According to the New Testament of the Bible, the church is a body of people who regularly gather, each having been saved by God’s grace, for his glory, through their faith in the risen Lord Jesus. The church is not a building as so many of us grew up to believe, instead, the church is its people. And good thing it is, because churches didn’t have buildings to meet in for almost 300 years after Jesus rose from the dead! And although there are a few places in the New Testament where the word ‘church’ is used to refer to all believers in all places in a universal sense, for the vast majority of the time, the word ‘church’ is used to describe a local collection of people who are committed to one another as an expression of their commitment to Jesus, who regularly assemble in obedience to God’s Word. The church is a body, and that body is a family, because God is their Father, they’re united by the Holy Spirit, and they are brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we continue to learn about the church, we’ll also learn that the church is a body that’s designed by God to grow as others are included in on Jesus’ terms. At the same time when members who were included no longer live on Jesus’ terms, they can also be excluded (or excommunicated as a more commonly known term). In this sense the church is an active body. When it’s healthy it’s a growing body. And when all its members have self-consciously made a commitment to Jesus by committing themselves to one another, we can expect the body to fulfil its God-given purpose to grow in maturity and in number as Jesus is made known through her.
In this, Jesus truly is ‘The Gate’ of the church (John 10:7). We come into his flock through him, and we remain in the flock through him. If we are excluded, it’s because we no longer obey him, and our position in the flock will forever be on the basis of our relationship to him. As we’ll see in this passage from Matthew 16, we become members of his church through our realisation of who he is, and together we’ll be built up to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. This dwelling will be fully realised when we are physically gathered together in heaven around Christ’s throne at his return, but seen here on earth as we gather each week to sit under his Word (more of this in Study 9 – The Church in Glory).
The church differs from every other organisation on earth in that its members are citizens of heaven. In fact, we become members of the local church when we find ourselves united to Jesus; forgiven, and set apart for eternal life. In our secular society people have become so accustomed to thinking like consumers that they suppose they can have Jesus apart from being in an active relationship with his church – and not only is this idea thoroughly unbiblical, it’s highly offensive to God. In one of the clearest passages on the church that we have in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus as the head, and the church as his body to make sure we understand that we can’t have one without the other (Ephesians 4:11–16 & 5:22–32).
To push this analogy even further, the New Testament teaches us that being the body of Christ also means that Jesus meets the world through us. When we’re insulted, he takes it personally. When we’re honoured, he’s honoured. When we love one another, we love him. When we neglect one another, we neglect him. God has come up with a way to live among us, even while we wait for him to return to us from heaven! Our God is so smart, and he must love us so much because his promise to be with us forever begins here and now.
I hope you can see why it’s so important that we understand what the church is, especially in light of the fact that so many of us have been so poorly taught. Think about this for example;
You know you think of the church as a building when you talk about “driving to church”, or “walking into church”, or you say things like, “I can’t believe they sold the church to a developer!”
You know you think of the church as a performance event, like a concert, when you say, “I really enjoyed church yesterday”, or “I think church went for too long last week.”
And you know that you think of church as its leaders when you say “I really love the church’s vision”, or “I heard the church changed its stance on a particular social issue.”
Instead, because the church is its people, we “go to meet with the church”, and “we gathered together as the church today”, and “I really enjoyed being with the church on Sunday”, and “I was welcomed really well by the church when I met with them the other day”.
Of all the problems these misconceptions have caused, one of the most significant is that we didn’t know we were the church! This is a shame, because Jesus wanted us to know what we were. In fact, we only know what Jesus wants us to do if we understand who Jesus says we are.
Knowing who the church is, is fundamental to knowing how we should act as members of this body. Now that we know the church is a body of people who regularly gather, saved by God’s grace, for his glory, through their faith in the risen Lord Jesus, the next question we need to ask is, ‘Who are the members of this particular body, regularly meeting at this location at 10am on Sunday mornings?’ ‘Of all those who are in attendance on a Sunday morning, who have made a self-conscious commitment to serve Jesus as members of this particular body?’ And we ask those questions so that we know who we are called to ‘speak the truth in love’ to, so that
‘we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is Christ’ (Ephesians 4:15).
We’ll be asking all these questions and more as we continue to clarify what and who the church is, in part, by making it clear who its members are. This will make it easier for us to obey Jesus’ command to love one another (knowing who the ‘one another’ is), more meaningful when we welcome others in, and it will also make it clear who may be regular in attendance but isn’t yet a member of our church because they haven’t yet committed themselves to Jesus.
In Matthew 16 Jesus introduces the idea of the church, and it’s here that the word church is used for the first time in the New Testament. The question What is the church? is on view here, as Jesus begins to build this spiritual household using Peter as the first stone.
Want to find out more?
Please reach out to us below