What is a Church?

Part 1 of series:
What is a Church?

What is a Church? Biblical Basics for Christian Community

“What is a church?” Now that seems like a easy question, the sort of question one might answer in an simple sentence or two. “A church is a building in which Christians meet for worship,” is one obvious possibility. “A church is a group of Christians who gather for religious purposes” is another. A critic might says, “A church is a club for insiders and hypocrites.” These quick answers don’t take us very far if we want to understand truly what a church ought to be.

You’ll notice that I moved from the descriptive – what a church is – to the prescriptive – what a church ought to be. This wasn’t accidental on my part. In this series on the church, I’m not so much interested in what churches actually are, or in what people think churches are, as I am in what churches should be. When I ask “What is a church?” I’m wondering about the ideal rather than actual.

My subtitle reveals the perspective from which I intend to address this question. I plan to discuss the nature of the church from a biblical perspective. That’s the sort of thing that evangelical Protestants like me tend to do, so I expect this comes as no surprise. I believe that Bible is God’s inspired Word, and therefore is to be our chief guide both for faith and life. In my opinion, nothing in this world tells us more authoritatively what the church ought to be than Christian Scripture.

Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers would agree with me up to a point. They affirm the authority of Scripture as God’s Word. But they add the parallel authority of tradition, especially as embodied in the creeds and historic teachings of the church, and in the bishops who guard and pass on this tradition. I believe that Christian tradition ought to be taken very seriously. We Christians have much to learn from our brothers and sisters who have gone before us and who have sought to understand and to be the church. But, ultimately, I’m convinced we should weigh their convictions and practices in light of biblical teaching. For me, as for millions of Protestants across the globe, Scripture speaks in a uniquely authoritative way.

I also think it’s important to pay close attention to how Christians throughout the world interpret Scripture when it comes to the nature of the church. We all tend to read the Bible in light of our own cultures. We all project our meanings and values into the text. Careful interpretation of Scripture can help us see what is really there and not be tricked into thinking our projections are God’s revealed Word. But even then we can’t escape completely from our own worldviews and biases. Listening to what Christians from other cultures hear the Bible saying (and not saying) can help us interpret Scripture more accurately. But, even then, I believe Scripture stands authoritatively above the experience of all Christians. It’s always possible to say, “I see how you understand this text, but I believe your reading isn’t quite right.” Of course my reading might also fall short, and I’m certain it often does.

At this point I won’t go on and on talking about the interpretation of Scripture. I mostly want to clarify “where I’m coming from” in this series. My main starting points are these:

1. Though I take seriously both Christian tradition and the experience of contemporary Christians throughout the world, I believe Scripture has the final word when it comes to matters of faith and practice, including the question of what a church should be. Therefore, the best way to discover what a church should be is by a careful study of Scripture.

2. One way we can get to the true meaning of the biblical text is by reading it in light of its own cultural setting. If we want to understand the writings of the Apostle Paul, for example, we would do well to see them in light of his Greco-Roman-Jewish world. Doing this will help us avoid projecting our meanings and biases into the text.

3. At the same time, my purpose in this study isn’t just to interpret the Bible accurately, but also to see how biblical truth might take shape in our cultural setting (or settings) today. I confess that I cannot escape from my culture as I seek to interpret Scripture. And, I admit that my ultimate point is for churches to be in today’s world more of what God intends.

If you’ve done some reading in theology, you’ll recognize that I’m going to address questions of ecclesiology (from the Greek words ekklesia, meaning “assembly, church” and logos meaning “thought, word, principle”). I’m not planning to engage in a technical conversation, however, one suitable only for biblical scholars and theologians. Rather, I want to write for the ordinary reader, especially the average Christian who wonders “What is a church, really?” I would be bold enough to suggest that I’m actually trying to answer the question: “What does God want a church to be?”

Note: If you’re looking for a more theologically-oriented approach to the church than I will offer here, but one that is suitable for well-educated lay readers, I highly recommend It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian: How the Community of God Transforms Lives, by Tod Bolsinger. This award-winning book explains the nature of the church in light of the triune character of God, with lots of compelling illustrations and practical implications.

Before we launch our investigation into biblical texts that reveal the nature of the church, I want to explain why I’m doing this series at this time. I’ll take this on in my next post in this series.

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  • Evan

    >>>But, ultimately, I’m convinced we should weigh their convictions and practices in light of biblical teaching. For me, as for millions of Protestants across the globe, Scripture trumps church tradition though without denying the value of tradition.<<<

    Thank God, we have come a long way. Back in the 1500's, they would have prescribed a diet of worms for your condition. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Yes, and that didn’t mean eating worms.

  • David

    I am really looking foward to this series on the church; it is really a huge undertaking on your part. I am sure that you are up to the task.

     Especially I am looking foward to secular/sacred divide on how the church is supposed to straddle that divide. Also is the church suppose to change the secular culture only, or does it work both ways: with the church both changing and being changed. ? is the contemproary church today supposed to model the early apostolic church of the First century or is it the case that God expects the church to evolved over the  years? What about denominationalism- was that God’s will? Then there   is the “made in America churches/sects” : Pentecostalism, Adventism, Jehovah Witnesses,  Worldwide Church of God (Armstrongism) Christian Science) versus the “made in Eurrope Churches” : Roman Catholicism, Methodism, Lutherism etc)  with these two being remarkedly different.

    I am reading


  • Mark D. Roberts

    Thanks, David. And thanks for your questions. I’ll keep these in mind as I go forward.

  • I’m so glad I found you. We are all struggling to help others understand that church is ‘the living stones’, the people of God. I think I was just reading in Ephesians about Paul telling his readers (as in I Corinth.12) that they need the courage to be the people of God. I’ll have to find the passage. As our Anglican parish tries to reach out in the community, we are very much aware of  seeking to be what Christ expects of us. Again, thanks for your post.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful comment. Thanks, Jane.

  • Craig

    The one element of culture that most radically impacts our understanding of the modern church as it compares with the first century church is community. All of the ‘one another’ commands, the exhortations to love one another, to bear one another’s burdens, etc. had a much more profound meaning to the early Christians. They lived together, worked together, ate together, and looked after each other in a way we do not. They met daily in the temple courts for worship and fellowship. We meet once or twice a week. They mentored one another – older saints taking younger ones under their wings. Christian publishers promote self-help spirituality today. Faith was nurtured in community. We stress the believer’s ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ It is hard for the modern Christian to imagine what it meant for the first century believers to ‘bear one another’s burdens.’ We leave burden bearing to the government and the social service professionals. Many came to Christ because of the love the saints had for one another. We are lucky to be on a first name basis with a handful of fellow worshipers. If we could get but an inkling of the depth of love the early believers had for one another, it would transform the church.    Craig@casualchristian.net

  • Anonymous

    Amen. Thanks!

  • Just Rae

    I have completed reading the whole series you have here but it seems to stop with the promise of more about the ” hands and feet”. Will there be more soon or is it continued elsewhere and I have missed it?
    It’s a very good and needful series. Thank you so much!