That’s OK, so long as we understand that every time we encounter “church” in the New Testament, it designates the people (ekklēsia), not a building. Edmund Clowney writes, “According to the Bible, the church is the people of God, the assembly and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” Various biblical metaphors for the church—the family, the body, the temple, the flock (“congregation” originally meant “gathered flock”), and the nation—all serve to connect our understanding of “the church” to God’s people.
And what is our essential nature as the church, God’s people? It is that we are called of God, and on account of the renewing work of the Spirit in us, we are by ongoing faith and repentance responsive to that divine call. Paul prays for the saints in Ephesus that God would be glorified “in the church [ekklēsia] and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations” (Eph. 3:21). A few verses later, he urges the church “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling [klēseōs] to which you have been called [eklēthēte]. . . . There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called [eklēthēte) to the one hope that belongs to your call [klēseōs] (Eph. 4:4–5).” The connection between the church’s name (ekklēsia) and divine calling (klēseōs) is clear.
Since the church originates with the divine call, the church’s first and foremost obligation (both at its inception and in its continuation) is to hear. All of the church’s worship, teaching, fellowship, and service flow from its fundamental capacity to hear the voice of its one Lord: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Accordingly, in each of Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Revelation, our Lord concludes: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 19; 3:8, 13, 22).
In the Reformed tradition, we distinguish between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” The difference isn’t between the church building you can see and the church people you sometimes can’t see. Rather, it’s between the larger circle of people who you can identify because they’re members of the church—“consist[ing] of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2)—and the smaller circle of people to whom God, in His predestinating grace and regenerating power, has given ears to hear—“consist[ing] of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof” (WCF 25.1). While ministers, elders, and deacons are called to lead and serve “the visible church,” their ministries should always press every member to make sure that he or she is responding to the divine call and thus belongs to the “invisible church,” hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him. Only when Jesus returns, separating the sheep from the goats, will the invisible church and the visible church be entirely one and the same—from then to all eternity (Matt. 7:21–23; 25:31–46).
Let us take care in our language and thought to recover and maintain, as best we are able, the biblical emphasis on the church as the people of God who respond to the call of God, to the voice of the Shepherd. Making our own feeble attempt at that, we have a twist on the children’s rhyme in our home. Instead of saying, “Here is the church / here is the steeple / open it up / and see all the people,” we reverse the sequence of the hand motions and say: “Here is the church / a saved-by-grace people / sometimes they gather / under a steeple.”
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 17, 2020.