The word "church" is derived from a term meaning "of or belonging to the Lord." But in the New Testament it commonly translates the Greek word ekklesia which denoted "the called out," i.e., in the Christian sense, basically the community of believers called out of the world to serve Christ.
It should be noted, however, that even the word "church" bears slightly differing shades of meaning.
- In the broadest sense, it signifies collectively all Christians of every locality, i.e., the church universal. Paul uses the word in this sense when he says: "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Ephesians 5:25).
- Sometimes "the church" signifies the community of believers living in a particular locality. Thus, for example, the apostle writes "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. . ." (I Corinthians 1:2).
- At other times, the term refers to the assembly of Christians gathered for worship. Such assemblies are what Paul has in view when he commands: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. . . for it is a shame for women to speak in the church" (I Corinthians 14:34-35; cf. I Timothy 2:11-12).
The Promise of the Church
When Jesus asked His disciples about His identity, Peter responded, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:16-18).
The Establishment of the Church
It is evident that when Jesus made the foregoing statement He had not yet established His church, but had only promised to do so. The church as not established until Pentecost following Jesus' ascension. On that occasion Peter first proclaimed the gospel of Christ and the terms of admission to the church. "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same there were added unto them about three thousand souls. . . . And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:41, 47).
The Church is the House of God
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says: "These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Timothy 3:14-15). When the apostle speaks of the church as the house of God, he does not refer to a physical or material building. It is rather, as Peter says, "a spiritual house" (I Peter 2:5).
In other words, the house of God is equivalent to "the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10; cf. Ephesians 2:19), i.e., the family or children of God by faith. Accordingly Paul writes: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27). To be baptized into Christ is to become a member of the church or house of God. Moreover, this house is also "His own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end" (Hebrews 3:6).
The Church is the Body of Christ
God, Paul tells us, has given Christ a position of preeminence, "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all" (Ephesians 1:22-23). Again we read: "And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence" (Colossians 1:18). "Therefore. . . the church is subject unto Christ. . ." (Ephesians 5:24). And being thus subject to Him, every member of the church is obligated to bring "into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (II Corinthians 10:5).
The Uniqueness of the Church
There is only one church authorized in the New Testament. For the church, as we have seen, is the spiritual body of Christ and there is only one such body. Paul accordingly reminds the Ephesians: "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all. . ." (Ephesians 4:4-6).
While, however, there is only one body, that body is made up of many members. "For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (Romans 12:4-5). The apostle additionally remarks: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the one body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body. . ." (I Corinthians 12:12-13).
Moreover, it is vital that every member recognize this oneness, "That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether on member suffer, all the members suffer with it: or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it" (I Corinthians 12:25-26). We further read: "And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body. . ." (Colossians 3:15).
Offices in the Church
In the early church there were special offices, such as that of apostles and prophets, which were not limited to one locality but served the church at large. On the other hand, in each individual congregation there was a plurality of elders (or bishops) and deacons who carried on the affairs of the local church.
Thus, for example, when Paul wrote to the Philippian church, he addressed the letter to "all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (Philippians 1:1). Those appointed to serve as bishops and deacons must be men of ability and high moral character, leading exemplary lives (see I Timothy 3:1-10; cf. Titus 1:5-9).
The Work of the Church
As "the pillar and ground of the truth" (I Timothy 3:15), the church has Divinely ordained work to do. Chief among its functions are the following:
- Developing its members, i.e., "the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God. . ." (Ephesians 4:12-13).
- Caring for its needy: "Distributing to the necessity of the saints; given to hospitality" (Romans 12:13). This includes provision for widows and orphans (James 1:27).
- Continuing the proclamation of the gospel to the world: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned" (Mark 16:15-16).
Comprised of the "called out" believers in Christ, the church is the spiritual body of Christ, of which He is Head and Savior (Ephesians 5:23). And, further, it is the household of God (Ephesians 2:19), the glorious fruition of His redeeming grace. "Unto him," therefore, "be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen" (Ephesians 3:21).