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Definition

The church is the new covenant people of God, rooted in the promises to Israel and inaugurated by the Holy Spirit, which refers both to all believers in Jesus Christ, both living and dead, and to local gatherings of believers.

Summary

The church is the new covenant people of God. The word church can be used to refer both to all believers, both living and dead (universal church), and to individual local gatherings of believers (local church). The church has its roots in the promises made to God’s people in the Old Testament, particularly that God would bless the world through Abraham’s offspring. While there is continuity between the Old Testament people of God and the church, the church is the community of Jesus, new at Pentecost. As such, the church is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the prophets that he would make a new and better covenant with his people and write his law on their hearts. The mission of the church is the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20): to go out into the world with the authority of the risen Christ and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to follow Jesus until he returns, all to the glory of God.

The church has its origin in the eternal purposes of God. It is the new covenant community of Jesus, rooted in Israel, constructed by Jesus, and inaugurated by the Holy Spirit. The church is the people of God, chosen by the Father, and graciously brought into a relationship with the triune God and one another. The church is the redeemed communion of saints, bought by the blood of Christ, universal and invisible, incorporating all believers throughout all ages—those on earth and those in heaven. The church is the adopted family of God, once slaves to sin but now brought into a loving relationship with God as Father and each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is the body of Christ, having him as head, dependent on him, gifted by the Holy Spirit, crafted as a unity with diversity, and reliant on one another, functioning as Christ’s instruments in the world. The church is the bride of Christ, particularly loved by him, saved by his sacrificial work on the cross, exclusively devoted to him, and increasingly adorned in beauty for him, the Bridegroom. The church is the temple of the Spirit, filled with the fullness of Christ, marked by God’s presence. The church is the new humanity, composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians united in Christ, and demonstrating the way life was always supposed to be. The church is the branches that abide in the true vine that is Christ, in union with him and dependent on him. The church is the gathered covenant community, regularly coming together for worship, communion, discipleship, fellowship, ministry, and mission. The church is the kingdom community, existing in the already and the not yet, living out God’s eternal purpose of cosmic unity, all for God’s glory (See Bruce Riley Ashford and Christopher W. Morgan, “The Church,” in ESV Systematic Theology Study Bible, 1713.)

The Origin of the Church

The people of God began with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. He created them in his image, which means that they are created in fellowship with their Maker (Gen 1:27). Even though they rebelled against him, he did not reject them but promised to send a Redeemer (3:16).

Later, God called Abraham from a family of sun-worshippers and enters into a covenant with him, promising to be his god, both to him and his descendants (Gen. 17:7). God promised to give Abraham a land, to make him into a great nation, and through him to bless all peoples (12:3). From Abraham is born Isaac and to Isaac is born Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel and from whom God brought the twelve tribes of his people. The rest of the Old Testament involves God’s dealings with these twelve tribes of Israel.

Through ten great plagues and a dramatic exodus, God called the nation of Israel out of Egyptian bondage to be his people. He gave them the Ten Commandments, claimed them as his people, and gave them the Promised Land, which they occupied after defeating the Canaanites. Later God gave them David as king in Jerusalem. God promised to make David’s descendants into a dynasty and to establish the throne of one of them forever (2 Sam. 7:14–16).

In mercy, God sent many prophets to warn his Old Testament people of the judgment that would come if they did not repent of their sins and turn to the Lord. Nevertheless, they repeatedly rebelled against him and his prophets. In response, he sent the northern kingdom of ten tribes into captivity in Assyria in 722 BC and the southern kingdom of two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, into captivity in Babylon in 586 BC. Through the prophets, God also promised to provide a Deliverer (Isa. 9:6–7; 52:13–53:12).

God promised to restore his people to their land from Babylonian captivity after seventy years of exile (Jer. 25:11–12), and he brings this about under Ezra and Nehemiah. The people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and built a second temple. The Old Testament ends in the book of Malachi with God’s people continuing to turn away from him, but also with a promise of one who would come to prepare the way for Messiah (Mal. 3:1).

After four hundred years, God sent his Son as the promised Messiah, Suffering Servant, King of Israel, and Savior of the world. Jesus made the purpose of his coming clear: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He formed his new community (Matt. 5–7). He chose disciples, spent time with them, taught them about the kingdom of God, casted out demons, performed miracles, and predicted his death and resurrection. After he was raised, he instructed his disciples to take the gospel to all nations to fulfill his promise to Abraham to bless all peoples (Matt. 28:18–20).

On the day of Pentecost, Jesus sent his Spirit, who forms the church as the New Testament people of God (Acts 2:1–13). The Spirit empowered the disciples to spread the gospel to the world (Acts 1:8) He also empowered the apostles and guided them into truth. Even more, the Spirit still now indwells the church, leads it, and gives every one of its people spiritual gifts to serve God and each other (Eph. 2:19–22; 4:1–16).

