What is a church? On the surface the answer to that question seems rather obvious, but, in the immortal words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!” Take the December 1, 2004 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer for example; the front page story was entitled “God’s House for Sale.” The story was about two United Methodist Church buildings that were on the auction block. The opening sentence read,
“Going once, going twice: You can own two historic Cincinnati churches for the right price.”
That is the mindset that many people have, that a church is simply a building. Others think that a particular denomination is a church, like the United Methodist Church, or the Catholic Church, or even the Baptist Church.
None of the above views are Biblically accurate! A church is not a building, a denomination, an organization, a convention, an association, a “spiritual” grouping of fellow believers at Starbucks, the golf course, or wherever, nor is it a universal invisible collection of all the saved people from the past, present, and future. The Biblical pattern outlined in the New Testament teaches what a church is: a local, visible, and organized assembly of baptized believers, who have covenanted together to observe the ordinances and carry out the great commission of Jesus Christ.
This post’s purpose is to lay a Biblically accurate foundation for future posts concerning the health and purpose of God-honoring churches. Therefore, the history, identity, and mission of the church must be understood from a Biblical perspective. This post will not be an exhaustive one on the foundation, form, fundamentals, and function of New Testament churches.
The Church that Christ Builds
What does a church look like? To answer that question one must begin in Matthew 16:18-20.
“18And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 20Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.”
The Foundation – “Upon this rock”
The church that Christ builds is constructed on the foundation of Jesus Christ! Catholicism insists this passage teaches that the church was built on the foundation of Peter, who became the first pope and from whom the Catholic papacy descended. Because of this supposed divinely ordained apostolic succession, the pope is considered to be the supreme and authoritative representative of Christ on earth. When a pope speaks ex cathedra, he is said to speak with divine authority equal to that of Scripture.
This view is presumptuous, unbiblical, heretical, and false. Matthew 16:18-20, along with the rest of the New Testament, makes abundantly clear that Christ alone is the foundation and head of His church!
Christ’s disciples recognized “the rock” as a symbol of God from the Old Testament.
- “He is the Rock, His work is perfect” (Deuteronomy 32:4)
- “The Lord is my Rock, and my Fortress, and my Deliverer” (Psalm 18:2)
- “For who is God save the Lord? Or who is a rock save our God?” (Psalm 18:31)
But notice the Greek words which Matthew used: “Thou art Peter [petros – a stone], and upon this rock [petra – a large rock, mountain] I will build My church.” Jesus Christ is the foundation rock on which the church is built. The Old Testament prophets said so (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 28:16). Jesus Himself said this (Matthew 21:42), and so did Peter and Paul (Acts 4:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 2:19-22).
Nowhere in Scripture is Peter recognized as the foundation of the church, not by Jesus, not by Peter himself, or by anyone else. Indeed, in his own epistle, Peter referred to himself as “also an elder” (1 Peter 5:1). Peter was a bold leader, but he was never the head of the church, and definitely not the foundation upon which Christ’s church is built.
The Framer – “I will build”
Not only is Jesus Christ the foundation of the church, He is also the framer of the church. He said, “I will build my church.” The fact that Jesus uses the future tense does not portend that the church will be built only in the future. Jesus was not emphasizing the time of His building but the certainty of His building the church. For that reason, no matter how oppressive or hopeless a church’s outward circumstances may appear, God’s people belong to a cause that cannot fail!
Christ Built His Church
The church did not begin on the day of Pentecost; the church began during the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. Even before Pentecost the church had the gospel, baptized believers, there was organization, the ordinances, a commission, a prayer meeting, a business meeting, and instruction in church discipline. In Acts 2 the Bible declares that “the Lord added to the church”. It is impossible to “add” to a church unless it already exists.
Christ is Building His Church
Christ’s church is always under construction, continuing to be built by its Framer. Pastors do not build churches. Music ministries do not build churches. Huge offerings do not build churches. New methods of ministry do not build churches. New and impressive facilities do not build churches. Man does not build the church; Jesus Christ said, “I will build my church”; Jesus Christ is the master framer. The church is not built by faithful men, but Jesus Christ builds His church through faithful men.
The Fellowship – “my church”
As the Foundation and the Framer of His church, Jesus assures His followers that they are also His personal possession who will eternally enjoy His divine love and care. The church is Christ’s body “which He hath purchased with His own blood,” (Acts 20:28). That is why when men attack Christ’s churches they attack Christ Himself. Saul discovered this in a miraculous way on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4).
The Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia, and it is the combination of two Greek words, ek – “out of” and kaleo – “to call” – “called out ones.” Ekklesia was a commonly used word, referring to people who had been summoned to an assembly (Acts 7:38; 19:35-41). But the church is not just any assembly; the church is Christ’s assembly – “My church”. The church is not the property of the pastor, the congregation, a denomination, a convention, an association, the community, or the state. The New Testament church is the select property of Jesus Christ. Christ loved it and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25); He purchased it with His own blood (Acts 20:28), and He is the Framer and the Foundation upon which His beloved church is built (Ephesians 2:20). The church that Christ builds has the Lord as its Head (Ephesians 5:23); therefore, each assembly must do as He wills.
The Force – “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”
The church that Jesus Christ builds is invincible! The “gates of hell” does not refer to satanic attacks against the church; gates don’t attack, they defend. “Gates of hell” means death and according to Hebrews 2:14 Satan has the power of death. But not even the power of Satan would prevent the Lord from building and perpetuating His church. From 30 A.D. to the present and until the Lord returns, there has been and will be true churches somewhere on the earth. You can rely on that because Jesus Christ said, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Keys represent authority, and Christ is declaring the church’s authority, not an individual’s authority. The church has been authorized as an institution to make disciples and baptize believers. As the church acts according to God’s Word, it acts with God’s authority. With such divine authority there is no reason to worry about the world’s reaction to the gospel message; the church must never compromise the truth. Upholding God’s Word will bring Him the glory He deserves, and illuminate a church like a city on a hill.
Jesus Christ is the foundation, the builder, the protector, the head, and the power of all true churches. He has authorized His churches to carry out His work on the earth until His return. He left His church with a great commission to carry out, and supplied His church with the inexhaustible and indomitable resource of the Holy Spirit. The greatest privilege of any life is to minister in and through one of the Lord’s churches.