What is the Church? Part 1: Defining what the Church actually is

What is the Church?

The question is a challenging – and, simultaneously, ridiculously easy – one to answer; it can be resolved in one succinct sentence or thousands of pages, but both approaches are valid.

The Church has existed for two thousand years, give or take thirty years or so. Through that time there have been thousands of iterations of church, countless statements of belief, manifold systems and structures, goals and successes, weaknesses and failures. There is no way I could give the Church even an barely adequate summation even if this blog where hundreds of articles long. But, as it is, I will still try and give it my best shot – giving my all is the least I can do.

Why do we need to understand what the church is? Surely, one can argue, since we have churches and institutions called the Church, we already understand what it is?
I am not saying that churches have misunderstood what church is; what I am saying is that churches often emphasise some aspects of biblical church, but pass others over in silence depending on their denomination, creed or movement. I would wager that probably every denomination and movement that ever was, is, or will be is guilty of this; of choosing what they like most about some of the biblical ideas of church at the expense of the others.

For however many articles as it takes, I will go through the New Testament and search out wherever the church is mentioned, in order to see what the bible expects of it. (To give you a heads up on how many articles this might be, there are 113 instances of the word ‘church’ in the bible translation (ESV) I am using, so we might be here a while!)

But before that, what we have to ask is what is the definition of the Church.
After two thousand years of discussion, debate and arguing, many scholars have come to the conclusion that there are not one, but – wait for it – four definitions of Church in the New Testament. Each definition is tightly woven into the other, but distinct in itself. Yet for all its seeming complexity, it is much simpler than it sounds, as I hope the following will demonstrate! First up of the four definitions is;

1. The Universal Church

In Revelation 19:6-10, it is written that Christ – on the Day that Peter calls the ‘Restoration of all things’ [1] – will become united with His Bride. Given the context of the passage as a whole, it is safe to assume that His Bride is the Church in its entirety; every believer, from the first days to the last, will be present on that day.

Biblically speaking, the Church is one Body [2], and every church is part of that body. This belief that every church is merely a local expression of the one Universal Church can in fact be found in the very make up of the bible itself; Paul wrote to many churches, and to leaders of some of the churches (1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon), as did Peter (1 & 2 Peter), James (James), Jude (Jude), John the apostle (1 & 2 John, Revelations) and John the presbyter (2 John and 3 John).

These texts would not exist if a concept of a Universal Church was not heavily embedded in Christian thinking from the earliest days of the Church. Likewise, the Council of Jerusalem [3] as recorded in Acts shows the principle of the Universal Church in action, as the various groups and factions (maybe a more contemporary term to use would be denominations) of the Church in Jerusalem gathered together to discuss whether the new Gentile (non-Jewish) believers should follow the Mosaic Law (the 613 laws recorded in the first five books of the bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers ands Deuteronomy) or not.

In fact, the outline of the Universal Church can be seen in the words of Jesus, years before the Church even came into existence (the traditional – and biblical – point that marks the birth of the Church is in Act 2 on the day of Pentecost) in Jesus’ parables; Luke 14:7-24, Mark 2:19 and Matthew 15:1-13 are just a sample of the parables of Jesus that centred around the themes of weddings and wedding feats. In Mark 2:19, Jesus actually calls Himself the bridegroom.

Which brings us back to the passage from Revelation above; Jesus Christ, the bridegroom, will return for His Bride, the Church. So we have The Universal Church. Just for added controversy, the greek for universal is translated as…catholic. So remember that next time, O possibly-Protestant reader, when you say you aren’t part of the catholic church! (Note the small ‘c’; Roman Catholicism is only a denomination of the catholic Church.)

Next up,

2. The local church

This is the expression of church we are all familiar with, and is the most commonly understood meaning when someone talks about church. There is plenty of biblical verses and commands with regards to the local church; for lessons in how not to run a local church, read 1 Corinthians. For guidance on how to run a local church well, Titus, 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy are must reads. But, lest I keep retreating this ground, I will keep my discussion on this one for a later article, as the bible has a lot – a lot – to say on the local church, and I need to study the text a little longer before I can even begin broaching this particular topic.

