The Nature of the Church

“I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).

“Church” is used in a variety of ways. Common meanings for it are the building where believers hold religious services, the services which they hold in such a building, the body of believers themselves, and the denomination which they are a part of. In the passage which I quoted, Jesus was referring to an even larger body of believers, the whole body of believers.

For the past week my family and I have been considering what the church is in our after-breakfast Bible reading, guided by what wayne Grudem says about the nature of the church in Chapter 44, “The Church: Its Nature, Its Marks, and Its Purpose,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). Here I’ll share some of what we’ve read there.

The Church Is Invisible and Visible

The Roman Catholic Church holds that it is the church founded by Jesus. However Protestants argue that it has departed from the teaching of Jesus and thus is not the true church. They hold that since only God can know who are genuine believers (“The Lord knows those who are his,” 2 Timothy 2:19), the true church is visible only to Him. Because it is visible only to God, we call the true church the “invisible church.”

On the other hand, the true church has a visible aspect as well. Grudem defines it thus: “The visible church is the church as Christians on earth see it” (page 856). However because they cannot know for certainty who are believers and who aren’t, the church which they see, the visible church, may include some unbelievers as well as believers. Thus Paul addressed his letters to “the church” although some of the congregations addressed included unbelievers (see, for example, 2 Timothy 2:17-18).

The church Is Local and Universal

In the New Testament “church” is used to refer to a group of believers ranging in size from a house church (“the church in their house,” Romans 16:5) to the church throughout the world (“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” Ephesians 5:25)

Biblical Metaphors for the Church

Some of the metaphors which the Bible uses to refer to the church are: a family (Matthew 12:49-50), the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:32), branches in a vine (John 15:5), agricultural plants (1 Corinthians 3:6-9), God’s temple (1 Peter 2:5), a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), and the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Grudem suggests how each of these metaphors should affect our relationship with God and other Christians; for example, he says, “The fact that a church is like a family should increase our love and fellowship with one another” (page 859). If you’d like to know what he suggests for any of the other metaphors, ask me in a comment on this post and I’ll tell you in a reply to your comment.

The Church and the Kingdom of God

After announcing that he would build his church (Matthew 16:18, quoted above), Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19), from which a person could infer that “church” and “kingdom of God” are synonyms. However George Ladd argues persuasively in his A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974, pages 111-119) that the kingdom of God is the reign of God (and the sphere in which it occurs) and the church is the people belonging to that kingdom. He makes five main points about their relationship:

1. The church is not the kingdom.
2. The kingdom creates the church.
3. The church witnesses to the kingdom.
4. The church is the instrument of the kingdom.
5. The church is the custodian of the kingdom.

If you’d like to know how Ladd supports any of the five points, ask me in a comment on this post and I’ll tell you in a reply to your comment.

The Church and Israel

Many New Testament passages understand the church to be the new Israel. Among them are these passages from Romans:
– “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (2:28-29).
– “[Abraham was] the father of all who believe without being circumcised [as well as] the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had” (4:11-12).
– “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring….it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (9:6-8).
– “For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree….And in this way all Israel will be saved” (11:24,26).
Other New Testament passages suggested by Grudem as understanding the church to be the new Israel are Galatians 3:29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Philippians 3:3; Hebrews 8:8-12, applying the promise made to Israel in Jeremiah 31:31-34 to the church; and 1 Peter 2:4-10.

“To sum up, then: the church is the new Israel. It occupies the place in the new covenant that Israel occupied in the old. Whereas in the Old Testament the kingdom of God was peopled by national Israel, in the New Testament it is peopled by the church. There is a special future coming for national Israel, however, through large-scale conversion to Christ and entry into the church.” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, third edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2013, page 966).


2 thoughts on “The Nature of the Church

  1. Rose Spillenaar Harmer

    I enjoyed your post very much. According to one of your sources national Israel will occupy the same land as they did in the Old Testament??? Did I read that correctly?? Interesting point in view of the war today in the news.

    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      “According to one of your sources national Israel will occupy the same land as they did in the Old Testament??? Did I read that correctly??” I’m sorry, Rose, but although some people think that national Israel will occupy the same land which it did in the Old Testament, none of my sources indicated that it will.


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