What Does the Bible Have to Say about the Church?
Mention the church to a group of Christians and you are likely to get a mixed response. Some might say that, while they do love Jesus, they don’t love the church. Others might respond, “Of course we love the church.”
God has ordained the church, a fellowship of the flawed, to carry out his purpose and will in the world. When we consider the biblical teaching on the church, we realize the church is vitally important for growing in Christ. Like a branch that grows because of its connection to the tree, we thrive when we stay connected to the church.
To explore this issue, it is necessary to consider what the Bible says about the church.
The Church in the Bible: Old Testament Life and Worship
Before we can look at what the New Testament (NT) teaches about the church, we first need to see what the Old Testament (OT) says about life and worship.
God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle—a portable tent that represented the presence of God dwelling right in the middle of his people. The tabernacle and later the temple were the places where God ordained the sacrifices to be carried out and the festivals to be celebrated. The tabernacle and temple functioned as the central place of instruction and teaching about God and his will for Israel. From the tabernacle and temple, Israel sounded forth loud and joyful psalms of praise and worship to God.
The instructions for building the tabernacle required it to be at the center of Israel’s encampments. Later, Jerusalem, the site of the temple, was seen as representing the center of the land of Israel. The tabernacle and temple were not only to be viewed as the geographical center of Israel; they were also intended to be the spiritual center of Israel. Like spokes of a wheel that fan out from the hub, what occurred at these worship centers was to affect every aspect of Israelite life.
The Church in the Bible: Christ and the Gospels
The church did not officially come into existence until the day of Pentecost, after Jesus had died and had risen. However, even in the Gospels we learn many things from Christ concerning the church. Let’s review three.
First, we have Jesus’ declaration, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). “Gates” likely represents the power of hell, which is no match whatsoever for Jesus.
Second, Jesus hands the church its mission statement and purpose for existence when he gives the disciples the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16–20. As the church goes out into the world, it is called to make disciples, carrying out the task of baptizing the new disciples and teaching them all that Christ has commanded. These activities must characterize every local church’s work and life.
The third thing we learn from Jesus concerning the church comes from his high-priestly prayer in John 17. At the end of the prayer, Jesus expresses to the Father, “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known” (John 17:26). The NT frequently refers to the church as Christ’s body. We are literally the presence of Christ on earth. And the church’s mission is exactly the same as Christ’s mission: to proclaim God’s name.
The universal church of Christ’s body is visible and manifest in local congregations, or churches. These local churches are to be “incarnational.” They are to represent Christ, who was incarnated (that is, born as a human) and walked among us. The incarnational model of the church means that we live and behave with the full realization that we represent Christ to the world and to each other.
The Church in the Bible: The Book of Acts
Acts tells the story of the church, from its inception on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, to ch. 28 with Paul at Rome. In between, the church experiences tragedies and triumphs, sorrows and joys. The book of Acts tells the story of the young church, persecuted but bold.
Two things stand out in the life of the early church. One concerns the power of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the Gospels we see apostles who were scared, even to the point of hiding. Then in the early chapters of Acts these same apostles boldly turn the world upside down.
The key to understanding what happened to them is seen in Acts 1:8 (in Christ’s prophecy), then in Acts 2 (the prophecy’s fulfillment). The apostles received the Holy Spirit, and with the Spirit they received power. This same Spirit still binds believers together and brings us into the family of God (Eph. 4:1–7).
The Holy Spirit graciously gives us spiritual gifts, according to Romans 12:3–8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4–11. God has designed the church to be the place where these gifts are discovered, nurtured, and used to build up the body of Christ and bring it to maturity, ultimately for the glory of God (see 1 Corinthians 14). The same Spirit who worked powerfully in the early church continues to work in and through the church today.
Second, the book of Acts shows how the church functions and what it does. Members of the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). All these activities are essential to growing in Christ, and all occur within the local church.
The Church in the Bible: The Epistles
Having looked briefly at the tabernacle and temple in the OT, and the church in the Gospels and Acts, we now come to the NT epistles. With a few exceptions, these books were written to churches, stressing again the God-ordained stature of the church. In the Epistles, especially the letters of Paul to Titus and Timothy, Paul clearly could not conceive of living the Christian life apart from the church.
Paul and the other NT writers often use word pictures to describe the church. At one point Paul calls the church the household of God (1 Tim. 3:15). The church is a family (Gal. 3:28; Heb. 13:1; 1 Pet. 1:22). The church is a building (Eph. 2:20–22; 1 Pet. 2:4–5). The church is pictured as a flock of sheep (1 Pet. 5:1–4). And one of Paul’s favorite metaphors is of the church as Christ’s body (Eph. 4:11–16; 1 Cor. 12:12–27). All of these metaphors contribute to a fuller understanding of how to live the Christian life as part of the church.
The church is even pictured as a bride (2 Cor. 11:2–4; Rev. 19:7–9; 21:1–4). It is the bride of Christ—a bride for whom Jesus died. In the context of urging husbands to love their wives, Paul writes that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). What more could be said to underscore and establish the importance of the church for the Christian life?
The Church as the Communion of Saints
From the very beginning of God’s dealing with his people, the Bible has stressed community. In fact, biblical discussion of godly living is almost always set in the context of growing together, in community, as God’s people. For Christians today, and for the last 2,000 years, God has established the local church as the vehicle for that community. Some current movements seek to replace more traditional understandings of the local church, seeing a group of friends meeting together, for instance, as church. That’s not quite the picture that we see in the NT.
In the NT, we see young and old mixing, as older women and men are to teach younger women and men. We see people coming together to worship who come from different stages in life, different occupations, and different backgrounds. Paul stressed that the social divides typical of most groups in society have no place in the church. The church should be a place of diversity, where each person can contribute to the whole. Limiting oneself to a circle of peers is not sanctioned by Scripture and does not promote spiritual growth.
Sadly, in our day there are churches in which leaders try to dominate their congregations rather than shepherd them in the model of the selfless love of Jesus. But those bad examples do not take away the biblical command to gather and worship as a church. Local churches undoubtedly have their flaws, because they are made up of flawed, sinful people. The Apostles’ Creed refers to the church as a “communion of saints.”
As we come into the church we sometimes imagine that there will be no problems, no conflicts, and no frustrations among our community of saints. But we forget that we are a community of flawed people, still burdened by our imperfections and failures and sins. It is precisely because of our flaws and faults that we need each other.