Volume 30, Issue 1, January 2024
by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel
Many people face a great deal of confusion about the church. Some have not had parental examples of church involvement. Others have recently been saved and are wondering how they should participate in the ministries of the church or why the church is even necessary. Others have visited several churches and may still be looking for their home church. In the 2022 State of Theology survey, it was discovered that involvement in the local church has continued its slide not only in America but also among evangelicals. In the mid-1990s, according to Gallup, about seventy percent of Americans belonged to a church of any kind; today only forty-seven percent do. In the State of Theology 2022 survey, thirty-six percent of Americans and sixty-eight percent of evangelicals believe that every Christian has an obligation to join a local church, meaning thirty-two percent of not even evangelicals do not even see church membership as important. And attendance is worse. Following the secularization of America trend, thirty-four percent of Americans attended church regularly in 2019 but only twenty-eight in 2021; and by regularly, it meant attending a religious service at least once or twice a month. In numbers that means that about 20 million Americans dropped out of church after the pandemic lockdown. The church in America is in freefall.
Yet, we have Jesus’s promise in Matthew 16:18 that He will build His church, and nothing will overpower it. This is a comforting promise. Jesus does not promise, however, that a particular local church will persevere, but His church will overcome all obstacles; it will never cease to exist. This leads us to our current subject as part of the “what every Christian must know about” series. What do we need to know and understand about the church? To answer this question, we, of course, turn to the New Testament Scriptures, which detail everything we need to know about the church. We will examine a few of the highlights in this article.
What Is the Church?
“Church” comes from the Greek word ecclesia, meaning “to call out” or to “call together.” It is a group of people selected from a larger group by a call to assemble together. In the first-century secular society, a town meeting called by officials was termed an ecclesia. When used for the Christian church, it is the assembled Christians who are the church. This is not just any assembly of Christians, however. For example, a Bible study is not a church, nor a campus ministry, nor a random gathering of Christians, nor a Bible conference. The local church has definite parameters and requirements. For example, it must have elders, who meet certain criteria, who lead the congregation (Titus 1:5; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). It has a specialized ministry. It is the church that baptizes and administers the Lord’s Supper. It is the church that is responsible for teaching the Word of God and caring for the souls of its members. The apostle Paul in I Timothy 3:14,15 gives us some vital information concerning the church: “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth,” (1 Timothy 3:14, 15). The church is the household of God (a family); it belongs to the living God; and it is the pillar and support of truth.
When the Lord wants to describe His church, He uses several helpful metaphors. First, it is the temple of the Lord, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Israel had a temple, but the church is a temple. Additionally, the church is the bride of Christ, “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body” (Ephesians 5:22-23; Revelation 19:7-8) and the body of Christ, “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23; cf. Colossians 1:18a). Christ is the head; the church is the body. This is the most used and most descriptive of the metaphors and is used to describe how the church is to function—as a body (see 1 Corinthians 12:14-31).
What Is the Purpose of the Church?
Why did God form the church? What is its purpose and mission? It is an error to believe that the church’s purpose in this age is to convert the world or set up the Kingdom of God. These things will happen after Christ’s return. Nor is the church appointed by God to initiate a social improvement program. Rather, the church is called to be a witness to all the world of Christ and His saving grace.
There are three main duties of the church. The first is to glorify God (cf. Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14; 3:10: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God“ (1 Corinthians 10:31). In all that the church does, its priority is to glorify, magnify, and honor God. The second is to evangelize: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:41, 47). The first church was formed as a result of the apostles preaching the gospel, and the church continued to grow as a result of further gospel witness. We see this truth throughout the book of Acts. The church is on a mission to rescue the lost. It is a light pointing to Christ.
The final purpose of the church is to edify the saints: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). As soon as people came to Christ on the day of Pentecost, they immediately started to gather together for four specific reasons. Those four reasons constitutioned the paradigm of the local church. First, the church is to devote itself to the ministry of the Word (“the apostles’ teaching”). What does the church have to say that no other institution can? In 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul lays out clearly the unique role of the church in the world. The church must do what no other organization on earth is called to do: proclaim and protect the truth of God’s Word. Nature and society alike abhor a vacuum, and many ideologies and agendas are waiting to rush in and fill the hearts and minds of the uncommitted. “Doctrine orients the church’s life by teaching it how to live and what to live for.” Secondly, we are to devote ourselves to fellowship (they would need one another, and they gravitated to others who shared their life in Christ). We fellowship with people who share our interests, whether it be sports or gardening. Believers come together with a variety of interests, but our fellowship is all wrapped around our shared interest and love for Christ. A third reason for church gatherings is the breaking of bread (they not only ate together; they participated in the Lord’s supper together). Finally, the church gathering is for prayer (they immediately saw the need for prayer. They needed the power of Christ, for they could not make it without Him). When do we pray the most? When we see a great need or are in crisis. They knew that they would soon face opposition, and so they united in prayer.
These four activities still describe the purpose and mission of the church. No church is perfect, for it is made up of flawed people; and not every church has to do what every other church does. Local churches are unique in their personalities and ministries. One church has midweek services; another does not. One will have a choir or organ; another will have a praise band. One will sing only psalms, or hymns, or contemporary songs; another will differ. One will have Awana; another will not. One will emphasize causal dress; another is more formal. The varieties and options are endless, but a true, biblical church has the above marks.
