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Before we look at what the Bible says about the church, I would like to review several of the most popular misconceptions that people have concerning the Christian church.
Misconception #1 - The church is a building
This is the most common idea about the church, that it is simply a structure. People say, "I go to the church on Main St." or "Where is your church located?" They see the church as a thing, a place, a type of architecture devoted to a religious function.
Misconception #2 - The church is a human organization
Another name for this is denominationalism. In other words, the church is a group of people that are identified by a certain "brand" name. For example, Catholic church, Protestant church, Baptist or Pentecostal church. Each group has its characteristics, traditions, even styles of architecture for its buildings that identify and distinguish them from other "churches" or groups.
Misconception #3 - All churches are the same
This idea is based on the notion that one church is as good as the other because they are all doing the same thing, serving the same God. It is like McDonalds and Burger King, different names, different brands, but basically the same type of fast food restaurants serving the same food. When we examine what the Bible says about the church however, we see what the church really is and how inaccurate these misconceptions really are!
The Church in the Bible
The surest way to have the correct picture of the church is to consult the Bible. After all, the one who started the Christian church (Jesus) and the ones who established it in the first century (the Apostles) are all recorded in the New Testament part of the Bible. If we want to know about the church, therefore, we need to consult the source book for information about it: the New Testament. So let us deal with the misconceptions first:
#1 - The church is a building
Although most of the public worship of the church takes place in a building (even one that has a special type of architecture), the building itself is not a church. The church building is only a building used by the church.
#2 - The church is a human organization
Although the church is organized, it is not like a human organization. It has structure but is not identified like other groups that have certain names and compete with other groups for position and power.
#3 - All churches are the same
This misconception presupposes that there are many types of churches and that they basically all fulfill the same purpose. The Bible, however, teaches that there is really only one church and it does not compete or divide over itself.
Now the simplest way to describe the church is to identify what the original word for church referred to. We know that the New Testament was originally written in the Greek language and the Greek word translated into the English word "church" was the word "ekklesia." This word was a combination of two expressions: To call, out of. So the word literally meant "those who are called-out or gathered."
Among the Greeks it referred to a body of citizens "gathered" to discuss the affairs of state. It has also been translated into the English words "assembly" and "congregation." Jesus first uses the word "church" in Matthew 16:18 when He says, "I will build my church." When Jesus begins using this word He is referring to His disciples.
- He will "call out" disciples
- He will build His assembly
- He will build His congregation
So, from the very beginning the church always referred to people, not buildings or organizations. Of course the church was not just any assembly, gathering, or congregation of people: The church was the assembly of people who were disciples of Jesus Christ. Or, you could say it this way: the church is the gathering of all those who are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
The key thing to understand, therefore, is that the church is made up of people who have been saved and follow Jesus Christ as Lord. In the book of Acts, Luke describes this process when he recounts how Peter was preaching about Jesus, His death and resurrection, and encouraging people to believe. Observe how Luke describes the formation of the church in this process.
36Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified."
37Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" 38Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." 40And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" 41So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.
- Acts 2:36-41
Note how people become members of the church. The Gospel is preached. Those who believe and are baptized are saved (just as Jesus said they would be in Mark 16:16). They are added (joined to) the existing assembly (church) who have already been saved.
So the church is not a building, nor an organization you can join, nor is it one of many. The church is a group of people who have been called out of disbelief to belief in Jesus Christ and assembles together as one group.
This group exists on a worldwide basis as all those in history who have become Christians: these are the church. On a smaller scale, Christians who gather in local congregations in various places for worship and service, these also are the church. At its most basic level however, the church in the Bible refers to those who are saved by faith in Jesus Christ and obey His word as faithful disciples. And this is the church even if:
- They meet in an elaborate "church building" or someone's home.
- They call themselves by a specific "brand" name or use only the simple term Christian or disciple.
If you are a faithful follower of Jesus, you have been automatically added to His church, His assembly, His congregation.
Imagery of the Church
Even though the basic concept of the church is simple, how it functions and the role it plays in God's plan is complex and quite exalted. In the New Testament there are literally dozens of metaphors used to describe the church and how God sees its position and attributes in the spiritual realm.
I have chosen only 20 of these to highlight the value and beauty God accords to the assembly, the congregation, the church. I have put these in the order that they appear in the Bible. At its most basic level, the church is the gathering of all those who are saved by Christ. God has an exalted view and function for the church that reflects its importance and key role in accomplishing God's will.
Note that these word images are not meant to be "brand names" for different denominations, but rather ways to describe the many facets of the church's character and spiritual role in God's plan.
