WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
By Ian Potts
In these days of many 'religions', many 'churches', many beliefs and ideals, the question may well be asked, and rightly asked, which of these is the true church... indeed what is the Church?
A worshipping people…
Well, let us consider a few aspects about the church
as revealed in God's word, the Bible. Firstly, the
Not only is the
The church of God, then, is that people whom God has saved through the Person and Work of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who are born again of the Spirit, hearing and believing the truth of Christ as declared in His Gospel, and who are gathered as assemblies in various localities to worship God, in spirit and in truth. God's word, the Bible, tells us a number of other things about the church. Not only is the church referred to as Christ's, whom He loves, but He also declares in Matthew 16:18 that "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it". Christ builds His church. He died for all those whom God the Father gave to Him as His people, and by the preaching of His Gospel, by the mouths of those men whom He sends to preach it, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ calls that people out from the darkness of this world to believe on Him and to gather with His people, in the church. This is a work of God's grace to bring His people to believe on Him, by His will, not theirs, as John 6:29 tells us "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him [Jesus Christ] whom he hath sent". Likewise Ephesians 2:4-5 tells us "But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved;)". And if by grace, then of 'Sovereign Grace', grace which reigns (Romans 5:21), for the grace of God, His undeserved, unmerited mercy towards sinners, is freely given by His will, being Lord of all - by Christ, the King of kings. And not only is the church said to be Christ's, and that He builds it, but He is also described as being the Head of the Church. "And [God] hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" Ephesians 1:22-23. Here we read of how Christ fills all in all. He dwells in His people, and in His church. For the church is not only a people gathered to worship God, but it is described in the scriptures as God's dwelling place, as His habitation. We have stated that the church is not a physical building, but the people of God, and the Bible teaches us that it is in this people that God makes His habitation, Christ by His Spirit dwelling in their hearts by faith. Acts 17:24 tells us that God "dwelleth not in temples made with hands", for God's people are described as His habitation "In whom [Christ] all the building [of God's people] fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." Ephesians 2:21-22.
So, we see that the
…Who worship in spirit and in truth
Having asked what is the
Unlike much that is done in the name of 'worship' in many religious gatherings today, which are either full of pomp or ceremony, of outward form or ritual, or just frothy sentimentalism or entertainment, the church of God as described in the scriptures, and the way in which it worships, is actually very simple and without much ceremony. What is at the heart of true worship is the centrality of Christ in the meetings. Quite simply, Christ is all. True worship is to love and adore Christ, the Head of the Church, in whom God has revealed Himself to man. This is an act of faith, which works by love (Galatians 5:6), which springs from the new heart of the believer. We cannot worship Him whom we do not know, as we have seen in Romans 10, and the true knowledge of God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost, resulting in belief in Him and worship of Him, is made known by the preaching of Christ in His Gospel. Hence the centrepoint of all true worship, is the preaching of Christ, the preaching of the truth as it is in Jesus, in His Gospel. This results in worship from the hearts of God's people who hear. Whilst their worship may also be expressed in singing, prayer and praise, all these things have no meaning unless we know of whom we sing, or to whom we come in prayer. True worship is not about ceremony, forms, rituals or entertainment, but is centred on God in Christ, as preached in His Gospel. True worship is not an outward thing, but an inward, spiritual exercise, emanating from the heart, by faith, through love, towards God and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
In order to ensure this centrality of the preaching of the Gospel in the meetings of God's people, in order to give it free course, to remove hindrances to its being preached, and to keep God's people's gaze clearly set upon Christ and His work, God has given several simple guidelines in the Bible for how He should be worshipped (for example in 1 Corinthians or 1 Timothy), and has given several 'ordinances' to be kept in the church as vivid pictures of Christ and His work. These ordinances include the ordinance of Baptism by which those who are brought to faith in Christ declare that faith publicly to others by confessing Christ's Name in baptism, in which they are immersed in water as a picture of being buried with Christ in His death and having risen again with Him in His resurrection, having had their sins washed away by His blood. We can read of this practice in Acts 2:41 "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized". Having been baptized these early Christians met for worship as described in verse 42: "And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." Notice the primary place given here to the Apostle's doctrine – ie. the preaching of Christ in His Gospel.
Not only does the church remember the ordinance of
baptism, but it also remembers the Lord Jesus' death in the ordinance of
the 'Lord's Supper'. The Apostle Paul describes this in his first epistle
to the church at
In the same chapter in 1 Corinthians we also read of another simple ordinance which God has given to His church to set forth a vital truth in a simple, yet clear and vivid manner - that truth being the Headship of Christ over His church. In chapter 11 verses 3-5 God the Holy Spirit states "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven." Christ is the Head of His church, that church often being depicted in the Bible as His bride. For this reason, and to set forth this truth clearly, here we are reminded of God's order, of the Headship of Christ over His church, of how Christ is the head of the man and the man is the head of the woman, this relationship between the man and the woman being a reflection of Christ's relationship to His bride, the church. And in order to set forth this picture of Christ's Headship in the church, as pictured by God's order in male and female, God has provided this further simple ordinance for His church, for men to worship with their heads uncovered and for women to worship with their heads covered. What a tremendous truth this sets forth, and in such a simple manner! It is for this reason that Christians who gather to worship in the church are kindly requested, if they are women to wear a head covering (hat or scarve *) and likewise, if they are men not to. For by simple obedience in so doing the gathered church plainly declares both its willing submission to Christ's Headship over His bride (His people) and His authority in the midst, and also the fact that as that bride, the church approaches unto God as having its nakedness and sin covered by Christ's blood.
