Jesus established his church to represent him to the rest of the world. But what is this church and what is its purpose?
Estimated reading time: 22 minutes
The Nature of the Church
What is the Church?
‘Church’ is a common word today that is used for a variety of purposes. Sometimes the word is used to refer to a building that is used for religious purposes. Other times it is used to refer to a specific Christian denomination, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. Other times it refers to a gathering of people for the worship of God as in ‘going to church’. At other times we use it to refer to a specific body of believers as in ‘First Baptist Church’. And, finally, the word is used to refer to all believers in Christ across all of time and space.
The word translated as church in the New Testament is the Greek word ecclesia, a word referring to an assembly of the citizens of a city. This word is taken into a Christian context to refer an assembly of believers. Sometimes it is used to refer to all believers across time and space, the universal church. At other times it is used in reference to the believers in a certain city, or who are meeting in a specific place, a local church.
Local Churches Like an Embassy
In the New Testament, the local churches are never taught of as being a part of the universal church; the local churches are as much the church as is the universal church. In some ways this is similar to an embassy. A US embassy on foreign soil is the United States; it represents the whole nation. Wherever believers gather together, that is where the church is.
Biblical Images of the Church
Trying to understand just what the church is can be challenging. The Bible uses a number of images to describe the church, with all of them describing some aspect of what the church is. But it is likely that none of them give a complete picture. Just what the church is, is probably beyond our complete understanding. Yet the images used for it do help our understanding.
The People of God
In 2 Corinthians 6:16 and Romans 9:25-26 we find the church referred to as ‘the people of God’. This is very similar usage to what we find in the Old Testament concerning God’s relationship with Israel; they were God’s chosen people. So to, the church is God’s chosen people in the New Testament. This tells us that we are distinct from all the other peoples of this world; we are God’s people.
The Temple of God
In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, and Ephesians 2:21-22 the church is described as being the temple, and dwelling, of God. Under the old covenant there was a physical temple that served as a symbolic dwelling for God and center for his worship. But under the new covenant that temple is replaced by the church. While local churches have buildings today where our activities are centered, they are not a replacement for the Old Testament temple. The temple of God today is made up of believers, all believers; we are the temple of God. And it is in this temple that the Holy Spirit dwells today.
The Bride of Christ
In Ephesians 5:25-27, Revelation 19:7, and Revelation 21:9-10 we find the church described as the bride of Christ. This is very similar to the relationship between God and Israel in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 16:8-14, Isaiah 54:5, and Jeremiah 2:2 are examples of this language in the Old Testament. The Ephesians and Ezekiel passages mentioned in this paragraph make clear that this image is not used to describe physical relationship. Rather it represents the care and love that is lavished on Israel and the Church by God and by Jesus.
The Body of Christ
Probably the most significant image used to describe the church is as the body of Christ. In this image Christ is the head of the body (Eph. 1:22-23), while the church constitutes the remainder of the body, directed by the head. This image pictures the church taking the place of Christ’s physical body here on earth. Doing the work that he started while here.
With the church as the body, each of us becomes a member of that body (1 Cor. 12:27). All the members of my body are important in the correct functioning of my body. Even so all of the members of the body of Christ are important (Eph. 4:15-16). Each of us, as a part of the body, have a role to fulfill (1 Cor. 12:28-30). But those differing roles should not divide us. Instead we need to be unified together as one body (Eph. 4:4-6). All of the things that might serve to divide us, background, ethnicity, language, gender, etc. should not come between us. Because in Christ we are all one (Col. 3:11).
As the body of Christ, we are his representative in the world today. What Christ did while here, apart from his atonement, is what we should be doing. Specifically, Christ called on us to take the good news to the world around us and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). As his body, we should follow the direction of the head.
The Visible Church and the Invisible Church
The visible church includes all of the people on earth who are identified as Christian, typically being a part of some local church. The invisible church is composed of all of those who are true believers and have committed their lives to Christ. So are these two terms synonymous? There are a number of responses that have been made to this question.
Roman Catholic View
The Roman Catholic view is that it is membership in the institution of the church (the Roman Catholic Church) that brings salvation. Only by properly joining a church under apostolic authority can a person be saved. So in this view the invisible and visible churches are the same.
