When the word “church” is mentioned, many people have an (often negative) picture of an institution promoting the religion of Christianity. Throughout history, the visible church has been responsible for an immense amount of both good and bad. Is the visible church today anything like the Biblical description of church? Is there anything in the Bible to help us answer this question, what IS the Church?
Both the Greek word for church (ekklesia) and the Hebrew equivalent word (qahal) essentially describe the same concept – any group or an assembly of people gathered together for the same purpose. Jesus said:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18 NIV)
The church, therefore, is an entity predicted by Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we have the reassurance that the Church will never be entirely defeated. Although the church will be persecuted, the true Church of Jesus Christ will remain to be partakers of the rapture of the Church. In the great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reveals the primary purpose of the Church:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)
When the term ‘disciple’ is used, this is the same as a follower. The church exists to encourage people to be followers of Jesus – however, to follow must be a voluntary act and not the result of coercion.
Earlier, Jesus had relayed many events surrounding the end-times and one of the factors that will signal the end-times is the completion of the preaching of the gospel to the whole world:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14 NIV)
When the completion of the “proclaiming of the gospel” to the whole world is accomplished, the church ceases to have a role and will then be raptured to meet the Lord.
Is it possible to define the true Church?
The Church is described in many ways in the Bible – in the passage below, it is described as the body of Christ:
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:22-23 NIV)
Additionally, in other passages, the Church is described as the “Bride of Christ” (see Ephesians 5:24-27, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Revelation 19:7-9).
It is, therefore, accurate to describe the church as an entity that is both the “body of Christ” and the “bride of Christ”. This passage below provides a description of the believer entering the Kingdom of God by becoming “born again”:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3 NIV)
Simply stated, the true Church includes anyone who has been “born again” and has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – it is as simple as that! The true Church is the earthly representation of Jesus Christ until He comes again. This is not necessarily a group of people that is visible to everyone else – it is a supernatural entity, powered by the Holy Spirit. The true Church is an “invisible” group of people known only to God. We can never be completely sure whether anyone around us is saved or unsaved – the true Church is only made up of those who are genuinely saved. This group of people make up the bride of Christ that will be raptured to meet Him in the air at a time known only to the Father.
Many people view church as a specific building or a particular denomination. Paul makes an interesting reference at the end of his letter to the Romans where he refers to the church that is INSIDE the house – in other words, the church was NOT the building, the church was the people within the building:
Greet also the church that meets at their house… (Romans 16:5a NIV)
In other words, the church were the believers inside the house. Remember, God does not look at us as being identified with a particular church movement or denomination. There are no instructions in the Bible regarding the size or location of a church. God sees the heart of every individual – we are either saved through Jesus Christ or we are not. The true church cannot be known to us – we may have reasons to feel that someone is either saved or not through their actions, but we can never be sure.
We can be certain there will be quite a number of surprises in heaven as only God knows who are truly His. We suspect that there are genuinely saved believers in almost every Christian denomination even if the teachings, rituals and traditions that the church practice is at odds with Scripture. God places believers everywhere to be used for His purposes. As strange as it might seem, there are likely to be saved Christian’s in the most unlikely places – possibly even in Muslim mosques! Many who live in strict Muslim countries will have to practice their faith in complete secret whilst giving external agreement to other religions or philosophies for their own survival.
Essentially, a church is a small gathering of believers. If you and a friend meet up to worship the Lord, you are in the process of participating in “church”!
Many warnings in the Bible
The Bible is littered with warnings and rebuke against churches that existed during the first century. Virtually every New Testament book contains prophetic warnings that false doctrine and bad practice will be a feature of the church, especially in the end-times. The best example of this is found in chapters two and three of Revelation where there is a message for seven churches in Asia – a personal message from Jesus Christ!
