What Is This Thing Called Church?

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In 2004 the Church of England began its first internet church: i-church.org. It still exists today, with a pastor and members who interact with one another online. But is it really a church? Many churches in America are made up of multiple campuses, but from a biblical point of view, is it possible for one church to be located in numerous places?

These questions are more than theological teasers; they have real significance for God’s people. Darren Carlson, president of Training Leaders International, recently observed, “The greatest problem in missions right now is disagreement over what constitutes a local church.” That’s not a small statement. Clearly we need to think with care about what a church is.

Dictionary Definitions

The English word “church” has a number of meanings, most of which are religious. But the Greek word ekklesia—the Bible word translated “church”—is different. Non-Christians in the first century wouldn’t have thought of it as a religious word. To them it simply meant “a gathering” or “an assembly.”

In the New Testament, ekklesia is sometimes used in that ordinary way (Acts 19:32 is one example), but more often it’s used for something new and specifically Christian. The writers of the New Testament chose ekklesia as the word for this new thing because its everyday meaning—assembly, gathering—was a good fit for their purposes. In every New Testament usage, while ekklesia can mean more than a gathering, it never means something unrelated to a gathering.

One Universal Gathering in Heaven

The most important gathering in the New Testament is the gathering of all Christians around Jesus in heaven—an assembly that’s already in place:

You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have cometo . . . the church of the firstborn. . . . You have come . . . to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. (Heb. 12:22–24)

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:6, see also Col. 3:1–4)

As you come to him, the living Stone . . . you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. (1 Peter 2:4–5)

D. Broughton Knox, principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney from 1959 to 1985, unpacks this truth in his essay “The Church and Denominations”:

Since Christ is now in heaven, it is there that the New Testament thinks of him as building his church, because the church of Christ is the assembly which he calls into being around himself. This supernal church or assembly around Christ is a present, not merely a future reality, and we are to think of ourselves as already members of it, assembled with him in heaven.

For now, this is a spiritual rather than a physical gathering, but spiritual things are no less real than physical things. Our union with Christ through faith means we’re with him in heaven even while we’re also on earth. Paul sums it up when he describes the Colossians as “in Christ [heaven] at Colosse [earth]” (Col. 1:2).

At the risk of confusing the spiritual and the physical, I find it helpful to visualize my membership in the heavenly church like this: Through faith I’ve been elongated so that while my feet are on earth, my head is in heaven with Jesus and his people. Alternatively, think of those TV shows where a character turns to the camera to speak directly to the audience. It’s as if the character is simultaneously in two worlds: the world of the show and the world of the audience. Christians similarly “turn to the camera” whenever we remind ourselves that we belong to Jesus’s heavenly assembly and are here on earth as its ambassadors.

Many Local Gatherings on Earth

It’s important to study the heavenly church before describing the local church, because faithful local churches are earthly displays of the heavenly church. Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 (a verse that finishes off a short passage about the local church): “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” On earth, as in heaven, the church assembles around Jesus.

How does this happen in practice, given that Jesus is physically absent here on earth? The answer is through his Word, because that’s how those who don’t see Jesus believe in him (John 20:29–31). Yet this doesn’t mean that any gathering of believers with a Bible is automatically a church. In context, the assembly in Matthew 18:20 is one that exercises formal discipline, thereby implying repeated gatherings and accountable members (Matt. 18:17–18).

Churches Are Divine Creations

While we rightly identify true churches by external attributes like the preaching of the gospel and the faithful administration of the sacraments, we shouldn’t define a church as the sum of those external attributes. Defining a church that way leaves out God’s all-important role in establishing and sustaining churches (see Acts 20:28 and Rev. 2:5). Robert Banks expresses this well in his influential book Paul’s Idea of Community: “The ekklesia is not merely a human association, a gathering of like-minded individuals for a religious purpose, but is a divinely created affair.” Here, then, is a simple definition: The local church is a community gathered around Jesus by his Word. Note that it says “a community,” not “any group.” As mentioned above, the community envisaged in Matthew 18:15–20 is one that gathers repeatedly and exercises formal discipline.

This definition shouldn’t be treated as an excuse to wait passively for Jesus to do the gathering. Since he uses human instruments to start and maintain churches, those he sends to do such work should press on with it, by his energy (Col. 1:29). As John Calvin put it, “He instituted ‘pastors and teachers’ [Eph. 4:11] through whose lips he might teach his own” (Institutes, IV.i.1).

Sunday and the Rest of the Week

By now it should be clear that the local church isn’t a piece of the heavenly church—like a tiny chunk broken off a big cookie. Instead, it’s a miniature realization of the whole heavenly thing. It contains the essential components of the heavenly church that is currently gathered around Jesus and will appear with him when he returns in glory (Col. 3:4). This reality should transform our attitude toward our own church. The people we gather with are people we’re simultaneously with in heaven, in Jesus’s presence. One day we’ll all be in his presence not only spiritually but also physically. Meditating on this thought should stir up a longing for good relationships with fellow church members, especially when we keep in mind that “the church of God [was] bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Another application, which brings us back to the questions at the start, is caution in ecclesiological experimentation. The local church is a physical gathering, so i-church.org isn’t a true church. For the same reason, it would be better, biblically speaking, to view a multisite church as a collection of churches with pooled leadership, rather than one single church. That kind of arrangement can be helpful as a temporary measure designed to result in fully planted churches.

But when multisite churches don’t have that aim, it’s accurate to say they’ve departed from the biblical model. This departure can have grievous consequences. For example, if the damage from any pastor’s fall is considerable, how much more devastating when the fallen pastor is the centerpiece of numerous congregations in different places? Lead pastors of multisite churches, why are you holding on so tightly to your campuses? As Jared Wilson boldly says in an article on celebrity pastors, “When we franchise rather than plant, we cooperate with the idolatry of the consumer.”

Jesus assures us in Matthew 18:20 that a church can exist when just two or three people assemble in his name. Of course, the rest of the New Testament qualifies that in various ways, such as the character and ability requirements for elders. But don’t let Matthew 18:20 suffer death by a thousand qualifications. It’s an absolutely thrilling truth, with the power to inspire church planting, church revitalization, and plain old church attendance in every corner of the world, right up until the day Jesus makes the many churches one.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.

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