What Is a Church?
We have been talking much in this series about what the church is. We heard in 1 Timothy 3:15 that the church is the household of God, a pillar and buttress or foundation of the church. We’ve been hearing in Matthew that the church is the assembly of the citizens of the kingdom of God. We heard last week that the church is the body of Christ, the temple of God, and the bride of Christ.
Today we’re going to ask a question that might seem redundant or obvious, but which I hope you’ll see is neither by the time we’re finished today. The question to day is, “What is a church?”
There is a difference between the church—which refers to all of God’s people from all places and all times—and a church, a local church.
We’ve seen both uses in recent weeks. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “I will build my church.” There’s just one church. One assembly of the citizens of the kingdom. That assembly will not actually assemble all in person until Jesus returns and the kingdom comes in it’s fullness, but we get to be counted as a member of that great and final assembly today. And that’s what the church is: the one assembly of God’s people from all times and places.
But something that’s been very clear in recent weeks is that this final, ultimate, universal church manifests itself here and now in local churches. We saw this in Matthew 18:17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). It’s very unlikely that Jesus was speaking here about the universal church—that all Christians living on planet earth needed to hear about what this person had done.
No, He is speaking about a local church, a local gathering of Christ’s people. And as the New Testament goes on, when the word “church” is used, it’s most often used in this context. Not to speak about all Christians, but to speak about a specific local assembly of Christians. The book of Acts speaks about “the church in Jerusalem” (11:22) or “the church at Antioch” (13:1). Paul and Barnabas appointed elders “in every church” (14:23) and later we read that “the churches were strengthened in the faith” (Acts 16:5).
Today, we can speak about the church around the world or perhaps even the church in Canada. That’s what last week was about. But we can also speak about this church. Emmanuel Baptist Church. And that’s what this week is about. What is a church? What is a local church and how does it relate to the global, universal church?
Isn’t it true we often speak about local churches as if they were buildings? We use phrases like “drive to church” or “walk into church.” Or maybe we might think of church as an event. “How was church today?” we might ask. “Church went on really long today.” We may think of a church as it’s leaders. “I’m really happy with the vision of this church.” Or, “I was really hurt by the church when I was younger.”
Each of these usages betrays our understanding of what a local church is. A building, a once-a-week event or service, a group of leaders or staff or even a single pastor.
Is this biblical? Is this right? I want to suggest that while churches may own buildings, hold services, and have leaders, none of these things is what the church is. And so what we’re going to do this morning is retrace some of our steps in recent weeks, as well as venture out into some new territory, to come up with a good, working, biblical definition of what a local church is.
And we’re going to build our definition of a church in four parts with three big statements about what a church is. And our first statement is this:
A Church Is a Group of Believers in Jesus Christ...
A church is a group of believers. Now maybe that seems obvious to you. But it’s worth saying, because there have been traditions where the church has been so embedded into the local culture that whoever was born and raised in a certain place just automatically became a part of the church and that was that.
But what we see in Scripture is that a church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ. In Matthew 16, Jesus said He would build His church upon the rock of Peter who had just confessed that Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God. The connection there shows that the church will be a community of confessors who make that same confession as Peter.
Matthew 18 and the whole process of church discipline or church restoration shows that the church was to remove from among themselves those who did not live in accordance with their confession of Jesus. The church was to open and shut the door of the kingdom to make sure that only true confessors of Jesus who had made true confessions of Jesus were among them.
Acts 2 speaks about the church in Jerusalem and says that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Act 2:39). Those who were saved were added to the church. Similarly, Acts 4:32 describes the church as “the full number of those who believed.” And Acts 5:14 says that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord.”
And then it’s there in every New Testament letter written to a church or multiple churches, where it’s just assumed that those who make up the church are believers in Jesus Christ.
And all of this goes back to the nature of the New Covenant Kingdom of God. In the Old Covenant, you became a part of the covenant community just by being born. And so the community was mixed with both believers and unbelievers. But then in Jeremiah 31 God promised that He would make a New Covenant, and that in this new Covenant, “No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
That’s what makes the New Covenant new. It’s members are believers.
This is one of the major reasons why we believe that only believers in Jesus Christ should be baptized, instead of believers and their children. Baptism is the citizenship ceremony in the kingdom of God. It’s the sign of the New Covenant. And since being in the New Covenant kingdom of God happens by faith, then the sign of baptism should only be given to those who are actually able to confess their faith in Jesus.
And so this is what a church is. A group of believers in Jesus. And, like we’ve seen throughout this whole series, this is not just a characteristic of the church. Rather, this is what a church actually is.
We saw this back in Titus 1:5 where Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” And the upshot is that you can have a church without elders. It’s not ideal, but it’s possible. Which means that a church is not defined by its leaders. A church is not defined by a denominational structure. None of those make a church what it is. A church most fundamentally is a group of believers in Jesus Christ.
…Who Assemble Together Regularly…
That being said, just because you have a group of believers does not mean that you have a church. I’ve been to concerts and events where there was a bunch of Christians in one room together, and I don’t think anyone would have suggested that we had a church going on there.