How Is the Church to Function?
At this point, we want to look at two things: body life and leadership.
Body Life (Ephesians 4:11-16)
What is God’s design for the church? How should it function? What is its mission? The inspired apostle Paul, in a few short verses, sets the agenda. God’s plan begins with gifted men whom He has given to the church: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,” (v. 11). These include apostles and prophets, who were foundational to the church, passing from the scene when that foundation had been laid, “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone,” (Ephesians 2:20). They were then followed by evangelists and pastor-teachers who build the superstructure upon the apostolic base. These gifted men are given to the church for a specific task: the equipping of the saints for the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ (v. 12). This equipping and building up of the body is for the purpose of achieving four things (v. 13). The first is unity of the faith. The common ground and unifying feature of the church is faith in Christ. We may not agree about any number of things, but we are on page concerning Christ. Secondly, the body is built up in the knowledge of the Son of God. We must emphasize and grow in the knowledge of Christ. We are not a social club; we don’t teach math or how to cook. We are not the legion hall, the PTA, or a political caucus. These things are important in their place but are not the purpose of the church. The third and fourth aspects are maturity and Christlikeness. Our goal is to grow in Christlikeness together. In turn, the attaining of all of these objectives results in no longer being easily deceived spiritual children, speaking the truth in love, and growing up into Christ: “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,” (vv. 14-15).
We see that the purpose of the church is very different than any other institution or organization. Our attention is not on a program or promotion of a product; we are laser-focused on calling the lost to Christ, and on God’s people as we attempt to mature them in Christ. This is what the church does, and if it does not do this, it fails in anything else it might succeed at doing. Churches must be careful not to be distracted from their biblical mission by the many other good causes they could pursue. When the church functions as it should, then that body of believers will be both growing spiritually and being built up in love, “from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (v. 16).
The body of Christ fulfills its tasks in ways quite similar to the physical body, “For the body is not one member but many. If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired” (1 Corinthians 12:14-18). This means every member is vital (12:14-20). It is popular today to speak of a local church as a community, but a body is the picture God most often uses for His church. A community depicts a neighborhood—a group of people who happen to live in the same subdivision or town. But neighbors, while they live close by and have much in common, are independent of each other. But a body speaks of unity, or connection, amidst diversity. We are one with each other. In these verses, Paul seems to be directing his thoughts to those believers that felt that they had nothing to contribute to the body of Christ. Some thought their gifts and abilities too insignificant to be of value. Others were just indifferent toward God’s work. They didn’t care to be involved. To this group of seemingly nonessential believers, Paul has something very important to reveal: that every believer has a part to play in the body (12:14-16, 19, 20).
Each local church is to be led by elders who themselves are under the Chief Shepherd, Christ Himself. What do elders do? Among other things, they shepherd or pastor the local flock of God, “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;” (1 Peter 5:2). “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28); they are examples, “nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3); they teach the Word of God, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;” (Ephesians 4:11-12); they protect the sheep, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears” (Acts 20:28-31); and they lead and provide soul care. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Why Should You Join and Participate in the Local Church?
“Grace to You” comments:
In a day when commitment is a rare commodity, it should come as no surprise that church membership is such a low priority to so many believers. Sadly, it is not uncommon for Christians to move from church to church, never submitting themselves to the care of elders and never committing themselves to a group of fellow believers.
To neglect—or to refuse—to join a church as a formal member, however, reflects a misunderstanding of the believer’s responsibility to the body of Christ. And it also cuts one off from the many blessings and opportunities that flow from this commitment. It is essential for every Christian to understand what church membership is and why it matters.
What is church membership? It is a formal commitment between a local church and individual believers, in which the believers have placed themselves under the shepherding care of specific elders of a local church and have made a commitment to be part of and minister within that local body. On occasion, some will question the biblical grounds for church membership and/or see no purpose for it. They will claim to be part of the universal church and may even move about and attend many churches, while not being loyal to any individual one. But here are six questions that you need to answer before you dismiss the need for church membership, all of which we have covered today:
- Which church leaders are you responsible to obey (Hebrews 13:17)?
- Which church leaders have oversight for your soul (Hebrews 13:17)? Who has authority and care for your spiritual life? Who have you placed yourself under for spiritual submission?
- Which church leaders are responsible to protect you from false teaching (Acts 20:28)?
- Which church is holding you to account and would be responsible to discipline you if necessary (Matthew 18:17)?
- Which elders are your elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7)? And would they know it?
- Which church do you function as part of the body by giving and receiving ministry (1 Corinthians 12)?
Without a formal commitment to a local church, none of these things are feasible.
The church is an easy target, often misunderstood and criticized; and many times it deserves the criticism. Yet, the church is on the front lines of the spiritual battles. It takes the direct hits of the enemy, suffers causalities, and yet perseveres for the cause of Christ. It is where the primary work of Christ happens. And it is the church the Lord says He loves (Ephesians 5:26); we should too.
 Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 6;
 Grace to You