The pietistic view is pretty much the opposite of the Roman Catholic view. To the pietist, what is important is an individual’s personal relationship with Christ. And all who have such a relationship constitute the church. In general there is not much emphasis placed on a visible local church. People who hold to this position may not even be a part of a visible church.
This view is between the two previous views, stressing both the visible and the invisible. The visible church is composed of all of those who have made an outward expression of their faith. And the invisible church is composed of all those who are true believers. In this view there may be some in the visible church who are not in the invisible church, and all that are in the invisible church may not be represented in the visible church.
It is worth noting that no place in Scripture are we told that we must join a church in order to be saved, as in the Roman Catholic view. But we are also instructed to be a part of a local body, meeting together and encouraging one another (Heb. 10:24-25). Christianity is really a corporate matter, and the fullest extent of the Christian life can only be met in communion with other believers.
The Role of the Church
What is it that the church is supposed to be doing while here as the body of Christ. Do we just hang out together? Or is there something more specific that the church should be about? The Scripture indicates at least four functions the church should fulfill while in the world.
Evangelism is one of these functions that the church has; taking the gospel to a lost world. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 was delivered to his 11 remaining disciples shortly before Jesus ascension. It is these disciples, along with many others, who go out into the world proclaiming the gospel, making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey Christ’s commandments.
While it is generally individuals who are proclaiming the gospel, those individuals are a part of the church. This commission was not just given to a few, but to the church as a whole. It is the responsibility of the church to disciple believers, prepare them to reach out, and then send them out into the world.
This evangelism is not something that we are left on our own to do however. In Acts 1:8, Luke’s account of the Great Commission, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will empower us for the task. We are to go out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit, being witnesses to what Christ has done. And we are to do this not only where we live, but throughout the whole world.
A second function of the church is edification, building up the body into Christlikeness. Ephesians 4:11-13 is the clearest passage describing this, with Christ gifting the church with equippers. The goal of this equipping was “so that the body of Christ may be built up”, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 also calls on the church to make and develop disciples. It is not enough for the church to evangelize the world. We need to teach the evangelized how to live for Christ, and to be well grounded in the faith.
In Acts 2:47 we see the early church engaged in four activities; the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, prayer, and breaking of bread. These activities that they engaged in as a body, helped to build up the body. And, as the body was built up, it was able to engage more effectively in evangelism. Acts 2:47 says that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
What does it mean to worship? The most common Greek word in the New Testament is proskuneō, which is used of an act of homage or reverence to God, to Christ, or to others. In the Old Testament, throughout the gospels, and early in Acts, the temple in Jerusalem was the center for worship. But as the church spread out into the rest of the world, they began to worship wherever they gathered.
In Acts 13:2 you see the leaders of the church in Antioch who had gathered together in worship and fasting. And it is then that God commissioned Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel out into the Gentile world. In Hebrews 12:28 the believers were instructed to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” Worship should be a natural thing for God’s people to do, especially when we gather together. He is our sovereign and is worthy of our worship.
If the church is indeed the body of Christ, left in the world to carry on the work he started while here, then we will be involved in ministering to the peoples around us. Jesus preached to the people and called them to repentance. But he also healed the sick and broken, cast out demons, and fed the hungry. We should not allow social ministry to take precedence over the churches other roles. But neither should we neglect caring for the people around us.
In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, he divides people up into two groups. One is rewarded for how they have cared for others, while the other group in condemned because of their lack of care. I don’t believe that their reward or condemnation is solely a function of how they treated others. But that how they treated others was a reflection of their commitment to Christ and Christlikeness. But clearly, their care for others was important.
The Government and Unity of the Church
How does a church function together? What kind of organization and rules are necessary to allow the body to be able to effectively perform its function?
The most structured form of church government is Episcopal. In this form churches are structured along monarchical lines in a hierarchical form. The Roman Catholic Church is the best example of this form, but Eastern Orthodox, Anglican/Episcopalian and Methodist also fall into it. In Episcopal government the authority resets in an office, the office of the Bishop. At least in the Roman Catholic Church the bishops are directly linked back to the apostles. The bishop is the primary channel through which God expresses his authority on earth.
In episcopal government, priests have responsibility over local congregations. Priests are answerable to a bishop, who is responsible for assigning them to their individual churches, and providing supervision and guidance. Bishops are arrayed in a hierarchical structure with each layer in the organization having more authority. In the Roman Catholic Church there is a pope who sits at the top of the structure. Other traditions do not have a single point of authority though.
