What is the Church?
Updated: Jan 8, 2020
If you listen closely to certain evangelicals, you will hear inconsistencies between them. One pastor might entitle his sermon on Acts 2, "The Church was Born" while another might make reference to the church in Ezekiel 36. If the church was born in Acts 2, then the church cannot be in view 500 years prior when Ezekiel wrote. What is the church? Is it a non-descriptive term for all the people of God? Is it more specific? What gives the word any nuance or meaning? What is the church?
Depending on a person’s understanding of the biblical storyline, there could be some debate over this issue. But if we look at the simple words of Scripture we can make some headway. There are some who say that the Church began in the Garden of Eden. Those who would advocate for this see the Church as the body of God’s chosen people for the entirety of human history. If this is true, then the Church must be as old as human history itself. If one buys into the covenant of grace, you might have the tendency to agree with this view. But if you reject the idea of foisting manmade grids onto Scripture, this “conundrum” evaporates. So, let’s shove that aside for now.
There are others who say that the Church began with God’s covenant with Abraham. Why would someone think this? This misunderstanding begins by assuming that God's covenant to a specific people group (Israel) is only representative of His promise to save humanity. Thus the promise to give land, seed, and blessing to Abraham's offspring means nothing other than God will save sinners. If this is true, then the Church must be as old as the first Hebrew. But this view demands that the Church and Israel are one and the same. As soon as we see Paul make a distinction between these two groups and speak of them as two separate entities (Romans 11; Ephesians 2), this view evaporates.
First, let me define the church and then we’ll talk about the biblical support for the definition. Allow me to borrow a well-worded definition from one of my seminary professors. The church is, "The New Covenant community of God, as it exists in this current dispensation (between the events of Acts 2 through the rapture of the Church prior to the Day of the Lord)". This definition states that there was no Church in the Old Testament and also states that the Church is not the final culmination of the people of God. Both of those points are important because if we hold to this definition then we must reject both of the first two views that we described. There are several reasons why I hold to this definition of the church and why I support the idea that the Church did not exist in the Old Testament, but let me explain just two.
The Church as a Future Reality From Jesus' Perspective
As we pursue a biblical understanding of the Church, I think that it would be beneficial to see what Jesus had to say on the matter. If it is his Church (Matt 16:18) with him at its head (Col 1:18), then I think we should explore what Jesus has to say on the matter. The first time that the Church is mentioned in the New Testament (meaning the first time that it is mentioned period) is in Matthew 16. It should be noted that this first reference to the Church is by none other than Jesus himself. As Jesus prophesies concerning his church, we would do well to recognize that it was just that; a prophecy. The verb tense for “build” is future. Isn’t it at least a little curious that Jesus sees the church as a future reality in Matthew 16? After asking his disciples who the people believe him to be, he received a very discouraging report of mixed confusion. When Jesus asked the disciples what they believed, Peter proclaimed that Jesus is the “Christ the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). Jesus praised Peter because this is the confession on which he will build his church (Matt 16:18). This is the very first time that the term “church” is used in the New Testament and Jesus uses it in a future context.
At this point many would want to argue over whether the “rock” was in reference to Peter or to his confession (I take it as the confession of Jesus being the Christ and the Son of the living God). But for our discussion over the timing of the church, it really doesn’t matter. Jesus did not say that this was the confession on which the Church had been built, but in the future this will be the basis for the establishment of the Church. It seems that Jesus would disagree with the idea that the Church was already established in his day, much less centuries before him in the Old Testament. Jesus sees the Church as a New Testament reality, but is not currently established in his own day.
The Church's Appearance According to Luke
Another argument can be established from Luke’s writings. Keep in mind that Luke wrote both his gospel and the book of Acts as a two volume set. Within the book of Acts, Luke mentions the Church twenty three times. Maybe that’s not all that surprising because it is a book about the Church. But when we compare that with the fact that within his gospel, Luke never uses the word “church.” Not even once. It seems that Luke is purposefully avoiding using the term, which begs the question: why would Luke purposefully avoid a term in his gospel that he uses with such frequency in Acts? This could shed some light on our understanding of when the Church began. Towards the end of his ministry (Matthew 16 occurs at the beginning of the final push toward Jerusalem and to the cross) Jesus mentions the Church as still future. This is confirmed with Luke’s lack of usage of the term. Something had to happen between the close of the gospel record and the opening of the history as put forward in Acts. Or at the least we’re looking for an event that happened either at the end of the gospels or the beginning of Acts. The obvious event seems to be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This would be in keeping with the New Covenant language used by both Ezekiel and Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:22-38), and it would also explain the fact that Luke begins at this point forward to use the term “church” in his account to Theophilus.
The Church therefore is set forth in Scripture as the New Covenant believers in the risen Lord Jesus Christ who have been marked by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit from the day of Pentecost, through the present, until the Church is raptured prior to the Tribulation.
The Church’s role is not economical or social but it is to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of heaven (you know, just like Jesus and his forerunner did).