What is Church?

By | 28 Aug 2016

One of the topics hotly debated among believers in social media is what is “church,” specifically what a church’s goals should be, what should it look and feel like to its congregation, and what sorts of activities and music should take place there. The opinions expressed range in quality between the profound and the profoundly ignorant — an ignorance of both the Scriptures and church history. Much of it boils down to whose personal opinion is “right” and we all know that kind of argument simply leads to generating a whole bunch of heat and very little light.

I also cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve heard someone professing to be a Christian state they didn’t need to belong to a church to be one. In every case I can recall, the person making that claim was walking in defeat with little or no fruit of the Spirit in their lives, if not actually being completely backslidden. Many others eschew church because the pastor or one or more members of the previous one they attended had hurt and/or offended them in some form or fashion, those offenses ranging from the trivial to the heinous.

That being said, a significant proportion of churches are a complete waste of time for anyone who is serious about serving the Lord and walking in victory over sin, the circumstances of this life, and bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God. Such churches are either so doctrinally off-base and/or emotionally toxic and/or have such a misguided set of priorities that it’s a wonder anyone gets anything done for the Lord!

So let’s delve into what a church is, what it should be doing and not doing, and how to identify a healthy one, should you be looking for one for whatever the reason.

Church & Worship Defined

The first thing we need to do is define some terms.

The Church
The human population of planet Earth who have been born-from-above and have identified themselves publicly as followers of Jesus Christ aka “the Body of Christ”
a church
A subset of The Church who meets at a particular location within a given local geographic region. That location may be a private home, a rented public facility, a dedicated property devoted to that purpose, etc.
The offering up of praise to God for Who He is and thanksgiving for what He has done in our lives.
a worship service
An occasion where two or more Christian believers meet at a particular location to enter into worship and receive teaching from God’s Word on how to more effectively live the Christian life, give/receive personal ministry, and share it all with others, both inside and outside The Church.

Let me be perfectly clear: according to the Bible, these are the only valid definitions!

Having a hard time with that statement? Let’s dig into the Word together and you can see for yourself.

The Doctrine of “The Church”

Prior to Jesus death, burial, and resurrection, only Jewish synagogues existed. Synagogues were an invention of the Jewish Babylonian captivity after Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in the early 500s BC. They provided Jews a place of community where they could worship the One True God in the midst of a pagan society totally given over to the worship of idols. This fulfilled a vital need for the exiles since the Temple site was geographically inaccessible and the Temple itself would not be rebuilt under the leadership of Nehemiah for another 70 or so years.

Even after the Jews returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, the returnees retained synagogues as social and religious constructs because a synagogue was local to their community, meaning no travel across — often-time dangerous — distances was required in order to worship on Shabbat (the Sabbath). The Jews of the Diaspora, those exiles who had not returned to Israel, but had gathered into enclaves in various pagan cities around the Mediterranean, maintained synagogues for the very same reasons.

Indeed many of the early churches sprang from local synagogues as some if not all of its members became converts to Christianity. However, neither the words “synagogue” nor “church” occur anywhere in the OT — these are strictly NT concepts.

The NT Greek term translated as “church” is the word ekklesia:

church (ekklesia)
a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly; an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting

Jesus Conceptually Introduces “The Church”

Jesus foretold the concept of “church” during his life and ministry here on earth as recorded in the Gospels. Remarkably, He only spoke of it twice and here is the first instance where Jesus referred to it:

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:13-18 (emphasis mine)

Jesus is the Christ

The first nugget we can mine from this passage is that the church is founded upon the confession that Jesus is the Christ. What did Peter mean by “the Christ?”

First let’s unpack the name of Jesus itself. Jesus is the Greek transliteration of the name Yeshua. Interestingly, the English equivalent is “Joshua.” His name literally means “Jehovah saves.” Cool, huh!

Contrary to the misconceptions of the ignorant, “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, it’s His title. It comes from the NT Greek:


“Christos” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew concept Peter was evoking:

the Anointed One

So “Jesus Christ,” “Yeshua Ha’Mashiyach,” and “Joshua the Anointed One” are Jesus’ name and title in Greek, Hebrew, and English, respectively.

Now this begs the question: what’s an anointed one? In other words, what was Peter referring to when he made this profound statement that Jesus proclaimed He would build His church upon?

First, let me reiterate a major principle of biblical interpretation: the Old Testament foretells the New and the New explains the Old. So Peter, who had no clue whatsoever that there was going to be a New Testament in the imminent future, was basing his confession upon an OT concept, that of a Messiah. Messiah is the English transliteration of the Hebrew title mashiyach I just explained.

The first Person to foretell of a coming messiah was God Himself and that takes place immediately after the Fall of Man in Eden when He curse the serpent:

And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel. Genesis 3:15

As I’ve already covered in a previous article, women have no seed, only men and God.

There are over 300 separate biblical prophesies spanning the several millennia between the Fall and Jesus’ birth, all collectively describing His birth, life, and atoning death, far too many to cover here. Point of fact, when Jesus’ responded to the high priest Caiphas during His trial, He made a clear and unmistakable claim to being the Messiah — that statement is what caused Jesus to be crucified!

His Church Shall Prevail Over Evil

The second nugget from this passage is Jesus’ promise concerning victory in this earth over death and the powers of darkness. Satan and his hordes cannot and will not overcome the Church, period. Yes, he wins the occasional battle against individuals and at times has even brought down local churches and even entire denominations through the moral downfall of their leaders, but here we are 2000+ years later, still going strong!