A second form of church government with a hierarchical structure is Presbyterian. But while the Episcopalian government is structured as top down, the Presbyterian government is bottom up. While authority in Episcopalian government resides in a bishop, it is the elders who exercise authority in Presbyterian government. This form of government is similar to a representative democracy, with local churches, or sessions, electing a group of elders to provide leadership. These elders include both teaching elders, or pastors, and ruling elders, or lay members.
Representatives from the elder boards in individual churches in a small region form a presbytery and are given authority over that local group of churches. Representatives from presbyteries form synods, while representatives from synods form the General Assembly that sits at the top of the hierarchy. Each level of the hierarchy has a level of authority and decision making responsibility over the level below them, including pastoral selection and property ownership. This is the government used in Presbyterian churches as well as most Reformed churches.
Another common form of church government is congregational. Churches using this form of government function as direct democracies, with every member of the church having an equal voice in the decisions that are made. Congregational churches may voluntarily band together with other like-minded churches into associations and denominations, but the primary authority for each local church resides within that body. Autonomy and local control are the key concepts with this form of government. Higher levels within the denomination can make suggestions or provide assistance, but they have no local control. Most Baptists and Congregationalists are examples of this form of government.
While Episcopal and Presbyterian governments are hierarchical in nature, Congregational churches have only a single level of clergy. Pastors are called by the local churches rather than being assigned, and are responsible only to the local church.
This form of government works well in mature churches. However it can be dangerous in more immature bodies. The danger is that the body can be easily led into error, either by a small handful of people within the body, or simply by incorporating their past experiences and secular beliefs into the churches beliefs and practices. All too often these are contrary to the Scriptures, and lead the church into error. It is not uncommon for congregational churches to incorporate elder led government at the local level in order to minimize this danger.
A final form of church government is to have no government at all. The Quakers and Plymouth Brethren seek to allow the Holy Spirit to lead them in all decisions they make. They will wait and pray on decisions until the Holy Spirit has led them into consensus; with every member of the body led in the same direction. A single dissenting voice will leave the issue on the table. These churches have little, if any, authority figures or organizational structure.
Baptism has been practiced by nearly every Christian tradition throughout the history of Christianity. Generally baptism is the initial act of a believer and serves as entry into the church. But baptism is viewed in a number of different ways in different traditions.
The Meaning of Baptism
A Means of Saving Grace
In this view baptism, is essential for regeneration. It is the act of baptism that brings a person from death into life. This view is held by Roman Catholics as well as Lutherans. These two traditions vary as to the role of faith in salvation. For the Lutheran, faith is required along with baptism. But the Roman Catholic position is that baptism alone is required for salvation. Both of these traditions practice infant baptism. For infant baptism, Lutherans are divided as to the source of faith. Some see it as the faith of the parents, while others see God as providing the infant with some unknown source of faith.
A Sign and Seal of the Covenant
In this view baptism is similar to circumcision under the old covenant. While circumcision was the sign of being a member of the covenant community, and served as the entry point into the community, so baptism does for the new covenant. Baptism is the sign of being a member of the new covenant community as well as initiation into the covenant community. Reformed and Presbyterian churches understand baptism in this way, and understand baptism to be an act of faith on the part of the believer. In both of these traditions infant baptism is practiced, but requires faithfulness as the child matures to adulthood.
A Token of Salvation
In this view baptism is simply an outward symbol of the change that has happened in the person’s life. In this view there is no grace imparted to the person being baptized, it is simply an act of obedience and a declaration that one is following Jesus as Lord. This is the view of Baptists and many other evangelicals. In this view there is no value in infant baptism. While some holding to this view do baptize infants, most Baptists do not.
The Occasion of Salvation
A final view of baptism is held by the Church of Christ. In this view baptism is the point at which salvation actually occurs. Faith is required of the believer, but regeneration does not actually occur until the believer is baptized.
Questions about Baptism
Is Baptism Essential for Salvation
If you are a Roman Catholic you would answer yes to this question. But if you are a Baptist you would say no, baptism has no impact on one’s salvation. Acts 2:38, where Peter tells the crowd to “repent and be baptized . . . for the forgiveness of sins”, is often used to support the idea that baptism is required. Yet in a similar passage, in Acts 16:30-31, Paul tell the Philippian jailer to “believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” There is no mention of baptism in this passage.
