THE CHURCH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
For the purpose of this study, we will look at the idea of “the church” in the context of “the Christian church,” which is a New Testament concept. Jesus was the first to mention the church:
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven; And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Some Christian denominations, such as the Catholic Church, interpret this verse to mean that Peter is the rock upon which the church was founded, and for this reason, Peter is considered the first Pope. However, Protestants as well as other Christian denominations understand this verse differently. Though many believe Jesus noted the meaning of Peter’s name here as rock, there was no supremacy given to him by Christ. Rather, Jesus was referring to Peter’s declaration: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This confession of faith is the rock upon which the church is built, and just like Peter, everyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord is a part of the church.
New Testament Definition of the Church
The word “church” as rendered in the New Testament comes from the Greek term ekklesia which is formed from two Greek words meaning “an assembly” and “to call out” or “called out ones.” In summary, the New Testament church is a body of believers who have been called out from the world by God to live as his people under the authority of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). This group of believers or “the body of Christ” began in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost through the work of the Holy Spirit and will continue to be formed until the day of the rapture of the church.
Becoming a Member of the Church
A person becomes “a member” of the church simply by exercising faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The Local Church versus the Universal Church
The local church is defined as a local assembly of believers or a congregation that meets together physically for worship, fellowship, teaching, prayer and encouragement in the faith (Hebrews 10:25). At the local church level, we are able to live in relationship with other believers—we break bread together (Communion), pray for each other, disciple, and strengthen one another. At the same time, all believers are members of the universal church. The universal church is made up of every single person who has exercised faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, including members of every local church body throughout the earth (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 1:22-23).
So, who is the Church?
The founder of the “home church” movement in England, Canon Ernest Southcott, said it best:
“The holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people strengthened by preaching and sacrament go out of the church door into the world to be the church. We don’t go to church; we are the church.”
The church, therefore, is not a place. It’s not the building, it’s not the location, and it’s not the denomination. We—God’s people who are in Christ Jesus—are the church.
The Purpose of the Church
The purpose of the church is two-fold. The church comes together (or assembles) for the purpose of bringing each member to spiritual maturity (Ephesians 4:13). The church reaches out (scatters) to spread the love of Christ and the gospel message to unbelievers in the world (Matthew 28:18-20). This is the Great Commission. So, the purpose of the church is to minister to believers and unbelievers.
The church, both in the universal and local sense, is important because it is one of the main vehicles through which God carries out his purposes on earth. The church is the body of Christ—his heart, his mouth, his hands and feet—reaching out to the world.
1 Corinthians 12:27:
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
A church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ, associated together, under Christ, for His purposes.
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible says the English word “church” is derived from the Greek word kyriakon, which means something belonging to the Lord.
“`Church’ in the New Testament, however, renders Greek ekklesia, which mostly designates a local congregation of Christians and never a building. An ekklesia was a meeting or assembly. Its commonest use was for the public assembly of citizens duly summoned according to the New Bible Dictionary.
“Ekklesia was originally employed by the Greeks to denote an assembly or congregation of free citizens summoned or `called out’ by a herald in connection with public affairs (Acts 19:39).”
“In no case is the word used with reference to a building in which public worship is conducted. The word “church” is applicable essentially to people . . .”
“It is the presence of the living Lord which authenticates the local church which in turn is an expression of the universal Church.”
20 “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
“It is of note that in comparison with the meticulous detail given to Israel concerning Tabernacle and priesthood little is said in the New Testament concerning church order and administration, although the qualifications of those who hold office are clearly enunciated. The picture presented by the New Testament would seem to suggest that the true unity of the Church is best expressed through a considerable variety of external forms.”
“Of the life and organization of the churches generally, we know very little, except for Jerusalem, which was not typical. Differences of church government, forms of ministry, and moulds of thought and levels of moral and spiritual achievement were probably greater than we commonly realize.” (New Bible Dictionary)
BODY OF CHRIST
22 And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church,
23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all;
1 TIMOTHY 3:15
15 but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. The Church is the Body of Christ, and the dwelling place of God, according to these verses.
CHURCH OR CHURCHES?
There is only one church, one gathering of all under the Lordship of Christ. But on earth it is plural in form, seen wherever two or three gather in His name. The word “church” is used as plural in 35 scriptures in the New Testament, such as:
1 CORINTHIANS 16:19: The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
2 CORINTHIANS 8:19: 19 and not only that, but who was also chosen by the churches to travel with us with this gift. This verse says someone was chosen by the churches. So, they must have had contact with one another.
WHERE THEY MET
ACTS 2:46: So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart,
ACTS 5:12: And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people; And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.
