What is the Church? Building, People, Event or What?

“The church is not the building, and the church is not an idea. The church is not merely the clergy. The church is the people!” Perhaps you have heard words to this effect. True, the church is not the building. Employing the word “church” to refer to a house of worship makes sense only because the church meets there; it’s not the primary meaning of the word. The church is not merely an idea but an actual thing. But is the church merely the people?

No, it cannot be merely the people because in that case any gathering of people would be the church. To be the church, the gathered group must at least be people of Christian faith and be gathering for the purpose for which the church meets: praying, hearing Scripture read and expounded and, most centrally, participating in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Well then, does the church exist only when Christians gather to participate in the Eucharist? No, for then the church would be merely a periodic event the people engage in rather than a reality that encompasses their whole persons all the time. Surely the church exists even when it is not gathered and visible.

How can the church be a reality even when it is not gathered and visible? And why is this important? Most references to the church in the New Testament refer to the Christians in a particular locality whether gathered or not. But the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians refer to the church as the “body” of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, 30 and Colossians 1:24). Paul speaks of how Christ “feeds and cares” for his body the church like we feed and care for our bodies (Ephesians 5:29). The relationship between Christ and the church is a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).

Paul speaks of individual Christians as having been “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:26). Christians are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; and many other places) and “have the spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). Christ is “in you” (Romans 8:10) and you are “in Christ” (Romans 8:34). Just as a physical body has many parts but is one, “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). We are “united” with Christ (Philippians 2:1-2). In the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “participate in the body and blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

What, then, is the basis of the existence and the unity of the church even when it is scattered over a city or the whole world or meets under different denominational names? Of course, the answer is Jesus Christ with and in and through the Spirit of God. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ has been united to him. And in him all are united to each other as the church. The church, then, is the people of God gathered together in Christ through the Spirit. They are always together in Christ, but they long for the visible gathering where they can express their faith in Christ and love for each other.

Though the church is always one, holy, catholic and apostolic in Christ, and it exists in full actuality in him, the spirit of Christ drives us together so that we can experience that reality with our eyes and ears and hands. Just as Christ became incarnate in a physical body in Jesus of Nazareth to help us in our weakness, he draws us together to participate in the Eucharist, in prayer and in hymns so that we can touch, taste, and hear him in our time and space. The church is his body, and in it he speaks in audible voice and comforts with physical touch.

So it does not matter how small a church you attend or in what corner of the planet you gather. Christ is there, and where he is, there is also the whole church–the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. And I too am there with you, my brothers and sisters.

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8 thoughts on “What is the Church? Building, People, Event or What?

  1. nokareon

    Indeed, one of the Spirit’s many roles is to function as the glue that holds the Church together and also defines who and what the Church is. There’s a reason that the Spirit’s indwelling of believers at Pentecost in Acts 2 is effectively the birthday of the Christian Church. It’s also the Spirit who draws believers together that we may be united with each other and help one another to flourish. She is the source of our transformation to become more and more like Christ each day, and thus the seal, guarantor, and executor of our Salvation.

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  2. edwardfudge

    Ron, Good thoughts and (in my view) proper conclusions. I did a study about 55 years ago of ekklesia as used in both LXX and NT that reached same or similar conclusions. My self-assigned task was to review every LXX and NT usage of ekklesia when found with a verb in either active or passive sense. I discovered that the LXX uses ekklesia: * as the Koine translation of qahal (Hebrew for “assembly” or “congregation”); * regularly to indicate or describe the people of God; but in the sense of a physical gathered assembly. The LXX does not use ekklesia in a distributive sense, as it is used for example in Acts 8:3 (“Saul laid waste the church”) or 9:31 (“the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace . . . “). When the ekklesia is mentioned in the LXX, a real “assembly” has assembled; a real “congregation” has “congregated.” The broadening of that usage of ekklesia to mean God’s “congregation” whether physically gathered or not is a NT phenomenon. Further, the supposed etymology of ekklesia based on ek (“out”) and kaleo (“to call”), from which the speaker concludes that ekklesia means “the called out ones” is never developed or stated in Scripture, either LXX or NT, though the conclusion is found, based on theological (but not linguistic) grounds. Finally, the LXX usage of ekklesia provides a scriptural background and context for Jesus’ promise “I will build MY ekklesia” (Matt.16:18), in contrast to God’s previous and ongoing ekklesia that had no direct messianic-based foundation. The word placement of mou ten ekklesian rather than simply saying ten ekklesian emou [or mou] justifies emphasizing the personal possessive pronoun (MY church) and thereby strengthens the contrast with what had gone before. Well – that’s enough show-and-tell for one night. Just some random observations. Best to you and yours, Edward