Baptism, as an essential element of salvation, would also appear to be contrary to salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Paul argues strenuously in Galatians against requiring the Gentiles to be circumcised and to obey the Old Testament law in order to be saved. In his argument he says that circumcision counts for nothing, all that counts is love expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6). It is hard to see how baptism would be any different than circumcision in this argument.
Who Should Be Baptized?
While infant baptism has been practiced in the church throughout most of its history, there is no evidence in the New Testament that it was practiced in the earliest church, apart from a few references to households (1 Cor. 1:16). And it is unknown if this included infant members of the household or not. Every known case of baptism in the New Testament was of someone who had first professed faith in Jesus. There is no indication in the Scripture that baptism imparts grace to the one being baptized. Rather it seems to be a simple act of obedience.
In the New Testament, baptism is the natural response of people who have accepted Jesus as their savior. It it the beginning point of their life in Christ. So it seems appropriate to hold that candidates for baptism should be believers who are making a public commitment of their identity with Christ.
What is the Proper Method of Baptism?
The word baptism means to dip or plunge under the water, and that seems to be the mode used in the New Testament. In John 3:23 John the Baptist baptized at Aenon “because there was plenty of water.” Plenty of water would not be needed for sprinkling, but would for immersion. In Mark 1:10, after Jesus was baptized he came “up out of the water”, indicating he was out in the river for his baptism. Likewise, in Acts 8:38-39, Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, where Philip baptized the eunuch, and then they came up out of the water. Immersion is indicated in all of these passages, with none that would indicate sprinkling was practiced.
In addition, only immersion really is able to picture the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as it is illustrated in Romans 6:1-11. In this passage Paul makes extensive use of the symbolism of baptism in picturing what has happened to us in a spiritual sense. We have died with Christ, been buried with him, and have been raised to a new life.
The Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is a second tradition practiced across the whole church. While there are a number of areas of disagreement as to what it is and how it should be practiced, there are also a number of points that all traditions hold in common.
Points of Agreement
- All traditions agree that the Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus
- All agree that the church should partake of the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis
- The Lord’s Supper is a proclamation on the Lord’s sacrifice for us, and a looking forward to his return.
- There is spiritual benefit to be derived from partaking in the Lord’s Supper
- The Lord’s Supper should only be taken by those who are followers of Christ. It is not something for the general public.
- There is a horizontal dimension to the Lord’s Supper. It is something that should be taken as a part of a body of believers, not as an individual.
Points of Disagreement
- While some see the elements as being the body and blood of Christ, others see it as only symbolic
- What is the benefit to the participant? All agree there is some. But what that benefit is understood to be varies tremendously.
- Who is able to administer the Lord’s Supper? A duly ordained Bishop, or any believer?
- Who are the proper recipients? Any believer? Or only those who have been properly baptized? Or only from the local congregation?
- What are the appropriate elements to use? Wine, or grape juice?
Major Views of the Lord’s Supper
Traditional Roman Catholic
Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church has held to transubstantiation, in which the elements of the meal become the actual body and blood of Jesus when blessed by a properly ordained priest. If anyone other than a properly ordained priest administers the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, then the elements remain simply wine and bread, and the observance has no impact on the participant. And, for the Roman Catholic Church, the Eucharist applies the atoning sacrifice of Jesus to the participant’s venial sins.
Lutherans hold to consubstantiation, in which the body and blood of Jesus are present with the bread and the wine. This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic view in which the elements become the body and blood of Jesus. Lutherans also reject the belief that a suitably ordained priest is necessary for proper administration of the Lord’s Supper, and also reject the sacrificial nature of the meal.
In the Reformed tradition Christ is not physically present in the elements, but he is spiritually present. So, when participating in the Lord’s Supper one is actually receiving the vitality of Christ. The value received however is dependent on the faith of the one taking the elements.
In this view, named after the Reformer who introduced it, Christ is not present with the elements. Rather the Lord’s Supper is a commemoration of Christ’s death. We participate in the Lord’s Supper, not to partake of Christ, but to remember him. In many ways the Lord’s Supper is similar to a sermon where the gospel is acted out rather than verbally proclaimed.
