In contrast to popular thinking that the church is an institution or a building, the New Testament consistently describes church as people with Jesus in their midst (MT 18:20, Heb 2:12). This truth is also expressed through the image of the risen Jesus in the midst of the lampstands (Rev 1:13), representing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). The Greek 'ekklesia' means gathering, which is used either to describe either the worldwide body of Christ (Eph 4), or specific local congregations (Acts 13:1, Rev 2-3). Believers are saints (Eph 1:1), people set apart from the world to serve God as his servants.
In the gospels, only Matthew uses the word 'church'. Following Peter’s confession, when Jesus renamed Peter the rock, he used a play on words to say that he would build his church on the rock (Mt 16:16ff). Catholics claim that by this Jesus appointed Peter as the head of the church, and his successors as bishops of Rome (Popes). It is more likely that Jesus meant that the rock was Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, upon which the church was to be built, rather than Peter himself. The other passage is about the process of discipline when a member of the church sins (Mt 18:15ff).
The church is loved by God. A husband is called to love his wife in the same way that Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25). Paul described the Corinthian church as a virgin bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). John looked forward to the marriage supper of the lamb (Rev 19:7-9), when the bride will be ready for her bridegroom.
The doctrine of church is particularly developed by Paul, by which he means either local congregations, or smaller groups meeting in house churches (Rom 16:5), or the universal church. Of all his epistles, the book of Ephesians gives some of the richest teaching on the nature of the church, and the Pastoral Epistles give practical teaching for church leadership.
Just as Jesus prayed for the unity of believers (Jn 17:22), Paul also called for the unity of the church. He addressed disunity and factionalism in Corinth (1 Cor 1:10-12) and in Philippi (Phil 4:2), and declared the church as one body and one faith (Eph 4:4), which contains a diversity of gifted people (4:11), who are to work toward the unity of the faith (4:13)
One of Paul’s characteristic descriptions of the church is the temple, the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. He draws from the physical temple of the Old Testament, the place of the presence of God’s glory. God’s temple is holy and should not be destroyed by disunity (1 Cor 3:16). “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16), therefore, because it is holy, believers must separate themselves from all that is unclean (v17). The previously alienated Gentiles are now part of the household of God, his holy temple, and his dwelling place (Eph 2:19ff). Jesus is the cornerstone of this temple (v20, an allusion to Is 28:16), and the temple is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
The church is also described as the household or family of God. God is the Father of all who believe, and fellow-believers are frequently called 'brothers' (eg. Phm 1), and even Jesus himself calls us his brothers (Heb 2:11). Gentile believers are no longer aliens of God, but the two groups have been reconciled both with God, and with each other to form one new humanity (Eph 2:15)
Paul uniquely describes the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27), with Christ as its head (Col 1:18). The church is dependent on its head for development and growth (Col 2:19). The body is a unity, in which all parts need each other to function correctly (1 Cor 12:14-26). Within the unity of the body are different gifts (v8-11), and different ministries (v28). Because diversity can create disunity, believers are strongly called to love one another (1 Cor 13).
The church is also called to warfare against evil spiritual powers, bearing the armour of God (Eph 6:10ff), and is called to make known the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places (Eph 3:10), particularly through the inclusion of previously alienated Gentiles.
Leadership of the church in the New Testament generally consisted of a group of elders (Acts 14:23, James 5:14, 1 Pet 5 and Tit 1:5ff, where they are also called bishops), who are called to model a life of good character and servant leadership. They are to teach true doctrine and model a godly lifestyle to the believers (1 Tim 1:12), as well as protecting the church from false teachers (Titus 1:9).
James uniquely uses the word 'synagogue', the Jewish place of meeting, to describe the church assembly (2:2). He addresses his letter to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion (1:1), using Jewish terms to describe the church.
Peter uses several images previously used as titles of Old Testament Israel to describe the church: a chosen race, a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Pet 2:9, cf. Ex 19:6). The believers are living stones built into a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). He calls elders to tend the flock of God (1 Pet 5:2), following the example of the good shepherd (John 10:11ff).
The book of Revelation uses a variety of inspiring images to describe the church. As with Paul, the believers are called saints (13:7), and they are a kingdom of priests (1:6). The church is the bride of Christ (21:9), invited to the marriage supper of the lamb (19:9), but is also described as a city, the holy city Jerusalem, where God dwells in glory (21:23), and where his people will see him face to face and worship him (22:3-4). The church is persecuted by the beast, when they refuse to worship it (13:7), but will be victorious if they remain faithful to Jesus.
The church is called to worship God, to edify and encourage believers (Heb 10:24f), to evangelise unbelievers, and initiate them into the church by baptism (Mt 28:18), also to prayer (1 Tim 2:1), the public reading of scripture (1 Tim 4:13), and to celebrate the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:23-26).
One continuing controversy is whether the church is the new Israel. Dispensationalists see two separate people of God, the Jews and the Church. They say that the church will raptured before God continues his dealing with the Jews during the tribulation, the seventieth week of Daniel. Others claim that because the apostles regularly used titles of Israel to describe the church, the church replaces Israel as the true people of God.
Another controversy is over the role of women in the church, whether leadership and the teaching ministry are fully open to women. The argument comes from some statements of Paul, like women remaining silent in church (1 Cor 14:34f), and women not teaching or having authority over men (1 Tim 2:12). The exegetical question is whether these statements were only addressing local situations, or whether they should be universally applied. It is clear that women did have a prominent role in the early church, praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:5), and functioning in leadership (Rom 16:1), and in teaching (Acts 18:26).
P.T. O’Brien: Church, in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. IVP 1993
E.J. Forrester, G.W. Bromiley. Church, Church Government, in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE). ed. GW Bromiley. Eerdmans 1986
D. Guthrie. New Testament Theology. IVP 1981.
G.E. Ladd. A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans 1974.
L. Morris. New Testament Theology. Zondervan 1986. Page 317.
R.L. Omanson. Church, The, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. ed. W.A. Elwell. Baker 1984.
D.W.B. Robinson Church, in Illustrated Bible Dictionary. ed. JD Douglas. IVP 1986