So, with the Universal/catholic Church, and the local church clearly found in the Scriptures, I can hear you mentally asking what other definitions there could possibly be. Alas, I wish there were only the two above, but Scripture does not lie [4], and Scripture speaks of two other definitions.

These two other definitions of Church are inseparably woven into the above two definitions. These definitions of Church have taken many hundreds of years to develop into the current forms, but the traces of them can be found in the works of theologians such as Luther and Calvin, back to Augustine, and even back to the words the bible itself. Before explaining what they are, I will give you a passage that gets their meaning across;

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” – Matthew 13:24-30 (NIV)

When Jesus spoke to the people about the Kingdom of God, often the themes and imagery He uses were ones the people were intimately familiar with; in an agricultural society, it made sense to use agricultural imagery. When it comes to this parable, the meaning becomes clear when we look at it through the lens of Scripture as a whole; elsewhere, the Church is called God’s field [5], and this meaning applies very much to this parable also.

So what does it mean? In order to answer, I need to give a brief lesson in the history of theology;

3. The Visible Church

This is a term almost as old as the church itself, and has had a rocky history. St. Ignatius of Antioch in Chapter 8 of his letter to the Smyrnaeans argued that the visible church was a sign of Christ also being present; he effectively argued that the visible church and those being saved were synonymous. Writing in 110AD as he was, the church was a persecuted and hated sect; only those who truly believed would have been insane enough to risk death and torture to believe in Christ. He wrote in chapter 8 of his letter the following;

Let no man do anything connected with the church without the bishop (Note: bishop – much like ‘overseer’ – is synonymous, and interchangeable with, the word ‘elder’ in the New Testament. A bishop here, rather than the mitred, frocked image that will have popped into your head, was simply the leader of the church.). Let that be deemed a proper eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.

This line of thinking eventually developed into the belief – still prevalent in the Roman Catholic church – that anyone who is part of the church and partakes of the eucharist (communion) is saved. This can be seen plainly in this statement from Article 3, section 6, sub-section 1396 of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church;

The unity of the Mystical Body: the Eucharist makes the Church. Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body – the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church

This runs against the grain of Scripture, since – as my brother has helpfully pointed out in his article ‘Working Hard, or Hardly Working?’ – there are many warnings about those who claim to be Christians, but are in fact teaching ‘destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.’ [6] Centuries after Ignatius wrote his words to the church in Smyrna, the war against the Church by the pagan Roman state ended with the state becoming Christian. All of a sudden, in 380AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the Church became one of the most important organs of the state. Anyone and everyone who wanted to become important in life (or even, in a fit of irony, avoid persecution by the newly-powerful Church) needed to outwardly assume the appearance of a Christian. Even in the early 5th century, less than 40 years after Christianity had become the official religion, Augustine implied in the first two books of The City of God that already there were many in the Church who claimed to believe, but only so that they would see advancement here in life.

Not everyone who is part of the Church on earth is a Christian. To refer back to the parable mentioned above, there will be some weeds in God’s field, weeds that are left where they are for the moment since – were He to root them up – it may take some of the plants He planted with it. So God permits both the true believers and the false to make up the visible Church, because removing the false believers risks destroying some of the true believers in the process, which God refuses to do. Since the Visible Church is not a true representation of all who will be saved, this line of thinking leads us to,

4. The Invisible Church

Sometimes called the Church Triumphant, the invisible church is the Church that will be revealed on the Day of the Restoration of All Things. The invisible church are those who believe in Jesus Christ and are saved. Many will be part of the visible church but – as some reformation theologians commented upon – some may not in fact be part of the visible church as well. This is the church that will be presented to Christ as His Bride in Revelation; spotless and pure.

It is my hope, prayer and longing that many – even, God willing, all – of you who read this shall be, or even are, a part of the Invisible Church, serving Christ in all you do and say and think.

