A few days ago I wrote about the regulative principle and the way that the pandemic has forced many pastors and church leaders to think seriously about their ecclesiology. Today I’d like to address a simple question that perhaps isn’t so simple: What is the church?
Before I point to several definitions from systematic theology books, I want to point out the practicality of this question. If you took the time to look at any given church website, you would more than likely find that many of them feature photographs of their buildings, and many of those same websites would not show you the people but the structure. I find that telling. What does a website like that say about their unintentional definition of the church? I have even seen church websites that give a history of the church—laying out the expansion of their church buildings!
Even as I picked the photograph of the cross on a church steeple for this post, I knew that there would be some that don’t equate the church with the building, but that many Christians do. The church is not the gathering place, but the gathered. But this requires greater defining.
There are those that misuse Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”) to say that a small gathering of at least two Christians is an expression of the Church. So, in this thinking, a Christian concert is a gathering of the church. Now I’ve been a part of small churches, but there was more than just Christians that made us a church. Does a church social in someone’s backyard make that group a church? And when I was in high school and our youth group went to an amusement park, were we actually going to church—so long as two or more of us were in line for the log-ride? 😂
So, what is the church if it isn’t a building or a random group of Christians in the same room? Below I give six answers from six systematic theology books, and then I will add my own. I’m not seeking to give an in-depth, all inclusive answer, but rather hope to spark your thinking and try to give what I consider a biblical answer to this question. If you like, add your own definition to the comments.
Wayne Grudem: “The church is the community of all true believers for all time.”
MacArthur and Mayhue: “The church of God refers to the community of those who have been called out by God from their slavery to sin through faith in Jesus Christ.”
James Montgomery Boice: “The church is (1) founded on the Lord Jesus Christ, (2) is called into being by the Holy Spirit, and (3) is to contain people of all races who thereby become one new people in the sight of God.”
Robert Reymond: “The church in Scripture is composed of all the redeemed in every age who are saved by grace through personal faith in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ, “the seed of the woman” (Ge. 3:15) and suffering Messiah (Isa. 53:5-10).”
Karl Barth: “The Real Church is the assembly which called, united, held together and governed by the Word of her Lord, or she is not the Real Church.”
Charles Ryrie: ““I will build My church,” the Lord said, and that is His special work today. Those words of Christ indicate specific distinctions about the church: (a) it was a work future to His earthly life; (b) it was not the same as the kingdom about which He also taught; (c) it must have been something different from the theocracy of Israel.””
My attempt at defining the church:
The Church of Jesus Christ was established by Christ himself, and is the community of believers distinct from national Israel and the Kingdom of God, made up of all those who have been called out of darkness by the Holy Spirit, and have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, from the Day of Pentecost to the rapture of the Church. This gathering should be led by spiritually qualified leaders and should meet regularly for the proclamation of the Word, the ordinances, and if necessary church discipline.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 851.
 John F. MacArthur Jr, and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 740.
 James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive & Readable Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 567.
 Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 806.
 Karl Barth in Donald G. Bloesch, The Church: Sacraments, Worship, Ministry, Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1997), 4.
 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, (Chicago, Moody, 1999), 458.