of church that has inspired pastors for centuries at such short notice.
The Jerusalem church was birthed out of a management crisis. Their group had grown 2400% overnight, leaving the challenge of what to do with all the new converts.
Their answer was as simple as it was brilliant. They did the same things that Jesus had done with them.
In many ways, the church that the apostles led in Acts 2 followed the model of the community that Jesus gathered in Mark 1. He called together a group of disciples to share life as a community of people living devoted to God. He took them on a mission, and promised that they would have evangelistic success (‘I will make you become fishers of men’). He showed his supernatural power, doing miraculous signs and creating a sense of awe. He taught with all authority, as the chief apostle of the faith.
Later in the disciples’ journey with Jesus, he sent them out two by two on a short-term basis to do the things he had been doing (see Mark 6:7-13) and made sure they were experienced and equipped to react when he poured out the Spirit and saved thousands of people. It was by doing the things that Jesus did with them that the apostles were able to see the Jerusalem church thrive.
The same DNA that was at the heart of the community that Jesus gathered, became the core of the Jerusalem church, and then of Barnabas and the Antioch church, and of Paul and the churches planted across Europe, and of many churches across the world, as the Spirit continues to move and the word continues to spread.
Jesus was the archetypal church planter, and it is from the community that he started in Mark 1 that the practical expression of the church as the people of God takes shape.
The Multi-Dimensional Church
THINK IT THROUGH
- What does the Bible mean when it says ‘church’? Is it always the same thing?
Consider how the word ‘church’ is used in the following verses:
- Ephesians 1:22
- 2 Corinthians 8:19
- 1 Corinthians 11:18
- 1 Corinthians 16:19 (think about both uses of the word in this verse)
There are at least 4 different ways the Bible uses the word ‘church’, and we must consider each of them to gain a fuller understanding of what the church is.
1 – Church in the World
Sometimes when the Bible uses the word ‘church’, it is referring to the fellowship of all believers across all times and all places, or in the words of Paul, “all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
This is what is referred to in Ephesians 1:22, as well as verses like Acts 20:28 and Matthew 16:18.
Being part of the church across the world means that as individual believers and as local churches we get to share in the promises that Jesus made concerning his entire church, we get to participate in something worldwide, we get to think and speak well of other churches as teammates and siblings rather than rivals, we get to stand together with Christians who are being persecuted, and we get instant common ground with fellow believers across the world.
2 – Church in the Region
On other occasions, the church is thought of in a more regional way.
The book of Acts tells the story of Jesus’ apostles trying to spread the gospel across the known world. Their strategy was to go to the major city of a given region (Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, etc.), plant a church in that city, and then move on. Once this had happened, they considered the ministry of the gospel to be fulfilled in that region. Paul put it this way in Romans, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” (Romans 15:19)
Paul was not implying that there was nothing more to do in these places, but rather he was saying that a church had been planted in each of those regions that could take responsibility for reaching the whole of its region.
Examples of this include reference to “the saints who in the whole of Achaia” (2 Corinthians 1:1), “the churches of Asia” (1 Corinthians 16:19), and “the churches” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Another way of thinking of this is that the global church is in fact a community of communities, as the churches of different regions stand together as the church of Christ.
3 – Church in the Town/Village
The idea of the apostles planting churches into the major cities of each region was that those churches would then plant into the surrounding towns and villages.
In these specific ‘local churches’, believers would gather together (1 Corinthians 5:4), participate in worship services (1 Corinthians 11:18), and use spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:26).
For many people this is the dimension of church life with which they are most familiar, but it is important to understand it in the context of the other dimensions.
The global church is a community of communities made up of the churches of each region, and in each region the church is also a community of communities made up of the churches of each town or village.
4 – Church in the Home
The final way the Bible talks about the church breaks it down yet further and talks about church in the home. We have already seen Acts 2 say of the Jerusalem church, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” (Acts 2:46) As Paul signs off his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings from the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 16:19)
Within the large Jerusalem church, believers would regularly meet in their homes, and it seems like there was a house church meeting at the house of Aquila and Priscila (others are mentioned at Chloe’s house and Stephanus’ house).
These are often referred to in contemporary churches as home groups, missional communities, or even house churches, and such contexts are invaluable for the health of believers as they allow an even greater degree of shared life and participation together in the church than any of the other dimensions of the church.
The global church is a community of communities made up of churches in each region, that are each communities of communities of churches in towns and villages, that are each communities of communities of churches meeting in homes.
However far down you drill into the church as the people of God, you find that at its heart is community, which is exactly as it should be for the people gathered in the name of the One who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
THINK IT THROUGH
Think through how the different dimensions of the church are worked out in the following contemporary models of church:
- The parish model
- The mega-church model
- The multi-site model
- The cell church model
Do you feel there is one of these models that most enables the church to operate well in all four dimensions? Or perhaps you can think of a different model entirely?
The Marks of the Church
Much attention is given is contemporary literature to the marks of the church, and to the characteristics that need to be present in a congregation in order for it to be truly considered a church.
Though there are differences between the different lists of marks that are compiled, there is also considerable overlap.
Some of the suggestions that have been made for marks of the church are listed below:
- Regenerate church membership –a local church is made up of people who have been born again. This may be recognised through a formalised membership register, or through a more informal process.
- Plural leadership –the church needs to be led by a team of elders.
- Biblical preaching –the church needs to regularly receive teaching from the Scriptures. Some would argue this would need to be systematic and expository whilst other would define it more loosely.
- Administration of the sacraments –the church needs to administer the sacraments that Jesus instituted; namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those who argue for baptism as a mark of the church may do so either from a stance of paedo-baptism or credo-baptism, whilst some of those who argue for the Lord’s Supper would insist that it is shared every time the church gathers, whilst others would have a slightly more relaxed view on the matter.
- Practice of church discipline –being a member of a church implies living a life worthy of our calling as believers. Whilst each of us stumbles in many ways, there are occasions of wilful and unrepentant sin, where somebody is not willing to stand with other members of the church to pursue holiness but would rather continue in their unrighteousness. In such an instance, the credibility of the witness of the church as a whole calls for the leaders of the church to act. Such action is called church discipline, and follows a process that is outlined in Matthew 18, starting with a private meeting, and potentially concluding with expulsion from the church. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
- Baptism of the Spirit –whilst there is variety in the terminology used, some would consider it to be a mark of the church that it consists of those who have a second blessing experience of the Holy Spirit.
- Mission–the church must be active in sharing its faith with others.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Which of the marks listed above would you consider to be essentialfor a church (if the mark was absent, then it couldn’t be considered a church), which would you consider desirable (it is a good thing to be present, but there could exist a church without it), which would you consider to be neutral (it is of no benefit whether it is present or not) and which would you consider unhelpful (it would be better if it were not present)?
The Nicene Creed refers to ‘one holy catholic apostolic church’. For each of these words used to describe the church, write down what it means, what Biblical support there is for it, and how it can be lived out in our local experiences of church.