By Christopher VanDusen
The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is one of the most important things to Him, as the apostle Paul makes clear in Ephesians 5:25-27:
“. . . Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (ESV)
Christ loved the church so much that gave Himself up in her place by suffering and dying as God’s punishment for her sins. If Christ loves the church like that, then all who worship Him ought to as well. This means that we must make the well-being of His church one of our top priorities.
However, the condition of the church, at least in the U.S., is very poor. There are many problems with many, if not most, true churches. One of the greatest problems is that Christians don’t understand how God’s Word defines and describes the church. This has led to many misconceptions of what the church is, such as:
- a building that people go to to worship
- a non-profit organization that serves the community
- a service that people go to to enjoy a concert and hear a speaker
Are any of those things your main idea of what the church is? If so, then you don’t understand how God’s Word defines the church.
The Meaning of the Word “Church”
One of the obstacles to understanding what the church is is the fact that we even use the word “church”. This is a western European word whose origin we know very little about, but we’ve used it for centuries now to refer to things that the New Testament church wouldn’t have.
In the New Testament, the original Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia. It has two parts — ek, which means “out of”, and klesia, which comes from the Greek word kaleo, meaning “to call”. Thus, the word ekklesia literally means “called out ones” when referring to people. However, the New Testament meaning borrows from its secular usage, which was a “called out assembly“. It often referred to political bodies, or other types of assemblies, as it’s used in the Book of Acts. Hence, when the New Testament talks about the Christian church, it means a “called out assembly”. In fact, in the Geneva Bible that was used by Puritans, ekklesia was translated as “assembly”.
The Members of the Church
Having established that the church refers to an assembly or gathering of people, let’s move on to how the New Testament describes the members of the church. We’ll begin with Romans 1:6-7 in which Paul writes to,
“. . . you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints . . .” (ESV)
Here, the apostle Paul says that the church in Rome is, first, “called to belong to Jesus Christ”. What does Paul mean when he says they’re “called”? In Paul’s theology of calling, when he’s referring to church members, saying they’re called to something is the same as saying they possess that thing to which they’re called. Paul teaches this in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14:
“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (ESV)
Here, Paul tells the Thessalonians that God called them “to” “be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”. Why did He do this? “So that [they] may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”. The way God called them was “through [the] gospel”, and the way He saved them was “through . . . belief in the truth”, or gospel. Thus, when they were called through the gospel, they were called to be saved by believing it, so they would eventually be glorified, or perfected, with the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s not saying that they were merely told to believe the gospel, but that they were made to believe the gospel because God “called” them through it.
This interpretation is confirmed by what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a, where he’s speaking to the same people:
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (ESV)
This is the calling that Paul speaks of in the 2 Thessalonians passage. It’s a calling, “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”, or assurance. In other words, when they heard the gospel, it had power over them, gave them the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence, and gave them full conviction that it was God’s Word. This is how Paul knows that God chose the Thessalonians — as he says in 2 Thessalonians — “to be saved”, as they were then.
Since Paul is saying that people have received that to which they were called when he’s speaking to believers, this has to apply to Romans 1:7, where he says that the members of the church in Rome “are called to belong to Jesus Christ”. In other words, he’s saying that they do indeed belong to Jesus Christ.
He next says that they are “loved by God”. Now, is he saying that they’re loved by God like everyone else? No, since he’s distinguishing them from everyone else in Rome by preceding this description with “to all those in Rome are loved by God”. This may contradict your understanding of God’s love, but if God loved everyone in Rome, then Paul would be writing to every person in Rome. Yet, he’s obviously not, as he’s just said that these people were “called to belong to Jesus Christ”, and not all are. Hence, one of the descriptions of the church is those “who are loved by God”.
Finally, Paul says that they’re “called to be saints”. The word “saints” is translated from a Greek word that literally means “holy ones”. The word “holy” literally means “set apart for special use”. In this case, the saints are set apart by God for His special use and possession. Once again, when Paul says they’re “called to be saints”, he means that God has called them to become saints, and they therefore are saints, or set apart for God.
From this passage, we see that the church consists of those who belong to Jesus Christ, who God loves, and who are saints.
Next, let’s consider Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ. First, Paul says in Romans 12:5,
“. . . we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (ESV)
Here, Paul, including himself, says that the church is “one body in Christ”. What does he mean when he says they’re in Christ? This concept is an essential part of Paul’s theology, and basically means that everyone in the church is spiritually united to Christ, so that all that’s true of His human condition and state is true of them in spiritual ways. To put it another way, Christ is the church’s representative before God, and however God treats Christ as He is a human being (though still possessing God’s nature), that’s how He treats every member of the church. Thus, when Paul says that the church is “one body in Christ”, he means that all church members are part of the same body of people because they are in Christ.
