Author: Ron Graham
What is the Church?
—and what does “church” mean?
In this lesson we show three Bible answers to the question, “What is the church?” and we also explain what the word “church” means.
It's not ice cream
Some people talk about "the church of your choice". The true church is not like ice cream that comes in various forms and flavours. You can't pick your favourite “church”, and when you tire of it try a different one. The Bible conceives of only one church.
1 Christ’s Temple
Jesus told Peter, "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). Soon after he died and arose from the dead, he did exactly that —He built his church, and he has been building it ever since.
Jesus built his church not of wood and stone, but of people. All who make Christ the foundation of their lives, and obey him in faith, become stones in the temple of God. All those people are the church of Christ (1Peter 2:4-8).
"You also as living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1Peter 2:5).
Jesus Christ is "the chief corner stone", and by him was laid "the foundation of the apostles and prophets", then all other Christians, on that foundation, "are being built together" (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Jesus is the true rock, and the church has "no other foundation" and no other founder. “For no other foundation can anyone lay than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1Corinthians 3:11).
Many denominations exist, all built and founded by someone other than Jesus. The church is not one of these. They are separate "buildings" which the Lord did not build.
2 The bride of Christ
Only the church that Jesus built was "purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). Jesus gave his blood as a “bride price” to make the church his "bride" whom he loves (Ephesians 5:25).
"Christ loved the church and gave himself for her... that he might present her to himself a glorious church... holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25-28 in part).
Christ doesn't have a harem. He doesn't have several different brides. He did not purchase any denomination with his blood, nor take any denomination as his bride.
3 The body of Christ
The church is "one body" (Ephesians 4:4). This body has "many members" (1Corinthians 12:12). And most importantly, Christ is "the head of the body, the church..." (Colossians 1:18).
"For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body..." (1Corinthians 12:12-13a).
As Paul states above, when a person is baptized in Christ’s name, that person is baptized into the church which is the body of Christ. So one has not, thereby, become a member of any denominational body.
What the word “church” means
People use the word “church” to mean too many things, compared to its Biblical meaning. The following are five usages of the word “church”:
How people commonly use the word “church”.
- (A) a chapel or meeting house;
- (B) a gathering for worship;
- (C) the flock that habitually gathers there;
- (D) the denomination they belong to;
- (E) that denomination’s hierarchy of priests or clergy;
- (F) the world-wide body of Christians.
The Bible uses the word “church” in only three of these ways.
In Scripture, "church" never means "denomination".
The Bible confines itself to three of those meanings (B,C,F). It certainly never uses the word "church" to mean a sect, denomination,schism or ism.
The Bible thus simplifies the ideas wrapped up in the word "church" and it is wise for us to untangle ourselves from the confusion of other uses. Referring to the chapel as the church is relatively harmless since it is only a metonym. However it is just as easy to call it a chapel or a "church house" as many do. Referring to a denomination, sect, schism, or ism as a "church" is misleading and confusing and is certainly not speaking as the Bible speaks.
Observe how the meaning has been distorted.
If you had asked Christians in Bible times, "Which church do you belong to?" they would have answered with place names, not with the name of a denomination. Today, when you ask that question, you nearly always get the name of a denomination. Do a survey and see. That just shows you how much things have changed.
There were plenty of "isms" even then, but the early Christians never spoke of the "ism" they followed as their "church". A similar kind of distortion has happened to the word "faith" and people speak of different "faiths" referring to different isms, when clearly "there is one faith" (Ephesians 4:5).
The Greek word for "church".
The word "church" is commonly used to translate the Greek word εκκλησια (ekklesia) except in a couple of cases where ekklesia refers to a non-Christian assembly. The ek~ means "out" or "from" and the ~klesia comes from kaleo to call.
So ekklesia simply means the "called out [people]" —a congregation of people called out of darkness into God’s light. That light is the Lord Jesus Christ (1Peter 2:9, John 1:4). There is nothing in this word to suggest a denomination.
The main point
The main point that I have been hammering in discussing the meaning of the word church is that it does not mean "denomination". In our next lesson I'd like to look at another point of confusion and distortion in thinking and talking about "the church" today. This has to do with the church transcendant, not viewed as a number of local congregations but as one great body composed of all God's children everywhere.