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After the repeated failures that characterized the early days of human history, God declared his purpose to choose for himself a people through whom he would work a plan of salvation for people everywhere. He began by choosing one man, Abraham, and promising to make from him a nation that would belong to God and be his channel of blessing to the world. The people of this nation, Israel, were therefore both the physical descendants of Abraham and the chosen people of God (Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 6:7-8; Exodus 19:5-6; Psalms 105:6; John 8:33; John 8:37; Acts 13:26).

This did not mean, however, that all those born into the Israelite race were, because of their nationality, forgiven their sins and blessed with God’s eternal salvation. The history of Israel shows that from the beginning most of the people were ungodly and unrepentant. Certainly there were those who, like Abraham, trusted God and desired to follow him obediently, but they were always only a minority within the nation (Isaiah 1:4; Isaiah 1:11-20; Amos 5:14-15; Romans 11:2-7; 1 Corinthians 10:1-5; Hebrews 3:16). These were God’s true people, the true Israel, the true children of Abraham (Romans 2:28-29; Romans 4:9-12; Romans 9:6-8).

From this faithful minority (or remnant) there came one person, Jesus the Messiah, who was the one particular descendant of Abraham to whom all God’s promises to Abraham pointed. God’s ideals for Israel and his promised blessings for the human race were fulfilled in Jesus (Galatians 3:14; Galatians 3:16). Jesus then took the few remaining faithful Israelites of his day and made them the nucleus of the new people of God, the Christian church (Matthew 16:18).

The church, then, was both old and new. It was old in that it was a continuation of that body of believers who in every age had remained faithful to God. It was new in that it would not formally come into existence till after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 16:21; Acts 1:4-5; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9). It was ‘born’ a few days after Jesus’ ascension, on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), and will reach its glorious destiny at Jesus’ return (Philippians 3:20-21; Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 19:7-9).

God’s new community

The word which Jesus used and which has been translated ‘church’ meant originally a collection of people – a meeting, gathering or community. It was the word used for the Old Testament community of Israel, and was particularly suitable for the new community, the Christian church, that came into being on the day of Pentecost (Exodus 12:3; Exodus 12:6; Exodus 35:1; Exodus 35:4; Deuteronomy 9:10; Deuteronomy 23:3; Matthew 16:18; Matthew 18:17; Acts 5:11; Acts 7:38; Acts 8:1; Acts 11:26).

On that day Jesus, having returned to his heavenly Father, sent the Holy Spirit to indwell his disciples as he had promised (Luke 24:49; John 7:39; John 14:16-17; John 14:26; John 16:7). This was the baptism with the Holy Spirit of which Jesus had spoken and through which all who were already believers were bound together to form one united body, the church (Acts 1:4-5; Acts 2:33; see BAPTISM WITH THE SPIRIT).

From that time on, all who repent and believe the gospel are, through that same baptism with the Spirit, immediately made part of that one body and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 12:13). This applies equally to all people, irrespective of sex, age, status or race, for all are one in Christ Jesus (Acts 2:17-18; Acts 2:39). The new people of God consists of Abraham’s spiritual descendants, those who have been saved through faith in Christ, regardless of their nationality or social standing (Galatians 3:14; Galatians 3:28-29).

By his act of uniting in one body people who were once in conflict with each other, God has carried out part of a wider plan he has for his creation. That plan is for the ultimate removal of all conflict and all evil from the universe, and the establishment of perfect peace and unity through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10; Ephesians 2:13-16; Ephesians 3:8-11).

The body of Christ

Christ and the church, being inseparably united, make up one complete whole, just as the head and the body together make up one complete person. Through his resurrection and ascension, Jesus Christ became head over the church and the source of its life and growth (Ephesians 1:20-23; Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 1:18; Colossians 2:19; Colossians 3:1-4).

As the head has absolute control over the body, so Christ has supreme authority over the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). On the other hand, as the body shares in the life of the head, so the church shares in the life of the risen Christ. It is united with him in his victory over death and all the evil spiritual forces of the universe (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:21; Ephesians 2:5-7; Ephesians 3:10; Ephesians 3:21; Colossians 2:13-15).

If the picture of the body emphasizes the life, unity and growth that Christ gives to the church, the picture of marriage emphasizes the love that Christ has for the church. That love was so great that, to gain the church as his bride, Christ laid down his life in sacrifice (Ephesians 5:25; cf. Acts 20:28). Both pictures illustrate Christ’s headship of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23; Ephesians 5:23), and both make it clear that God can accept the church as holy and faultless only because it shares the life and righteousness of Christ (Ephesians 5:26-27; Colossians 1:22).