However, Paul adds that each individual church member belongs to every other one because they are all part of the same body. It’s important to note that Paul here says that there is only “one body in Christ”, since Paul includes himself in it by using the word “we”, though he wasn’t a member of the church in Rome. This is what’s called “the universal church”, or the church which consists of all the saints of all the ages.
In addition to the universal body of Christ, Paul also says that each church in a particular location is in itself the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27:
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (ESV)
Here, addressing the church in Corinth, Paul tells them that they “are the body of Christ”. Therefore, we must understand that although all the saints of all ages make up the universal body of Christ, this body is manifested in the form of local bodies of Christ.
But what does the fact that Paul calls the church the body of Christ imply about it? The main thing it tells us is that the church is the manifestation of Christ on earth, and the group of people through whom He’s accomplishing His purposes. In fact, that’s what Paul implies in Ephesians 1:22-23:
“And he [God] put all things under his [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
By calling the church “the fullness” of Christ, Paul’s implying that all that’s true of Christ’s humanness is true of the church.
Thirdly, Paul says that the church consists of those who are sanctified and call on Christ’s name in 1 Corinthians 1:2:
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (ESV)
The word “sanctified” is very similar to “saints” in that both have to do with being “set apart”, but in this case Paul says that the saints at Corinth are “set apart” rather than “holy ones”. He’s calling attention to what’s been done to them, rather than they’re identity. Again, note that they’re sanctified “in Christ Jesus”, or because they are spiritually united to Him. Because He’s set apart, they are as well.
Lastly, Paul implies that they “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. What does this mean? Well, the “name” of the Lord Jesus Christ, as it is used in Scripture, refers to His identity, character, and work, or what He’s done and is doing. In sum, it refers to the fact that He’s the “Lord”, or Supreme Authority over the universe; that He’s “Jesus”, the man who died on the cross to save His people from their sins and rose from the dead; and that He’s “Christ”, or the anointed, or empowered, Prophet, Priest, and King of His people. Thus, when the Corinthians “call” on His name, they’re seeking His help as their Lord, Savior, Prophet, Priest, and King.
In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul calls the church God’s household and the Lord’s temple:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (ESV)
What does Paul mean when he calls the church the “household of God”? Obviously, he’s implying that the church is God’s family, and God is the Head of the household, or their Father. And what about the church being the Lord’s temple? This teaches us that the church — which again, refers to the people who assemble — is the “dwelling place for God” and the people who truly worship and serve God together.
In Colossians 1:2a, Paul writes,
“To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ . . .” (ESV)
Here, Paul calls this church “faithful brothers”, which literally means “brethren who are full of faith”. In other words, he’s calling them believers in Christ, and brethren, or brothers and sisters in Christ. That he’s calling them believers here, and not simply Christians who are faithful as opposed to those who aren’t, is clear when we consider that the reason Paul wrote the letter was to correct their potential unfaithfulness to God’s Word. To put it another way, Paul’s not writing to a special group of faithful Christians in Colossae, and ignoring those who are unfaithful there.
In 1 Timothy 3:14-15, Paul tells Timothy,
“. . . I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (ESV)
Here, Paul calls the church “a pillar and buttress [or support] of the truth”. What does this teach us? That the church holds up and supports the truth. To interpret the metaphor, this means the church believes, teaches, preaches, and lives according to God’s Word, which is the truth.
In Hebrews 12:22-23, the author writes,
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven . . .” (ESV)
Here, the Holy Spirit says that the saints to which He originally spoke had come “to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”. What does this mean? Well, He’s obviously not talking about a physical location, since He says that his audience have come to this city. Rather, just like Scripture often does, He’s speaking of a community of people, represented by a city, which he further describes as the heavenly Jerusalem, or spiritual Jerusalem. In other words, he’s talking about the church, which is a community of people whose citizenship is in heaven, as Paul says in Philippians.
Second, the author describes the church in a different way by calling it “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven”. The Greek word translated “firstborn” is plural, so he’s referring to every member of the assembly. The word “assembly” comes from one of two words, since the author uses two similar Greek words in the original. One of those words is ekklesia. In fact, the New American Standard Bible uses both “assembly” and “church” in this passage with reference to the church.
But what is the significance of calling the members of the church “the firstborn”? Throughout the Bible, the idea of the firstborn son has to do with the son who will get the inheritance of his father. In the Old Testament, God changes this tradition by making sure the son who is born first doesn’t get the inheritance, but another son. For example, Esau, Isaac’s firstborn son, lost his inheritance from Jacob, Isaac’s second son, and so the rights of the firstborn were given to Jacob. Thus, the word “firstborn”, in Scripture, takes on the meaning, not of being one who is born first, but of being the favored son. Therefore, when the author of Hebrews calls the members of the church “the firstborn”, he means that, like Jesus, Christians are favored by God as His sons, and will inherit the new earth and eternal life.
