Jesus mentioned the church a few times in the New Testament, but He didn’t devote a chapter to define the nature, purpose, mission, and ministry of the church. However, Jesus left the church this promise: “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The word church found in the New Testament has been misused and misinterpreted throughout the history of the church. It is my purpose to share some thoughts on the nature of the church. The great challenge is to demythologize the church. This brief list will help:
The church is not someplace you go to
The church is not a building
The church is not an institution
The church is not owned by anyone on this planet
The church is not graded by ethnicity, importance, or social status
The church is not divided by doctrine
What is the church? Hold on to your hat because the answer is simple, but it will blow you away. The church is the people of God. Christians living in a specific geographical area gather together as the church to fulfill the purpose, mission, and ministry of the church. Specifically, but not limited to: collective worship according to the Word of God, preaching, teaching, fellowship, and prayer.
The church is not singularly identified. It is embodied within two dimensions commonly known as the visible church and the invisible church
The church visible is mixed with wheat and tares. One prominent church creed describes the visible church as the whole “number of professing Christians, with their children, associated together for divine worship and godly living, agreeable to the Scriptures and submitting to the lawful government of Christ’s kingdom.”
The church invisible is the church in heaven. The invisible church is the true church or to put it another way the saved church. The invisible church is infallible, indestructible, indivisible, and universal.
The Bible does not have a specific proof text to prove the nature of the church. The full counsel of God must be consulted to discover the nature of the church. The Bible does use metaphors that describe the nature of the church. A metaphor is a figure of speech that draws a comparison between two things. The comparison is not literally expressed and may be understood by implication. Although space does not permit inquiry into all the biblical metaphors a few of them will suffice.
The first metaphor I bring to your attention is the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46; John 15:1-8). The nature of the vineyard is such that it is productive. Likewise the church is productive when it fulfills the responsibilities given to the church according to the Word of God. The preaching of the Word of God has been given to the church. When the church insures the sound preaching of the Word of God, it is productive.
The field is another metaphor that will help us understand the nature of the church. The field belongs to God; the church is the field, therefore God’s people belong to Him (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
The Bible also uses another agricultural metaphor to describe the nature of the church. That metaphor found often in the gospel of John is a flock (John 10:1-16). Raising sheep was common in all ancient Near Eastern cultures. Sheep provided food, clothing, and sacrifices for religious worship. Sheep need a shepherd to feed them and protect them. The shepherd in the local church is the pastor/elder. The sheep/shepherd metaphor was a favorite of the Lord Jesus Christ. Obviously the sheep/shepherd aspect ultimately has the invisible church in mind.
One of my favorite metaphors used to describe the nature of the church is the family of God (Luke 11:13; Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:5-7). The nature of the church is such that order, harmony, and unity are necessary for each local congregation. The modern notion that families function best when the various parties are disaffected, is one reason that local congregations feud, fight, and divide. If children in the family can’t get along, neither can siblings in the family of God.
The Bible also describes the church as a bride (Ephesians 5:22-29). The biblical bride is supposed to be pure, and so it is with the church. The biblical bride submits to, honors, and obeys the groom. The nature of the church found in the biblical bride should show us the inseparable connection of God to his bride the church.
Given the biblical teachings on the nature of the church what does Jesus mean when he said, “I will build my church.” Does the Lord mean that he would build a building? Many professing Christians think of the church in terms of a physical piece of architecture. The physical structures where professing Christians meet for worship, Bible study, and fellowship have become a synonym for the church. The result is a misunderstanding of the nature of the church.
The church is God’s building according to the Word of God. One verse from the Bible will make the point: “And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God and they shall be My people” (2 Corinthians. 6:16). The church in biblical terms is not a building made by men, but rather a building created in the image of God. Notice the rhetorical question asked by the inspired apostle: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” None of course! God is true! An idol is false! Only truth is acceptable in God’s building. Falsehood and lies are un-acceptable.
God’s building consists of the souls of Christians filled with the Holy Spirit of God. If Christians would come to grips with the nature of the church maybe the seeds of revival will germinate into beautiful plants. Many Christians do not understand the nature of the church. Several generations grew up under a subjective set of rules that did not include a proper understanding of the fundamental principles that would have taken them down a different road.
The church in the south more than any part of the country has traditionally served as the center of social and cultural functions, thus associating the church with a building. It was the building that provided entertainment to the body rather than enrichment to the soul. The church in the Bible belt has been treated like a social club, civic club, country club, men’s club, and women’s club.
Christians must set aside the baggage from previous generations. I know it is hard to set aside old habits, but Christians should reconsider the nature of the church and re-examine what the Bible says about the nature of the church. The church has been abused, used, and amused through the centuries. Set aside the traditional views of the church and adopt the dynamic views as you find them in the Word of God. Set your goal to demythologize the church for coming generations.