For a number of years I played tennis every Sunday morning with a good friend of mine. Then I became a Christian, and started going to my local church. Some might say my Sunday routine didn’t change much—I just swapped one hobby for another.
On the surface, my church is a lot like my old tennis club: people meeting together because of a shared interest, trying to drum up more members, having meetings with minutes and secretaries, and getting caught up in the minutiae of it all to a degree that would baffle most outsiders. There’s also a lot of serving.
But scratch under the surface and there’s more going on.
The word “church” is so familiar to many today that we don’t tend to stop and think about what we mean when we use it. A byproduct of this is that we can easily and unwittingly end up misusing the word without realizing it.
But here are four images we find in the Bible that help us understand what “church” actually is.
1. An Outpost
All God’s people from across the ages constitute his church, which is sometimes referred to as the “universal” church. Christians are spiritually seated with Christ at the right hand of the Father (Eph. 2:6)—but in another sense, we’re not there yet. And so the local church is an outpost of this ultimate church.
When Paul addresses his letter to the believers in Corinth, he writes “to the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). These believers happen to be in Corinth—that’s their physical and earthly location—so they constitute the “church of God” in that place.
Paul doesn’t say they’re “part” of the church of God, as if the church of God is all the local churches collected up and put together. No, the local church is the church of God—in that particular locale. They’re the embodiment in Corinth of the universal church. The congregation functions like sovereign territory in a foreign land—a small part of heavenly territory in this world.
2. A Family
In his letter to Timothy, Paul says a church leader must be able to “manage his own family well. If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:4–5).
Paul’s point is simple: as a household is a biological family, so a church is a spiritual family—God’s family (1 Tim. 3:15). It’s not those who have signed up to a human institution, or who find themselves in natural sympathy with Christian ethics and church life. It’s those who have been brought into God’s family through the reconciling work of his Son.
When God draws people to himself, he draws them into family.
3. An Embassy for the Truth
The church is the earthly outlet for God’s truth (1 Tim. 3:15), the embassy that represents him. Christians are this individually too, of course. But it’s through the church being the church—rather than primarily through individual believers each separately doing their bit—that the truth is upheld and commended to a watching world.
This is one of the reasons why the church matters. For a region to be without a church means it doesn’t have access to the truth of God’s goodness and love. Lacking a church isn’t like lacking a decent movie theater; it’s like lacking a hospital. It’s an utter necessity.
Think about Paul’s instruction to the young pastor Titus:
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)
Notice Paul doesn’t say “elders in every church.” Of course, churches need leadership, but Paul’s point is broader: it’s not just that every church needs a leader, but that every town needs a church. Paul’s concern is with mission.
Your local area needs your church, too. Church is foundational and central to what God is doing in his world.
4. The Bride of Jesus
In one of the final passages in the Bible, the apostle John is given a glimpse of the future; and one of the most amazing aspects is how the church—what Revelation calls “the new Jerusalem”—is described:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. (Rev. 21:2)
The church is the beautiful bride of the Lamb—of Jesus himself (Rev. 21:7–8). The day of Jesus’s return will be a wedding feast—and Christians are invited to it not as guests, but as the bride. None of us will have to sneak into heaven through the backdoor; we’ll be walking up the aisle.
If you want to understand how committed Jesus is to the church, here’s your answer. He doesn’t just create it and let it be; he marries it. He isn’t just our almighty King; he’s also our perfect husband. That’s how much he cares about local churches. That’s how committed he is to us. At the end of time, at the wedding feast of the Lamb, the church will look beautiful—but only because clean, righteous “linen” will be “given her to wear” (Rev. 19:8).
The church is not Jesus’s hobby; it’s his marriage. And it’s ours, too.
When you think about what it means to be church in this way—as Christ’s bride, heaven’s outpost, God’s family, and an embassy on mission for the truth—church then becomes exciting.
We gather on Sunday to be absolutely amazed at who we are before him. We hear about who he is in his Word, sing about who he is in our hymns, and are awestruck that we get to be part of it.
And we live each day safe and secure in the knowledge Jesus couldn’t care more about his church.
After all, he died for her.
Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from Sam Allberry’s new book Why Bother with Church? And Other Questions About Why You Need It and Why It Needs You? (The Good Book Company, 2016), available from The Good Book Company and through Amazon.