It is frightening to consider that although these churches existed one generation from Christ, many of them received a strong rebuke for adopting false doctrine and bad practice. Surely, the modern church 2000 years further down the line is even more vulnerable to the danger of deception and false doctrine. We are instructed to judge any church by the standards outlined in Scripture:
You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. (Titus 2:1 NIV)
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16 NIV)
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17 NIV)
Every church should submit to the standards of the Bible as it is the ONLY reliable source of doctrine. Unfortunately, the Bible is usually made to submit to the standards of the church, often with tragic consequences. It appears there are an array of churches where there either is little teaching from the Bible or none at all. Others encourage their flocks to blindly follow meaningless rituals or traditions which are not even hinted at in Scripture. In many modern churches, congregations are entertained like a paying audience or encouraged to give priority to emotion-based experiences rather than biblical practice.
So where should I go to Church?
The Bible makes it clear that we can worship God wherever and whenever we like, so long as it is consistent with Scripture. It is important to engage in some structured form of worship, but this does not mean we have to attend a church building or worship in any specific format or with any particular denomination.
Let the Bible be your only guide. The early Christians met in homes to worship the Lord – there is no reason why we cannot also, especially if you cannot find a church that takes the Bible seriously.
Acts 2:42 states:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42 NIV)
There are four elements in the above verse:
apostles doctrine – we can only know this from studying the Bible and having it accurately preached to us. Does your church highly value Scripture and are services immersed with references to the Bible? Do those that teach the Bible believe that it really means what it says and says what it means? Is the Bible the highest authority in the church? This is crucial.
fellowship – this would include genuine worship of the Lord as well as cultivating relationships with others within the church. Is your church a warm, friendly place with a genuine atmosphere of love and urgency for the Lord? With regards to music and songs, is this genuinely “worship” that is designed to be pleasing to God or does it feel more like manufactured hype that is structured to emotionally stimulate and entertain the congregation?
the breaking of bread – this refers to communion and the apostles were instructed by the Lord Jesus to continue this act of remembrance to help us focus on the saving work of Christ in His death and resurrection. There should be no superstitious significance to this – the act of communion does not take sins away. It simply reminds us and soberly focuses us on the work Jesus Christ did for us.
prayers – the church should be a prayerful place, both during the services and at other times. Prayer is undoubtedly the biggest weapon for the Christian – we have an instant hotline with the Creator of the universe through Jesus Christ…how amazing! Does the church you attend highly value clear and orderly prayer that is in keeping with the will of God? The repetitive reciting of prayer and liturgy rarely results in heartfelt intercession with God.
There are many other instructions in the Bible that describe good practice within a church, but we would suggest that the above features are essentials!
You do not need an “ordained minister” to conduct services! The New Testament contains nothing about “ordination”. If you have a leader of a church who is ordained, he may still be a very good leader, but this is not essential. It is also not imperative that a church leader has studied a degree in theology or some other qualification for Bible college – most Bible colleges have become liberal organisations who often that often do not treat the Bible seriously. If your church leader has a formal qualification, it may well be valuable but it is best to allow the Bible speak for itself and trust in the moving of the Holy Spirit than simply to look at the academic credentials of any church leader. There are many places where good practice for the character and lifestyle of a church leader is described (for example see 1 Timothy 3:1-13 or Titus 2:1-8). These would be far more important than any academic qualification or an “ordination” process.
Furthermore, it is vital that congregation are discerning of their church leaders and test what is taught – much like the Bereans:
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11 NIV, emphasis added)
At all times, worship should be directed solely to God and ONLY for His honour and glory – reverence and respect towards God should be foremost in our worship. We are not in church to be entertained ourselves although any form of genuine worship to Our Creator will be stimulating and enjoyable as we praise God.
If you attend a church, please make sure that the Bible is faithfully and accurately preached where the gospel message is clearly spelt out and not compromised on or watered down. Is the need for repentance stressed and process through which we approach Jesus? Is the prospect of a coming judgment openly communicated? Is the soon return of the coming King used to motivate and inspire a lifestyle that glorifies Christ? Do your church experience result in a closer walk with Jesus?
If you cannot find a Church that remains faithful to the clear teachings of the Bible then why not set up some form of worship in your own home with a few friends and family?
There ARE good churches around. We are confident there will always be true believers, even in churches that have lost their way. If you are a new Christian, do you know of a wise, mature believer who you trust? If you have concerns about any given church, it may be a good idea to chat to someone you respect. Remember to always measure up any given church against the standards set in the Bible. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions which you do not feel are being answered.