When most people hear the word church they probably think of a building. Maybe it is a fancy building or a simple building where believers gather. But biblically speaking, a church is much more than a building. In fact, some would say that the church is not a building at all, but is all about the people. But what is the church? The area of theology that seeks to understand all aspects of the church is known as ecclesiology. It is derived from the Greek word ekklesia that is a general term referring to a gathering or assembly. There are a number of aspects to the subject of ecclesiology, but this article will focus on defining the term church, understanding its nature and purpose, looking at some biblical images of the church and emphasizing church unity on essential truths.
What is the Christian Church?
The early Christian church had no buildings, at least not in the sense of what we would consider church buildings today. First-century Christians were often persecuted and, as a result, often met in secret usually in homes. As the influence of Christianity spread, eventually, buildings dedicated to worship were established and became what we know today as churches. In this sense, then, the church consists of people, not buildings. Fellowship, worship, and ministry are all conducted by people, not buildings. Church structures facilitate the role of God’s people, but they do not fulfill them.
The Visible and Invisible Church
When speaking of the church, theologians often use terms such as the visible and local church as opposed to the invisible and universal church. The visible and local church is, of course, the physical churches that we see around us and around the world, as well as the members of those churches. The invisible and universal church, however, refers to all believers everywhere and is one church, united in Christ, not many physical churches. Everyone in the universal church is a true believer, but such is not necessarily the case with visible and local churches.
Why is it relevant to understand some basic differences between the visible and universal church? One key reason is so that we do not confuse what we sometimes see fallible churches doing with the reality of the universal church. Not only do visible and local churches often host nonbelievers but also the believers themselves are imperfect, resulting in challenges and tensions in every visible church.
What Does the Church Do?
The church is not a building, but a body of believers with a specific nature and purpose. These biblical roles or ministries of the church are foundational to it. What are these roles? They are many, but the key to any church are foundations in worship, edification, and evangelism. Worship is God-centered and Christ-centered. It is not about entertaining Christians with flashy displays or presentations, but about expressing our love by worshiping our Creator. We are to praise and glorify God in worship. As such, every Christian needs to be part of regular fellowship and worship. Edification is also the role of the church. It involves edifying believers, but also nurturing, building up or helping believers to mature in Christ. To this end, churches are tasked with a variety of ministries such as Bible study, continuing education in related areas, praying for one another, acts of genuine hospitality and more.
Evangelism is also a key role in the church. This means reaching out to a lost world with the Good News about Jesus. Since people often have questions or doubts about Christ and Christianity, knowing the truth and being able to defend it (apologetics) is also part of the role of the church. But beyond evangelism in the sense of reaching out with the gospel, the church must also express compassion and mercy tangibly by helping others.
In following Christ’s example to love others, the church, too, must seek to make a real difference in the world while not neglecting to share the message of Christ. If a church fails to fulfill any of these key roles – worship, edification, evangelism – then the church is not functioning as God intends. Granted, there are times when churches face challenges and struggle to one degree or another, but a healthy church seeks to overcome such challenges in a way that honors God and His intentions for His church.