What is the Church?

  by Jeannette Haley

     “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God,and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you” 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet.” Acts 7:48 

   What is your definition of church, or what do you instantly think of when you hear the word church? Most of us automatically think of a particular building that is associated with a particular Christian denomination, but not so. I met a very sweet and gracious Buddhist the other day while shopping, and she referred to her Buddhist temple as their “church” and the leader as their “pastor.”

   Some folks, depending on their frame of reference, equate “the church” with the Roman Catholic system, while others think of Protestantism in general. A handful, however, rightly believe that the church means the Body of Christ, apart from any denominational or cultural boundaries.

   According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, the “derivation of the word is generally said to be from the Greek kuriakon, ‘belonging to the Lord.’” It then goes on to say that the derivation probably is connected with kirk, the Latin circus, circulus, the Greek kuklos, because the congregations used to gather in circles. The more familiar Greek word for church is ecclesia which originally meant an assembly called out by the magistrate, or by legitimate authority. The writers of the New Testament adopted and applied this last sense of this word to the Christian congregation. What is interesting is that in St. Matthew’s gospel, the church is spoken of no less than thirty-six times as “the kingdom.” However, Smith’s notes that “Other descriptions or titles are hardly found in the evangelists.”

   The first mention of the word church in the New Testament is found in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus told Peter, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus, of course, was talking about ekklesia which means a calling out; a popular meeting; community of members on earth or saints in heaven; assembly. This is the definition that applies every time the word church or churches occurs in the New Testament except in one verse, Acts 19:37, where the emphasis is on the despoiler (person who robs). In this verse, churches refers to the pagan sanctuary of the goddess Diana at Ephesus. Therefore, as mentioned above concerning the Buddhist woman, we see that the word church does not in any way whatsoever mean building or denomination. Therefore, we can rightfully conclude that the word church means an assembly of believers.

   Contrary to what the Bible plainly teaches, most people today have been so utterly and thoroughly brainwashed and conditioned by both the religious systems and the culture in which we live that the idea of a “church” meeting any place other than in a building of some sort is foreign and repulsive to them. All of us are subject, to a greater or lesser degree, to traditions of men, pride, prejudice, guilt, and fear. All of these things must be recognized in our hearts and minds, and overcome through repentance and submission to the truth of God’s Word.

   The Bible paints a completely different picture of what constitutes the real church of Jesus Christ, compared to the average mindset of today. William Penn said it well when he wrote: “…Christians have meeting places, yet not in Jewish or heathen state, but plain; void of pomp and ceremony; suiting the simplicity of their blessed Lord’s life and doctrine. For God’s presence is not with the house, but with them that are in it, who are the gospel church, and not the house. O! that such as call themselves Christians, knew but a real sanctity in themselves, by the washing of God’s regenerating grace; instead of that imaginary sanctity ascribed to places, they would then know what the church is, and where… is the place of God’s appearance. This made the prophet David say, ‘The King’s daughter is all glorious within, her clothing is of wrought gold.’ What is the glory that is within the true church, and that gold that makes up that inward glory? Tell me, O superstitious man! Is it your stately temples, altars, carpets, tables, tapestries; thy vestments, organs, voices, candles, lamps, censers, plate and jewels, with the like furniture of your worldly temples? No such matter; they bear no proportion with the divine adornment of the King of heaven’s daughter, the blessed and redeemed church of Christ. Miserable apostasy that it is! And a wretched supplement in the loss and absence of the apostolic life, the spiritual glory of the primitive church.”  (No Cross No Crown by William Penn, pgs. 39, 40.)

   Acts 1:13, 14 tells us that the disciples, including the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, His brethren and other believers met in an upper room where they continued with one accord in prayer and supplication. Colossians 4:15 mentions the church which met in the house of Nymphas. We see in Acts 16:13 that the people met at a river. Jesus taught and preached on a mountain (Matthew 5:1, 2); the seaside (Matthew 13:1); the desert (Matthew 14:15-21); the synagogue (Mark 1:21, 39); a house (Luke 5:17-20); and in the temple (John 2:19-21).

    Yet, most people today, whether they meet in a particular building that they call “the church,” or are those who wouldn’t set foot in one, all firmly believe that it is only in such a setting that believers should assemble together to hear God’s Word, or receive biblical teaching, or for the purpose of prayer. It’s as if somehow you cannot be sanctified in God’s eyes, or that somehow you are disqualified as a believer by God Himself if you don’t show up in a particular place at a certain time to meet with Him.

   This assumption eventually takes you on the narrow downslide into superstition. Add to this superstitious dimension the assumption that your particular group or denomination is the only one that is “right” before God, and you are now entering into the dark zone of narrow-minded delusion from which dead-letter religion develops like rigid stalagmites and stalactites in an underground cave where light can never penetrate.

