What is the church? This question requires a complex answer because of the way the word “church” (ekkle¯ sia in Greek) is used in the New Testament. The word literally means “called-out ones.” It was commonly used to refer to a gathering of citizens in a public place, or an assembly. These aspects help us understand what Jesus meant when He said He would build His church; He meant He would build a gathering of believers.
The way the word “church” is used in the rest of the New Testament shows that Jesus’ church is really a gathering of gatherings. Sometimes the word “church” refers to all of the Christians on earth (Col. 1:18), and other times it is used to refer to a gathering of Christians in a specific location (4:15). This is why we make a distinction between the universal church and local churches; the former is made up of the latter.
There are some who argue that a person can belong to the universal church without belonging to a local church. That’s kind of like saying a football player can be in the NFL but not on a team. Now, I understand some people (perhaps you) have been hurt by a local church. The fact that this happens grieves me deeply, especially since I’m a pastor. But it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is building His universal church by gathering people into local churches.
It is only within the context of a local church that Christians are able to obey a significant number of God’s commands. For example, it is in the context of a local church that we submit to ordained leaders (Heb. 13:17), instruct one another (Rom. 15:14), live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16), gather for worship (Heb. 10:25), give offerings (1 Cor. 16:1–3), bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), sing with one another (Eph. 5:19), encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18), confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), and partake of the Lord’s Supper together (1 Cor. 11:23–34).
In fact, the missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts were not simply evangelistic. The Apostle Paul and others not only preached the gospel but also made disciples and appointed leaders for every gathering (Acts 14:21–23). The missionary journeys were church-planting journeys. The Apostles understood that Jesus’ plan to build His universal church involved gathering more and more people into local churches all over the world.
What does this mean for us today? A commitment to Christ includes a commitment to participate in the universal church through active involvement in a local church. We should follow the lead of the Christians of the early church and invest much of our time, talent, and treasures for the sake of our local church and in church-planting efforts around the world. It means if there comes a day when we must leave a local church, our top priority must become finding another church as quickly as possible. It means we should teach our children to value our local church and help them develop a heart for church planting in our city and among the nations.
Most of all, it means that we should remember who Jesus said would build His church. He didn’t say we would do it; He said He would do it. He also promised that no one and nothing would stop Him from finishing the task. Jesus is building His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.