In 1 Peter 2:9, the apostle Peter says this about the church,
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (ESV)
Here, Peter says that the church is:
- a chosen race, or a special people group
- a royal priesthood, or “kingly” priests
- a holy nation, or a set apart political body, and
- a people that God treasures as a special possession.
The description that probably needs the most explanation is that of “a royal priesthood”. Not many people actually know what a priest is. In the Old Testament, from which Peter gets this description, Israel’s priests were Israel’s representatives before God, presenting sacrifices and prayers to God in order to atone for Israel’s sins, and prevent God from destroying them. In the same way, Christians are priests for one another and the world, as they talk to God on behalf of others, in order to bring others into fellowship with God, and prevent Him from destroying them.
In addition, the fact that Peter calls Christians a “royal” priesthood suggests that they are also rulers in some sense, which may refer to the fact that all Christians have the responsibility to rule over their personal lives, and to lead people in some capacity.
Finally, Peter says that the church is all of these things “that [they] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light”. Here, Peter explicitly says that all members of the church were called out of the darkness of the world and sin, showing us that that is the meaning of the “called out” part of the church’s name.
In 1 Peter 2:10, Peter says,
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people . . .” (ESV)
Just like Peter has just said about the church being God’s special possession, he now explicitly affirms that the church is “God’s people”.
In 1 John 3:1a, the apostle John says,
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (ESV)
Connected to this fact that the church consists of God’s children, Peter says in 1 Peter 2:17,
“Love the brotherhood.” (ESV)
Here, Peter calls the church “the brotherhood”, or “band of brethren”, which obviously includes sisters.
The final passage I offer is Revelation 1:5b-6, which says,
“To him [Jesus] who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father . . .” (ESV)
That John is saying that Jesus has made the church into a kingdom is clear, since he explains what he means by making them a kingdom by calling them “priests”. In other words, he’s saying that the church is a kingdom, or a nation ruled by King Jesus, and whose citizens are themselves royalty, or kings, as we already saw.
To review this sampling of New Testament descriptions of the church, God calls the church:
- those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Ro. 1:6)
- those whom God loves (Ro. 1:7)
- those who are called as saints (Ro. 1:7)
- one body in Christ, consisting of individual members of one another (Ro. 12:5)
- those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Co. 1:2)
- the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:23)
- the Lord’s holy temple and God’s dwelling place (Eph. 2:21-22)
- believers and brethren in Christ (Col. 1:2)
- the household of God (1 Ti. 3:15)
- the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Ti. 3:15)
- the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22)
- the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven (Heb. 12:23)
- a chosen race (1 Pe. 2:9)
- a royal priesthood (“)
- a holy nation (“)
- a people for God’s own possession (“)
- God’s people (1 Pe. 2:10)
- God’s children (1 Jn. 3:1)
- the brotherhood (1 Pe. 2:17)
- a kingdom (Rev. 1:6)
If you are trusting in Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and resurrection from the dead as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of your sins and reconciliation to Him, then all of these things describe you. Therefore, you are
- called to belong to Jesus Christ
- loved by God
- called as a saint
- a member of every other member of Christ’s body
- part of Christ’s fullness
- a stone in Christ’s temple
- a member of God’s household
- a piece of the pillar and buttress of the truth
- a citizen of God’s city
- a firstborn son of God who’s enrolled in heaven’s roster
- a chosen person
- a king-priest
- one of God’s treasures
- a person of God
- a child of God
- a member of the brotherhood
- a subject of Christ’s kingdom
If these things are true of you, whether you’re part of a church or not, you are a member of Christ’s church, and need to live as if these things are true.
If you aren’t trusting only Christ, His death, and resurrection for God’s forgiveness of your sins, then you are an enemy of God, and will be punished by Him for eternity if you don’t change your mind and trust in Christ. The good news is that God sent His eternally divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to willingly be hung on a cross to suffer and die as God’s punishment for our failures to love, worship, and obey Him, to raise Him from the dead, and take Him into heaven as our King. He’s now commanding everyone to change their minds and trust in His Son’s death for our sins and resurrection as the only grounds of His forgiveness because He’s sending Him soon to judge everyone according to everything they’ve said, thought, and done, and to punish His enemies. Don’t remain an enemy of God. If you just trust in Christ as the God-man who died for our sins, rose from the dead, and is our King who deserves perfect love, obedience, and worship, you will be reconciled to God, and forgiven of all your sins.
If the Lord wills, the next post will be on Christ’s purposes for the church on earth.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.