The Nature of the Church: Perceiving the Church of Christ
The Scriptures indicate rather clearly that the church is very important (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 5:22-33); unfortunately, there is much confusion in the religious world regarding the nature of Christ’s church. There are many churches in the world believing and practicing different things; churches are even divided in how they understand divisions and the church! It is easy to see why so many despair of being able to discern the church that belongs to Christ. People honestly want to know: where is Christ’s church? How can I be a part of it?
Let us take courage, however, and recognize that we assuredly can perceive Christ’s church. To do so requires us to investigate, from the Scriptures, the nature of the Church of Christ. Let us return to the fundamentals of the nature of the church so that we may be able to perceive the Church of Christ!
When most people hear the word “church”, they will most often think of either a building or an organization. While this is understandable in terms of the modern religious climate, neither idea is inherent in the New Testament concept of the word. The word we translate as “church” is the Greek ekklesia, which means “assembly”. While “church” in English has an exclusively religious meaning, ekklesia in Greek simply represented either an actual gathering of people or a community having a shared identity. The New Testament itself uses the term not only to describe groups of Christians but also an unruly mob (Acts 19:32), and a local political legislative body (Acts 19:39). Ekklesia does not refer to a building in the New Testament, and while any group of persons requires some level of organization, we do not see any organization of any ekklesia in the New Testament that is as structured and developed as most modern denominations are today. Christ’s church, therefore, is an assembly: a grouping of people who are Christ’s. It is interesting to see that Christ names the body of His followers the ekklesia (cf. Matthew 16:18), and throughout the New Testament it remains the only name given to the body. Many designations are given: church “of God”, churches “of Christ”, church “of the Firstborn”, “the Way,” “the sect of the Nazarenes,” and so on (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2, Romans 16:16, Hebrews 12:33, Acts 9:2, Acts 24:5). While many denominations may use some of these designations today, such does not automatically mean that they belong to Christ, as we shall see.
The idea of the church as a group of people can be further understood by looking at how God describes these people: the Christians that comprise the church. The ekklesia, or church, of Christ will not be some motley crew or band of renegades; Paul calls the Christians in Corinth “saints” in 1 Corinthians 1:2, indicating that such persons will be holy and that their conduct will set them apart from the world. Another term constantly used is “brethren” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:10), representing the close nature of the association that ought to exist among fellow Christians: all are brothers and sisters of the same Heavenly Father. In all of these terms we see no indication of any significant organization or structure implied in Christ’s church.
What, then, is the Church of Christ? What is this collective of persons? The New Testament uses the term in different senses of the “church”. Quite often, “the church” represents what is often called the “universal” church, the assembly of all those whom Christ recognizes as His own. Such is the case in Ephesians 5:22-33, Matthew 16:18, and many other passages. The New Testament uses the same term, nevertheless, when referring to local assemblies of Christians, like the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), or the church in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Such local assemblies represent the collective of Christians in a given area who come together to build one another up (Hebrews 10:25). Christ is indeed the Head of the church, either considered universally or locally (Ephesians 5:23-26, Revelation 2-3). The local churches are to be overseen and shepherded by elders who meet certain qualifications and served by deacons who also meet certain qualifications (Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 3:1-12, Titus 1:5-7). The organization of churches, however, does not extend beyond the local congregation in the New Testament. Christians in different churches certainly had knowledge of and some interaction with each other (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10), yet churches did not exercise authority over one another. Local churches in the New Testament were autonomous, or self-governing, each with Christ as its head and directed by its own elders and served by its own deacons. While some may despair of trying to understand whether a given passage speaks of the universal or a local church, we can rest assured that context will more often than not allow for easy identification.
Now that we have seen how the church is organized, we can now discover who is in the Church of Christ. The New Testament is very clear that there is one body, as assuredly as there is one Lord and one faith (Ephesians 4:4-6). Christ is said to have one body: if Christ is the head, we surely cannot expect Him to be the head of many bodies (cf. Ephesians 5:23-33)! The universal church, then, comprises of all persons known to Christ: all those who have become obedient to Him and whom He will save on the final day (Romans 6:16-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18). Ideally, the local church would simply be the manifestation of the living members of the universal church in a given location; the Scriptures indicate, however, that not everyone who may comprise a local church of Christ are part of the universal Church of Christ (cf. Thyatira, Revelation 2:18-29), for some may be in sin known to God but not known to their brethren. Indeed, part of being obedient to God is to assemble with other Christians as part of a local church, yet one is not saved by merely associating with a local church of Christ; one must be obedient to God and be part of the universal Church of Christ to be saved (cf. Hebrews 10:25, Romans 6:16-18).
God, in His wisdom, established the church for us. We are weak in the flesh, and we require constant encouragement and edification if we are going to endure the fiery darts of the evil one (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18, Hebrews 10:25). What good is an assembly that does not assemble? As we have seen, Christ’s church does exist on the earth, but it is not a building nor is it some elaborate organization: it represents the universal collective of persons who strive to serve God, and the living members of that group assemble in local assemblies to build one another up. Such is the church of Christ, and we encourage you to be a part of Christ today!
Ethan R. Longhenry