Many people do not really know what the word ''church'' means. They talk about the ''Protestant'' Church or the ''Catholic'' Church, or different branches of the Protestant Church, such as the ''Methodist'' Church or the ''Baptist'' Church. Others think the Church is the building in which Christians meet. The Bible never uses the word ''church'' with these meanings. Let us see what God's Word tells us on this subject.
The Greek word translated ''church'' is ecclesia and means a gathering of people called out from among other people. In the Bible, the Church is made up of those who have been called out of the world to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The world has rejected Christ and the Church should bear witness to Him. Therefore, this word never refers to unsaved people or to a building.
The New Testament uses the word church in two ways:
Let us think about how the church began; who can belong to the Church; and what will it be like in the future.
The Church is the Body of Christ; it did not exist in Old Testament times. It came into being when the Holy Spirit came from heaven to live in the believers on the day of Pentecost. God always planned to build His Church, but this plan was a secret which He had hidden through all the past ages, Ephesians 3:9-11; Colossians 1:24-26. Our Lord was the first One to tell about it. In Matthew 16:18, He said that He would build His Church, later on. He said, ''I WILL build my church''. This shows plainly that the Church was not being built at that time. This verse and Matthew 18:17 are the only verses in the four gospels which mention the Church.
In Acts chapter 2, we read about the coming of the Holy Spirit after God had glorified the Lord Jesus Christ at His own right hand, v.33. There could be no Body of Christ on earth until the Head was in heaven; and Christ did not take His place there as Head until He rose from the dead and went back to heaven. These things prove that the birthday of the Church was the day of Pentecost. Read Ephesians 1:20-23.
The Church is not a organization like a business or a government. It is a living body made up of many members who are all true believers. This truth is fully explained in Ephesians where the Church is compared to a Body (1:23) and a Bride (5:25). It is also seen as a Building in 2:20. A body makes us think of life; a building is a place to live; and a bride reminds us of love. The Holy Spirit formed the Church, 1 Corinthians 12:13, and He gives it unity, Ephesians 4:3. Christ is the Head of the Church, Colossians 1:18, and the Word of God teaches the Church what it should do. The epistles of Paul are specially important for the Church.
God has planned that the Church should share in the eternal glory of Christ; and Christ is going to present the Church to Himself in all its beauty without any imperfections, Ephesians 5:27. This will take place at the wedding feast of the Lamb, when everyone in heaven will rejoice. Then the Lord Jesus Christ, the Divine Bridegroom, will reap the fruit of all His sufferings and will be satisfied, Revelation 19:7-9.
The word ''church'' is also used for the believers in one place. Scripture never uses it of believers of a whole country, such as ''the Church of Canada''. We do read of the churches of Galatia, Galatians 1:2; the churches of God in Judea, 1 Thessalonians 2:14; not the church of Galatia or Judea [which were countries or territorial regions]. See 1 Corinthians 11:16; Romans 16:4,16.
These churches are not members of an organization which tells them what to do. But they all have the same Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. They are all guided by the same Spirit and have the same duty: they should witness for Christ and tell others the truth of God, and shine as lights among the people of this world, Philippians 2:15,16.
The assembly at Philippi consisted of all who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, including church leaders and helpers, Philippians 1:1. This verse and other Scriptures show clearly that an assembly of God includes all true believers in any place. In the beginning, all believers in one place were in fellowship with the same group of believers. For example, we read of the church which was at Corinth [a city]. This is not true today because many true believers are associated with different groups or denominations whose thoughts on worship and other matters might be quite different. Even so, all true believers in any place are the church of God in that place. Even a small group of believers meeting in a home can be called a church. See 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15. Such a group is not called the church of God there, but the church in that house.
The church in any place meets around the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He is among even two or three who meet together in His Name, Matthew 18:20.
The Body of Christ is made up of all true believers. We are members of His Body - the only kind of members we read about in the Bible. The Lord's Supper is a picture of this unity, 1 Corinthians 10:16,17. The Holy Spirit is able to guide the members of the local church in worship and use them in teaching the Word of God.
The elders are responsible to guide the affairs of the assembly in an orderly way and to judge any believer who has fallen into sin.
The gold lamp-stand in Revelation 1:20 is a picture of the local church. Gold speaks of divine righteousness and the lamp reminds us that the true purpose of an assembly is to be a light and to bear witness for Christ in this sinful world while He is away. The aim of that assembly is not to make this world a better place to live in, but to tell the people of the world about the Lord Jesus Christ and the work He did on the cross, so that men might be saved. Therefore, the assembly should witness to the people among whom it is located and should also send some of the Christians to take the message of salvation to people in other lands.
The local church needs the power of the Holy Spirit who helps each believer to worship God, Philippians 3:3, and to withness for Christ, Acts 4:31; 13:2; 1 Corinthians 3:16. The local church needs the Holy Spirit to help it follow the principles which God has given us in His Word, and to witness for Christ.
-- Read again what this lesson says about (1) the local church and about (2) the whole Church in the world. When you are sure you understand the difference, look up the following verses. Which verses refer to the local church? Which verses refer to the whole Church in the world?