Today, there are several acceptable ways to define a church. Some see the church as a place where people meet. We have often heard the phrase, ‘there is a church down the street’, yet it is referred to a church even when no one is presently meeting there for services. Or someone will say that they belong to a particular ‘Baptist’ or ‘Presbyterian’ church. Ultimately, the only way to resolve this is to once again look at God’s word for the most accurate description of a church.
In a New Testament context, the Greek word for “church” means national assembly, congregation, or congregational assembly (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament). The word is found over 114 times in the New Testament, with the majority of occurrences in Paul’s epistles (46), followed by Revelation with 20. Of those 114 occurrences, five of them do not refer to the New Testament church, leaving 109 that actually refer to the New Testament concept of the church. Outside the epistles of Paul and Revelation, the only gospel that uses the word church is Matthew (cf. 16:18; 18:17) and that passage is critical to understanding the beginning of the revelation of the church.
Now what did this “church” consist of during its infancy? The early church gathered in homes during its infancy years (Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15), and the term church was a way of identifying believers who gathered in certain regions (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:2, etc.). Anywhere believers gathered together they were called the church, not a part or fraction of the church, but the church itself. The place never defined what the church was, who the people were and what they did when they gathered, identified them as a church.
Another passage that supports the New Testament as the foundation of the church’s beginning is Ephesians 2:20. Paul said that the church was founded on the New Testament apostles and prophets, with Jesus being the chief cornerstone. The imagery here is of a new building, something that was never built before. So as we look at the early church we find that the “authentic” church consisted of all who were in Christ Jesus.
Of course, it is right to keep in mind that the original Greek word for “church” was not a religious one, but as it related to the New Testament church it was used in that way. Secondly it had a singular and plural connotation. The individual person was as much a part of the church because they were a part of those who were called out, set apart by God (1 Corinthians 1:2). Yet in a New Testament sense, the corporate concept had a greater bearing on how the church was understood as a called out people. It was a way of describing those who were in Christ.
Beyond that, the physical location was not a key component for the church, rather it was the spiritual reality that they were in Christ. Those whom the Spirit of Christ unified would be the church that met in Thessalonica, for example. The location was only a way of describing where this particular church was, without having a bearing on the quality of the church. The place did not define the church; it only identified the place of that local assembly (1 Corinthians 10:32, Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:18, 24).
What makes someone a part of the church? You must be born again to be a part of the church (John 3:7). This begins when a sinner understands that God’s wrath is upon them (John 3:36), because they have sinned against a perfectly holy God in words, thoughts, and deeds. They recognize they cannot save themselves because no one is righteous on his own (Romans 3:9-18). These are the ones who constitute the church. They understood that by God’s doing the work of the cross is the only saving means that God has chosen (1 Cor. 1:18). Christ’s death on the cross, burial, and resurrection is the only hope of salvation (1 Cor. 15:4).
That person who is a part of the church has trusted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and embraced all that He has called them to do. That means they repented by turning away from a life of sinfulness (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 1 Thessalonians 1:9); denied themselves, forsaking a life of hostility against God and turning to Christ by faith (Isaiah 55:7; Luke 9:23-24; Acts 17:30; John 3:16–18), and in trusting Him they will follow Christ in obedience (John 15:14).
If you are in Christ then you are a part of this union, a praiseworthy reality saying that you are “fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6); that what was once “hidden from ages and generations” (Colossians 1:26) has been revealed in and through the life of the church which is, “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). This is indeed the joy and blessing of the church, and to know this is only the beginning of grasping the profound reality of Christ’s blessed church.
The church consists of these people––men and women, old and young, who have been made alive through Christ Jesus. This is the church, Christ’s glorious church! Are you a part of that church?
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