It is deeply moving to find in Scripture the truth that Almighty God loves and cares for each person in His vast creation. The Psalmist expressed his delight with the thought that he was intimately and personally known by God even before birth (Psalm 139:13-17). This loving care caused God to give His only begotten Son that each one might be saved from perishing (John 3:16). As individuals we must receive the Lord Jesus (John 1:12). The new birth is as single an event as physical birth (John 3:5). Even growth and development depend upon personal response to God. These thoughts may tempt us to believe that we are solitary believers in the eyes of God, living individualistic lives. This is far from the Scriptural picture.
To be one of the children of God is to be a member of His family (1 John 3:1; Ephesians 3:15). We are collectively “the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9-10; Revelation 21:3). God sees us as a colony of heaven upon earth, while citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20). Biblical references to the followers of Jesus Christ are overwhelmingly in the plural. These include such terms as “believers” (Acts 5:14), “disciples” .Acts 9:1), “saints” (Ephesians 1:1), “brethren” or “brothers” (James 2:1) and less frequently, “Christians” (Acts 11:26) [It should be noted that, in the Bible, we are never called “laymen” or “laity,” meaning “common people,” or distinguished from what men call “the clergy.”] Most New Testament letters are addressed to groups of believers. We are seen as living together in a unity with one another and with Christ (Ephesians 2:5-6, 21-22). We are meant to function together, not as separated parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). In apostolic times, the Lord added daily to the fellowship of believers those who were saved (Acts 2:47). This fellowship was called the ekklesia, translated into English as “church.” This was a practical, local and functioning body of believers. The plan and purpose of God is for each believer to be a part of such a fellowship.
Definition Of The Church
The word “church” conveys many thoughts which are remote from the true meaning of ekklesia. Some think of it as a building. “The church is on the corner.” It is thought about in terms of services or a sum of various meetings. “We go to church on Sundays.” It is sometimes seen as activity-oriented or a group of functions. “We have always been very active in church.” Frequently, it is conceived as an institution or organization. “We belong to the Roman Catholic Church.” These ideas have grown around the word church without any reference to Biblical meaning.
The first part of the word ekklesia means “out of and the second part “ is related to the verb “to call.” It is literally a called out company or gathering. The same word is used in Acts 19:32, 39, 41 for a mob called together to cry out against the preaching of the disciples. It was the ordinary word for an assembly or gathering of people. The word is taken up by the Lord and applied to the calling together of people by God to Himself. He calls us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). We are called into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13). Ekklesia, as it applies to believers in Christ in the Bible, refers to the people of God—not buildings, services, functions or organizations.
Two Aspects Of The Church
In Scripture there are two aspects of the ekklesia—the church, universal and local. The universal church means the whole of those who have come to Christ since Pentecost, both living and dead, including those of every tribe and nation. When the Bible says, “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25), it speaks of the whole. This is also true of references to the church as His Body (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4) of which He alone is the Head (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18). It is evident that such have never been together in one place or part of one earthly organization. As a divine unity, it exists in the mind of God at this time and therefore is sometimes called “mystical.” This is the one, true church founded upon the New Testament apostles and the prophets, of which Jesus Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). The Holy Spirit alone makes us members by joining us in union with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:17; Ephesians 5:30). Such a conception was a mystery in the times of the Old Testament and the four Gospels (Ephesians 3:4-5). Jews and Gentiles were not then brought together on equal terms (Ephesians 2:11-16; 3:6). The church of Christ was yet to be built (Matthew 16:18). It was formed by the baptism of the Spirit in joining believers to Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13) beginning on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:4; 5:11). The church of Christ differs from Israel as the congregation (or church) in the wilderness (Acts 7:38). The Jew, Gentiles and Church of God today are distinguished from one another (1 Corinthians 10:32). The nation of Israel is how described by God as “not My people” (Romans 9:15; Hosea 2:23). All believers in Christ, in the Biblical sense, and none other, are the people of God now.