This view of the church in all its perfection as the body of Christ is one that only God sees. The view that people in general see is one of imperfection, because the church exists in a world where everything is spoiled by human sin and failure (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2 with 1 Corinthians 3:1-3; cf. Ephesians 1:1-4 with Ephesians 4:25-32). God sees the church as the total number of all believers in all nations in all eras – a vast, ongoing, international community commonly referred to as the church universal. But people see it only in the form of those believers who are living in a particular place at a particular time.

Within what people in general see as the church there are genuine believers and those who have no true faith in Christ at all. Often it is difficult to tell the difference between the two, and the only certain division will take place at the final judgment. Only God knows which people are really his (Matthew 13:47-50; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; 1 Corinthians 10:1-11; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Timothy 2:19).

The local church

While the Bible sometimes speaks of the church as a timeless and universal community, more commonly it speaks of it as a group of Christians meeting together in a particular locality. This community is the church in that locality. It is the local expression, a sort of miniature, of the timeless universal church (Acts 13:1; Acts 15:41; Acts 20:17; 1 Corinthians 1:2).

Each local church, though in fellowship with other local churches (Acts 11:27-30; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Colossians 4:15-16), is responsible directly to the head, Jesus Christ, in all things. The New Testament gives no guidelines for a central organization or head church to control all others. It lays down no set of laws either to hold the churches together in one body or to hold all the believers in one church together. Unity comes through a oneness of faith in the Spirit (Ephesians 4:4-6).

It is therefore better to think of the church not as an organization or institution, but as a family. Christ is the head, and all the believers are brothers and sisters (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 2:19; Romans 15:30; Romans 16:1; Romans 16:23). The strength of the church comes not from some organizational system, but from the spiritual life that each believer has and that all believers share in common (Acts 14:23; Philippians 1:7; Philippians 2:1-2; 1 John 1:3; see FELLOWSHIP).

According to Christ’s command and the early church’s example, those who repent and believe the gospel should be baptized (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38; Acts 2:41; Acts 10:48; see BAPTISM). By their faith they become members of Christ’s body, the church, and they show the truth of this union by joining with the Christians in their locality. In other words, having become part of the timeless universal church, they now become part of the local church (Acts 2:41; Acts 2:47).

The Bible gives no instructions concerning where the church in any one locality should meet. (Churches in New Testament times seem to have met in private homes or any ready-made places they could find; see Acts 12:12; Acts 19:9; Acts 20:7-8; Romans 16:5; Romans 16:14-15; Colossians 4:15.) The meetings of the church are to be orderly and, what is more important, spiritually helpful (1 Corinthians 14:12; 1 Corinthians 14:26; 1 Corinthians 14:40). Christians must be built up through being taught the Scriptures and through having fellowship by worshipping, praying, singing praises and celebrating the Lord’s Supper together (Acts 2:42; Acts 20:7; Acts 20:27; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-33; 1 Corinthians 14:15; see LORD’S SUPPER; WORSHIP).

Christians must not look upon the church as a sort of private fellowship that exists solely for their own benefit. From the church they must go out to spread the gospel to others, baptizing those who believe, bringing them into the church, teaching them the Christian truths and making them true disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:7-8; Acts 8:4; Romans 10:14-17).

In addition, the church should be concerned with helping those who are the victims of sickness, hunger, conflict, injustice and other misfortunes (Matthew 25:34-40; Romans 12:8; Romans 12:13; Galatians 6:10; James 1:27). As with preaching the gospel, this ministry concerns both the church’s own locality and distant regions (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Acts 2:45; Acts 11:27-30; Acts 13:2-4; Romans 15:25-26; see MISSION).

Leadership in the churches

Although the Bible gives clear guidelines concerning the responsibilities of the local church, it gives few organizational details. Christians grow in maturity as they exercise their judgment and carry out their responsibilities (Romans 12:6-8).

This does not mean that people may do as they like. The Spirit of the living Christ dwells within the church (1 Corinthians 3:16), and he has appointed leaders in the church to guide and feed it (Acts 20:28). Their task is to work out how to apply the Bible’s timeless principles to the circumstances of their era and culture (1 Corinthians 14:26; 1 Corinthians 14:40; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Timothy 4:13-15; 2 Timothy 2:7).

