As a new believer, I began a quest to know everything I could about my new faith and the object of my faith, Jesus. I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I read about prayer, evangelism, suffering, salvation, grace, and Scripture (I even read Scripture too). But I hit a wall when I reached one specific topic: the church.
Don’t get me wrong; I found plenty to read, but a lot of it was just as confused as I was. Most of what I found was about deconstructing (but rarely reconstructing) our ideas about what church is or should be. I read about “incarnational” churches, organic churches, authentic churches, deep churches, and more. But in the end I still wasn’t sure what makes the church the church.
Worse, I didn’t really understand the different ways the Bible describes the church.
United Here, Now, and Throughout All Time
In general, the Bible doesn’t describe the church the way we often do, that is, a church isn’t referred to as a building or a location or even an event. Instead, the church, in virtually every instance of the word, is used in reference to the people of God in two key ways:
First, as God’s people in one location, a group of believers who have covenanted together to celebrate and proclaim the good news of the gospel. Whether in a 30,000 square-foot facility, a school cafeteria, or under a tree, it is an expression of the church.
Second, as God’s people in all times and places. Regardless of language, ethnicity, or moment in history, all who have trusted in Christ’s death and resurrection are united together as the church.
Whatever else we want to say about the church, it is absolutely essential for us to keep this unity as our first priority: The people of God—all who have been redeemed by Christ—are the church (2 Cor. 6:16). Together. Our positions on secondary doctrinal issues, our political views, ethnicity, socio-economic status, nationality, language, or anything else we can think of to divide people into different groups don’t exclude us from being the church. The church is God’s people, uniquely and wonderfully made individuals, united in the gospel, a reflection of the oneness of the Trinity, living as witnesses to God’s kingdom here, now, and throughout all time (Matt. 28:18-20; John 17:20-23).
United as Body and Bride, Temple and Priests
While the church is the people of God, the Bible also describes the church using a number of different metaphors:
- The church is the body of Christ, living as Christ’s representatives here on earth, under His authority as the head of the body (Col. 1:18), and dependent upon one another as we grow in grace and live on mission (1 Cor. 12).
- The church is the bride of Christ, joyfully bound in a lasting covenant with Christ our redeemer, longing for the day of His return, when the bride and groom are united forever (Revelation 19:7; 21:2,9; 22:17).
- The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, indwelt both individually and corporately, empowered for encouragement and mission, and bearing the fruit that can only be the result of the Spirit’s presence in our lives (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 12:12-13, 13; Gal. 5:22-23).
- The church is a priesthood of believers, free to approach God with boldness because we have been redeemed by Christ (Rom. 5:1-5; Heb. 4:14-16).
A body. A bride. A temple. A priesthood. Through each of these metaphors, two themes emerge: unity and diversity. We’re united to one another, dependent upon each other in the body and on Christ as the head of the body. We’re united with Christ, just as a husband and wife are united in marriage (Eph. 5:22-23). We’re united with God and one another as the Spirit dwells within us, all of us having the same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11). We are united in our calling as a “royal priesthood” and in our access to the Father through the Son (1 Pet. 2:9). But in our unity, we also see the embrace of diversity.
One People in Christ
We are the body, but every part of the body plays a different role. We are the bride, but the bride is distinct from the bridegroom. We all have the same Spirit, but the gifts He gives to each of us are unique to His purposes for us. We are one priesthood and share the same access with the Father, but we also hear one another’s confessions and pray for one another.
And this dual reality, that we are diverse people united as one people in Christ, is what allows the church’s mission to make disciples to flourish. All of us are equally empowered for the task. All of us share the same Spirit’s inexhaustible power. All of us have the same gospel to proclaim. But we are all called to do so in different contexts and with different gifts to meet the needs of the time and place in which God has called us to make disciples.
This is the kind of understanding of the church I was looking for all those years ago. An understanding that celebrates both the unity and diversity of God’s people—one church and many churches all working together in our shared mission as the church.
This post is adapted from chapter 23 of Devotional Doctrine: Delighting in God, His Word, and His World, a free ebook from The Gospel Project exploring the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and how doctrine shapes our devotion. Get your free copy here.