   According to the Book of Knowledge, Volume 3, pages 281 and 282, after the apostles died, leadership passed to the local pastors known as bishops. Under them were ministers of lower rank, presbyters and deacons. For the first three centuries, Christians assembled for their weekly worship in private houses. At that time, only people baptized as Christians could join in Christian worship. This shows us that these churches (assemblies of believers) were serious about doing business with God. Unlike the silly social clubs that most churches are today, these people lived separated, holy lives that were fully committed to denying themselves, picking up their cross (daily) and following Christ.

   After the Roman Emperor Constantine set himself up as a ruler of the whole civilized world in about 324 AD, he began to erect church buildings. The Roman Catholic Church has always maintained that the Apostle Peter was the first pope. However, according to the very thorough and excellent book, “The Two Babylons or the Papal Worship” by the late Rev. Alexander Hislop, it was about 378 AD when the bishops of Rome fell heir to the keys that were the symbols of two well-known pagan divinities at Rome. For intensive study, please refer to this book. The point I wish to make here is that the early church did not meet in designated buildings set aside for the sole purpose of “having church” at specified times as we practice today in our humanistic society.

   Are we against buildings? Of course not! In fact, after years of preaching and teaching in homes, God has graciously given us a building in which to meet for worship, to conduct Bible studies, seminars and to use for spiritual counseling. We thank God to have space now that allows for growth and a place for Christian art and books, as well as having a lending library available containing both Christian books and videos. This meeting place, however, does not in any way qualify or define us as a “church” because it’s the people who are the church. The true church is made up of born-again believers who make up the body of Christ.

   Furthermore, numbers, which mean so much to man, mean nothing to God. Jesus said: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” Matthew 18:20. Wouldn’t you rather have Jesus in your midst with only one or two other members of Christ’s body than to be in a big church where God’s presence is missing? Which scenario is truly successful in light of eternity—a rich, man-exalting, social club mega church that keeps step with the latest popular fad, loaded with all of the best high-tech equipment available, or a handful of down-to-earth, truly born-again believers who love Jesus with all their hearts and one another fervently, who long to see the lost saved and whose goal is heaven?

   In Luke 16:13-15, we read these words of Jesus: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”

   In this portion of scripture, we learn that we can only serve one master. We cannot serve both the man-made religious system and God. Allow me to explain. Down through the centuries, since the time of Constantine, a religious system developed that became what we call “institutionalized religion,” and which is, unfortunately, often confused with the true church because it honors itself with the title of “the church.”

   As we have seen, the true church is the universal body of Christ. If you belong to Christ, then you are part of His body—the true church wherever you are. In other words, you are the church that Jesus died for and that He is returning for. As a side note, it’s utterly amazing (and somewhat amusing) how shocked some people look when you tell them that Jesus didn’t die for buildings! And, I might add, He’s not returning for them either. Jesus is returning for His bride, not for a church building or any particular denomination. There are no such things in heaven because buildings and denominations with their different theologies and man-made traditions are of the earth—earthy—not heavenly, even though in our pride we highly esteem them.

   As Jesus pointed out, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and the religious system. What we see today are multitudes of people bowing down to their particular set of beliefs, denominations, leader, or group at the expense of true belief and faith in God which manifests itself in a life and walk that is in obedience to Him. Furthermore, anything that falls short of knowing and worshipping Jesus alone as Lord is idolatry. Idolatry can be very subtle, but it can also be easily identified according to the inclination, dedication, and importance a person places on what or who they are serving.

   A person exposes what he or she believes and reveres as soon as he or she asks what church you attend followed by an attitude of either approval or disapproval. This reveals that in his or her eyes, it is your church affiliation that identifies and classifies you, rather than whether you know Jesus or not. This elevates the position of the church above the Head, which is Christ. This can mean that his or her frame of reference is based on the traditions of his or her particular church to the exclusion of all else, including the whole counsel of the Word of God and knowledge as revealed by the Holy Spirit. It follows, then, that this person, either subconsciously or consciously believes himself or herself to be elite in God’s eyes (gross pride) which sanctions the right to judge others.

   Finally, this superior position on their part makes him or her unreceptive, unteachable and untrustworthy. Bottom line: A real Christian cannot be identified by religious affiliations, titles or associations but by the consistent fruit of the Spirit emphasized in his or her disposition, conversation and lifestyle.

   Interestingly, the verse quoted above (Luke 16:13-15) tells us that the Pharisees were covetous. What a picture they are of the scores of self-exalting leaders of today who are heaping to themselves great riches with which to buy dozens of mansions, whole fleets of cars, yachts and planes, and luxuries most of us could only imagine. These popular pied pipers, while “feeding off the sheep” for personal gain, are leading multitudes to spiritual shipwreck. We need to keep in mind Jesus’ words—that God knows our hearts, and that what we highly esteem, such as great riches in this life, is an abomination to God.