Jesus Taught How to Resolve Conflict in the Church

The only other passage recorded where Jesus spoke of “the church,” remarkably, consists of instructions on how to resolve conflicts between believers:

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17

The number of believers who I have personally witnessed following this command can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Instead of obeying this very-clear-cut principle, most folks either get offended and leave, gossip about the offender to anyone who will listen, and/or cause division within the church as those with similar ignorance of the Scriptures take sides in the matter.

How to Join “The Church”

Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit defined the only conditions we need to meet for salvation and thereby enter into membership in
The Church:

…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. Romans 10:9-10

That is the price of admission, the total surrender to the absolute rule of Jesus over our lives. Herein lies one of the many paradoxes of Christianity: salvation is a free gift which cannot be earned, deserved, or purchased, yet it costs us everything.

Nothing else counts: not our good works, not whether we are baptized in water or baptized with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues, not whether we witness to the lost, not whether we live a perfect life, not whether we make pilgrimages to so-called “holy places.”

The worldwide population of Christian believers aka the Body of Christ aka the Church Universal, is actually a minority among the vast hosts of those who proclaim themselves to be Christians culturally or as a religious affiliation. While persecution against any group is abhorrent, one beneficial side effect is that it quickly separates the sheep from the goats. A person who calls himself a Christian, but lacks a born-from-above salvation experience, will quickly abandon ship when professing Christ puts his life, his family, his earthly goods, and his livelihood on the line, whereas true believers would rather die a horrible and violent death than recant. History is filled with examples of both.

Some Church History

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to the 1st century AD. Yes, Mr, Peabody!

This is the church as it was founded and grew in the Book of Acts. The church went from only 120 or so to over 3000 in a single day on the Day of Pentecost. Talk about explosive growth! That was only the beginning. In short order, thousands more were added.

Churches for the first 300-odd years were either “house churches” or they met in places of secrecy, such as the catacombs of Rome, to avoid persecution.

  • There were no church buildings with crosses on them, neither were there altars, communion rails, platforms, pulpits, choirs and their lofts, pews, pastoral vestments, baptistries/baptismal fonts, organs, stained-glass windows, liturgies, or anything else that remotely resembles what most people today think of when you mention “church.”
  • No one dressed up on Sundays, but wore their street clothes.
  • No offerings were taken to support the pastor or the facilities, but there were special offerings taken up to ease the suffering of various other churches, such as the one for the Church at Jerusalem as described in the Book of Acts and some of Paul’s letters.
  • Communion wasn’t a symbolic chalice and wafers of bread, but a full meal incorporating both bread and wine — not grape juice! — where the words of Jesus at the Last Supper were recited before, during, or after the meal.

Along came the Emperor Constantine in about 300AD or so who legalized Christianity. I’ve discussed the detrimental impact of this event in detail elsewhere here at Miscellaneous Ramblings, so I will limit my comments here on this historical incident to this: immediately after this Constantine imposed Greco-Roman temple practices, authority structures, and facilities upon the Church. Pagan basilicas were converted into Christian churches and adapted to the new doctrines/practices that were to occur there. Now there were pastors and bishops who wore vestments made from fine cloth, often trimmed with precious metals and stones, most of whom had purchased their positions (the ecclesiastical sin of simony) to avoid a life of actual labor.

And all the rest of what we consider stereotypical church came straight out of that pagan playbook — the only things which changed were the objects and methods of worship.

Just as the Lord preserved a remnant of true Jewish believers who had not bowed their knees to Baal in the time of Elijah, over the ensuing centuries, God always kept alive and active a remnant of true believers in the earth. Many of them were persecuted and put to torture and horrible deaths by the Catholic Church for “heresy,” which was defined as anything that contradicted the edicts of the succession of corrupt lawyer-popes who ruled Catholicism over the centuries.

So when we engage in a critique of what currently passes for “church” in post-modern America, longing for “that old time religion,” we have just jumped onto a steep and extremely slippery slope of “just how far back into the ‘old times’ do we really want to go?” The famous folk singer Pete Seeger once lampooned this very concept with a verse he wrote for a famous old revival song and his lyrics illustrate my point perfectly:

Well, what about them Druids?
They drink fermented fluids,
Dancing naked through the woods,
And it’s good enough for me!

Give Me That Old Time Religion!
Give Me That Old Time Religion!
Give Me That Old Time Religion!
It’s good enough for me!

Unfortunately, there were more than a few of the subsequent “church fathers” who bought in on this load of Greco-Roman-philosophical-syncretization-with-Christianity horse hockey and actually supported it in their writings. By the time the Protestant Reformation took place, appearance had completely replaced substance and the Catholic Church had become — and remains to this day — hopelessly corrupt in every way at every level.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Protestant Reformation — Wycliff, Huss, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al — had been steeped in Roman Catholicism for their entire lives up to that point and collectively suffered from a bad case of Catholic worldview. In other words, they set a lot of things right, but retained quite a few erroneous Catholic concepts (aka The Rags of Romanism), such as infant baptism for just one easy example, rather than returning to the NT and literally trashing everything that had occurred in between. So instead of resetting to the original biblical pattern, they embraced a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, etc., along with many of the attendant errors that had been generated along the way.

The truly remarkable fact of the matter is God hasn’t been thrown off track at all by these events and has managed — despite our best efforts to hinder Him through empty traditions and the doctrines of men — to repeatedly demonstrate Himself perfectly capable of redeeming these corrupt structures and using them to reach millions upon millions for Christ and His glory. Go figure! 🙂

Thanks for reading!