What Is the Church according to the Bible?

People today have certain ideas about what the church is. These ideas have been shaped primarily by religion, history, tradition, and even society. Some think the church is a special building or place Christians go to worship on Sundays. Others think the church is an organization of people who agree with the teachings of Jesus. And others think it’s a group of people who carry out charitable works to benefit society.  

But to really see what the church is, we need to go to the Word of God so we can grasp God’s thought concerning the church.

The subject of the church is a tremendous matter in the Bible with many aspects that can’t be covered in a single post. Today we’ll look at one initial aspect of what the church is according to God’s Word, with help from notes in the New Testament Recovery Version.

The first time the church is mentioned in the Bible

When we read the Bible, it’s a good principle to pay attention to the first time a significant matter is mentioned. This sets the stage for understanding its further development in the rest of the Scriptures. 

The first time the word church is mentioned in the entire Bible is in Matthew 16:18.

In Matthew 16, Jesus and His disciples went far away from Jerusalem, the religious center at that time, and came to Caesarea Philippi. In this place, Jesus asked the disciples who people said He was, and they told Him what some had said about Him. Then Jesus asked His disciples, “But you, who do you say that I am?”

In verse 16, we have Peter’s answer to this all-important question: 

“And Simon Peter answered and said, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 

In response to Peter’s declaration, Jesus said in verses 17-18:

“Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church.”

Peter realized Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, because the Father had revealed that to him. Then the Lord joined the revelation of who He is with the revelation of the church. 

Now let’s read note 1 on verse 18 in the New Testament Recovery Version:

“The Father’s revelation concerning Christ is only the first half of the great mystery, which is Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). Hence, the Lord needed to reveal to Peter the second half also, which concerns the church.”

Ephesians 5:32 tells us plainly what this “great mystery” is:

“This mystery is great, but I speak with regard to Christ and the church.”

So Christ and the church together are the great mystery. Since Christ is the Son of the living God, the church, as part of the great mystery, must also be a living entity. So it certainly doesn’t make sense that the church would be a physical structure.

The meaning of the word church

So what is the church? To answer this question, we first need to see the meaning of the word church in Matthew 16:18. Note 5 on church in this verse in the Recovery Version says:

“Gk. ekklesia, meaning an out-calling. This word is used in reference to a called-out congregation.” 

This note tells us that in Greek—the original language of the New Testament—the word for church, ekklesia, means out-calling. So the church is the congregation, or assembly, of all the people who have been called out of the world by God.

The second part of this same note says:

My church indicates that the church is of the Lord, not of any other person or thing; it is not like the denominations, which are denominated according to some person’s name or according to some matter.”

When the Lord Jesus mentioned the church for the first time, He said My church. As the note explains, this means the church is something that’s of the Lord Himself, and not of anything or anyone else. Since the church is of the Lord, it isn’t something formed by human organization.

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Who are the called-out ones?

So now we’ve seen that the church, the ekklesia, is the total congregation of people who are called out by God. But who are these called-out ones who make up the church?

Let’s read 1 Corinthians 1:2:

“To the church of God which is in Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, the called saints.”

Note 3 on this verse in the New Testament Recovery Version explains how the phrases the church of God and those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus are related:

To the church of God equals to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. This strongly indicates that the church is a composition of the saints and that the saints are the constituents of the church. The two should not be considered separate entities. Individually, we are the saints; corporately, we are the church.”

The phrase the church of God tells us Paul was addressing the ekklesia, the assembly of called-out people. The phrase those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus tells us something about those called-out people.

This verse doesn’t tell us that the church is composed of a group of like-minded people who decide to gather together. It tells us that the church is composed of all those who have been sanctified

Who are those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus?

Now let’s look at 1 Corinthians 1:2 again, focusing on the second half of the verse:

“To the church of God which is in Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, the called saints.”

Who are the sanctified ones that compose the church? To find out, let’s read note 4 on the word sanctified in this verse:

“I.e., made holy, separated unto God for the fulfillment of His purpose.”

The word saint is the noun form of the word for sanctify. So the believers are the called saints, that is, those who are made holy.

How were we believers sanctified, or made holy? We certainly didn’t make ourselves holy. The key is in the phrase sanctified in Christ Jesus. Note 5 explains what this means:

In Christ means in the element and sphere of Christ. Christ is the element and sphere that separated us, made us holy, unto God when we believed into Him, that is, when we were brought into an organic union with Him through our faith in Him.”

When we believed in the Lord Jesus as our Savior, we were brought into a living, organic union with Him. This is just like a branch that’s in union with a vine. In this union with Christ, we were sanctified, or set apart, unto God for His purpose. By being joined to Christ, we believers were sanctified and made the constituents of the church. 

Although it may be very common to hear questions like, “What church do you go to?” or “What church do you belong to?” today we’ve seen from these verses in Matthew 16 and 1 Corinthians 1 that the church isn’t a place we go to or something we join. The Bible shows us the church is the called-out ones who have believed in Jesus Christ, those who have been joined to Him and sanctified unto Him through faith.  

We believers have been called out of the world and sanctified in Christ. We are part of this wonderful ekklesia that Christ treasures and that is part of the great mystery of God.

The church is a deep and great matter with many aspects, and we hope to have more posts on this tremendous and rich topic. In the meantime, we encourage you to order a free copy of the New Testament Recovery Version so you can read all the helpful notes on the verses mentioned in this post. If you live in the US, you can place your free order here