New Testament writers couldn’t imagine a Christian loner. At least, if they could, they certainly didn’t reveal it in their writing. According to their stories, early believers needed one another desperately; they depended on each another for their very lives and provision. In fact, as Tim Keller noted, many early church meetings utilized bouncers to keep out those who might seek to harm the newly converted Christians as they gathered.
The imagery in Acts 2:42–27, the foundation of the church at Pentecost, doesn’t leave room for personal independence. Instead, it depicts an intertwined and interconnected people who joyfully sacrificed personal gain for the sake of the whole. The narrative that follows throughout Acts and the rest of the New Testament supports the foundational ideas demonstrated in Acts 2.
The need for Christians to be intimately connected to other believers was not merely a physical one, however. There was a spiritual bond that needed to be guarded and nurtured in order that they live lives worthy of their calling (Eph. 4:1–6). The need for those bonds among Christians remains today. In this article, Zane Pratt explores the necessity of such a connection and gives definition to a vital word for Christians on mission: church.
What is a church? The word is familiar to the average person, but a few different things come to mind when the word “church” is used. Sometimes we use the word to refer to a building, whether or not the building is being used for churchly activities: the Boy Scout troop meets at the church tonight. Church also is used to talk about the institutional structure of a religious network: the church wielded enormous political and economic power in medieval Europe.
The Bible consistently uses “church” to refer to an assembly of people.
When people think about churches, they often think about programs, events, and leaders as the essential components. However, the New Testament uses the word church a lot, and it never refers to it as a building, systematic structure, or program. Instead, the Bible consistently uses church to refer to an assembly of people. This can even be an assembly of unbelievers, as in Acts 19:32, 41, where the Greek word ekklesia refers to the assembly (or mob!) gathered at the theater in Ephesus at the instigation of Demetrius the silversmith.
The word is never used to designate a building in the New Testament but rather a group of people. Specifically, a New Testament church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ who assemble together regularly and are committed to one another to be the body of Christ together. Each of these features is essential.
A church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ.
There’s no hint in the New Testament that churches are a mix of saved and unsaved people. A group of people who aren’t born again is no church at all, whatever the sign on the door may say. Furthermore, in the Bible the normal expression of faith in Jesus Christ was baptism, so it’s safe to say that a biblical, local church is a group of baptized believers in Jesus. The apostle Paul specifically uses baptism to describe how the Holy Spirit incorporates a person into the church (1 Cor. 12:13).
As we read the book of Acts, evangelism and church planting go hand in hand. The early followers of Jesus went from place to place, shared the gospel, led men and women to faith in Jesus, and churches resulted. You can’t have biblical disciples of Jesus who aren’t gathered in churches, and you can’t have biblical churches that aren’t comprised of believing, gospel-sharing disciples of Jesus.
Churches assemble together regularly.
The very heart of the word for church is “assembly,” and believers in the New Testament era were exhorted and commanded not to neglect meeting together (Heb. 10:25). A church is not an abstract group of disconnected people but rather an assembly of believers who gather regularly to be the church together.
It’s been the practice of early Christian churches to gather on the Lord’s Day each week, and the picture we find of church life in the New Testament seems to indicate that they were involved in each other’s lives in between those weekly assemblies. Churches meet, and they meet regularly.
A church is made up of people who covenant to be the church together.
These groups of believers are committed to be the body of Christ together. This isn’t a random, ever-shifting group of people. New Testament churches knew who was in and who was out of any given assembly––otherwise, the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2, regarding church discipline make no sense at all.
There’s a covenantal nature to the relationship among members of a local church whether they make it explicit through a formal written covenant or not. Paul actually compares the relationship among church members with the relationship (and essential interdependence) among different parts of a human body. The picture he paints in 1 Corinthians 12 is quite illustrative. Every believer in the world needs the other believers whom God has placed in his or her local church as much as a finger, an eye, or a foot on your physical body needs to remain connected to the rest of your body to survive.
We’re to love one another, pray for one another, encourage one another, build each other up, teach and admonish one another, serve one another, submit to one another, and all of the other “one another” commands given to the church in Scripture. We are to do these things with the specific, fellow sinners who constitute our local church. There’s nothing casual about church membership. To be a member of a local church is to be committed to a group of believers in Jesus in order to be and do everything the Bible describes as the life of the body of Christ. That is the essential core of a church’s nature and identity.
Zane Pratt is vice president of training at the International Mission Board.
For more information on biblical churches, see this article that explores 12 characteristics of a healthy church.