What is meant by “the church”?

When people talk about 'church' it's easy to form an incorrect idea of what is meant by the word. Both believers and unbelievers are influenced by the outward appearance and workings of the church today. The Bible corrects this impression, but it takes looking past the system and structure and traditions of multitudes of denominations and streams of theological thought. Yet it is vital to do so. A proper grasp of what is meant by church has important implications for Christians in their life of faith.

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Transcript of “What is meant by 'the church'?”

The New Testament never uses the word "church" to describe a building. The word that we translate as "church", in the original text of the New Testament, is the Greek word "ecclesia". It means "the called-out ones". In other words, the Bible identifies people who are trusting in Jesus for salvation, as a community ... as all believers everywhere ... people called out of the world and into a Kingdom, where the Spirit of Jesus reigns in their hearts. From a Biblical point of view, we don't go to church. We are the church.

The Bible knows nothing of denominations. The Apostle Paul rebuked believers for saying that they were followers of particular men. "Has Christ been divided?" he asked (see 1 Corinthians 1:11-13).

Of course, millions of Christians love their local church. Jesus loves His church. Jesus died for us. We are His people. But when we talk of church, it is vital to make a distinction between the people of God, and a system (an organisational structure) that has evolved, and is more a work of man than a work of the Spirit.

The Bible calls us, "His body". Jesus is the head. We are members of His body, each with different functions. Yes, there is diversity of tasks, and diversity of thought. But, that Christians are sometimes suspicious of one another, that there are squabbles and gossip and back-biting, tells us that in the minds of too many Christians, they don't see their unity in Jesus alone. They want conformity to the way they think. Jesus Himself, and the simple truth of the gospel of His death and resurrection, is not enough for them. And that's not right.

The church has changed over time. How does the church of today differ from the church of New Testament writings? The New Testament shows believers in Jesus meeting in small groups in homes (Acts 2:2, Acts 5:42, Acts 20:20, Rom 16:5, 1 Cor 16:19, Col 4:15, Philemon 2). Believers in the groups were either learning or teaching or helping. There were no spectators.

All believers were considered to be priests. Under the Old Covenant, a priest was a man from the tribe of Levi, who served the Lord, and blessed others in the name of the Lord (see Deuteronomy 10:8). Under the New Covenant, all believers in Jesus are considered to be priests (see 1 Pet 2:5,9 and Rev 1:6 and 5:10) ... ministering reconciliation with God to a lost world (see 2 Cor 5:18-19).

All believers are priests. Not some believers, who earn a credential from a denomination. There are not supposed to be two classes of Christians.

Yes, there are leaders. God appoints certain people to be apostles (meaning those who are sent out to pioneer new areas). God appoints others to be prophets (meaning those who bring the word of the Lord into situations). God appoints others to be evangelists ... with gifts to lead people to Christ ... and others to be pastors and teachers ... to guide Christians spiritually; particularly in the Word of God (see Eph 4:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 12:28). Those with such responsibilities are exhorted not to "lord it over others", but to lead by example (see 1 Peter 5:3). Jesus said that leaders in the church shouldn't dominate others, but should be servants to everyone (see Matt 20:25-26, Mark 10:42-43, Luke 22:25-26). Jesus also said that leaders in the church shouldn't take titles (see Matt 23:8-10). Apostle or prophet or pastor wasn't intended to be a title ... they are job descriptions.

Paul said that when he went to Jerusalem to get certain questions settled, there was no regard for anyone who had "a reputation" (see Gal 2:2,6). Even James, Peter and John were leaders "who were reputed to be pillars" in the church (see Gal 2:9). In other words, Paul identified them because they seemed to lead. Obviously, they never had titles, and they must have been more in the background than up front. There was no formal organisational structure in the early church.

About 70 years after Jesus, Ignatius (a leader in the church in Antioch) instituted a hierarchy of leadership. He based the idea on the Roman system of city government. Suddenly, leaders had status. And when there was position and title and status to be had, then inevitably people started to compete. When there is competition, you get ambition and envy.

Surely, anyone reading Scripture can see that the Bible knows nothing of competition.The opposite. We are told to regard others as more important than ourselves (see Philippians 2:3).

The biggest change to Christian thinking came 300 years after Jesus, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Instead of being a persecuted minority, humbly serving the outcasts of society, Christians became influential.

Impressive buildings came next. In the minds of church leaders, Christianity was now triumphant. And it was administered by a new class ... clergymen ... paid professionals. Centrally controlled through the issue of credentials, and titles.

It continues to this day. It's so much a part of the churchianity that people accept as "normal", that almost no-one stops to consider that it's not the model that's on view in the New Testament.

The change has come about with what are now hundreds of years of traditions. The institutionalised, corporatised church has acquired power and influence, and access to an endless stream of untaxed income, and trillions of dollars of property. There are a few who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.

What's needed is not reformation ... it's not a re-forming of what's there, not shifting a few things around. What's needed is transformation ... the creation of a body that looks completely different ... in the image of Jesus, with love reigning and without competition and envy. God is not going to be satisfied until it is accomplished.

The interference of man, imposing man's ideas of how to build what is essentially a spiritual organism, is going to be brought to an end. And, it's not easy to contemplate. But it is a matter that has to be considered in the light of Psalm 127. Verse 1 says: “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it ...”. It must be the LORD (Jesus) who builds His spiritual temple. And, in the same short Psalm, there is the declaration: “... the heritage of the LORD is sons ...” (Psalm 127:3). Many treat Psalm 127 as if there are two random and unrelated matters on view. But there aren't! We know, from Romans chapter 8 (verses 22-23), that all creation is waiting for the revelation of the sons of God. And Psalm 127 seems to relate this revelation of the sons of God to the idea of those who rest in the LORD, and in His work.

And we also have to consider the words of Jesus: “... unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24).

The gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16). The power of God is the power of the cross. It's not the arm of flesh. It's by faith in Christ, in the supernatural life-force of God that is released when a seed is buried, dead, out of sight. The seed isn't prodded and poked. It isn't dug up regularly and examined. It's left to God, to put out roots and, later, to emerge as something completely different. Not a dead seed, but a green plant tat carries reproductive life. Man can't do that.