What is the Church?

People in America are “joiners.” The majority love being part of clubs, associations, and other organized groups. Hobbyists, collectors, civic clubs, business and trade organizations are examples of this.

One organization that is still going strong is the church. I have read that there are over 350,000 congregations in America. There are more churches than post offices; more churches than McDonald’s restaurants. Approximately 20% of Americans attend worship services weekly.

What distinguishes the church from other associations? What makes the church distinctive? The church is not a building, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may appear. It is not a denomination. The New Testament says nothing about denominations. These are fellowships of churches, and they are not forbidden by the Bible. But neither are they mentioned.

A small prayer or Bible study group may be part of a church, but it is not the same thing. Nor is a large gathering in a stadium or arena for an area-wide evangelistic witness. These are good, but they are not the same as local churches.

The church is not a mission society or para-church ministry. These are ministry structures which are task-oriented and highly selective. They are set up to complement and support the work of local churches, but they are not churches. We may discover a working definition of the church by reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter is addressed to “the church of God in Corinth” (1:2).

An assembly of Christian people

The word “church” means a “called-out assembly.” Paul also called these people at Corinth “saints” because they had put their faith in Jesus as savior. We learn from reading the letter that they were not perfect people. But they were Christian believers, set apart for God.

In geographical proximity to one another

the fact that it was “in Corinth” reminds us that the church is placed in a local context to be a witness. It is true that the New Testament speaks of the church a s universal body of Christ. But the majority of references to the church have to do with specific people gathering in specific local congregations.

United in covenant relationship

This becomes clear when we read the rest of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul gives the reason why he wrote the letter. He wants these believers in Corinth to be unified in their commitment to their doctrinal confession. This confession centered on the gospel, the message of the cross (1 :17, 2:2). This is the basis of the church’s unity. It is the bond which holds the church together, “united in mind and thought.”

Building up one another by the cooperative use of their spiritual gifts

The Corinthians, Paul says, were endowed with spiritual gifts. These gifts were to be used for the building up of the church in knowledge, unity and strength (1 :5-7 and chapters 12-14). Spiritual gifts are divinely-given abilities to minister to the needs of the church, which is Christ’s spiritual body.

For the proclamation of holy scripture

Paul wrote about his preaching. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you  except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but on God’s power” (2:2-5).

For the purposes of worship and witness

The Corinthian church was far from ideal. There were problems that Paul needed to address: controversies, divisions, immorality, and doctrinal errors. Their immaturity and disobedience were hindering both their worship and their witness. So Paul wrote the letter to correct errors  and abuses in both. That is why he clarified his teaching about the ordinances of baptism (1:10-17) and the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). Both of these ordinances given by Jesus are for the church’s worship and witness.

The information we gather from 1 Corinthians helps us to see that a New Testament church is an assembly of Christian people in geographical proximity to one another, united in covenant relationship, to build up one another through the cooperative use of spiritual gifts, for the proclamation of holy scripture, and for the purposes of the worship of God and witness to the world.

African theologian Conrad Mbewe wrote that every Christian should become an active member of a local church. He is right. What about you?

Pastor Randy Faulkner