Serving Christians Seeking to Live a Holy Life


"What is The Church?"
Leon L .Combs, Ph.D.
July 4, 1999

The word "church" is used in so many different ways today. Just what does the word mean to most people today? I haven't done a national poll but, from the way that I hear it mostly used, I think that most people think that it means either a building, the organization behind the church, or both. If my supposition is correct, then most people have an incorrect understanding of the meaning of the word. The purpose of this writing is to examine what the Bible has to say about the church. All Biblical quotations and references are to the New American Standard translation.

From Matthew we read the following relating to the establishment of the church:

Matt 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began asking His disciples, saying, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
Matt 16:14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."
Matt 16:15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Matt 16:16 And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Matt 16:17 And Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
Matt 16:18 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.
Matt 16:19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

The word "church" translates the Greek word "ekklesia" which literally means a "called-out assembly". In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) the word "church" translates the Hebrew word "gahal" which literally means "congregation". In either case the word is referring to people, not to a building.

In Matt 16:18 Jesus is quoted as saying that He would build His church with Himself as the cornerstone and that Satan would never overthrow it. Certainly Jesus is not referring to a building made from earthly building materials for no such building has survived. However the church, the real church, continues even to this day as a testimony to the promise of Jesus.

The church is formed by the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13) without regard to whether the people are Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. Paul tells us in 1Cor 12:27 that we are all "Christ's body, and individually members of it". So we all make up the church (the body of Christ), and we are also individually responsible to carry out our ordained function within the body. There is organization within the body of Christ with elders (Acts 14:23; 15:4) and deacons (Acts 6).

From the Bible we can see that the church is:

1. The people of God - the very meaning of the word (1 Tim 3:15). The Family of God meaning that God is the Father and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ (Eph 2:19-20; 1 Peter 2:9-10; 2: 4-8)

2. The Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27 and Col 1:25) Christ is the Head of the Church (Eph 5:23, Col 1:18) and the Church is purchased by Christ (Acts 20:28)

3. God's Holy Temple That Temple is the human body, not a building built by human hands, made and cleansed by Him for His habitation (Acts 7:48, 1 Cor 3:16, 1 Cor 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, John 14:23)

We should not say what we often hear said (sometimes by our own mouths!): "We are going to church." We should say: "We are going to worship God as an assembly of believers."

Here are some other wrong statements or questions:

"To what church do you belong?", "Where do you go to church?", "Where is your church?", "We are going to church.", "Meet me at the church.", "Meet me at church.".

Is anybody reading this guilty of those wrong statements? Unfortunately I know that I am.

We can legitimately refer to the following church descriptions:

There is much more that God has to say about the church, and we address some of them in the following three sections on the church. There are two aspects of the church that I want to further pursue here.

The first concept that I wish to elaborate upon has to do with the church as an institution. Today it seems that most members of local churches tend to want a staff to do all of the work and to carry on all of the leadership, and most members want to just occasionally come to "services". They want a real person or persons to follow. Following a "service" we might hear "Wasn't the preacher fascinating? He/She had the "audience" spellbound. He/She is surely the leader that God sent us." Notice how worship service has been shortened to "service"? What do these people think a "service" is? We also hear platform leaders refer to the people in attendance at the "service" as the "audience" when the people are the congregation. Such is not just a slip of the tongue for many "services" are performances on a stage and the people really are an audience.

People following a person was not God's plan from the very beginning when He chose Israel. God originally chose His people and said that He would be their only King. However the people wanted differently (1 Sam 8: 4-9). The people wanted human kings like all of the other nations. God let them have their kings but His plan was, of course, the same as from the beginning - God does not change His mind (to change His mind He would have had to have made a wrong decision or received new information - both of which are inconsistent with who He is). Saul was chosen as the fist king in ~ 1043 BC. Israel's last king was Hoshea as they went into Assyrian captivity in 931 BC. Judah's last king was Zedekiah as they went into Babylonian captivity in 586 BC and the temple was destroyed. So the nation had worldly kings for about 457 years and most of them were very bad. All captivity ended in 539 BC and the temple was rebuilt and dedicated in 509 BC.

THE KING was born in 4 BC. He died and was resurrected. The Holy Spirit came on all believers in ~ 30 AD. The Church then became God's chosen people with Jesus as their King - plan A, but fulfilled about 1073 years after God announced His plan.

So what is my point? God announced His plan for His chosen people to have Him only as their King. They wanted earthly kings so God let them have what they wanted. About 1073 years later God then established His ruling Kingdom with the church as His chosen people (Jew, Greek, slave, free) and Him as their only King. Then what happened? The Church wanted a Pope and priests like all the other religions! They wanted their priests to wear robes like the other religious leaders. Sound familiar? By about 200 AD the Bishop of Rome had great authority within the church. So here we go again! This authoritative structure continued until about 1500 with the Reformation. After about 1500 AD, we have the following events:

All these centuries of struggles because the church had the same request as the first chosen people -people want a leader that they can see and touch. I am reminded of Acts 7:51:"You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did."

But our King is Jesus. Jesus is our High Priest. We don't need an earthly priest through whom to go to the Father. We don't have to have a person that we can touch as our leader. We need the God-ordained structure - elders and deacons, and the believers exercising their Gifts. To the Glory of God, may we accept the God-given structure, and accept our individual responsibilities within the Body of Christ as we will study in later portions of this study.

The second concept that I want to briefly expand upon is where we corporately gather to worship God.

About 20 billion American dollars were spent on church buildings by Christian denominations in 1990 alone. My concern has to do with the motives behind the huge expenditures for these buildings. Many people call these structures "God's House" and, by the way that they act, they seem to think that God actually lives in these structures. They come on Sunday every once in a while to "worship" Him there and then they act like they leave Him there. We read in Acts 7:48 "However the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands". This section of the Scripture then goes on to quote Isa 66:1 where the prophet quotes God about how can we, whom God made, take material also made by God and build a house for Him? This is, of course, a rhetorical question. Only foolish, prideful man can think that he can build a suitable house for God (Acts 17:24). Paul reminded Timothy that the church is the house of God (1 Tim 3:15). What did Jesus say about building a sanctuary? Nothing. He did not set up a building fund, but He said to "give it to the poor". What did the apostles say about building a sanctuary to worship God? Nothing. They accepted pay for their work, but they never directed any of the local congregations to build a worship building. Did Jesus and the apostles forget to tell the people to build a sanctuary - what so many people now call a "church"? The people were told to separate the concepts of old covenant worship in a temple built by the hands of the created, and to focus their efforts on sanctification of the temple God built - our bodies. There is no longer any animal sacrifice. There is no longer a required physical circumcision. There is no man-made Christian Temple.

No church buildings were built until after the apostle era. During the apostle era there was incredible growth in Christianity. They met in homes, in synagogues, and wherever they could find space to gather and listen to the teachers and apostles. The place of worship was not important. The act of corporate worship was essential. But after the apostle era, the fantastic growth slowed and the church changed has discussed above.

Am I saying that we should not build a building in which to come for group worship? No, I am saying that we don't need to build extravagant buildings which people tend to misunderstand. Some people use the Old Testament description of the magnificent temple as an example for New Testament construction. But the Old Testament temple was a mere shadow of the New Testament temple - the body of the believer. We need people to experientially understand that God dwells in the body of the believer, and wherever the believer goes, he/she is standing on holy ground.

To the Glory of God.


Web Author: Dr. Leon L. Combs
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