Ask Steve: What is the Church?







Question: Steve, I have heard different definitions of what the church is according to my readings. Can you explain to me what the church is and when it began? Would you include a good succinct definition of the church, too?

Answer: The word “church” comes from the Greek word ekklesia which stands for “called-out ones” or “an assembly.” The church does not call itself or initiate itself to come to God, but is providentially called out, or elected, by God Himself before the foundation of the world (Jn 17:24; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:20) to be the people of God and the bride of Christ (Eph 5:25-27; 2 Cor 11:2). It is because of this that the members of the church come to saving faith in Christ and make up the body of the church throughout history until the time that Christ comes for His bride in the rapture (1 Thess 4:17; 1 Cor 15:52).

This biblical definition tells us much about what the church is and what the church is not, despite what history and contemporary pop culture tell us about the nature of the church. First I will briefly explain what the church is not. The church is not a building or an inanimate establishment, such as a cathedral or a chapel. Rather, the church, as I explained earlier when I defined the word church in Koine Greek, is a group of Christians, however large or small, who are followers of Jesus Christ. The church is characterized as a specific group of followers, those who have experienced the saving grace of God in their lives and have an active relationship with Jesus Christ. They are specifically Christians. Therefore, the assemblies of Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses,Church of Latter Day Saints, Scientology, Unitarians, and all other gatherings or institutions that claim to be Christians or “churches” are not churches according to the New Testament standard.

Even within the evangelical gatherings, there is what is called the visible church (which is comprised of the saved and the unsaved attendees) and the invisible church (the saved only). The Scripture always speaks of the invisible church as the true church of Jesus Christ, since the church can never be made up of unregenerate followers. For practical purposes, the gathering of the saints constitutes the visible church and is called a church by name and reputation, but the true church (known only to the Lord) are the ones who have repented and trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Unbelievers, though they may profess faith, are not included in the kingdom of God and do not experience Christ’s reign in their hearts, therefore they cannot be deemed as part of the assembly until they come to salvation. This does not mean that they are not elect, but that they are not part of the church yet until they experience saving faith.

Christ is the head of the church, and Christians constitute the entire body underneath Him, with each individual contributing a divinely given gift to the body. The church is composed of the local church, which individual Christians are a part of, and the universal church, which comprises the entire Christian population that make up the body of Christ, who will one day be presented as a bride onto the Bridegroom Jesus Christ upon the rapture of the church (Eph 5:22-23). The church exists for three main reasons: worship of God, edification of the saints, and evangelization of the lost in the world.

There is a definite time as to when the church began. It was birthed at Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. During Jesus’ three year ministry, Christ declared to Peter that “I will build My church.” The future tense indicates that the church didn’t already exist or was in progress at the time. Rather, it was something that was future. The church began at Pentecost, with the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit paving the way. The work of the Holy Spirit, who took on a new indwelling ministry in the NT era, is responsible for initiating the church program. This is so because a believer enters the church (the body of Christ) only by means of Holy Spirit baptism (regeneration). Without this work of the Spirit, there is no entrance into the church. Therefore, the church’s foundation is the apostles and prophets of the NT, which Christ as the cornerstone.

This fact is important to establish because there are evangelicals who believe that the church did not start at Pentecost. They believe that Israel and the church are one and the same, implying that the church began as early as possibly the time of Abraham. This is the theory of supercessionism (replacement theology), which states that the church is the new Israel and the benefits and promises of Israel transferred over to the body of Christ. This view is especially entertained by those who hold strongly to covenant theology. However, careful exegesis and examination of the text informs us that the church is a distinct entity from Israel. The church had a definite beginning and was not built on Old Testament personalities like Abraham, Isaac, or even Moses. This is why the Apostle Paul describes the church as a mystery (Eph 3:1-12;Col 1:26-27), which was a plan of God not revealed in the Old Testament. This was a truth hidden from men and did not become apparent until God instituted the new dispensation of the church age, revealing facts about the church, creating it, and sustaining it to this day.

The church and Israel have distinct characteristics, and Scripture never gives clear evidence that the church replaced or is a continuation of Israel. In fact, Romans 9-11 indicates that God still has a plan for ethnic Israel, and will carry out His eternal covenant promises with the nation in the last days. When Paul speaks regarding Israel, he always made a clear distinction between Israel and the church, calling Israel by its name or as “kinsmen” rather than the church. The entity of Israel was made up of predominantly Jews (although with a few Gentiles proselytes in the Old Testament), but the church is a unique entity that is made up of both believing Jews and Gentiles.

In this day, Jews who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, do not make up Israel, but rather are included in the body of Christ (the church). However, God’s program with the church will end upon the rapture of the church, when Christ takes His bride out of the earth before the 7-Year Tribulation. During the Tribulation, God finishes His program with national Israel and they finally come to repentance, believing in the Messiah.

In conclusion, the church is not a building, a false sect of “Christianity,” or a continuation of Israel. Rather, the church is composed of Christians – all those who have repented and have been baptized into the body of Christ. This group is made up of all people in the world, including Israelites. The church is the unique, mysterious group of believers (of both Jew and Gentile) that characterize this dispensation, with specific tasks and responsibilities that are different than Israel of the OT.