Lesson 1 The Importance And Definition Of The Church

I will build my church…” (Matt. 16:18)

This remarkable statement of purpose by the Lord Jesus Christ shows us that the Church is a divine institution of the greatest significance. The Lord purposed to replace the nation of Israel, men representing God on earth, with an entirely new community. The Israelites were to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation could reach to the ends of the earth (Isa. 42:6). As His chosen people, Israel was unfaithful to God in this sacred mission. Its holy city, priesthood, temple and sacrificial system were wiped out. Its own prophets had repeatedly cautioned about judgment, but it was in vain.

God raised up a new body, without any distinction between Jew and Gentile (Col. 3:11; Eph. 2:11-18). The Hebrew prophets had foreseen a worldwide ministry among the nations. They also prophesied the setting aside of Israel because of unbelief and spiritual unfaithfulness. The truth of the church as God’s people, was a mystery in former days until revealed in the New Testament (Eph. 3:4,5). The church was still a future development before the time period of the four Gospels and the first chapter of Acts. Its formation occurred for the first time on the Jewish Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2) by the initial action of incorporating believers into Christ, called the baptism of the Spirit (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor. 12:12,13). The Church is not a continuation of Israel, but rather succeeds it. The Church now functions for God in the interval of Israel’s national rejection by God (Rom. 11:1,2). In the future a believing remnant of Israel will be restored to God through the Lord Jesus Christ, whom the nation now rejects (Rom. 11:25,26; Zech. 12:10; 13:1). God now calls people to Christ through the witness of His Church. He adds to that Church daily those who are being saved (Acts 2:47).

God established His Church for His purposes. Believers are not saved to live in a solitary or individualistic relationship with God as some are prone to believe. They are called to fellowship in spiritual communities as functioning members of God’s family. God says they are not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). The Church is a divinely ordained body and deserves respect, support and personal involvement by all of God’s people. No devout Israelite would have ignored his responsibilities in the spiritual life of his community. Similarly, no devout Christian should be indifferent to the Church as his or her spiritual family.

Identifying The Church

What is the church? Some think of it as a building in which meetings are held (“the church at the corner0). Some speak of it in terms of a denomination or religious organization (“To what church do you belong?”). The Scriptural meaning, on a local level, is a congregation of believers in Christ who gather to worship, pray, study the Word of God, and observe the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). In truth, the Church goes into a building rather than the people go into the church.

The word church is a poor choice for translating the meaning of the Greek ekklesia. The common, ordinary, and reasonable translation is that of an assembly or congregation. The word means a called-out or called-together company. In itself it is not a religious term. In the New Testament it is used to describe the Ephesians in a theater (Acts 19:32,41), and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness (Acts 7:38). When applied to the assembly of believers in the Lord Jesus, it refers to their gathering in the name of the Lord (2 Thess. 2:1; 1 Cor. 5:4). It is a particular kind of assembly that is in view, God’s people gathered to the Name of Jesus. It is a people alive in Christ, congregating in a spiritual sense.

Two Views Of The Church

The word Church is used both in a general or universal sense as well as in a local sense.

The universal church includes all true believers in Christ, both those who are now with Christ and those yet living. It includes the period from the day of Pentecost to the Rapture. Ephesians 1:22,23 speaks of Christ being the Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body. Other references in Ephesians 3:10,21 and 5:23-32 or Colossians 1:18,24 also focus on the Church as a unity of all believers under Christ’s headship. No unsaved people are in it, and no saved people are outside of it. To date, the entire Church has not been gathered together in one place at one time. Such will be the case, however, when Christ returns and unites them all (1 Thess. 4:14-17). This description should make clear why no earthly church should make the preposterous claim that it is in itself that one true church. No earthly church is identical with the universal and true Church. We are one with all true believers and unified in Christ’s Church.

The local church (or churches) has to do with the gatherings of born-again believers in a locality. Many of the New Testament letters are written to such churches. Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessalonica are examples. Letters to Timothy concern the organization and leadership of local churches. Titus came to join Paul on the island of Crete to appoint elders for local churches. Paul’s task as a missionary was to establish local churches where none existed, even if Jewish synagogues functioned there. It is fair to say that the New Testament does not contemplate believers who are not associated with a local church. Expressions like “churches of Christ, “churches of God,” “churches of Galatia,” or of “Macedonia” or “Judea” define local congregations in terms of the Lord’s Name or of a locality. No sectarian names are used. Forming groups or naming churches after men is forbidden and erroneous (1 Cor. 1:12,13). A local church ideally should: (1) have functioning elders and deacons who are shepherding and taking responsibility for the spiritual care of those whom God has placed in their care (1 Cor. 16:16; Heb. 13:17), (2) be practicing the two ordinances of the church: baptism (Matt. 28:19,20; Acts 2:41,42) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26), and (3) provide an environment in which believers can exercise their spiritual gifts for mutual edification (Heb. 10:25; 1 Cor. 14:26).