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  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    Thank you, Edward! These thoughts are very helpful. I am glad my thoughts on this are some accord with your extensive research! Whew! I have such learned friends! Great to be in such company. It’s like being in the body of Christ where all work together and all are one in unity with and service to one Lord, empowered by one Spirit and directed to one God!

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  4. pasandchap

    Ron, it has occurred to me at various times, when observing or hearing about or participating in one or another social organization–some formal, some not–that when people gather to care for each other, enjoy food or beverage or some activity together, grieve together, and so on, what they are unconsciously doing is looking for church. Because only church in it’s truest, fullest sense can satisfy the longing that draws them together.

    And I’d love to kniw what you think of that notion. Feel free to beat up on it when you have the time.

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  5. ifaqtheology Post author

    Yes. I think you are on to something. Build into our nature is desire that can only be fulfilled by God. And as persons we are incomplete apart from loving relationships with others. But only with the bond of the Spirit and the grace of the Lord Jesus, can we find unity with others on the deepest level. The church is the beginning and promise of that perfect community of the Kingdom of God where all are one in Christ. So, the church as an existential fact is a witness and apologetic for the truth of the hope of the gospel. “By this shall all people know you are my disciples: that you love one another.”

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  6. falonopsahl

    Whenever I can’t go to church for any length of time (even if I only miss one week), I can feel it. Even if I’m reading my Bible, talking about God with others, thinking about and praying to Him regularly — all parts of being part of the constant church on a daily basis — there is simply something missing when I haven’t been with the physical church: a body of believers who have intentionally and willingly gathered in their free time to be in the presence of Jesus and each other. It doesn’t matter if the sermon teaches me something new or the songs open my eyes to some new quality of God that I hadn’t grasped before. Hearing a group of diverse people with profoundly different backgrounds, beliefs and circumstances raise their voices and share in communion together is an incomparable experience, and one that does (and is intended to) refresh us week to week and day to day.

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  7. Davis Savage

    It seems to me that a lot of confusion could be avoided by differentiating between the church and the Church, a church being a specific body of believers, perhaps associated with a certain building, and the Church being the body of Christ as a whole. Each one has different qualities respectively, but I believe the Church (which seems to be what you’re referring to) could be expressed as the body of all believers, including those who have past and those who are still to come, who collectively find their salvation in Christ and are, across the globe and in the heavens, continually gathered together praising Him for all eternity. This is not to say, as many catholics do, that we are able to commune with the saints, but are rather participating in communion with them. We all participate in the continual glorification of the Trinity whenever we worship in prayer, song, or spirit. And that’s the beauty of praise – that we are able to participate in something so much grander than we are, to feel at home and in community even in solitude – to be a part of and participate in Christ’s church and numbered among the citizens and saints of His kingdom.

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    1. nokareon

      It seems fruitful to draw a comparison to the Nation of Israel in the Old Testament, which continued to exist even during the diaspora at a time when there was no centralized body of Jewish folks to be found. Same during the Babylonian exile as well as the split between Israel and Judah. This is because Jews all shared Jacob as their father; what made them Jews was something beyond their own influence, something predating them. Likewise, what makes the Church the Church is our shared lineage with God as our Father and Christ as our co-heir.

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