As we seek to obey the Great Commission to work for the health, growth, and multiplication of healthy churches, it’s imperative we know what we’re building. Starting to obey the Great Commission without knowing what a church is is like buying material to build a house you’ve never seen any blueprints for. We must know: what are we doing here? What is a church?
We cannot assume, like many have done in the past, that the church is just like any other human institution built by human ingenuity. The New Testament never presents the church advancing because of crafty business tactics or clever marketing ploys. The church is something altogether different from any human system, structure, or corporation. Jesus said it’s his church and he will build it (Matt. 16:18). That means he gets to define it.
So what’s a church, according to the New Testament? For the sake of brevity, consider this definition:
A church is a group of believers who regularly gather to care for each other’s souls through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the ordinances.
Regular gathering. Today, with the proliferation of video preachers, live-streamed services, podcasts, and other avenues for “virtual church,” we need to revisit the Scripture’s teaching on gathering. The clearest (though not the only) statement regarding gathering can be found in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…” A church gathers. Church members gather together.
Of believers. The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which means “called out ones.” In some contexts it refers to all believers in all places from all times (Universal Church). In most places in the New Testament it refers to a local gathering of redeemed individuals (Local Church). In any context, it’s referring to believers.
To care for each other’s souls. Consider all the “one anothers” of the New Testament. Churches gather to help and care for one another. This is an essential aspect of the corporate gathering. When you’re a member of the church you’re taking responsibility for the souls of your fellow brothers and sisters. If the members of a church abdicate this responsibility, the church will eventually cease to exist. This includes positive church discipline (teaching, training, etc), and corrective church discipline (appeal, rebuke, and excommunication if necessary) (Matt. 18:15-18).
Through the preaching of the gospel. One way God has ordained the church to be nurtured is through the regular preaching of the gospel (2 Tim. 4:1-2). God calls and equips gifted men to teach his Word to his people so that they can be transformed by the renewal of their minds (Rom. 12:1-2). A gathering that does not preach the gospel is not a church.
And the administration of the ordinances. There is no church without baptism and communion. Jesus calls his disciples to be publicly identified with him. This happens initially through baptism (Matt. 28:18) and repeatedly through communion (1 Cor. 10:17). We could put it this way: baptism is the front door into the church, communion is the family meal. In baptism, the one becomes part of the many. In communion, the many are made one.