One cannot understand how any Biblically informed believer can think it is not necessary to be a functioning part of a local church. Non-participation, non-support or neglect of the gatherings of God’s people is unthinkable for one who would truly claim to follow and obey the Lord Jesus, the Head of the Church. To abandon voluntarily church participation, after once attending, is to place one in questionable company (1 John 2:19). Listening to radio broadcasts and worship at home may be necessary for invalids, other shut-ins, and isolated believers. Radio and television may act as helpful tools of evangelism and Bible teaching. However, if we allow the so-called “electronic church” to keep us from participating in the local church, practicing its ordinances, and being spiritually accountable to its leaders (Heb. 13:17), then we have erred. We should not allow so-called parachurch organizations to ever become a substitute for the local church.

Names For The Church

Biblical names for the church are instructive. A variety of such names are used for the assembly. They apply to all believers. None are used in a sectarian way. These include:

1. Church of God (1 Cor. 10:32; 15:9), indicating divine ownership.

2. Church of Christ (Rom. 16:16), indicating its relationship to the Founder.

3. Bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25-27; 2 Cor. 11:2), indicating the loving relationship and commitment of the Lord to His own.

4. Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22,23), illustrating the way in which the Lord expresses His life through His members.

5. Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16), showing that it is the dwelling of the Holy Spirit; also that we as holy priests are “living stones,” brought together as a holy house of worship (1 Pet. 2:5).

6. Flock of God (John 10:16), illustrating that we are the sheep of Christ of which He is the Great Shepherd (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25).

7. House of God (1 Tim. 3:15), suggesting that the order and discipline appropriate to that over which the Lord presides.

This list may not be complete, but is adequate to suggest two things. First, they all relate the Lord’s people to none other than Himself. Second, they do not divide from one another the entirety of believers in any way. They enable all believers to relate to one another in an unrestricted way on the ground of the blood of Christ. Like David then, we can be a companion of all those who fear the Lord and of those who keep His precepts (Psa. 119:63).

Names For Church Members

Our primary membership is in the Body of Christ, not a religious organization. The common denominational names for church members, so often deemed essential, are not used in the Bible to identify believers. Instead, names are given which are appropriate to all who are in Christ and that worship our only Lord and Savior in truth.

1. The term Believers (Acts 5:14) indicates the channel of faith by which we enter the Kingdom of God and continue to relate to Him in life.

2. The name Disciples (Acts 9:1) describes imitating and following the Lord Jesus by those who profess to be His followers; they are adherents or practitioners of His teaching.

3. The title Saints (Eph. 1:1) means “holy ones” and shows our separation unto God and from defilement according to our position as being “in Christ.”

4. The name Brethren (Jas. 2:1) indicates the family relationship among members of God’s family as brothers and sisters in Christ.

5. The term Christians (Acts 11:26) is the least common name denoting our relationship to Christ and was used primarily by unbelievers in Biblical times to describe the faithful.

Identifying A Scriptural Church

It is very difficult for people throughout the world to understand the varieties of churches which call themselves Christian. Many, if not most of them, do not present a message which is faithful to the Gospel or to other major Scriptural truths. Even believers are often confused. The following warnings should be given.

True and false churches operate side by side in many places. This underscores the truth that there have always been true and false prophets or teachers and true and false believers. We must be taught to distinguish the one from the other. The Lord taught the parable of the wheat and tares to illustrate this principle (Matt. 13:24-30,36-43). He paralleled this teaching with the parable of the good fish and bad (Matt. 13:47-50). “Not everyone that says Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom,” said the Lord Jesus, “but he who does the will of My Father who is in Heaven” (Matt. 7:21-23).

How can we know the difference between the true and the false? We ought to know them by their fruits, or evidences of reality (Matt. 7:16).

Do they clearly proclaim or teach the Gospel message of salvation and call upon people to repent, believe, and be born again? Or do they leave the people with the wrong impression that church membership, baptism, and rituals will save them at the end? Do they emphasize God’s word as the final authority in matters of faith and practice? Or do they refer to human authority and tradition as equally acceptable as a guide (Matt. 15:3,9)? Is it the Lord Himself or some latter-day prophet and human organization that has the final say? Does the church glorify Christ or some earthly leader? Does the church nurture its people through the study of the Word of God or through human theories? Is it concerned about bringing the unsaved heathen multitudes to know Christ, or is it apathetic to the world’s spiritual needs? Do the lives of the leaders bear clear evidence of moral transformation by the power of God’s Spirit, or are they merely pursuing a career in ministry? These and other questions should help make the distinction between “the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).

Racial or state churches have arisen to represent Christ and His Kingdom. It is understandable that those of similar culture and language will want to come together for worship. However, this has led many to identify with a church solely because of cultural reasons or community pressure. At times these churches have drifted far from a Biblical foundation. Many have imposed a hierarchy of priests and officials separating the people from direct worship of the Lord. Their followers do not study the Word for themselves. They depend on the teaching of their professionally trained and ordained leaders as their authority. National churches tend to develop this pattern, using culture and tradition, rather than Scriptural principles, as a guide.