   What are some of the things which we “highly esteem” in our modern religious system? Numbers probably tops the list. If a church has less than a hundred people, it’s not considered to be very important or “successful.” Yet, as we have seen, Jesus is in the midst when even two or three gather together in His name because their hearts are pure. The terrible tragedy of mega churches is that individuals can either continue in sin, rebellion and pride without being held accountable, or they can continue to live in destructive cycles of confusion, fear, guilt, unforgiveness, hurts, wounds, depression, hopelessness, broken relationships, addictions, unresolved issues, and demonic oppression without being properly ministered to.

   High on the list of what most people “highly esteem” today is music—but what kind of music? Hymnals are becoming a rarity in our day and age, having been largely replaced with repetitious choruses and man-centered ditties. This is a tragedy, for the old hymns not only contain the gospel, but they are next to the Bible in import in teaching sound doctrine.

   Thousands of the old hymns were written by saints down through the ages who paid dearly for the depth of meaning and reverence they inspire. Memorizing these inspired verses helps ground the soul, anchoring it in the Rock of Ages. On the contrary, however, much of today’s “hyper” music may be “professional” all the way, but it is also fleshly, frivolous and shallow. In short, it lacks anointing because God is not in it. Why? Jesus told us why. He said: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” John 4:24. Spirit and truth can only come out of a consecrated and pure heart.

   Concerning worship, William Penn put his finger on it when he wrote: “… Christians, that are most exterior, pompous, and superstitious in their worship; for they do not only miss exceedingly, by a spiritual unpreparedness, in the way of their performing worship to God Almighty, who is an eternal spirit; but the worship itself is composed of what is utterly inconsistent with the very form and practice of Christ’s doctrine, and the apostolical example. For whereas that was plain and spiritual, this is gaudy and worldly: Christ’s most inward and mental; theirs most outward and corporeal; that suited to the nature of God, who is a spirit; this accommodated to the most carnal part. So that instead of excluding flesh and blood, behold a worship calculated to gratify them: as if the business were not to present God with a worship to please Him but to make one to please themselves.

   “But what said the Almighty to such a sensual people of old, much upon the like occasion? ‘thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set [thy sins] in order before thine eyes. Now consider this, ye that forget god, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver….and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I show the salvation of God.’ This is the worship acceptable to Him, ‘To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God’; for He that searches the heart and tries the reins of man, ‘and sets his sins in order before Him, whjo is the God of the spirits of all flesh, looks not to the external fabric, but internal frame of the soul, and inclination of the heart Nor is it to be soberly thought, that He, who is ‘clothed with honor and majesty. Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain: who layeth the beams of His chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds His chariot: and who walketh in the waters: who maketh the clouds His chariot: and who walketh upon the wings of the wind: who maketh His angels spirits; and His ministers a flaming fire: who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever,’ can be adequately worshipped by those human inventions, the refuge of an apostate people, from the primitive power of religion, and spirituality of Christian worship.” (ibid. pgs. 36, 37)

   Today’s “super stars” are also highly esteemed by man, but not by God, for He is “no respecter of persons.” The more entertaining and amusing the speaker, the more people will adore him or her and continue to attend. If the pastor or evangelist is a good story teller, the audience is sure to return for more. The motivating speaker who can appeal to people’s pride with a grandiose cause (regardless of how heretical) such as being part of “Joel’s army” who will “take over the kingdoms of this world” for Christ, will surely attract his thousands. And, if one is charismatic, he or she will surely become quite wealthy, especially if the ear-tickling, “blab-it-and-grab-it,” mind-science, word of faith, positive confession heresy is used to brainwash the scripturally illiterate week after week. Such are those whom Jesus will deny in the Judgment. (Read Matthew 7:21-23.)

   The fourth thing that man highly esteems is an impressive structure and sanctuary. It gives people the feeling of belonging to something elite. People love to make pledges, and to spend enormous sums of money in order to support building projects, renovations, church building expansions, and to purchase expensive ornamentations, decorations and furnishings. For some, it gives them a sense of doing something important that promises some sort of a lasting legacy on this earth.

   When it comes to what man highly esteems, the list is endless. But, when it comes to numbers, fleshly “worship,” entertaining speakers or impressive buildings, God is not impressed. He does not highly esteem such things. The devastating truth is that the billions of dollars that have been wasted on lavish church buildings, sanctuaries, and ornate furnishings could have, and should have been spent obeying and doing the will of God. Tragically, most “churched” people today have no clue what the will of God is because they never read the Bible and apply it to their own lives. Yet, God commands us to be the salt and the light in this world for billions of souls are still lost and on their way to hell while the self-satisfied, uncaring worldly Laodicean church worships self!

   Let’s face it, your church did not die for you and it cannot save you. Nowhere in Scripture do we read about the “unchurched” (a ridiculous modern term), but we do read about the lost. The organization you associate with, however popular, the building you worship in, however bodacious, the numbers in attendance, however staggering, the loudness of, or the professionalism of the music, and the popularity of the pastor have nothing whatsoever to do with whether you are truly saved or not.

      The day is fast approaching when we shall all stand before God and give an account of our lives and what we have done with Jesus. What are you doing with Him?