Being a part of the universal church does not excuse one from being active in a local church. Those who first believed in Christ were baptized and added to the local fellowship in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41). They were together with the other believers, participating in their common life (Acts 2:42-44). Churches were rapidly established in neighboring areas (Acts 9:31; 15:41; 16:5). They spread to other provinces of the world such as Asia (1 Corinthians 16:19), Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:1) and Galatia (Galatians 1:2). They were called the “churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16), “the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16) and the “churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33). Sometimes they were designated by the city in which they met, such as Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), or as the residents of that city, “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thessalonians 1:1). For perhaps two centuries, they apparently had no public buildings of worship, and commonly met in homes (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15). They had a simple leadership structure among the saints, called the “overseers” and the “deacons” (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1), both in the plural. Single leadership was not the pattern among these early churches in terms of continuing government. Leaders were to be respected and obeyed (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). We are not only to be subject to Christ. We also need to be subject to church leaders.
All members of the universal church are true believers and the same should be true of the local church. Yet this is often difficult since profession of faith in Christ does not always equal true conversion. The Lord Jesus taught that tares or weeds would exist along with the wheat in the sphere of profession (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). Profession without reality will be rejected by Him in a coming day, whether the individuals belonged to a local church or not (Matthew 7:21-23).
Characteristics Of The Church
People often think of the church in terms of an auditorium with a speaker, or an organization with a headquarters and a hierarchy of officials. Biblical teaching emphasizes entirely different concepts.
1. Unity (Ephesians 4:3-6). The church is one, and there should be no division or faction in its local manifestation. Every effort should be made to maintain this spiritual unity (Ephesians 4:3). That which divides believers within the fellowship is to be avoided (1 Corinthians 1:10; 11:18; 12:25; 2 Corinthians 12:20). This is particularly true of false doctrine (2 Peter 2:1). People who cause division are to be warned and then avoided (Titus 3:10).
2. Diversity (Ephesians 4:7; 1 Corinthians 12:11). Each member has a contribution to make, although in a differing way. The contribution of different parts is brought out in the figure of the church as being like a human body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:4-5). Each believer within the unity of the church is like a part of the body. Christ is the head of the body. He assigns spiritual gifts at His discretion (1 Corinthians 12:13). When Scripture speaks of desiring certain gifts, this refers to the local church as a whole placing special value on some gifts within its midst (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1), not on the personal ambitions of an individual. The important thing is that each member has a gift and an assigned function within the body (1 Corinthians 12:27). Each member is important. Each should have proper opportunity to function. Each should be respected. All do not have the same gift.
3. Interdependence (Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Corinthians 12:21-24). We need one another and are not made to function alone. The purpose of the major gifts is to build up other believers so that they can join in the ministry. They are not to remain spectators, individualists or paralyzed parts. All believers are called to function in local churches.
4. Worship (1 Peter 2:4-5). We have a high and primary call to praise and adore our wonderful God (John 4:23). This function is brought out in the figure of the church as a Temple or House of God (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16-17; 1 Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:22). The people of God in the Old Testament offered worship at a special tent called the tabernacle in the wilderness and then at the temple in Jerusalem. Later He ceased to dwell in temples made with hands (Acts 6:48), an important distinction between the nation of Israel and the church of Christ. God’s house is now a spiritual one, made up of living stones, which is to say, Spirit-indwelt believers. Our sacrifices are no longer animals. They are now dedicated bodies, material gifts and personal praise. All believers in Christ are priests, not just “the clergy,” a word which comes from the Latin word for priest (1 Peter 2:5, 9). God’s church must have worship as a primary function and this consists of pouring out praise to God, not simply listening to a sermon or repeating words in unison from a book.
5. Affectionate Relationship (Ephesians 5:23-27; 2 Corinthians 11:2). This is particularly brought out in the figure of the church as a bride. The people of God since Pentecost are likened collectively to a beautiful woman, engaged to a great Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ. He loves His bride with a surpassing affection and seeks to have her presented to Himself in purity. By contrast, the nation of Israel is likened to a divorced woman (Isaiah 50:1). The church must see that she has a near and dear relationship to the Lord Jesus and has a central role in His present and future purposes. He has nothing but good in mind for His Bride. The church must have eyes always centered in her Bridegroom.