By such simple ordinances in God's church, great truths are set forth. Should any ask why we baptise, we may declare plainly the death and resurrection of believers in Christ. Should any ponder the meaning of the bread and wine, the death of our Lord is clearly set forth by them as depicting His body broken and His blood shed. And should any wonder why women cover their heads, and men don't, the glorious truth of Christ's Headship over His church and His authority and centrality within it can be clearly proclaimed. God hasn't given many requirements for outward form in His church, but what He has in His wisdom set forth such glorious and central truths relating to Christ and His work for, and in, His ekklesia - those same truths which we see declared in word and doctrine in the preaching of Christ in His Gospel. It is this preaching of the truth which these simple ordinances help to maintain as the centre of all true worship. For since God the Father seeks a people who worship "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23), for that worship to be in truth the truth must be proclaimed. It is by the preaching of the truth in Christ in His Gospel, by the power of the Spirit, that Christ builds and gathers His church, as one company, one assembly of His people, His elect, who hearing of Christ in the Gospel are given faith by God the Holy Spirit to worship Him, who loved them and gave Himself for them (Galatians 2:21). What a Saviour the Gospel sets forth, who loving His own gave Himself through death to save them, for "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" Romans 5:8.
The church of the living God
So to come back to our original question, just what
is the church? It is that people called out of this world by God to
worship Him, the living God, as revealed in Christ and in His Gospel. The
true church is not that which man builds, but that which is built by
Christ, by the preaching of His word, that over which He is the Head, that
which was given to Him as His bride by His Father from before the
foundation of this world, that for which He suffered and bled in death in
order to perfect and purify as His own and that in which He dwells by His
Spirit. The 'church of the living God' is that
company who worship the living God in 'spirit and in truth', having the truth of God in
Christ proclaimed in the midst through the preaching of the Gospel, as
being the 'pillar and ground of the truth'.
This is the
But praise God that He continues to build His church through the preaching of His Gospel, even in this our day. May He be pleased to send forth that Gospel in power today that many may be saved and that His Name might be glorified in the midst of His people!
“And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people” Leviticus 26:12
[* Whilst some today consent to the teaching regarding Christ's Headship over His church as set forth in 1 Corinthians 11, and recognise God's order in the distinctions made between male and female, and also recognise that such ordinances having nothing to do with legalism, but eveything to do with faithful obedience to God's word and a loving desire to willingly submit to Christ's authority and Headship in His church, and to demonstrate that... they nevertheless explain away Paul's intent in this passage regarding headcoverings by claiming that the woman's hair itself is the only covering necessary in worship (see verse 15). However it is not Paul's intent in his illustration from nature in verses 14 and 15 to argue that the woman's long hair is the same covering described in verses 5-7 (indeed a different Greek word is translated as 'cover' in verse 15 from that word translated similarly in verse 5 which more literally would be translated 'veiled'), but it is instead to demonstrate from this natural comparison of male and female (in which a woman has a natural covering of longer hair than men in order to show God's order in the natural realm) that the covering of a woman's head in approaching unto God in public worship, with an additional cover over the hair, is both right and proper for "does not even nature itself teach you...?". Indeed if the hair alone were the cover of which Paul speaks in verse 5, then not only would it make a nonsense of the statement made in verse 5 itself (since not being covered would actually then mean being shaven, if the cover is the hair, hence the statement "for that is even all one as if she were shaven" would become irrelevent), but it would also require that men approach unto God bald, for it is not the length of covering which is stressed in verse 5 but the respective presence of a covering or not, so if hair be the covering, men should not have a covering, and hence they should be shaved! ... Now, it is not my desire to labour such points, but faithful exegesis of the passage can really lead one to no other conclusion but that Christ's Headship in His church is to be demonstrated visibly in its public assembly by the men having uncovered heads and the women wearing headcoverings - a practice which has been the accepted 'norm' within Christianity for hundreds of years, and has only really begun to be set aside with the rise of the feminist movement since the 1960s. John Gill, for example, in his comments on 1 Corinthians 11 presents such sound exegesis and is well worth reading. This all said however, it cannot be stressed enough that outward forms in worship, in and of themselves are of nothing worth, if the thing pictured by the form is not understood. Sadly, there are many who can be very strict about adherence to such practices as headcoverings who think little of what the form pictures and who in their hearts are not subject to the Headship of Christ in His church, just as many others argue and divide over the correct application or mode of baptism. But that such things can be abused or adopted in a legal manner does not mean that they should in any way be set aside, but rather that they should be practiced in the right spirit and attitude, looking past the forms to the glorious truths set forth by them, with God-given faith. May God keep us from a legal spirit and grant gracious hearts to worship Him in the ekklesia in spirit and in truth.]