- Kingdom of Heaven - Matthew 3:2
- Kingdom of God - Matthew 6:33
- Church of God - Acts 20:28
- Church of Christ - Romans 16:16
- God's Field - I Corinthians 3:9
- God's Building - I Corinthians 3:9
- Heavenly Jerusalem - Galatians 4:26
- Israel of God - Galatians 6:16
- Body of Christ - Ephesians 1:22-23
- Holy Temple - Ephesians 2:21
- Dwelling Where God Lives - Ephesians 2:22
- Household of God - I Timothy 3:15
- Pillar and Ground of the Truth - I Timothy 3:15
- Mt. Zion - Hebrews 12:22
- City of the Living God - Hebrews 12:22
- Church of the Firstborn - Hebrews 12:23
- Flock of God - I Peter 5:2
- Golden Lampstand - Revelation 2:1
- New Jerusalem - Revelation 21:2
- Bride and Wife of the Lamb - Revelation 21:9
I could go for pages describing the significance of each of these names and references, but suffice to say that they demonstrate the unique and spiritual character/gifts shared by each individual who makes up the "church" that Jesus builds.
If you were to drive down any major street in any city you would soon notice that contrary to what the Bible teaches - there are many types of churches, not just one church as the Bible teaches. There are several reasons for this phenomenon:
1. Unbiblical foundation
The Bible determines what the church is, how it should function, and how it needs to be organized. Jesus and the Apostles left all the information about the church in the Bible and nowhere else. The Bible is the only legitimate blueprint or guidebook to establish and grow the church.
There are different "types" of churches because people insist on adding human ideas, traditions, teachings in the place of the Bible or in addition to the Bible. Every time you do this you create a variation of the original and with many changes and additions over the centuries there have also been a multiplication of the "types" of churches that come into being.
For example, take a clothing pattern that someone will use to make a shirt. If you follow the pattern you will produce the same shirt over and over again. However, if you change one thing in the pattern, like adding a second pocket, you will begin to have variations of the shirt. Your new creation will be a shirt but not one according to the original pattern.
In the same way, the Bible is the "pattern" for the church. If you follow its pattern you will produce the church of the Bible over and over in each generation and place. If you deviate from the Bible pattern you will create a variation. This is how new and different churches evolve.
Another reason why there are different types of churches is...
2. People do not agree on the meaning of the Bible
It is not something that Christians like to admit, but there is often disagreement about the meaning and application of certain texts in the Bible. Unfortunately, when two groups cannot agree on how to interpret or put into practice a certain teaching or passage of scripture, they form different groups in order to promote their point of view.
These separate groups often grow into separate churches with different identities and different traditions that have little to do with each other. This is why you have hundreds of different "types" of groups all claiming to be the "church" but having different practices and points of view on the variety of issues.
I believe that Jesus knew enough about human nature to know that this type of thing would happen in the church He was creating during His time on earth. This is why at the very beginning of the formation of the church, as He was calling out the very first disciples, He prayed for unity among His followers,
Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.
- John 17:11b
According to the Bible, the church is united in its love, its beliefs, its organization, its practice, its worship and service. Paul explained it this way in the letter to the Ephesian church,
3being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
- Ephesians 4:3-6
The pressure of division was already being felt in the 1st century church, but Paul holds forth the ideal of the church given to him by God in Christ. So there is only one church and it is perfectly united and created according to God's plan and purpose. The pattern for that "true" church is in the New Testament and God calls on every Christian in every generation to follow His pattern in the task of establishing and building His church.
The New Testament Church
One of the things I am asked most often as a minister is, "What kind of church is the Church of Christ?" I serve a congregation of the church of Christ and so people are invariably curious and anxious to figure out what "type" or what denomination I and my church fit into. Of course this is normal considering what I have explained about churches in this lesson.
I tell people that the "Church of Christ" is a New Testament church. This means that our goal is to follow the "pattern" for the church contained in the New Testament as carefully as we can so we will resemble that church. This is important because Jesus said, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18). In the rest of the New Testament the writers describe what that church did, how it was organized, and how it functioned.
We want to be that church, nothing more and nothing less. Of course, we are not alone in this. There are tens of thousands of other churches around the world striving for the same thing and we are one with them.
Now, here is a disclaimer: have we achieved our goal of becoming that perfect model yet? NO. Why?
- We do not understand everything in the scripture yet and we do not always agree with our brothers and sisters on everything.
- And we are sinners, imperfect people who don't always do the things we do understand.
However, here is the motivation and encouragement that keeps us going. We know that this is the right target to shoot for as a church. Using only God's word to produce God's church - this is what a New Testament church does and how it is different.
So when you visit a Church of Christ realize that you are in an assembly that tries to support all of its teachings and practices with the teachings and practices of the church found in the New Testament, no additions, no changes. We believe that this is the only way to accomplish the 3 main goals of the church given to it by Jesus:
- To reach and save the lost - Matthew 28:18-20
- To build His church (His way) - Matthew 16:18
- To create and maintain unity in the church - John 17:11b
If you are not in the church then I encourage you to believe in Jesus, repent of your sins, and be baptized today so the Lord will add you to His glorious church.
- What one thing would you change in order for your church to become more like the church in the Bible? How would you do it?
- Is unity among all Christians actually possible? Why hasn't it happened?
- What is the most common misconception of Christ and how can it be changed?