Those leaders who are chiefly responsible for the church’s well-being are commonly called elders. Deacons are those who assist the elders by relieving them of some of the more routine affairs (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1; 1 Timothy 3:8; see ELDER; DEACON). People who fill these leadership positions may be gifted in various ways. God has given certain sorts of people to the church to help build it up – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) – and such people can be expected to be in positions of leadership in the church.

Apostles and prophets appear to have been given to the church mainly to instruct and direct it during the period of its infancy (Ephesians 2:20; see APOSTLE; PROPHET). Evangelists are people with special ability in making known the gospel and establishing churches in places where previously there were none (Acts 14:1; Acts 14:21; Acts 14:23; Acts 21:8; 2 Timothy 4:5; see EVANGELIST). Pastors and teachers care for the church as a shepherd cares for his flock, feeding it with spiritual food and protecting it from spiritual dangers (John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Peter 5:2; see PASTOR; TEACHER).

The Bible does not divide people too sharply into one or other of these categories, as there is clearly some overlapping within the functions. Also some people may combine within them several of these gifts; e.g. Paul (Romans 15:20; 1 Timothy 1:1; 1 Timothy 2:7), James (Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9-10), Timothy (1 Timothy 4:13-16; 2 Timothy 4:5), Barnabas (Acts 11:22-26; Acts 14:14), Silas (Acts 15:32; Acts 17:10-14) and others.

Responsibilities of church members

There is no suggestion in the Bible that people with these gifts are the only ones who do spiritual work in the church. On the contrary, the purpose of their work is to equip others to work. They build up the Christians and so prepare them for fuller Christian service (Ephesians 4:11-13). The gifted ones teach others who, in turn, pass on the teaching to others (2 Timothy 2:2).

Every member of the church has some gift that the Holy Spirit has given for the service of God (1 Corinthians 12:11; 1 Corinthians 12:18). Just as the human body is made up of many parts, all with different functions, so is the church which is Christ’s body. Yet with the variety there is equality. The church, unlike ancient Israel, has no exclusive class of religious officials who have spiritual privileges that ordinary people do not have (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 2:18-20). There are many gifts, but Christians must use these gifts in dependence upon the Spirit’s power and in accordance with the Spirit’s teaching (1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 1 Corinthians 13:1-2; 1 Corinthians 14:37).

If a local church is to operate properly, each person in that church must find out which gifts the Holy Spirit has given him or her and then develop them (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Timothy 4:14-16). When people act with such honesty and responsibility, they will not fall to the temptations of pride on one hand or jealousy on the other. Instead, through the care of the members one for another, the church will be built up (1 Corinthians 12:14-30; see GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT).

Right attitudes and conduct

Another picture of the church is that of a building (1 Corinthians 3:9-10); specifically, a temple in which God dwells (1 Peter 2:5). Apostles and prophets form the foundation, other believers form the main building, and all is built around and built into Christ. This emphasizes again the cooperation and harmony that there should be among all within the church (Ephesians 2:20-22). It also emphasizes that the church must be holy, for it is God’s dwelling place (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16-17).

Since God’s church is holy, it must deal with those who are guilty of serious errors in wrong teaching or wrong behaviour (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:1-5; Titus 1:10-13; Titus 3:10). Wrongdoers must at least be warned or rebuked (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 1 Timothy 5:19-20), both for their own benefit and for the benefit of others in the church who may be affected by their wrongdoing (1 Corinthians 5:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:14-18; Hebrews 12:15; 3 John 1:9-10). Whatever action the church takes against wrongdoers should be with a view to restoring them to healthy spiritual life. It should not drive them further away from God and his people (2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Galatians 6:1).

Some, however, may be so hardened in their sinful ways that they refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing, and the church may have to expel them from its fellowship. But there is still the hope that because of such severe punishment, the wrongdoers may see the seriousness of their errors and turn from them (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 1 Timothy 1:19-20).

The imperfections in the church can at times discourage people from full involvement in the church’s life. Some may even be tempted to try to live as Christians while keeping themselves apart from the church. But a person cannot reject the church and still live the Christian life properly. The church is not a club that a few like-minded people have formed, but a community that God himself has formed (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 3:9-11; Colossians 3:15). It is the body of Christ, and all Christians are part of it. They must therefore learn to function as part of the body if they are to function properly as Christians. Participation in the life of the church is necessary for Christian growth and maturity (Ephesians 4:12-13).

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Church'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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