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What Is Jesus’ Church?: Doctrine 403

In Matthew 16:18, after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus responded with, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” So what is this church that Jesus promised to build? This article will briefly look at this question.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

A Basic Definition

The Greek word that the New Testament translates as “church” is ekklesia. This word was used for an assembly of citizens called out to conduct the affairs of a city. The Septuagint and Acts 7:38 use it to refer to the assembly of Israel. And Acts 19:32 uses it to refer to a rioting mob. But the New Testament generally uses it to refer to groups of believers who are assembled together.

Ekklesia is used in two different ways in the Bible. The first refers to all believers, regardless of where they are located. This is the universal church. The second refers to the believers in a specific location who come together, the local church. A common use of the word church today is to refer to the building where the believers meet. But the Bible never uses it in that sense.

The Universal Church

The passage quoted at the beginning, Matthew 16:18, is an example of ekklesia referring to the universal body of believers. Jesus was not going to build multiple churches scattered around the world. He was going to build a single church that would be composed of all believers across both time and space. A church that he would be the head of (Eph. 1:22).

Ekklesia is often translated in the plural as churches. This is the translator’s attempt to help us to distinguish between a local church and the church in a larger scope. It may refer to the global church, and 2 Thessalonians 1:4 is an example of this usage; “Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.” Or to a regional collection of churches, as in 1 Corinthians 16:1, where Paul refers to the Galatian churches.

The Local Church

Most commonly, ekklesia refers to a local body of believers who meet together for worship, discipleship, and fellowship. Most of the visible activity of the universal church takes place within the local churches scattered around the world. The local churches are in some respects like embassies, representing the interests of the universal church in different parts of the world.

Local churches vary in many ways. Their form of government might be congregational, presbyterian, or episcopal in nature. They will have differing views on the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. There will be differences in doctrinal issues, generally minor but sometimes significant. And they will vary in their ethnic makeup, worship styles, and formality.

But if Jesus is the head of that local church, then it represents him in this world. Regardless of the external differences, all local churches that belong to Christ represent his universal church. But, unfortunately, there are many groups of people who claim to be a church who are not connected to Christ as their head. And these, regardless of what they call themselves, are not churches in the biblical sense.

Membership in the Church

Membership in the church takes two forms. All born-again believers throughout time and place are a part of the universal church. While membership in a local body is highly desirable, it is not a requirement for being a part of the universal church.

Membership requirements for local churches will vary from church to church. Some require a public confession of faith and baptism. Others will require attendance in a membership class of some form. While others may have no formal requirements for membership. Most churches will try and limit formal membership to those who have come to faith in Christ. But there is no way for us to know that for sure, so we take people’s word for it.

Membership in the universal church and in a local church are not synonymous. All born-again believers are a part of the universal church regardless of their membership status in a local church. And membership in a local church does not guarantee membership in the universal church. It is quite possible to join and be active in a local church without a relationship with Christ, and thus not be a part of the universal church.

The Work of the Church

The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 provides a basic blueprint for the work of the church. This commission Jesus gave to his church has two parts. The first part of the commission is outward-focused, while the second is inward.

The first part of this commission tells us to go and make disciples throughout the world, baptizing them in the name of the triune God. This is evangelism, sharing the good news with a world living in darkness. We can do that by supporting missionaries. But we should also be engaged in telling the world around us through what we do and say.

The second part involves discipleship development, teaching believers to do everything that Jesus commanded us. Personal growth in discipleship is essential if the local church is going to be healthy. So local churches need to have a strong focus on training. That includes Bible study that goes beyond the basics that we so often are guilty of endlessly repeating. As well as providing training in specific areas of service within the local church body.

The Future of Jesus’ Chuch

We all too often focus on our individual future as believers. But the church has a future as well. The church is the body of Christ. Both now and through eternity. It is a future that we do not understand very well. But it is one that we should look forward to.

The book of Revelation was written to encourage churches of the first century. Some of them were facing persecution, while others were in danger of compromising in various ways with their culture. At the end of this letter to the churches is a vision of the future of the church. A vision intended to encourage them to remain faithful.

The church is described there as the bride of Christ. The wedding feast of the lamb is celebrated in Revelation 19:6-9. And the bride has made herself ready. Then, in Revelation 21:1-22:5, the bride of Christ is described as a holy city descending from heaven. While neither of these descriptions is likely to be literally fulfilled, they do give us a glimpse into the future of the church. It is an eternal future in an intimate relationship with the Son.

Some Questions to Consider

  • What is the difference between the universal and local churches?
  • Does it matter how local churches are organized?
  • What is the church supposed to be doing in the world?
  • What will the church be doing throughout eternity?

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Disclaimer

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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