Dealing with the Issues
The Presence of Christ
Clearly one of the primary differences within the different traditions concerns the presence of Christ within the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Are the elements his body and blood; are the elements mixed with his body and blood; is he only present spiritually; or is he not present in the elements at all.
The Literalness of the Body and Blood of Christ
In Matthew 26:26-28, as Jesus introduces the Lord’s Supper, he identifies the bread and the wine as his body and blood. The most natural way to take this is literally, but there are some problems with that approach. First is that it is contrary to the Law that forbids the consumption of blood. While we are not under the Law as believers, it would appear strange that one of Jesus’ commands to us is to literally consume his blood. Additionally, there is no physical indication that the wine ever turns into blood after the blessing of the priest. A chemical analysis of the wine shows that it continues to remain wine.
In other places Jesus identifies himself as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6); the vine (John 15:1); and the good shepherd (John 10:11). All of these are figurative expressions and it likely applies in this case as well. Jesus is not identifying the bread and wine as literally his body and blood, any more than he literally identifies himself as a grape vine.
A Commemorative Meal
And, finally, in Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, he says nothing about the composition of the elements. Instead, he identifies the Lord’s Supper as a commemorative meal, something done to remember what Christ did, and to proclaim his return.
I find it hard to find support in the Scriptures for the transmutation of the elements of the Supper into the actual body and blood of Christ, in whole or in part. Rather the commemorative nature of the Lord’s Supper seems clear from Paul’s description.
The Efficacy of the Rite
Is there any benefit to the one who properly partakes of the Lord’s Supper? There is nothing in the Scripture that identifies any specific physical or spiritual benefit to participating in the meal. And yet it is something that Jesus instructed us to do, in remembrance of him. Participating at the Lord’s Table is an act of worship that should draw us nearer to the one we are remembering. And the benefit we obtain is determined by our attitude and faith as we participate.
On the other hand, there does seem to be a downside to participating in the Lord’s Supper in an improper way. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, Paul expresses that there are many who have grown sick, and even died, because they ate the meal in an improper way. That is not to say that everyone who partakes unworthily will get sick or die. But it should be a warning to us to take it seriously.
The Proper Administrator
There is little in the Scripture that would give any guidance as to the proper administrator for the Lord’s Supper. If the meal is actually a sacrament of the church and a means of imparting God’s grace to the participants, then there may be some rationale for expecting the church to control who can administer it. But if it is a commemorative meal, then it would be appropriate whenever God’s people assembly together, administered by any member of the body of Christ.
The Proper Recipients
While the Scripture does not give any explicit instructions as to who can participate in the Lord’s Supper, it would be meaningless for someone who is not a believer. It is done in memory of Christ’s death and resurrection. Why would an unbeliever be involved in doing that? A participate should also be mature enough to be able to examine themselves to ensure that they are talking the meal in a proper manner (1 Cor. 11:28).
The Elements to Be Used
When Jesus inaugurated this meal, he used the elements of the Passover meal, unleavened bread and wine. And while that is what the church has traditionally used since then, it would seem that anything that would adequately represent the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus would be sufficient. In particular, many churches now use grape juice rather than wine, although some offer both.
It seems uncommon today to use a single loaf and cup. Some of the reasons for that are convenience and sanitation. But it does take away from the symbolism of the body and blood of Jesus. It would help that symbolism to at least have a loaf and a cup that are presented during the meal, even if individual pieces are served to the participants.
The Frequency of Observance
How often should the church meet to observe the Lord’s Supper? There is no guidelines for this in the Scriptures either. It would seem appropriate to do it often enough to keep his sacrifice in memory, but not so often that it becomes rote and loses its meaning. And when it is observed, it should not just be something that is tacked onto the end of a service. Rather make the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice central to the worship experience.
Systematic Theology Post List
- An Introduction to Systematic Theology
- The God of General Revelation: What Creation Tells Us
- The Doctrine of the Bible
- The Doctrine of the Nature of God
- The Doctrine of the Work of God
- The Doctrine of Humanity
- The Doctrine of Sin
- The Doctrine of the Nature of Jesus Christ
- The Doctrine of the Work of Jesus Christ
- The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
- The Doctrine of Salvation
- The Doctrine of the Church
- The Doctrine of Last Things
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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