What Is Church? A Biblical Perspective
Defining a New Testament church, exploring several important dimensions of a true church, and understanding the church as the visible representation of the Kingdom of God.
The church is a group of called-out believers in Jesus Christ founded on the Word of God. There are both visible and invisible aspects of the church on earth showcasing God’s glory in local congregations and throughout the world. A true church displays particular aspects like preaching the Word of God and church discipline, while a false church will not do the same things. Ultimately, the church is a visible representation of the kingdom of God.
What is church?
To the uninitiated, church can be a confusing concept. On the one hand, church seems like a beautiful, stained-glass building where middle-age-to-older people gather every Sunday morning. On the other hand, church looks like multiple thousands of people piling into a vast auditorium to hear a message about life improvement with sprinkles of religious language thrown in.
Though a church can gather in an beautiful building and include thousands of people, fundamentally neither of these ideas is what church is about. Instead, church is a multi-faceted entity that sometimes bears little resemblance to popular conception.
In this post, I aim to define what church is from a Biblical perspective, explore different dimensions of the church, identify the elements of a true church, and explain how the church is the visible representation of the Kingdom of God.
In the New Testament, a church is an ekklesia (Greek: ἐκκλησία), or assembly of Christians. Literally, “called-out ones”, the idea does not connote a cathedral-like-building but the body of Christians who gather to worship, devote themselves to Scripture, and prayers. (Acts 2:42)
The most important aspect of a church is its foundation. Without the proper foundation, church is no more than a country club, pep rally, or religious organization. Theologian RC Sproul explained the Biblical foundation of the church when referencing Ephesians 2:20…
“Paul says the foundation of this building called the church is made up of the prophets and the Apostles, that is, the Old Testament prophets and New Testament Apostles. Why? It’s because the prophets and Apostles are the agents of revelation by whom God speaks to His people. They delivered the Word of God. Another way of saying this is that the foundation of the church is the Word of God.”
Sproul contended the church must be founded on Scripture. There are many pseudo-churches that affirm the Bible but also elevate things like tradition and other books to an ultimate authority. These groups do not fit the Biblical definition of a church because of the wrong foundation. A real church, or true assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, will uphold the Bible as the authoritative standard for life and doctrine.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)
One Perspective: Visible & Invisible Church
In addition to the foundation being the Word of God, the church can be divided into visible and invisible aspects. The visible dimension includes everyone you can see at any given Lord’s Day assembly: pastors, deacons, ushers, teachers, children’s ministry workers, and the rest of the congregation. Those professing Christians you see are termed the “visible church” in theological parlance.
However, not everyone who claims to be a Christian or “goes to church” is actually part of the real church (Matthew 7:21). That’s why the church also displays an invisible dimension. Members of the invisible church cannot be seen, so to speak. Matt Slick at carm.org writes of the invisible church:
“The members of the invisible church are the actual body of believers. They are the ones who are truly regenerate and have trusted, by faith, in the true Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The true Christian is indwelt by the Lord Jesus (John 14:23) through the Holy Spirit.”
So whenever you gather with believers, understand there are visible and invisible members of the church. Those people who claim to follow Christ are members of the visible church – those who are saved and those who are not. However, only those who have been spiritually regenerated are members of the invisible church – the true church. We cannot know who belongs to the invisible church this side of heaven, but the Lord knows those who are his (2 Timothy 2:19).
“And to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (Hebrews 12:23)
Another Perspective: Universal & Local Church
As the church has invisible and visible elements, the New Testament church also displays local and universal aspects. In one sense, the church is universal. The people known as the church are not confined to a particular location, but are anywhere they might gather. The universal church includes all believers everywhere. Some verses that illustrate the universal nature of the church include…
- “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
- Paul said, “For I am the least of the apostles…because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:9)
- Of Christ, Paul said, “And he is the head of the body, the church.” (Colossians 1:18)
- Paul said, “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” (Philippians 3:6)
- Jesus said “on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)
In another sense, the New Testament presents the church as distinct, local congregations, sometimes called a local church. Jonathan Leeman writing at 9marks.org defines “a local church is a group of Christians who regularly gather in Christ’s name to officially affirm and oversee one another’s membership in Jesus Christ and his kingdom through gospel preaching and gospel ordinances.”
Leeman’s definition summarizes what the Bible affirms about many passages addressing the local church. These verses highlight the local aspects of the church…
- “All the churches of Christ greet you.” (Romans 16:16)
- Paul wrote, “To the church of God that is in Corinth…” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
- Paul said, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” (Acts 20:28)
- “John to the seven churches that are in Asia…” (Revelation 1:4)
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Colossians 1:18)
Elements of a (True) Church
During the 16th century Protestant Reformation, the Reformers began to codify what a true church looked like according to the New Testament. According to John Samson at ReformationTheology.com…
“The one true holy and apostolic church is present where (1) the word of God (and the Gospel) is preached and taught; (2) the sacraments of the church are rightly administered (namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and (3) church discipline is faithfully exercised.”
There is much contained in these three elements. For one, the first principle excludes all “churches” where the Word of God is not properly taught. In the context of the Reformation, that excludes the Catholic Church. The second principle excludes all groups where baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not properly administered like loosely organized groups of Christians. Finally, it excludes any group that doesn’t exercise church discipline, also called excommunication. In our day, this third element is one of the more neglected principles.
Sidebar: If you every see a group claiming to be the “one true church” (ex. LDS / Mormon church), this is good sign that “church” is a false church or cult.
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5 ESV)
Conclusion: The Church as the Kingdom of God
The church is a multi-faceted entity which includes visible and invisible dimensions, universal and local aspects, and distinguishing characteristics. Just as there are false teachers, there are also false churches in the world.
If you are a Christian, the church is one of the greatest blessings you can enjoy in this age. Church is a place to encourage you, build you up, and even rebuke you when you are veering off course. It is also a place where you can exercise your spiritual gifts to help other people which all bring glory to the Lord. The church is, after all, a visible demonstration of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Here’s a great video to conclude with from theologian J.I. Packer on the church…
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
RC Sproul: What is the Church?
Desiring God Video (Jeff Vanderstelt): Who is the Church?