What Is The Church Supposed To Be?
Updated: Mar 12, 2019
The Bible doesn’t contain a concise definition of the church. Defining the local church requires looking at many Scripture passages. Lack of careful study of these passages leads to either oversimplification or over-complexity of the church.
For example, some oversimplify by defining the church merely as “when two or three are gathered in my name…” (Matthew 18:20a). The problem with defining the church this simply is if you consider the totality of the Bible, there is so much more to a church.
If my wife and I are praying in our car, are we a church because the two of us are “gathered in His name?” Most would certainly say “no.”
Reports of “church planting movements” usually mean that there are many house-sized groups of Christians gathered. While this is wonderful, these gatherings might more closely resemble small groups within a local church than each of them being local churches.
Carolyn and I are members of New Song Church in Oceanside, California where we have several hundred small groups. But by the inadequate definition “where two or three are gathered,” we could say we have hundreds of “churches” in New Song Church. That would be confusing and misleading.
Carolyn leads one of the small groups which has about 30 women on the roster. Indeed, it is bigger than many “house churches,” but does that make it a church?
On the other hand, we must not overcomplicate the church. Some define a “local church” with stipulations that are nowhere found in the Bible:
a church building, a choir, a denominational affiliation, stained glass, a traditional Sunday School program, a Sunday bulletin, incorporation through a constitution and by-laws.
While these might prove helpful, they are not part of a biblical definition of church.
At Dynamic Church Planting International I led the development of a “Biblical definition of local church.”
The concise definition of a local church is this:
“A church is a group of believers in Christ who meet for biblical worship, learning, and mission.”
This definition is short so it can be easily related. However, it is vitally important to have a clear expanded understanding of what each part of the definition means.
Why? Because without clarification and delineation, it’s like saying the definition of an adult is someone who has reached 18 years of age. That’s a good start, but there is so much more: an adult typically has their own home, handles their finances, works a regular job, usually gets married, has children, contributes to society, and so on.
Thus, the following clarifications add the meat on the bones of the short definition of the church above:
A church: Sometimes the Greek word translated “church” (EKKLESIA) refers to the universal church (all born again believers), but more commonly it refers to a local church, which is our meaning (1 Peter 2:9, 1 Corinthians 1:2).
is a group of believers: To be a true believer one must be “born again” (John 3:7). This distinguishes the true church from groups and cults that can wrongly label themselves a “church.”
who meet for biblical worship: Usually this means meeting at least weekly to practice singing, prayer, the Ordinances, exhorting and encouraging each other, giving, exercising spiritual gifts and other forms of worship. The goal of this worship is to glorify God. Biblical worship also seeks to fulfill the Greatest Commandments: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
learning: Each church is to be coordinated and led by godly and gifted leaders. These leaders are commonly called “elders” (PRESBUTEROS) or “shepherds” (POIMEN). A third Greek word used of the same office is EPISCOPOS which signifies managing or overseeing the manpower, money, gifts of the Spirit and other resources for the good of the church. Other names for church leadership gifts and offices are also mentioned in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:11-13 “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers;” Romans 12:4-8). Regardless of their office and gifting, it is clear that spiritual maturity and character should be the hallmarks of whoever is leading the church (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). The term “elder” is always plural except for two times when it refers to the office of elder. It wasn’t until the second century that some churches had a single elder/shepherd. “The consistent New Testament pattern is a plurality of elders.” While not all churches in Bible times paid their professional elders/shepherds enough to live on and sometimes leaders like Paul had to become “tentmakers” by earning their living in other ways, a church is charged with adequate compensation of its staff elders/shepherds (1 Timothy 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 9:14b). These leaders must communicate the Word and lead the congregation.Shepherds/elders, like Timothy, must “be devoted to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Typically, there is a primary teaching and leading shepherd/elder (1 Timothy 5:17) who leads a team of other lay and/or professional elders/shepherds who are “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) but who handle other ministry responsibilities and assist in leadership (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). They provide advice, partnership and accountability for each other. Sometimes there may be a team of primary teachers, as in the Antioch church (Acts 13:1). Part of the leadership role is to provide protection for the church through the correction of church discipline, (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:4-7, 11-13; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15, 3:10; 1 Peter 5:2).
and mission: We glorify God by fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission. Every believer and every church should “…go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19-20). Thus, the church’s objective is to spread to all people the joy of knowing and serving Christ. In order to accomplish this, the pattern of Acts is to go from town to town, lead people to Jesus and plant churches where believers become mature disciples who multiply Christians and churches.
Could others have a similar but different definition of church, based on Scripture? Yes!
Usually, they express the same convictions with different wordings. Other times they agree in most every aspect, but have a different understanding of a smaller point such as the sacraments. For example, they might believe that churches should practice foot washing.
Should it bother us that some have slightly different definitions of the church? I don’t think so for the following reasons:
God could have given us a stated definition of the church in the Bible. But He chose not to. Thus, He left it open to some interpretation. I don’t know why, but I do know He didn’t make a mistake. Thus, I embrace the differences.
There is beauty in our diversity.
I see different churches like different families within an extended family.
My parents had 5 children. Eventually, each of us married and had children. Our families are unique in many ways. No one expects us to be the same, and there is beauty in our diversity. We live in different houses, emphasize different values in education, like to do different things on vacations, spend our money in different ways, and so on.
Likewise, I love the diversity in the family of God. As long as we subscribe to the foundational doctrines of Biblical teaching, it is good that different churches see things differently and do things differently:
Some are casual and some are formal.
Some are loud and others quieter.
Some traditional and some contemporary.
Some contemplative and some directive.
In our individuality, we appeal to different people.
The beauty of a field of wildflowers is their variety. Likewise, there is beauty in churches seeing and doing things differently.
Podcast: Which denomination is right?
 Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago: Moody, 1972), 148.  Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 913