A church may come together as a community of the same language. Yet in God’s eyes there can be no racial or state church as His one church. There is no basis for such a separation. “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). We are all one in Christ Jesus. There is one Body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God (Eph. 4:4,5). We will not sit in heaven as separated racial, language, or cultural groups.

The situation is made worse when the state and the church are merged, which historically has been a disaster for the cause of Christ. Furthermore, this merger has no Biblical authority. People tend to depend upon their association with a state, or any church, as their hope of heaven, rather than on a personal relationship with Christ. They are caught up in the thinking and teaching of their group, not what Scripture teaches. This condition is made worse when the church itself does not teach or practice the truths of God’s Word. It gives the members false hopes that through such things as infant baptism and participation in sacraments, they will be accepted by God.

God’s Plan For The Church

The Church is a part of the determined counsel of God from eternity past. It occupies the mind of the Lord today. It will be prominent even in the ages to come (Eph. 2:7). If Christ is Head, Chief Cornerstone, and Central Figure, how could it be anything but vitally important (Eph. 2:20-22)? To be ignorant of the true nature of the Church is to be ignorant of what is central to the plans of our Lord in His past, present and future activities.

It was God’s eternal purpose, before the foundation of the world, that His wisdom be displayed through the Church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph. 3:10,11). He planned that the Church would reflect His holy character. He saved and called His people to a holy life, reflecting His character and ways. Even the very “living stones” of God’s Church were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). The Church is not an alternate plan or afterthought of God. It was on His heart from the beginning.

1. The Purchaser

Known also to God from the beginning was the awful cost involved in establishing the Church (1 Pet. 1:19,20). Christ purchased it with His own blood (Acts 20:28b). He laid down His life for His sheep (John 10:15). The Church was the pearl of great price, which when He found it, He gave all that He had for it (Matt. 13:46). This teaching about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection on behalf of the Church was to be the essence of the Gospel (1 Cor. 15:3,4).

What a marvel it should be to us, His church, that Christ gave Himself to be the Foundation, the Chief Cornerstone and the Divine Indweller of His glorious church (Col. 1:27; 1 Cor. 3:11). How can we be indifferent toward that for which Christ paid so much?

2. The Preparer

Christ personally selected and trained the first church leaders, the Apostles. However, it is the common practice of some to look at Jesus’ three years of ministry (the gospel period) as being completely detached from the Church Age that follows it in the book of Acts. For what did Christ train these men? In Matthew, the Great Commission comes at the end of the Gospel (Matt. 28:18-20), but in Acts it comes as a preface to the story of the early church (Acts 1:8). Thus the last command in the Gospels was the first command in the Acts.

3. The Builder

Christ said that He would build His Church. It is true that He works through the Holy Spirit as His representative to the Church. However, a look at the book of Acts reveals also the direct, personal involvement of the Lord Jesus, the Head of the Church. The Lord Himself adds to the Church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47b). He places the living stones into His building (1 Pet. 2:5). The Lord Himself told Ananias that Saul (Paul) was to be, “…a chosen instrument of Mine , to bear My name before the Gentiles and Kings and the sons of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15,16).

4. The Overseer

Not only is Christ the builder who is directly involved in selecting the materials and the laborers, but He is also the overseer of each local church. In the book of Revelation, Christ is seen standing among the seven lampstands, which represent seven actual churches located in Asia existing in the first century. In His message to each church, Christ indicates His concern and involvement with every one of them. They are directly responsible to Him.

Christ personally identifies with the Church. To touch the Church is to touch the heart of Christ. When Saul was breathing out murderous threats against the infant Church, Christ confronted him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” Saul was not sure who the Lord was. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,He replied.

Conclusion And Application

The Lord Jesus entered into a mighty undertaking when He came to save His people from their sins. However, He did not limit His work to saving individuals. He lovingly made provision for them to be brought into a spiritual community, His own assembly. This community, called His Body, is to function through gathering centers in every locality where the Gospel goes forth. Where the message is preached, churches necessarily will be established where God’s people can gather. They should be Biblically sound and spiritually healthy.

Local churches are not simply a means to an end, just one among many helpful things the Lord ordained. They are the central focus of Christ’s purposes on earth.

Lesson 1 The Importance And Definition Of The Church

1. What is the definition of the word church?

2. When did the church begin, and how was it formed?

3. What is the difference between the universal church and local churches?

4. Give two reasons you would use to answer a person who says, “I don’t believe you need to go to church to live a Christian life.”

5. Give three ways in which you can distinguish a true church from a false one.

6. What name (or names) would you use to identify yourself as a follower of the Lord Jesus? State why.

7. Opinion: State one truth in this lesson which most impressed you.

8. Do you have any unanswered questions on material covered in this lesson?