This was in Jerusalem, where the temple was. Even then (Acts 2:46), they went from house to house. After Acts 5, Scripture does not seem to mention Christians meeting anywhere except houses. Following are some of those passages.
ACTS 8:3: As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
ACTS 12:5, 11, 12: 5 Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church. 11 And when Peter had come to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel, and has delivered me from the hand of Herod and from all the expectation of the Jewish people.” 12 So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.
ACTS 20:8: There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together.
ACTS 20:20: “and how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house,
1 CORINTHIANS 16:19: The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
COLOSSIANS 4:15: Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house.
PHILEMON 1:2: To the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Conspicuous by its absence is any reference in the entire New Testament to a church building, as we know it today.
Does this mean it is wrong to have a church building? Probably not; It should be obvious, though, that the importance many give to church buildings is wrong.
WHEN THEY MET
JOHN 20:19: Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
JOHN 20:26: And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!”
JOHN 21:1: After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself:
Because Jesus met with them on the first day of the week, some use that as a reason why we should also meet on the first of the week. However, Jesus also met them eight days later, and He met them on the beach. Does this mean churches should always meet on the beach, or on Monday or Tuesday?
ACTS 2:46: So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart; The Jewish believers in Jerusalem, at the beginning of the church age, met daily;
ACTS 20:6-7: But we sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days joined them at Troas, where we stayed seven days. 7 Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight.
1 CORINTHIANS 16:2: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.
Here are two references to a church meeting on the first day of the week. Since Jews consider a day starts at sundown that would be Saturday night, according to others. If one day is to be selected as the correct day for the church to meet it would have to be Sunday (or Saturday night). But, before making it into a law, look at the following verse.
ROMANS 14:5: One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.
If there was only one correct day (or days) for the church to meet, would this verse be in the Bible? Without clearer direction from Scripture on when to meet, we should be cautious about arguments over it.
“How frequently or on what days the church assembled is also unknown. The meeting at Troas `on the Saturday night’ (Acts 20:7) may be a model, and if so would support the view that the use of `the first day of the week’ (or `the first day after the Sabbath’) for Christian assembly began simply by using the night hours which followed the close of the Sabbath . . . .” (New Bible Dictionary)
“The first day could not have been observed as a Sabbath, however, since it was not a holiday for Gentiles, and Paul would have no binding rules about keeping days unto the Lord (Romans 14:5). Jewish members must have observed many customs not joined in by their Gentile brethren.” (New Bible Dictionary)
It’s possible, since there are no directions in Scripture, that early Christians met Saturday night (which they considered the first day of the week), because it was convenient, following the Sabbath, which was a Jewish day off. Then later generations made meeting on the first day of the week into a sacred tradition.
WHAT THEY DID WHEN THEY MET
HEBREWS 10:24-25: And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
ACTS 2:42, 46, 47: 42; And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
ACTS 20:7-12: 7 Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. 8 There were many lamps in the upper room where they were gathered together. 9 And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. 10 But Paul went down, fell on him, and embracing him said, “Do not trouble yourselves, for his life is in him.” 11 Now when he had come up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while, even till daybreak, he departed. 12 And they brought the young man in alive, and they were not a little comforted.
1 CORINTHIANS 16:1-2: 1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.
Receiving Missionary Reports
ACTS 14:27: And when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles;
ACTS 15:4: And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them.
ACTS 11:26: And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch; So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
1 CORINTHIANS 4:17: For this reason I have sent Timothy to you, who is my beloved and faithful son in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.
Praying For the Sick
JAMES 5:14: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. It is not certain this was done at the public gathering, but possibly was.
Breaking bread, eating the Lord’s Supper, or having communion, as it is variously called, was something the church did when they met. Sometimes it caused problems, according to the following verses.
1 CORINTHIANS 11:20-22: 20 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.
22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
The Lord’s Supper was more to them than eating a piece of cracker and drinking a cup of juice. It was patterned after the Jewish Passover meal.
1 CORINTHIANS 11:33-34: 33 Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another;
34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.
1 CORINTHIANS 12:28: And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.
Because God appointed these in the church, they should no doubt function or operate in the church probably when it meets together.
1 CORINTHIANS 14:4-5: 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.
5 I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.
1 CORINTHIANS 14:26-31: 26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, and has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. 30 But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged.
These verses give clear instruction for a church when it comes together. But, do not forget other scriptures, which mention the Lord’s Supper, raising the dead, receiving contributions, receiving missionary reports, receiving teaching, praising God, and praying.
Is it wrong for the church today to do something not mentioned in the New Testament? Probably not; consider singing. The New Testament has no reference to the church singing together when they met. Yet scripture does tell us to sing to the Lord.
Much that is considered essential, and even sacred, about church, is just tradition. That does not make it bad; but it is not vital and may be harmful.