The church is often described in Old Testament terms (Gal. 6:16; Phil. 3:3; 1 Pet. 2:9–10), and there is both continuity and discontinuity between Old Testament Israel and the church. On the one hand, there is one single covenant people of God, with roots in the Abrahamic covenant and Israel. On the other hand, the church is the new covenant community of Jesus, new at Pentecost.

The Nature of the Church 

The Church Universal and Local

The word “church” (ekklesia) in the New Testament refers to the church in its many manifestations. The term can refer to churches meeting in homes (1 Cor. 16:19; Phlm. 1–2), to city-wide or metropolitan churches (Acts 8:1; 20:17), corporately with the churches in a specific Roman province (Acts 9:31; 1 Cor. 16:19), and on a few occasions to the whole ecumenical church (Acts 15:22). But the most common uses of the term can mean either the universal or local church. 

The Universal Church

Sometimes “church” is used to depict what some may call the universal church, which speaks of the unity of all believers everywhere, both living and dead (Eph. 1:22; 3:20–22; 5:27). The church in this sense is not identical with any one local church, denomination, or association. It is not entirely visible to human beings and refers to the total of all believers from all places and all times.

The Local Church

Most of the time in the NT the “church” refers to the local church, the gathered community of God’s people who are covenanted together to worship the triune God, love one another, and witness to the world (Acts 14:23; 16:5). This designation is the main usage of the term “church”; the Bible emphasizes the church as a local group of identifiable believers committed to Christ and each other, working together to glorify God and to serve his mission.

The local church is the primary center of fellowship and worship, and the chief means God uses for evangelism, disciple-making, and ministry. The local church is where the Word is taught and preached (2 Tim. 3:16–4:2). The local church is where the ordinances are practiced in baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 28:18–20; 1 Cor. 11:23–26). These truths are why Paul plants local churches, appoints leaders for them, sends delegates to them, and writes epistles to them. Local churches are significant in his theology, and they are crucial in his mission strategy. In the local church, there is a sharing of life together, growing in maturity together, ministering together, worshipping together, and witnessing together.

The Church as the People of God

Under the old covenant, Israel was a mixed community, comprised of believers and unbelievers. In the New Testament, the church is the people of God under the new covenant. While evangelicals differ on how to interpret covenant and define how children of believers relate to the church’s membership, there is wide agreement that the New Testament emphasizes the church is the people of God. Jeremiah predicts the superiority of the new covenant to the old. Because of their sins and unbelief, the Israelites whom God delivered from Egypt broke the old Mosaic covenant and died in the wilderness. The new covenant will be much greater because it will center on God’s work. The Lord promises that he will be his people’s God, and they will belong to him. He will write his law on their hearts, they will know him, and they will obey him (Jer. 31:31–34). Jesus teaches that his death ratifies the new covenant (Luke 22:20), and so does Paul (1 Cor. 11:25). Although Scripture teaches that there is one people of God through the ages, Jesus’s death and resurrection inaugurates changes for those who know him. He is the “mediator of a new covenant” and ushers in the promises that Jeremiah made.

The church as God’s people is clarified through the images of the church. The church as God’s people are also the body of Christ (Col. 1:18), people united to Christ. The church is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25–32), people who are increasingly holy in Christ. The church is the temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:19–22), people who are saints and indwelt by the Spirit. The church is the new humanity (Eph. 2:15; 4:13, 24), people who are reconciled to God. The church is the family of God (Rom. 8:15, 17; Gal. 4:4–5; 1 John 3:1), people who know God as Father and each other as brothers and sisters. As God’s people, the church belongs to him, and, amazingly, he belongs to the church. This truth will be fully realized only in the new heavens and earth, after God raises his own from the dead, glorifies them, and dwells among them (Rev. 21:1–4).

The Church and Its Mission

In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus gives the Great Commission to his disciples, which becomes the marching orders for the church. He begins by asserting that he is the exalted Son who is Lord over all, both in heaven and on earth, and over all nations (28:18; see also Dan. 7:14). The universality of the commission is striking; Jesus has all authority, directs the disciples to make disciples of all nations, instructs them to teach all that he has commanded them, and charges them to do so “all the days,” until the end of the age.

The church not only has its origin in the eternal purposes of God with its roots in Israel, its basis in the saving work of Christ, its inauguration by the Holy Spirit, its life from union with Christ, and its end as the glory of God. The church is also God’s showcase for his eternal plan of bringing forth cosmic reconciliation and highlighting Christ as the focal point of all history. The church is to showcase not only God’s purposes but even God himself. In and through the church, God shows his grace, wisdom, love, unity, and holiness (the letter to the Ephesians emphasizes this). Moreover, as God displays himself, he glorifies himself. It is no wonder Paul proclaims, “Now to Him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20–21).

Further Reading


This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.