This has been a long one, and I apologise for that! I will try and keep the others slightly shorter, though – when it comes to the Church – there is a lot to say!

God bless you all,

[1] – Acts 3:21b
[2] – 1 Corinthians 12:12
[3] – Acts 15:1-35
[4] – Read Numbers 23:29 and then 2 Timothy 3:16
[5] – 1 Corinthians 3:9
[6] – 2 Peter 2:1b



About trevfrancis

It always seems an odd position to be in; how do you distill yourself into a mere box? The short is, you can't, but I will give it a good go all the same; 23 years I've been on this earth, and 9 of them as a Christian. Books and learning are a passion of mine, as is spending time in good company. The pub is my preferred place for study, and all the wonderful insights I find there from people who I see eye to eye with, even if we agree on precious little. True friends are synonymous with family to me, and I love my family very much. Love walking to clear my head, will walk for miles upon miles if I could. At the end of the day, the best I can think of to sum me up is a pilgrim, far from home, seeking to understand the world he's passing through, and the God behind it all.
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5 Responses to What is the Church? Part 1: Defining what the Church actually is

  1. Hey Trev,

    Thanks for that, nice post! Are you saying there was a herecy twisted directly from the persecutation of Smyrna? That is ironic seeming its iconic prominence in Revelation.

    • trevfrancis says:

      Cheers for commenting!

      The problem was that Ignatius wrote his letter at a time when the church and genuine christians were (by and large, given the persecutions at the time) synonymous. However, his writings became part of the larger body of works that the Roman Catholic church call the ‘Sacred Tradition’ which the Council of Trent (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Trent – will provide the actual statement written by the Council once I find my copy of their decrees!) made as an equal authority to Scripture as a rule of faith. Thus Ignatius’ opinion – which was written very much for his time and as an answer to internal problems within the Smyrnaean church that he was confronting – was made a rule of faith for Roman Catholicism.

      There is a certain cruel irony that such an orthodox Christian bishop’s words have been used in such a way that they run against the grain of Scripture.

  2. tawnymartin says:

    Hey Trev! I knew we already discussed this article yesterday on Facebook, but tis so good I am commenting again! (And, admittedly, because I couldn’t comment here yesterday because I was at school and thus unable to log in :P)

    Once again, this is a really great article. I really liked how you conveyed the history behind the definition of church number three, it was really fascinating. 🙂

    Also, like I mentioned before, I had no idea before this that there was a concept known as the “Invisible Church” (although I might have vaguely heard of it somewhere) and how the Invisible Church is in fact Christ’s true bride – but unseen, since like you mentioned, the “Visible Church” also has chaff amongst the wheat, which is rather a sobering thought….

    I also just realised too that the church that is Christ’s true bride is unseen (because how can anyone know whether another person is a true Christian? Only Christ can truly know that! :)) like your earlier post Part 4: Hope Unseen referenced, none of us living now saw Christ’s resurrection, but it’s one of our hopes, but it’s just as unseen. Oooh, speaking of that, I’ve written up my Article Response to that post – looks like it’s going to happen in several parts 😉 like yours have as well, there’s just so many promises/hopes in the bible to discover and cling to! 😀 By the way, I hope you love that article response! 🙂 It got long… unsurprisingly 😛 😉

    Oh, and I can’t wait for you to find that statement of Ignatius’ from your above reply, to be honest it piqued my interest. Also, I keep staying on the lookout for more people to come and comment/post etc, but so far tis only us three… I guess people are busy right now, but oh I can’t wait for more to come around so that this Blog turns into a hub of discussion and activity with everyone encouraging each other in the Lord! 🙂

    God bless,

    (P.S. Sorry for long comment lol.)

  3. Pingback: In return and reply to ‘Lord, Lord; Why have you Forsaken me!’- Part 1, Then who are Christians then? « Onwards Weary Christian

  4. Pingback: Part 6: Suffering Together « Onwards Weary Christian

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