Church. We all have an idea of what church means. It might be a place of solitude, joyful noises, tears, challenges, music, learning, or community. For others, church represents rejection or pain. It might be an outdated, crumbling place or a hip, fresh hub of activity. Some only step inside twice a year, while others consider it their second home.

While these descriptors aren’t necessarily wrong, the church has always been much more than a place.

To aid our research, we will be using Willmington’s Guide to the Bible.

The Church Back Then

The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, derives from the verb ekkaleo, which means “to call out”. In the New Testament, we see this word develop from a meaning of “assembly” to a full-blown technical and theological designation for “the people of God”.

Many point to Acts 2 for a description of church. For context, this happens directly after the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47

Some key elements we can take from this paragraph:

  • Teaching (and loyalty to the teaching)
  • Fellowship, including eating and praying together
  • Amazement (awe) due to wonders and signs
  • Togetherness and commonality
  • Self-sacrifice for the benefit of the group
  • Charity
  • Consistent meeting in the temple courts and in their homes
  • Gladness and sincerity
  • Praising God
  • Increase in numbers through salvation (attributed to the Lord)

This was no ordinary gathering – there was something distinct about their actions and mindsets.

The idea of Church is referenced 112 times over 17 New Testament books by 6 writers. Here are some key passages (bold added):

1 Corinthians 12:13. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews and Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

Hebrews 10:24-25. “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.”

Ephesians 4:11-12. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”

John 4:24. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

This assembly of believers is extremely important, but why is the church called the body of Christ?

Body of Christ

Church members gather together in Christ through the individual exercise of gifts (Rom 12:4-8). Even though we are individuals, we are part of Christ in spirit because we joined ourselves with him (1 Cor 5:15-17). Just like a real body has many parts, each member of the body of Christ has a unique purpose (1 Cor 12:12-27). Christ is the head of this body, and he causes it to work properly and grow (Eph 4:15-16).

Family of God

Another common metaphor found in the New Testament is the portrayal of church as a family. Jesus first introduced this concept, declaring that obedience to the will of the Father binds together the family of Christ (Matt 12:50). By becoming the sacrifice, Christ transformed the distance between humanity and God into a close family relationship (Eph 2:13, 19). Ultimately, it is God’s love that allows us to be known as his children (1 Jn 3:1).

The Church Today

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our day to day that we forget to think about our own approach to ekklesia.

Willmington writes that our ecclesiology (study of and approach to church) must “distinguish between essentials and nonessentials, between what is is biblical and what is traditional, between what is evangelical and what is denominational.” We should not exclude the theological or the practical elements of church. In this case, practical includes “purpose, strategy, priorities, and program”. This is not to say that lasers and fog machines have no place in the church, but we should stay vigilant that these things do not overtake our priorities and our thinking.

While the idea of ecclesiology sounds like it should be left to those in charge, we all make up the the church. It’s up to each member to be mindful of both the practical and theological elements.

Even though there are countless denominations within the scope of Christianity (and even within Olive Tree), it’s important to remember that we are all on the same team. Nowhere in Scripture did the authors use ekklesia to identify specific denominational church identities.

A wise pastor once told me, “there are many ways to do church right“. Because church is made up of unique individuals, each one can have a unique purpose, emphasis, service order, form of outreach, and decoration scheme. While it can be frustrating or puzzling at times, these different flavors of church actually help create a dynamic picture of the body of Christ. How boring it would be if every church and churchgoer looked the exact same!

Of course, the flip-side of this diversity is that people are sinful and can miss the mark, even by mistake – no church is perfect! Church leadership has the potential to lead hundreds, or even thousands of people astray or in conflict with one another! As you do life with the people in your church community, make sure to measure everything with Scripture. If you have been wronged by a church, we would like to gently remind you that it is still possible to find Christian community.

The Church to Come

Another church metaphor within the Bible is the “Bride of Christ”.

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” –

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

Revelation 19:7-8

This passage, along with John 3:28-29, 1 Corinthians 11:2, Ephesians 5:25-32, and others, reveals the magnitude of Christ’s love for the church. Marriage is the most intimate relationship human beings can ever enter into, so this picture of the church as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom is extremely poignant.

The church today has the promise of the wedding to come, and when it comes, we will have full connection and right relationship with our Savior. In the meantime, we must be patient and vigilant (Matt 25:1-13).

Willmington’s Guide to the Bible

Willmington's Guide to the Bible

If you enjoyed this examination of church, you can find similar content within Willmington’s Guide to the Bible, a helpful roadmap that espouses both biblical and systematic theology to help you get the most meaning out of Scripture. Get your copy today!

Obviously, there is a lot more to church than what this article discusses. Comment below why you love church!

Brothers and sisters, discussing church, denominations, and theological matters can be touchy. In the comments, please remember that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”.

2 Comments

  1. These are very good questions. The answers are a little different than anyone would expect but they were helpful to me in the organization of my thoughts.

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