So our second point this morning—this next part of our definition of a church—is that a church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ who assemble together regularly.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to us. The word church means “assembly.” A gathering of the citizens.
One day, when the kingdom of God has finally come in all of its fullness, and Jesus reigns on the earth with His redeemed people, there will be a real assembly of all of God’s people from all places and all times. That is the assembly, the church, that Jesus is building today.
But that great and final assembly is manifested today by smaller, local assemblies. And assemblies assemble. That’s what they do.
Jesus told us this in Matthew 18:20: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” That’s what the church does: it gathers regularly.
We saw this in 1 Corinthians 5:4, when the church “assembled” in order to practice church discipline. We heard the crucial phrase in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church” (1 Corinthians 11:18), which shows that coming together and being a church are inseparable from each other. And we saw how that phrase “come together” was used four more times in 1 Corinthians 11 in regards to the Lord’s Supper.
And when we look at the book of Acts we can see that assembling, all together, was one of the distinguishing marks of the church from the very beginning. “…and they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:12–13).
If you have a Bible that has illustrations of the temple, you can see that Solomon’s Portico was huge, about the length of five football fields.1Thomas White and John Mark Yeats, Franchising McChurch: Feeding Our Obsession with Easy Christianity (Colorado Springs: Cook, 2009), 175. So it could fit that very big church as they met all together, which is what churches do.
We can also think of Hebrews 10:24, which tells us that one of our main responses to the gospel is that we would “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Meeting together wasn’t a new idea he had to suggest to them. It was a basic part of being a Christian, and so he encourages them not to stop it in the face of difficulty and persecution.
So a church is not just a group of believers in Jesus Christ. It’s a group of believers in Jesus Christ who assemble together regularly in a place.
…And Who Are Committed to One Another to be the Body of Christ Together.
Now all of this is true, but it’s not yet a complete definition of a church. Because I’ve been a part of regular gatherings of believers that have not been a church.
Years ago a small group of friends and I decided to meet once a week to study the Bible and encourage each other in our faith. We were a group of believers assembling together regularly. But we weren’t a church.
During the school year, up the road at the Bible college, a group of believers assembles together essentially every day. But if you hear John Loge talk, he’ll be (rightly) adamant that they are not a church.
So what makes a regularly assembling group of believers become a church? I want us to go back to Matthew 18, which we studied back in April, because I believe that it’s there that we find the answer.
In verse 17 of that passage, Jesus is talking about the sinning person who had just been confronted by a group of two or three. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
So Jesus has just said that the church has the authority to remove one of their members from among them and to treat that person like they are not actually a believer in Jesus.
And then what He does in the following verses is present the basis or the rationale for this. What gives the church the right to act in this way?
Jesus’ first answer was in verse 18. “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). That’s His explanation for why and how this works. The church can remove people from among them becauseJesus has given to the church the authority to bind and loose, which has to do with opening and closing the door of the kingdom of heaven.
And then in verses 19-20, Jesus re-explains this truth when He says, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:19–20).
We saw back on May 10 that when Jesus speaks about “agreeing on earth about anything they ask,” He’s not necessarily referring to prayer, but is talking about the church making decisions. And so He’s saying that when the church gathers in His name to make decisions, they do so with the authority of Heaven itself.
That’s huge, and we need to understand that individual Christians don’t have this authority. Who does? Two or more Christians who agree together. Two or more Christians who deliberately gather in Jesus name to be His representatives.
And so we can say that what marks out a church from a random group of Christians is that they have deliberately gathered and agreed together to be a church—to represent Jesus together as an outpost of His kingdom.
Their agreement obviously started at an earlier point. They would have needed to agree together about who Jesus is and what a true confession of Jesus is. Then, they would have needed to agree together that each other were true confessors of Jesus. And then, as they gathered to make decisions together, it was their agreement that sealed their identity as a church and infused them with heavenly authority.
The first London Baptist Confession of Faith from 1644 says that a church is “a company of visible saints…joined to the Lord, and each other, by mutual agreement."
The church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ who assemble together regularly and who have agreed to be a church together. It’s our intentional agreement on on our confession of Jesus and our status as confessors of Jesus that makes us a church.
Now let’s go one step further and just state the obvious: agreeing to be a church together implies a level of commitment. Because the church is the body of Christ, agreeing to be a church means acknowledging that were are members of one another.
“We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:5). When a group of believers in Jesus Christ agrees to be a church together, they are agreeing to be an outpost of this body of Christ. They are agreeing to be members of one another. In other words, they are making a commitment.
My fingers are members of my body. And they are committed. It’s not like my wedding ring, which is a nice decoration. It hangs around and shows up everywhere my body is. But it’s not actually a part of my body. The actual members of my body are actual members of my body. They are stuck with me. They are committed.
And we see this in the Scriptural record. From the very beginning, becoming a Christian meant joining a local church which meant you were a part of that body. You didn’t just drift in and out. You were committed.
Listen to these words from Acts 2: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44–47).
The point isn’t that all Christians at all times need to share all of our possessions with each other. The point is that if that was required, that’s what we’d do, because we’re members of each other. Being a believer in Jesus Christ means a commitment to life together in our local church.
