What is the church?

This post is part of a series of posts on the basics of systematic theology.  Why do we need theology, and what are the essential truths to know about each doctrine?  All the posts are archived under the category “Theology 101.”


There are many perversions and corruptions of the church in contemporary culture.  So restating and defending the nature of the church is essential.  Simply stated, the church is a gathering of people in this age (not OT believers) who have been called by God out of the world (and from sin) to become a chosen people of God to worship Him, by being His servants in spreading the good news of His glory.

More precisely, the church is the body of Christ (Rom. 12:3-4).  Jesus is the head of the church (Eph. 1:21-23).  So the church exists to minister to one another (the various members of the body) as a means of serving Him (the Head of the body), as 1 Corinthians 12:4ff makes clear (see also Rom. 12:3-8).

Scripture also uses other images to indicate the nature of the church.  She is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:23; Rev. 19:7-9), loved by Christ and lovers of Christ.  She is the people of God (1 Pt. 2:10), chosen by God and belonging to and members of and fellowshipping with Him.  She is the temple and building of God founded on Christ as her Source (Mt. 16:18; 1 Pt. 2:6; 1 Cor. 3:10-11; Eph. 2:20).  The church is also the priesthood of God (1 Pt. 2:9), sanctified by God and serving in the presence of God, as priests of the King as a perpetual testimony for God.  She is also the flock of God (Jn. 10:1-5, 11-18, 27-30, esp. v. 28; Acts 20:28), owned by God, dependent upon God, and protected and nurtured by God (1 Pt. 2:25).  And she is the branch of God (Jn. 15:1-11), attached to Him in such a way that she derives all her nourishment from Him.

All these images stress identification with God — “we are His and He is Ours.”  We are His possession, belonging to Him for His divine purposes.  And it indicates further that God is sovereign over His people.  We belong to the One who is a benevolent Master (“Despot,” 2 Pt. 2:1; 2 Tim. 2:21) whom none can thwart.

But why does the church exist?  The church exists for the purposes of worship, instruction, fellowship, and evangelization and equipping (Acts 2:43-47; Eph. 4:11-16; Titus 2:11-14, Matt. 28:19-20).  The church exists to provide a context of loving fellowship with one another for the purpose of mutual edification (Eph. 3:16-19, 4:12-16).  So the church is a training center whereby people can grow through the application of teaching and the utilization of their spiritual gifts (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4; 1 Pt. 4).  Then using those gifts, the members of the church administer and preach the gospel to those who don’t believe so that they also can become a part of the church.

The church has the further purpose of standing as the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).  The church exists to expound, teach, and defend the truth of God’s Word (1 Tim. 4:10-16; 2 Tim. 1:12-13; 3:10-17).

And the church also has leaders (elders, also called pastors) who are given by God as shepherds under the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ, to serve and equip the church (Eph. 4:11-13; 1 Pt. 5:1ff).  And under that godly leadership, the church also has authority to discipline those who are ungodly and not believers, yet have crept into the church (Mt. 18:15-18).  So the most effective place for counseling and discipleship is in the church because it has the gifted men (pastors and teachers) to equip the church to do the work of ministry and to provide the context for oversight, discipline, and correction (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pt. 5:1-5).

Because of the primacy and centrality of the church in the life of the believer, here are some implications for the functioning of the church (adapted from Gary Inrig, Life in His Body) —

  1. There must be a renewed emphasis in the local church on the exercising of spiritual disciplines and spiritual gifts of every believer.  It is not wrong to be served, but it is wrong to want to be served without wanting to serve others.
  2. We must recognize that being part of a church involves much more than simply attending public worship services.  Ministry is an outgrowth of corporate worship, not a substitute for it.
  3. The church requires the involvement of every believer.  Don’t wait to gain a “title” or a “position” before serving others.  Don’t cultivate distinctions between “pastors” and “laity,” or elevate “speaking” gifts above other gifts.  All are necessary and all are placed where they are by the purposeful hand of God.
  4. We must work hard to cultivate genuine sense of fellowship that is sacrificial and giving.
  5. The church must remain the primary place for the carrying out of our disciplines and gifts.  The para-church is no substitute for the church.
  6. We must individually cultivate the godly attributes of humility and love to protect the unity of the body.  Humility will prevent us from exalting ourselves, and love will keep us serving others, regardless of the cost to us.

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