The Bible uses a number of images to help us understand what is meant by the church. Each of these images helps us understand an aspect of the Church. Furthermore, each image helps various people and people in various cultures best understand and love the church.
- The church is an assembly or gathering, meaning a beloved people called out from the world to meet with God. [FOOTNOTE: Acts 5:11, Rom. 16:5.]
- The church is God’s people who are in special relationship with Him now and forever. [FOOTNOTE: Acts 15:14; Rom. 9:25-26.]
- The Church is the Family of Abraham, born again of the Spirit and part of a great legacy of faith. [FOOTNOTE: 3:29, 6:16.]
- The church is the temple of God’s presence, the place where God uniquely chooses to be present with His people. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16-18.]
- The church is the priesthood of believers set apart for ministry to glorify God by doing good for others. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6.]
- The church is branches of Jesus the Vine, so that the power of His life-giving Spirit flows through us to bear much fruit that nourishes others. [FOOTNOTE: John 15:1-17.]
- The church is a body with many parts, which explains how we have unity and diversity when we work together. [FOOTNOTE: 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:12-31.]
- The church is a community of the Spirit, spiritually reborn and sustained by the power and presence of the person of the Spirit. [FOOTNOTE: 4:1-16; 1 Cor. 12:13.]
- The church is a flock with a Shepherd who protects them from wolves, feeds them, and leads them. [FOOTNOTE: John 10:1-21.]
- The church is a field planted by God to bring a harvest of righteousness to the earth. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Cor. 3:6-9]
- The church is the bride of Christ deeply beloved and faithfully served by Jesus the groom. [FOOTNOTE: 5:25; Rev. 19:7]
- The church is God’s Family adopted by the same Father and saved by the same Big Brother. [FOOTNOTE: 1 Tim. 3:15; Gal. 6:10]
Part of the confusion about the church is exactly what is meant by the word. Christian theologians have long differentiated between the three aspects of what is meant when we use the term “church”.
One, the church is both universal and local. Sometimes we distinguish between these two as the Church and the churches. The universal Church is all God’s people in all times and places. Someone becomes a member of the universal Church by virtue of being a Christian. Local churches are smaller gatherings of the universal church where Christians assemble as God’s people. In fact, the word for church in the Greek New Testament (ekklesia) means “gathering,” “meeting,” or “assembly. Most of the New Testament is written to local churches in places like Corinth, Galatia, and Rome, often naming these locations in the opening of the letters written to the local churches.
Two, the church is both visible and invisible. Right now, there are departed saints in God’s presence along with divine beings who are worshipping God as the Church. For example, in the book of Revelation, John sees into the unseen realm and witnesses angelic beings along with departed human beings gathered around Jesus’ throne as the Church in the invisible unseen realm. In addition, there are Christians scattered all over the world that can be seen gathering together as the Church. In addition, there are people in the local churches who are not Christians, as well as Christians who are not in the local churches. Thankfully, God sees and knows all unlike us and “The Lord knows those who are his…” [FOOTNOTE: 2 Tim. 2:19]
Three, the church is both gathered and scattered. Just as a family is still a family whether they are all at home together for dinner, or each scattered in different directions, so it is with God’s family the Church. We are the Church whether we are together or not, because wherever we go, we are still indwelt by the same Spirit, born again into God’s Family by the same Son, and adopted by the same Father.
This multi-faceted view of the Church and local churches helps us understand it at both the most global and personal levels.