The Word “Church” in 1 Corinthians: Ownership


In exploring the usage of the word “church” in 1 Corinthians, we have observed that there are references that demonstrate that the word never relates to a building. Nor is it employed to describe a national ecclesiastical organization; thus, there is mention of “the churches of Galatia” (16:1) and not “The Church of Galatia.” This article will focus on the phrase “church of God” (1:2), conveying the idea of divine ownership and the implications of that for assemblies today.

Church of God

Paul addressed “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1:2). This term is used here and there in the New Testament and relates to the local aspect of the Church rather than the body of Christ. The two words, “at Corinth,” have a distinct local flavor, and when Paul told the elders at Ephesus to “feed the church of God” (Act 20:28), he was obviously referring to the local assembly at Ephesus. The fact that there are “churches of God” in the plural (1Co 11:16) indicates that the phrase cannot refer to the body of Christ, for “there is one body” (Eph 4:4); the church of God is the local assembly.

The fact that it is “of God” indicates divine ownership, and indeed every metaphor used to describe it links it with deity. Within this epistle, a number of metaphors are used, and they all indicate that the assembly is God’s property: God’s husbandry, God’s building, temple of God, body of Christ. The second epistle refers to the company as “the epistle of Christ” and “a chaste virgin” espoused to Christ. Going beyond the Corinthian ministry, it is “the flock of God” and “the house of God.” The final metaphor that Scripture employs is the golden lampstand, and gold in Scripture is undoubtedly linked with deity.

If the ekklesia, the assembly, belongs to God, we dare not presume to alter any of its scriptural arrangements. It would be bad manners for me to interfere with the décor or furnishings of someone else’s home. How much more serious to meddle with the arrangements of the house of God; that is where He dwells; that is where He administers.

Denominational Titles

Being a “church of God,” the assembly should have no denominational title. In our day, each of the sects and denominations of Christendom bears a title to distinguish it from other groups. Some take their name from a founder, such as Wesley or Luther. Others, such as Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are identified by their form of church government. Some are known by a particular doctrine or practice that they hold, and so there are Baptists and Pentecostals. To take any name that does not include all believers is to be guilty of the sin of sectarianism that is condemned in 1 Corinthians 1:10-16. New Testament assemblies did not gather under the patronage of any sect or denomination, but they did gather in association with the name of the Lord Jesus. The relevant Scripture is Matthew 18:20. Said the Savior, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”1

At least two things are suggested by the phrase “gathered in [or unto] my name.” First, there is identification with the Lord Jesus; that is, the believer abandons all man-made ecclesiastical systems and is identified with the rejected Christ. The Hebrews epistle urges this upon us all: “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach” (13:13). “The camp” was Judaism, and its modern equivalent is Christendom into which many features of Judaism have been absorbed. The believer is called upon to break links with that and to be associated alone with the Man who is “outside the camp” as one gathered to His name.

Gathering to His name involves subjection to Christ. When the Savior is seen in relation to the local church, the name most frequently used by the Spirit of God is that of the Lord Jesus Christ. As already noted, most of 1 Corinthians relates to assembly matters, and in the letter there are constant references to Him by that title. So, gathering to His name implies acknowledging His authority as the Lord Jesus. His Lordship affects every department of our lives, and we must submit to it in congregational life, by gathering to His name, owning no authority but His and no other rule-book but His Word.

So, then, early Christians took no denominational title but were happy to be known as those who were linked to Him, thus experiencing the deep joy that His presence brought. From a scriptural viewpoint, to call a company of believers “Christian Brethren” or any kind of “Brethren” is unacceptable.


Being churches of God, New Testament assemblies are responsible to God alone and not to any central authority on earth. Modern ecclesiastical bodies consist of a central authority, with numerous congregations responsible to that central office. The format differs from group to group, but there are general assemblies, synods of bishops, central oversights and so on. The concept of a headquarters on earth is alien to the Word of God. This is demonstrated in the seven letters that the Lord dictated to the churches of Asia in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. There is no hint that these churches were responsible to each other, or to any central authority, but to the Lord Jesus walking among them (Rev 1:12-13).

The autonomous character of local churches is a safeguard against false teaching. Error affecting one assembly need not corrupt another. If a central authority exists and the devil infiltrates it, false teaching will then be pushed out to every congregation in the group, becoming the compulsory creed for all. So, local churches should stand independent of each other and be responsible to the Lord alone. This does not debar fellowship between assemblies. Scripture allows for this, as can be seen in Acts chapter 11. Barnabas went from Jerusalem to Antioch to teach and encourage the new assembly there. At the end of the chapter, the believers at Antioch sent a monetary gift to the needy Christians in Judaea. Thus, there was both spiritual and material fellowship between these two communities of God’s people.

To summarize, since New Testament assemblies were churches of God, they carried no denominational tag, nor were they part of an organization with a hierarchy of authority, but rather, they were responsible to God alone.

1Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.