How do you define “church”? A building where Christians worship, the clergy of a religious body, all the believers in a religion, a specific denomination, a public worship gathering — those are all definitions we use in the English language. If we say we “go to church,” we either mean the building or the service. If we say of a group, “this is my church,” we’re generally telling people which denomination we’re part of. If we say someone chose the church as a career path, we mean they went into the clergy.
But those definitions don’t really get at what “church” means in the Bible. In fact, the only part of our English definition that overlaps with the Greek word’s definition is “the whole body of Christians” (Merriam-Webster 3a). And because there’s such a difference, I think it’s important to look at what the New Testament writers were talking about when they discussed the church. We want to learn about how God sees His church, not just how human beings define it today.
Called Out Ones
In the New Testament, “church” is translated from ekklesia (G1577). It’s a compound word that literally means a “calling out” (Strong’s Dictionary). In general, it’s used of a “gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.” In the church-specific sense, it’s “an assembly of Christians” that gathers in a specific place or “the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth” (Thayer’s Dictionary).
When Paul said, “I persecuted the church of God,” he means all the people who followed Jesus (Gal. 1:13, KJV). When he wrote to the Corinthians telling them to do everything for God’s glory and not give offense to the church of God, he means the entire group of called-out people, not an organization or the leadership group (1 Cor. 10:32, KJV). Church, ekklesia, is not about a building or organization or worship service. It’s about the people and their purpose.
In the New Testament, if the word “church” isn’t referring to the entire body of believers, then it’s used of a segment of that body you can find in a specific place. They didn’t have Presbyterians, Catholics, Messianics, Baptists, non-denominationals, etc. in the early church. You just has the church in a specific city or the church that met in a person’s home (see Acts 8:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; 16:19; Gal. 1:2; Col. 4:15-16).
That said, there were some divisions in the church. People aligned themselves with different men (1 Cor. 1:10-13) and some teachers purposefully subverted the church (Tit. 1:10-11). But such division was quite clearly not what God intended. Throughout the New Testament, the church is spoken of a group united under just one head — Jesus Christ. Breaking groups apart and drawing lines between believers is a human thing.
The “Real” Church
God’s church is composed of the people who He calls out of the world and into His Son’s body. For today, that means that the church of God isn’t confined to one group or denomination. It’s wheat sown in a field where the enemy has also planted tares (Matt. 13:24-30). I doubt there’s a single church group in which every person attending is a wheat instead of a tare. And there are also people who God considers part of His church in groups or denominations you don’t like, as well as believers who don’t want to ally with an organization at all.
This is a really hard concept for people to grasp sometimes. I recently learned about a family who doesn’t like to visit my home congregation of the United Church of God because we’re “too liberal.” Their idea of liberal? We have members (including me) who are okay with visiting other Sabbath-keeping church groups. In these people’s minds, if the group isn’t UCG it’s not “the church” even if they’re doctrinal identical. But that is not a scripture-based attitude.
Look To The Head
The church is what God says it is, not what we think or want. No human being has absolute leadership authority over the church or a right to determine who is and is not a part of the church. Only God and Jesus may do that (there are roles for human leaders, of course, but all under the headship of Christ).
God the Father is the one who calls us into the church and then He puts us under the authority of His Son (John 6:44; 10:29). He “hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22023, KJV). As the body of Christ, we belong to Him. He purchased us with His blood and we owe Him our everything. That gives Him authority over every person in His church and over the church as an entire organism (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:15-20). And if we’re going to be part of His church, we need to accept that He sets the rules and not us.
The Shepherd’s Flock
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promises to build His church. In addition to being His body, the church is also a project He’s working on with His Father. They’re the ones adding to the church (Acts 2:47), building us up as “a habitation of God through the spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22, KJV), and making us into a temple (1Pet. 2:5; 1 Cor. 3:16).
This building isn’t constructed according to human rules or expectations. And Jesus’ church isn’t confined to a human organization or denomination. I think He would say to people who believe their church is the only true church something like He told the Jews of His day: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice. They will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16, WEB).
Finding God’s Church
It’s not our job to tell the Shepherd who or where His sheep are. Our job is to follow Jesus regardless of what humans or church groups say and do. Being part of the church has very little to do with what group’s name is on the building where you meet (if you even meet in a building at all). It has to do with your relationship to the Head and how you interact with His body.
God doesn’t want to see schisms in His church. However, divisions do exist and we have to make decisions about which groups to fellowship with based on our convictions. Some groups just don’t line up with the Bible as well as others and it is important for you to find a scripture-based group of people to fellowship with who are truly committed to following Jesus. But it’s not our call to decide our chosen group is the only one that can be right. Nor are we given permission to be unkind or snobbish toward other Christians when their beliefs don’t all line up with ours (in other words, disagree with respectful love instead of harsh judgement).
When our ideas about church line up with God’s it can transform our spiritual walk in a very positive way. We get a clearer picture of how Jesus interacts with His people. We can stop blaming God for the bad things organized religion has done. We learn to be more open to fellowship with our fellow believers. And we start to develop a relationship with our Shepherd that’s not filtered through human beings.