Since the Church is the “body of Christ,” the “bride of Christ,” and the “children of God,” we should eagerly commit ourselves to the other members of Christ, recognizing that it is within the pale of the church that God is bringing His people to glory.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once made the following important observation: “If we do not understand the…doctrine of the Church, there is a sense in which all its appeals and exhortations and indicatives will be quite meaningless to us.” Far too many professing Christians seek doctrinal truths or practical applications of the truths of Scripture for their own personal use without recognizing the fact that God has first and foremost revealed everything in Scripture to the Church collectively considered. But what is the Church? This is a difficult question to answer, since Scripture speaks of the Church in a variety of ways. Sadly, more often than not, individuals have failed to rightly distinguish between the many sides of the biblical teaching about the church. In order to answer this question, we must give a brief consideration to the origin of the word “church,” the different ways in which Scripture speaks of the church, and the defining attributes of the church.
Defining the Church
The English word “church” comes from a translation of the Greek word κυριακόν. Geerhardus Vos suggested that it “comes from the Greek κυριακόν…‘what is of the Lord,’ ‘what belongs to the Lord.’” In our English Bibles, however, the word ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία) has been translated “the church.” The word ekklēsia carries with it the idea of something or someone being “called out.” Those who have trusted in Jesus have been “called out” of the world by God. The word also carries with it the idea of being “gathered together.” On account of this, the English words “congregation” and “assembly” are translations of the Greek word ekklēsia. The church is the assembly of the saints who have been redeemed and called out by God in order to be gathered together to worship Him. This definition covers the teaching of Scripture both in the Old and New Testament. In his dying speech, the first New Testament martyr, Stephen, spoke of Moses as the “one who was in the congregation (ἐκκλησία) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians over matters related to the Lord’s Supper, saying, ‘When you come together as a church (ἐκκλησίᾳ)…” (1 Cor. 11:18). From this word, the biblical meaning of “the church” is formed.
References to the Church
There are a number of titles Scripture employs in order to help us understand the nature of the church. In the Old Testament God addresses the sacred assembly (ἐκκλησία) by the name “Israel,” “the Daughter of Zion” (Ps. 9:4; Is. 1:8; 62:11; Micah 4:8), “The Daughter of Jerusalem” (2 Kings 19:21; Song of Songs 2:7; Lam. 2:13; Zeph. 3:14), “Jerusalem,” “Jacob” (Ps. 14:7; 53:6; Is. 9:8; 10:21; 27:9; Jer. 10:25), “Judah,” “Ephraim,” “Zion,” and “the City of God.” In the New Testament, He refers to the Church as “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 4:12), “the bride of Christ,” “the people of God,” “the house of God” (Heb. 3:1-6; 10:21); “the Temple” (1 Cor. 3:16-19; Eph. 2:21), “the children of God” and “Israel” (Gal. 6:16). All of these names and analogies have their own specific meanings by which the various aspects of the life of God’s people is represented.
However, when we seek to distinguish between the different ways in which Scripture speaks of the Church, theologians have used the following four categories: the invisible church, the visible church, the church militant, and the church triumphant.
A biblical view of the church must rightly start with what we might call the invisible church. Eric Alexander has humorously noted, “the invisible church is not that group of people that are noticeably and regularly absent from worship on the Lord’s Day.” Rather, the invsible church is the body of believers who are mystically united to Jesus Christ. Viewed from this perspective, the Church is the totality of the elect on earth and in heaven—those who have been effectually called by God, have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, and are savingly united to Him by faith. This is what the Apostle has in mind when he speak of Christ loving the church and giving Himself for her (Eph. 5:22f).