Summary: 3 of 18 messages on moving toward greater health as a church.
Definition and Biblical Basis of the Church
I. The Church Defined
A. What it is not
1. A denomination
2. To be confused with Israel
3. The same as the kingdom of God
B. What it is
1. Universal Church
2. Local body
II. The Biblical Basis of the Church
A. A covenant relationship with God
B. Its foundation
C. Its head
Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). This morning we are continuing our series of messages entitled, The New Testament Church for Today. Our particular focus will be to consider the definition and biblical basis of the Church.
The importance of a proper understanding of the nature and purpose of the Church cannot be overemphasized. It is clear from a study of the scriptures that the Church holds a unique and elevated position in the unfolding of history, in the created order, and in the heart of God. As J.I. Packer so astutely points out, “We cannot properly understand the purpose of God, nor the method of grace, nor the kingdom of Christ, nor the work of the Holy Spirit, nor the meaning of world history without studying the doctrine of the Church” (Henry, Basic Christian Doctrines, p. 241).
The Church as an institution and as a living organism is a pivotal entity. Yet, as we venture into the 21st century, it is readily apparent that there is much confusion revolving around the questions of what the Church is and why it exists. There are many people in our society, both inside and outside the Church, who are desirous of receiving a viable answer to these questions and a reasonable demonstration of the Church’s relevance for today. Much of the confusion can be attributed to the widespread aberrant behavior that is displayed by many professed Christians in local churches—confessing a well-rooted historical, biblical orthodoxy, but manifesting an uncertain ever-changing, situational orthopraxy. In light of such inconsistencies, it is imperative that we give consideration to Millard J. Erikson’s words:
… if it is to continue to be called the church, we must know just what it is that distinguishes the church as the church, or qualifies it to be called the church. This question is not being asked. We must also determine if there is a point at which the church ought rather to be termed a club, a social agency, or something similar (Christian Theology, p. 1030).
The ultimate intention this series of messages is to give a clear explanation of the nature and purpose of the Church from a biblical perspective that will inspire us to become a living demonstration of a healthy, Great Commission completing church. It is my hope that our pursuit will result in helping each of us gain a better understanding of what the Church is, why it exists, and serve as a call to return us to our Divine mandate to be The New Testament Church for Today. (Just as a word of warning, we will be looking at several scripture passages this morning. So I hope you’ve come practiced up for a good old-fashioned “sword drill.” As a word of comfort, I have not marked my Bible ahead of time—we’re all in this together.)
The Church Defined
Our message this morning begins by dealing with the matter of defining what exactly this thing is that we call the Church. I believe that this is a necessary exercise for at least two reasons. Granted, in the minds of some, this may seem like an needless and even wasted effort because it is altogether “obvious” as to how the Church is to be defined. But if you or I were to take a poll of a variety of individuals, giving each one the task of defining the Church, it would become readily apparent that there would exist at least as many differing conceptions as participants. This is the first reason.
The second reason that it is imperative that the Church be defined is related to the first. Due to the multiplicity of conceptions concerning the essence of the Church, it is only natural that some of those ideas are incorrect and even harmful. As one theologian has noted, “there is need of a clear understanding of the New Testament conception of the church. Various unscriptural views are being held by teachers and churches, and much mischief has been done by a confusion of things that differ” (Thiessen, ILST, p. 405). Therefore on the basis of these reasons, I will set out to give you a working, biblical definition of the Church.
What It Is Not
I will begin by defining the Church negatively. That is, I will begin by stating what the Church is not. My purpose in doing so is to put aside many of the popular misconceptions of what the church is. (When I use the term popular, I am referring to those notions which are circulating both inside and outside of “church” circles.)