What Is the Church?
The word “church” means “a called-out group of people.” It does not mean a building. Saul persecuted “the church” by persecuting “men and women” (Acts 8:1-3). The members make up the church. But not all men and women are the church, only those who are “called-out people.” When the Bible uses the word “church” it is always speaking of a “called-out group of people”. Stephen preached about the Israelites who were called out of Egypt into the wilderness. These people were called out of slavery and bondage, so he referred to them as “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). This helps us to see the true meaning of the word “church.” Of course, this called-out group was not the New Testament church of Christ. They were baptized unto Moses by crossing the Red Sea under the cloud (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). The church which Jesus built did not come until after He came to earth and returned to Heaven (Matthew 16:18; Acts 2). The religion of the Old Testament was the Jews’ religion (Galatians 1:13-14). It was not Christianity. It prepared the way for Christianity (Galatians 3:24-25).
The church about which the Bible speaks is not a denomination. There were no denominations in the days of the apostles. All denominations have been started by men since Jesus built His church. Denominations are divisions begun by men, and they are contrary to Bible teaching that all be one (John 17:20-21). These divisions arose when believers began to follow their teachers and wear their names instead of Christ’s (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). In the Bible, the church was always a called-out group of people. It was never a building or a denomination.
When we turn to the New Testament, we learn of the church of Christ. Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Christ purchased the church with His blood (Acts 20:28). He loved it and gave Himself up for it (Ephesians 5:25). Every saved person is added by the Lord to this church (Acts 2:47). It is the spiritual body of Christ. He is its only head (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4). The saved in all the world are in the one body of Christ, which is His church (1 Corinthians 12:12-20).
Another way the New Testament uses the word “church” is to refer to a local group of Christians. This is a congregation of called-out people in one village or city. We read of “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). The “seven churches which are in Asia” were seven congregations in seven different Asian cities (Revelation 1:11). Paul sends greetings from local congregations when he says, “The churches of Christ salute you” (Romans 16:16). A group of called-out believers in any location is a local church. It is “the church of Christ” in that place.
A fourth way the Bible uses the word “church” is to speak of an assembly. When people are called out of their houses to enter an assembly, they are called “a church.” Paul speaks of the “church” coming together in 1 Corinthians 14:23. He says that women must keep silence in the “churches” (assemblies). It is a shame for women to speak in “the church” (the assembly), vss. 34-35. The assembly is a called-out group of Christians who have come together in a meeting.
These are the ways the Bible uses the word “church.” Always a “called-out group of people” is meant. Please remember these uses as we study church government further. Let us always speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent. Much confusion can be avoided if we speak of the church only as the Bible speaks of it.
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