We see something similar in Acts 5: “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:12–13). None of the rest dared join them. They knew that you didn’t just go hang out with this group. If you joined them, you were in. You were committed.
But who did join that group? What does verse 14 say? “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord.”
When someone did believe in Jesus, then they were added to the Lord. They were added to that group. Because being a believer in Jesus meant being a part of a local church where there was this high level of commitment to life together.
So a church assembles together regularly, and their assemblies are important. The New Testament shows us that gathering to sing together and pray together and be taught God’s word and share the Lord’s Supper together are all really important.
But our life together as a church is so much more than a weekly gathering. It’s about being the body of Christ together. It’s about sharing our resources with each other when there’s need. It’s about knowing who to talk to when you have a burden or a joy to share. It’s about linking arms to represent Jesus to the world together. It’s about being on mission together to be disciple making disciples. It’s about being the body of Christ together.
What is a Church?
And so, I would suggest to you, this is what a church is. “A New Testament church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ who assemble together regularly and who are committed to one another to be the body of Christ together.”2https://www.imb.org/2016/11/15/what-is-a-church/
Those words, which I’ve used for the outline of this sermon, aren’t my own. They are a quote from Zane Pratt, who is a part of the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board. I read that definition a few years ago and I thought, “Yes. That captures so well what the Bible teaches about these things.” And so I have used that language in the message today—not because I’m necessarily trying to match what he said, but because I think that what he said captures what the Bible teaches so well.
Let me offer you another definition of a church which comes from our background. The Swedish Baptist Confession of 1861, which is one of the key documents in the history of our conference of churches, defines the church like this:
“We believe that a true Christian church is a union of believing and baptized Christians, who have covenanted to strive to keep all that Christ has commanded, to sustain public worship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to choose among themselves shepherds or overseers, and deacons, to administer baptism and the Lord's supper, to practice Christian church-discipline, to promote godliness and brotherly love, and to contribute to the general spread of the gospel; also that every such church is an independent body, free in its relation to other Christian churches and acknowledging Christ only as its head.”
All of the elements we’ve seen today are represented there. A group of believers in Jesus Christ. They gather together for public worship and the sacraments or ordinances. And they are agreed together, committed to one another in a covenant. That’s what a church is.
Now as we tie things up today, I want to acknowledge that today’s message is in many ways a summary of everything we’ve seen in recent weeks. It’s also a bit of a prelude for next week’s message, which is about church membership. Next week I want to show us that when we really soak in what the Bible teaches us about the nature of the church, then church membership is a natural and important part of the picture.
But as we end today, I want to make sure that we don’t miss the important truth that when we ask the question, “What is a church?”, the answer involves each one of us. So I want to apply these truths by asking us all some questions.
We heard today that a church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ. I want to ask you, are you a believer in Jesus Christ? Do you know that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son and chosen king, that He has all authority in heaven and on earth, and that He died for the sins of His people? Have you believed in this Jesus?
If you haven’t, what’s holding you back? Have you talked to someone about that? I want you to know that I’d love to have a conversation with you about faith in Jesus—even if you’re listening to this from halfway around the world. My email is there on the church website and you can get in touch with me. I won’t beat you over the head. I’d love to listen to your questions and talk about some of the ways that I have dealt with my own doubts and questions to come to a place of trust in and surrender to Jesus.
Now if you have trusted in Jesus, then do you understand that you’re a part of the church? And do you know that your part in the church needs to show up in a church? What church that you are a part of, which you help make up?
If you are a part of a church, do you assemble together regularly with them? Now I know that this is a tough question these days, but we need to keep this on the front of our minds. Please, please, let’s not get used to this online streaming thing. We get to meet next week—still not all together; it will be in two halves—and our hearts should beat for being together where we belong.
I’ve been so encouraged to see so many of you chomping at the bit to be together again, because that desire to assemble is a mark of a healthy follower of Christ.
And so hopefully this season of being apart has caused you to consider your attitudes and patterns of gathering with your church. Do you consider assembling with God’s people to be an optional extra that you’ll try and do if it fits in to your schedule? Or do you understand that as a follower of Jesus, assembling with His people is in your DNA?
Our heart should beat with Psalm 34:3: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3). Do you understand that you can’t be a Christian on your own, and we shouldn’t want to be? Do you long to assemble with everyone once a week, and love to assemble in smaller gatherings in our homes and with each other individually throughout the week as we do life together?
If you don’t, if assembling with God’s people feels hard or unnecessary for you, would you pray and ask God to change your heart? To open your eyes? To maybe start asking not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church?
And let’s ask one more big question. I’ve asked you if you are a believer in Jesus Christ. I’ve asked you if you love assembling together regularly. The last question I’m going to ask is, perhaps, the most uncomfortable.
Have you agreed, and are you committed, to being the body of Christ together with this group of believers called Emmanuel Baptist Church—or a group of believers near you if you’re watching this from somewhere else.
That question directly connects to next week’s message on membership, and I invite you to meditate on that question as we prepare to hear from God’s word on that issue.
And I can’t wait to be just a little bit closer to being all together next week. See you then.