The Word “Church” in 1 Corinthians: Membership


In previous articles we have learned important lessons from the usage of the word “church” in 1 Corinthians. The church is neither a building nor a national ecclesiastical organization. The fact that New Testament churches were “churches of God” indicates divine ownership. This means that they are responsible to Him and not to each other or to any man-made central authority. In other words, they are autonomous and not part of any denominational structure, although maintaining fellowship with similarly gathered companies. They reject any denominational title and are content to be known as those who gather to the name of the Lord Jesus. Moving on, the epistle also employs the word when indicating the composition of assemblies, for the apostle describes them as “churches of the saints” (1Co 14:33).


The term “churches of the saints” is a clear indication that in NT times assemblies were comprised exclusively of believers in the Lord Jesus. There may have been times when they were deliberately infiltrated by false teachers, but the ideal was for the company to comprise a one hundred percent believing membership, saints. Paul described the Corinthian assembly itself as consisting of “them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1:2).1

Some of you may be new believers and, up till now, no one has explained to you that saints are not a spiritual superclass, but that every believer is a saint. Allow me to establish that for you. The words “saint,” “sanctified” and “holy” are all in the same family, with a basic meaning of being “set apart,” that is, separated to God. There are some who teach that the experience of being sanctified takes place at a point subsequent to conversion. In reality, the Bible teaches that salvation and sanctification are simultaneous. Like every other spiritual blessing, our sanctification is based on the work of the cross: “We are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10). We are sanctified “with his own blood” (13:12). Thus, the offering of His body and the shedding of His blood form the basis of our sanctification. Again, like every other spiritual blessing, this was made good to us by faith; the Lord spoke of “them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Act 26:18). So then, the faith that saved you was the faith that sanctified you; you were sanctified at conversion; it was then that you became a saint. The term “his saints” is equated with “all them that believe” (2Th 1:10). So as stated, every believer is a saint.

The fact that NT assemblies were “churches of the saints” is one of the reasons for assemblies interviewing people who express an interest in being part of the company. They will be spoken to kindly and sympathetically and be asked to give an account of their conversion story. That will be relayed to the assembly as a whole, for it is the assembly that receives people into its fellowship, as indicated by the following Scriptures: “They were received of the church” (Act 15:4); “The brethren received us gladly” (21:17). That whole process is to ensure that everyone connected to the assembly is a genuine believer, one of “the saints.”

A sad feature of the present day is that many of the Lord’s dear people are connected to religious systems in which believers and unbelievers are linked. They see their unsaved fellow members as their mission field and argue that if they withdraw their light from that situation, the darkness will be all the greater. In actual fact, the Bible teaches that light and darkness are incompatible, and the light should be withdrawn. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers … come out from among them, and be ye separate” (2Co 6:14-18). The ecclesiastical unequal yoke is as unscriptural as a marital or commercial unequal yoke.

The Whole Church

Paul anticipates the whole assembly at Corinth being gathered together (1Co 14:23), but an assembly is not a secret society and its meetings are not held behind closed doors. Gatherings are open to the public, and it is anticipated that others will attend. We will legitimately call them “outsiders” because the epistle speaks of “them that are without” (5:12-13). It is important to note that whether the outsider is an “unbeliever” or “unlearned,” he is distinct from “the whole church.” As far as “the whole church” is concerned, there is a recognized membership, and though everyone is welcomed warmly, not every attendee is part of “the whole church.”

We have to go elsewhere in the NT to discover that while the assembly comprises saints exclusively, these saints must meet certain criteria to be part of the assembly and share its privileges and responsibilities. Acts 2:41-42 supplies clear guidelines for us. Having been saved, the converts were baptized, and they then committed to the apostles’ doctrine, which is now “inscripturated” as the NT. On the basis of their subscribing to that doctrine, a fellowship was created which was cemented by their common adherence to the apostles’ teaching. That fellowship was expressed in the breaking of bread and the collective prayers. That scriptural sequence should not be disturbed. To be part of “the whole church,” a believer must be baptized and be willing to acknowledge and obey the teaching of the NT, as it affects every department of their lives, including the congregational aspect.


There was a shocking situation at Corinth that resulted in the offender’s being put away from the assembly (1Co 5). His immoral conduct necessitated that, but the teaching that flowed from these circumstances demonstrates that a saint whose behavior is unsaintly is disqualified from the fellowship of an assembly. Something else that debars from fellowship is holding erroneous doctrine that would create a faction (Titus 3:10). The common factor between moral evil and doctrinal evil is that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (1Co 5:6; Gal 5:9). The whole company is tainted when either bad behavior or unorthodox teaching is tolerated.

So then, while ideally every saint should be linked with an assembly, if there are certain things that require excommunication, logic demands that anyone known to be guilty of these things should not be received in the first place. To summarize, assemblies are churches of God as to their ownership, and are churches of the saints as to their composition.

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.