6. Other Characteristics might be mentioned. There i growth, not paralysis or decay (Acts 6:1, 7; 12:24; 19:20). There is life, not deadness. There is holiness, not corruption (1 Corinthians 3:17; 1 Peter 1:15-16). There is doctrinal purity, not apostasy (1 Timothy 1:3, 10; Titus 1:9-10; 2 Peter 2:1-3; Revelation 2:13-14, 20). The teachings of love, life and light, by which we manifest Christ, must radiate from a truly Biblical local church.
Function Of The Church
What is the church called to do in its local function? Certainly it must take seriously the work which is called the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). This is to preach the gospel everywhere (evangelize) and make disciples. The pattern is seen in Acts 2:40-42. People heard the gospel proclaimed, they believed, were baptized and then entered into active church life. This life and function consisted of a fourfold pattern: the apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. We would express this as meaning: solid Biblical teaching, meeting with other believers in church services, remembering the Lord in the communion service and praying jointly with fellow believers. Why is breaking of bread or communion mentioned in this list? It appears to have been central to the early church meeting (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-33). This pattern should not suggest that God is interested in form without spiritual life. The religious observances of the Jews in Scripture came under God’s condemnation precisely because they ceased to have true life and meaning.
The early church won people out of the deadness of the religion of that, day by love in action (Acts 2:45) and by bold proclamation of the Word of God (Acts 4:13, 29, 31). As believers were scattered under intense persecution, their faith was spread out of the dynamic character of their life and witness. This did not mean that there were not imperfections in them. Sometimes they were criticized for being carnal or led by human desires (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). Some were asked to examine their own lives to make sure they were Christians (2 Corinthians 13:5). Some were rebuked for bad doctrine (Galatians 1:6-9; 3:1-3). When Christ was seen walking among the churches, He both commanded and criticized (Revelation 2-3). Nevertheless, the churches spread throughout the civilized world and the Christian faith became dominant. Whatever they were lacking, there was life in the churches. Moreover, God was working out His plan.
Future Of The Church
The glorious future of the church of Christ is to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air at His return (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Then we will be changed, in our bodies and in other ways (1 Corinthians 15:51-54). We will be with Him and we will be like Him spiritually (1 John 3:2-3). We will be without spot or wrinkle or any such thing (Ephesians 5:27). The church will be the eternal object lesson in heaven of the grace of God to the poor creatures He raised to such dazzling heights of glory (Ephesians 2:7).
1. In the New Testament the term “church” is used in both the universal sense, referring to all
Christians throughout the world and throughout history, and the local sense, referring to a
specific group of Christians in one geographical area. Which of the following passages refer
to the universal church and which refer to the local church?
1 Corinthians 10:32 Galatians 1:1-2
Ephesians 5:25 Colossians 1:18
1 Thessalonians 1:1
2. Describe the universal church and its members (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15-16).
3. Paraphrase (rewrite in your own words) Acts 2:42.
From this verse and Matthew 28:19-20, what are the principal activities of the local church?
4. What is the purpose of Christian fellowship (Proverbs 27:17; Ecclesiastes 4:9-10; Hebrews
5. How would you answer someone who says, “I don’t need to go to church; I can worship God just as well in my own living room or at my cabin at the lake with my family”?
6. What spiritual leaders has God provided for the local church (Philippians 1:1) and what qualities of character must they possess (1 Timothy 3:1-13)?
What are the responsibilities of the spiritual leaders of the local church (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-5)?
7. What is the individual believer’s responsibility to the spiritual leaders in his local church (Hebrews 13:7, 17; 1 Peter 5:5)?
In what ways are you obeying these Scriptural commands?
8. What personal function does each believer have in the church (1 Corinthians 12:12-17)?
Why has God given each believer spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:11-16)?
What proper attitudes should you display in the local assembly (Ephesians 4:2-3; John 13:34-35)?
9. In your opinion, at what point does a person cease to be a “meeting attender” and begin to be a functioning member of the local church? Which are you? Explain.
10. If you moved to another town, on what basis would you choose a local church? What Scriptures would you consider?