What Is the Church?

The New Testament uses the word “church” to describe two distinct entities. One of these is the dispensational Church. The other is a local assembly gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus (1Co 1:2). The focus of this article is the dispensational Church.

The Character of the Church

When the word “church” is used in the New Testament, it never describes a physical building but a body of people. The Greek word ekklesia is a compound of the preposition ek (meaning “out of”) and the verb kaleo (meaning “to call or summon”). The various contexts in which ekklesia is used show that it always refers to a company that has been called out for a particular purpose.

This is the word Stephen used to describe the nation of Israel in the wilderness (Act 7:38). It is also used to describe a riotous crowd in Ephesus, and in the same passage, a body of citizens called out to discuss the affairs of state (19:32,39,41). As we noted, apart from these four references, this word is only used to describe the dispensational Church (Eph 1:22) and the local church (1Co 10:32).

The Characterization of the Church

There are a number of beautiful figures which are used to describe the Church. It is referred to as a bride (Rev 21:9), a body (Eph 5:23), a building (Eph 2:21), and is alluded to as a battalion (Eph 6:10-18). In the day of Jesus Christ, the Church will be presented as a bride without defilement, a body without decay, a building that will never be destroyed, and a battalion that will never be defeated.

The Concealment of the Church

The subject of the dispensational Church, or to use the scriptural term “the Church which is His body” (Eph 1:22-23),[1] was not revealed in the Old Testament. It was hid in God (Eph 3:9) and was a mystery that was first revealed by the Lord Jesus (Mat 16:18), then through His apostles (Eph 3:3-5). By definition, a mystery in the New Testament is something that was not previously revealed but has now been made known. We can see pictures and illustrations of the Church in the Old Testament. We appreciate and delight in these, but the revelation of the Church is presented to us in the doctrine of the New Testament.

The Composition of the Church

The Church is composed of every person who is saved in this era from the day of Pentecost (Act 2:1) until the Lord comes for His saints (1Th 4:14-18). In the environs of Caesarea Philippi, the Lord Jesus announced, “I will build my Church” (Mat 16:18). At this point, the formation of the Church was yet future. The foundation of this Church is the New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20). Along with them, we have been built into this building as living stones (1Pe 2:5). In this Church there are no racial distinctions, no class differences, no social divisions and no sexual differentiation – we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

The Confusion Regarding the Church

We have emphasized in this article that the Church of this dispensation is a distinct entity. Some have suggested that the local assembly is a miniature, or microcosm, of the dispensational Church. This is not the case. Clear distinctions are made in the New Testament with regard to both. They are distinct organisms and retain distinct identities.

There are those who teach that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s purpose. They state that the blessings of the covenant made with Abraham have been transferred to the Church. This is patently unbiblical; the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 15:9-21) concerns the promise of a physical inheritance, the land of Canaan. It includes the promise of blessing for Abraham’s physical descendants, a seed who will inherit that land. This covenant is a unilateral covenant and is different from the Mosaic Covenant, which was a bilateral covenant. Israel acknowledged this when they said, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Exo 19:8). The Abrahamic Covenant is dependent on the Lord alone and its blessings are not conditional. The fulfillment of this covenant will be realized in the future during the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus when Israel will be in its land, dwelling safely and in a right relationship with the Lord (Isa 11:12; Rom 11:25-27).

It should be noted that there are 75 references to Israel in the New Testament. A study of each context will demonstrate that when the proper name Israel is used, it always indicates the physical land of Israel or denotes its place as a distinct nation. This includes the reference at the end of the book of Galatians, “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God” (6:16). In the preceding verses Paul has confirmed that all blessings come through the cross. He invokes mercy and peace upon all who walk in keeping with this rule. However, he also desires mercy and peace upon his own nation, the Israel of God.

Some have questioned where the Church fits in God’s kingdom program. God’s kingdom is eternal (Psa 145:13) and His rule has been from everlasting. The Church will be linked with Christ forever. Israel and the Gentile nations will be separate entities in the future kingdom of Christ. The Church will also retain its distinct place and privilege.

The Calling of the Church

We have considered the coming kingdom glory of the Lord Jesus. The Church will have a special place in that kingdom. Paul confirmed this as he wrote, “And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom” (2Ti 4:18). We will be associated with the Lord Jesus when He returns in glory, but the calling, expectation and hope of the Church are heavenly.

In summary, the dispensational Church is a unique entity, enjoying spiritual blessings. The Church has a place of unique privilege and will enjoy this in association with the Lord Jesus forever.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.