The church is, quite simply, the company of Jesus’ followers, a band of believers in Jesus.
Also, I’m not here referring either to the universal church, the company of disciples of every age, place and culture. This is a proper way to think about the church and Jesus and the NT do speak of the church in the universal sense often.
But the church universal is too abstract. And it gets us off the hook. It allows us to talk about the church as an ideal, but not in particular. Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this idealized view of community as a “wishful image” that needed to be frustrated by the reality of a Christian community in particular.
Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is give to it . . . Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial (Life Together, 35-36)
Jesus, while speaking of the church in universal terms, always thinks of the church in the concrete world, a church inhabiting a space and a time. A church localized; a company of believers constrained by their specific context; a band of Jesus followers situated in a particular terra firma.
Here’s my definition of the local church based on Jesus’ teaching:
A company of Jesus’ followers
- who inhabit a common space in the world,
- whose common life is shaped by the teachings of Jesus, and
- who, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, act in that worldly space as Jesus would, announcing the good news of the kingdom of God and enacting the kingdom of God through their good deeds.