I’ve noticed a lot of confusion and therefore a variety of opinions about the exact definition of what constitutes a Christian Church. If we take a step back we can see that at one end of the spectrum there is the definition of the The Roman Catholic Church which believes that Christ’s church is a single world-wide society led by a hierarchical structure of human beings claiming its authority is inherited by succession from the original Apostles, in particular Peter.1 At the other end of the spectrum there is a view held among many protestants that any amorphous and sometimes ephemeral gathering of Christians can claim to be called a “church.” They usually justify this with an appeal to Matthew 18:20. What’s a sound Biblical answer to this? In this series of articles, we’ll look at various factors that will hopefully lead us to an accurate conclusion.
The Term Church
The term church (Anglo-Saxon, cirice, circe; Modern German, Kirche; Swedish, Kyrka) is the name employed in the Teutonic languages to render the Greek ekklesia (ecclesia), the term by which the New Testament writers denote the society founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ.2
It is sometimes taught that the Greek word Ecclesia translated as “church” means “called out ones” because it is, after all, a compound word made up the root “called” and the preposition “out”. Man a preacher has made persuasive use of this for various reasons, some not too Bionically accurate in my opinion. However it is a definite mistake to draw a conclusion about its meaning from this type of analysis.
A word’s meaning is determined by the way it is used in a culture and in its context. In The Nature of the Church, Earl Radmacher3 goes to great length to show that when Christ was but a child, this word simply referred to any assembly of people that came together for some common purpose as opposed to a random group of people that you might find milling around at lunch time. It had little other connotation in common usage.
In Jesus statement “I will build my assembly” in Matt. 16:18, the key word to focus on then, is “My.” He was simply emphasizing an ownership and a relationship with an assembly of people, avoiding any mention of the details of the church’s structure. The revelation of these details was to be provided through the Apostles, in particular Paul (See Ephesians 3:8-9). By the end of the first century however, the word, as it was used among Christians, came to be associated with a gathering that had a specific set of qualifications for membership, purpose, and structure. It’s those characteristics we want to explore.
Biblical Metaphors for the Church
A good place to start is to summarize the nature of Jesus’ assembly by looking at the way authors of Scripture describe it in terms of things people commonly know about. I know of at least 6 metaphors used in the New Testament for Jesus’ assembly – His church. In each one, there is a primary teaching about a church member’s relationship to Jesus. There is also a secondary teaching about the relationship between members. The following chart is a simple summary of these points.
- Jesus is the Head
- Each member has a unique function. The body functions as a united unit to the extent that each part is in healthy, obedient connection to the head and other parts.
- Jesus is her husband.
- The whole church is envisioned as one – the bride.The bride’s position and authority is derived from the groom’s. He sacrificed all to provide for and prove His love for the bride.In future glory the church shares a unique, personally close relationship as well as an authority and privilege over creation as Christ’s Bride.
- Jesus dwells in this temple.
- A temple: a dwelling place for God. Believers are the living stones. Every believer has a place/role in the structure, regardless of race, rank, ability etc.God does not live inside this temple, but it houses God because He indwells each stone.
- Jesus is the High Priest
- We are ambassadors for Christ and have an essential function as an intermediary – connecting God and man.
- Jesus is The Chief Shepherd
- The chief shepherd assigns under-shepherds. Sheep are brought together to form a “flock” by the actions of the shepherds. The nature of sheep is that to survive and thrive, they need a shepherd. The flock is fed by the shepherd.
Branches on a Vine.
- The Vine
- It is hard to tell where the Vine ends and a branch begins. There is a constant organic unity (abiding). The branch dies without the support and the nutrients from the vine. The branch is where the fruit appears.
The purpose for the universal church
The nature of the church is not in what it does for God, or on God’s behalf as if it operates apart from God. It’s essential nature has to do with the relationship of the members to Jesus and to one another. It is in these relationships that God’s purposes are fulfilled. Its distinguishing elements include the member’s obedience, unity and love between themselves and God and between one another. Its purpose has to do with what God wants to accomplish through this “organism”. Radmacher states the purpose of the church very practically:
It is God’s agency in the world, transacting God’s business.
While I don’t disagree as far as his definition goes, drawing on Jesus statements in John 17, and others I would prefer to state it this way:
The purpose of the church is to Glorify Jesus Christ by being a faithful (accurate) visible expression of His presence in the World, in the same way that He glorifies the Father.
God has a witness of Himself in the Creation. We say this is His General Revelation. During different specific periods of time He has also ordained different ways by which faithful people visibly relate to Him and witness to His presence. In the time in which we live, this happens through the function of His “assembly” or church. As our actions reflect the character and mission of Jesus, we Glorify God.
God is glorified in a hostile world of Spiritual darkness in that by our worship, by our actions based on faith, by our obedience, by our sacrifices , by our love of all men and women, by our constant attitude of thankfulness in the face of life’s difficulties, and by our proclamation of the Truth, we bear witness to the reality of God’s love, His trustworthiness, and His existence. Through this people come to know that God was in Christ reconciling the world – and may believe.
What this means for the focus of a local church’s leaders
This consideration of the universal church gives us a context for the local one. The visible universal church exists because local assemblies exist. The nature and purpose of a local assembly must be the same as the universal one, but perhaps it helps to state it in a way that makes it clearer how we function according to God’s overall purpose.
Considering the above metaphors and related thoughts, I conclude that the essential function of any local church’s leadership is to serve Christ and His assembly of disciples by connecting people to Jesus and helping them to accurately follow Him. Leaders seek out, nurture, enable and teach people how to walk with Jesus, to understand and to follow His commands. If that is the case, then the next logical question a leader might ask is “What does Jesus expect of all His disciples?”
Simply put, He expects them to bear fruit:
- Their lives are to be transformed (fruit of the Spirit; walk in the light; walk worthy of Christ)
- They are to pray
- They are to be agents of love and reconciliation between one another and between God and the world
- They are to actively seek out the lost in every people group where God leads them in order to bring the Gospel to them
- They are to sacrifice all (Matt. 16:24 “…let him take up his cross…)
- They are to be examples for other to follow
- They are to be able to listen to and walk according to the Spirit (Gal. 5:25)
- They are to walk in unity with one another (John 17)
- They are to fulfill the gift they are to the body of believers (Ephesians 4:7, 11-13)
Perhaps this triggers thoughts you would like to add. Please feel free to do so below.
- The Catholic Encyclopedia [↩]
- The Catholic Encyclopedia [↩]
- Former president of Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland Oregon [↩]