Ecclesiology: What Is the Church?

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Monday, February 22, 2021 0 comments

by Katie Erickson

What is the church? Depending on who you ask, you’ll likely get a variety of answers. The song I learned as a small child tells me that, “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people. I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!” While many people (and I have been guilty of this as well) refer to the church as the building where we go to gather together for worship services, this is not the Biblical definition. Through this look into ecclesiology, or the study of the church, we’ll find some insight into what the church really is.

The word ecclesiology comes from the Greek ekklesia, which most literally means a gathering or an assembly. Whenever we see the word “church” in the New Testament, this is very likely the word that’s in the original Greek. So, even the very word itself points to people instead of a building.

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were representative of the church. The New Testament describes the people who are the church in a variety of specific ways: the people of God (1 Peter 2:9), a community of salvation (Matthew 28:19), the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), a servant people (2 Corinthians 4:5), and a community of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:4).

While the focus of the early church was defining what doctrines are true and which are false more than defining who they are as a church, they still had consensus on what the church was and is. The church was to be a spiritual society of sorts to replace the nation of Israel as God’s holy people. All people were now welcome, regardless of their ethnicity; you didn’t have to be “born into the club” anymore! The church was responsible for spreading the Gospel message, helping believers to grow in their faith, and making disciples. In the first century, it was the only place where authentic Christian teaching was taught.

There have been many good books written about the history of the church (this being one that I personally recommend), so I’m not going to go into all the details of how the church went from the first century to the twenty-first century. One of the “highlights” of church history was the Reformation in the 1500s. The church had previously split in 1054 into the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation further split the Roman Catholic Church into Roman Catholics and Protestants. In 1541, theologian John Calvin defined the essential doctrines of the Protestant church to be preaching God’s Word and rightly administering the sacraments (such as baptism and communion).

During that same time period, John Calvin also made the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. The visible church is what we see and experience as the church; it’s the group of believers who come together to worship God, for the preaching of His Word, and for the sacraments. The invisible church, however, is the fellowship of all the saints; it includes all of the believers who have gone before us. Regarding this, Calvin said, “Wherever we see the Word of God preached purely and listened to, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, we cannot doubt that a church exists.”

The church itself has 4 primary characteristics: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The church is one because it is unified in the belief in Jesus Christ. While there are many individual congregations of the church, it is still one unified church. All members of the church are in a relationship with the one true God of the Bible. Many other things (structure, worship styles, leadership, etc.) will differ, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is the one thing that truly defines the church.

The church is holy not in the moral sense of doing no wrong (as it’s made up of imperfect people), but in the sense of being set aside by God for His good purposes. The church can also be considered holy because we always have forgiveness of our sins through our faith in the work of Jesus Christ.

The church is catholic not in the sense of Roman Catholic but meaning universal or extending across time and space. The church is not limited to one geographic area, one people group, or even one time period. Check out this blog post for more on that idea.

The church is apostolic because it carries on the teachings of Jesus’ apostles. Jesus’ twelve disciples were the first apostles of the church, and it was the teaching that they received from Jesus and continued to proclaim that has been passed down as foundational to the church as a whole.

The church today is still God’s people, even though the church exists in a very divided state in our modern world. We should strive for unity as a church, but it is most important to remember our mission as the church, direct from Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

That is what makes us the church: following the mission of our ultimate leader, Jesus Christ Himself. He is the reason that the church exists.

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