What is the Church?

Jesus clearly established a church, a unified church, a holy church, the apostolic church.

4 aspects to the church — 2 institutional, 1 mystical, 1 a hybrid ...

  1. The mystical body of Christ
  2. The teaching authority
  3. The many and various human, political, sociological, religious institutions
  4. The local body of Christians (a subset of the previous)

I discuss these with quotations from the Bible.

1. Mystical Body of Christ ...

This is where most Christians agree. All born-again, baptized, Spirit-filled, faith-filled believers are members of the mystical body of Christ.This is the set of all people who will ultimately end up in the new heavens and new earth.

And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:47)

Becoming a believer, getting "saved" is the essence of becoming a member of the church.

And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. (Ephesians 1:22,23)

The body of Christ is the church. Therefore, all believers are members of this body and are members of the church.

The external human religious institutions are not the church but are merely ways of organizing and governing communities. In addition, those who will ultimately end up in hell are not members of the church (even though they might be listed on the membership roster of a church).

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31,32)

We become members of the church via baptism in faith, not by joining a church.

2. Teaching Authority ...

More about how to know what is true... (Link)

Related article ...

This aspect of the church is very important. This is how we can know what is true. The church teaching authority has taught us the following ...

The doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Bible-only) is a flawed doctrine.

We can trust teaching from the following sources ...

But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:15)

It is the church which is the foundation of the truth. It does this in several ways ...

How can church leaders who don't believe the truths of the faith or who are living a sinful life teach truth? I believe they can't — this is the basis of my view that some ordained bishops are not qualified to be teacher of the faith — but the Catholic Church ordains them anyway. (Link)

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

Peter had just professed his faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is the foundation of true teaching.

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God. (Acts 20:28)

This implies that leaders of the church might not fulfill their calling. Certainly unholy, corrupt leaders cannot fulfill this calling. In my opinion these are not truly leaders nor are they called by the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament Saul was called by God to be king of Israel but later his heart became corrupt so God removed him. How much corruption should we endure from our leaders before we reject them? As for myself, I've endured quite enough.

And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28)

Note that Paul first refers to leaders in the church. Each person has a different role, not all are called to be leaders. Therefore the idea that any Christian can pick up a Bible and figure out the truths of the faith is incorrect. A consequence of this is that recent novel interpretations never before considered by the church are not likely to be sound. This is part of the reason I reject the charismatic movement since it is so modern.

To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God. (Ephesians 3:10)

The church reveals God's light and truth. But how can church leaders who are unbelievers or who have adopted untrue beliefs and opinions guide anyone into light and truth? Therefore, we must judge the spiritual condition of the leaders before accepting their words just as the Bereans did. Notice that the standard these Bereans used was not the New Testament but the Old Testament. They were validating that Paul accurately interpreted the Old Testament scriptures. Therefore, it is not enough to merely believe Catholic bishops — the purity of this line of ordination was broken when corrupt and unholy bishops and popes were ordained.

Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ (Ephesians 5:24)

Our first loyalty is to Christ, the word of God who is the way, the truth, and the life. If our church leaders teach us things which contradict the word of God we are to reject their false teachings.

That he [Christ] might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:27)

Corrupt church leaders are not participating in Christ's mission and their false teachings should be rejected.

Additional info ...

3. Human, Political, Sociological Institutions ...

This is the aspect of the church which provides things such as ...

The details of these aspects for each Christian group are totally arbitrary (although many have a historical continuity from their roots). Examples of differences ...

Christians should be accepting of the many variations of viewpoints. (I naturally have strong preferences for certain of these.)

In the early days of the church there was only one such church institution. After a while it formed into multiple patriarchates. Then the church split into east and west. In each area of Europe the institutional church had a distinct identity. Later with the Protestant Reformation it split into many, many denominations and non-denominations.

In this discussion I'm giving the Catholic Church leadership a lot of leeway — after all, I joined the Catholic Church during the height of the priestly scandal. However, as I've learned more of the corruptions, abuses and contradictions of the Catholic Church leaders and studied church history I can no longer sweep it all under the rug. Certainly the early church councils could not have determined the true and correct doctrines concerning the core truths of the faith and of Christ's nature unless they were grounded in the truths and the word of God passed-on from the apostles.

And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. (Matthew 18:17)

Implies that there is only one church otherwise people can merely switch to another if they are excommunicated. Once the church fragmented this is no longer possible.

The church is to provide counsel and justice.

And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem. (Acts 8:1)

Implies that there is a visible, institutional form of the church which could be recognized by the persecutors. If some global government in the future were to persecute Christians how would they determine who is and who isn't a Christian? The small house churches would likely fall through the cracks and many would get by unnoticed.

Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. (Acts 11:22)

This verse concerns the leaders of the church who are called "the church". Certainly the Christians at large had no big role in this. But if these leaders were corrupt and unholy they would not really be the church at all but usurpers and imposters.

Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. (Acts 12:5)

Certainly the leaders initiated this and the Christians at large joined in.

And when they had ordained them elders in every church (Acts 14:23)

Local congregations of Christians are called the "church". Each such group is to have validly-ordained leaders. The assumption is that these elders know and believe the faith which was passed down from the apostles; that they are holy men; and that they have pastoral hearts. Certainly the ordination of a corrupt or unholy person could never be valid.

And when they were come, and had gathered the church together (Acts 14:27)

The word "church" seems to refer to the leaders of the church. It was physically impossible in those days to gather thousands of people together in a meeting, they had no large halls with sound systems. In any meeting it is not possible for every person to have a say except by voting, but they didn't do this — only the leaders voted.

And being brought on their way by the church. (Acts 15:3)

Any small group of Christians containing leaders, followers, or both is called the "church". In this case there likely were many leaders.

And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders (Acts 15:4)

The word "church" refers to all Christians, not merely the leaders.

Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church. (Acts 15:22)

A distinction between the leaders and the others. The leaders made the decision and looked for some sort of confirmation from the other Christians present. The whole church includes those who are not leaders.

And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church. (Acts 20:17)

The leaders of the church are merely members of the church, they are not the church.

For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God? (1 Timothy 3:5)

It is not enough that church leaders are ordained, they must also fulfill their mission.

If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed. (1 Timothy 5:16)

This refers to an institutional aspect of the church — collecting money and caring for those Christians who are in need.

Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. (3 John 1:10)

The Catholic Church has been very, very negligent in her duties in getting rid of leaders who should be removed from service.

I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars. (Revelation 2:2)

The Catholic Church has failed this test. It rarely addresses discipline issues with its leadership and usually only when the problem has become very large or when there are lawsuits involved.

Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. (Revelation 2:5)

I am now of the opinion that this is what occurred with the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation was Christ's judgment on the Catholic Church.

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. (Revelation 2:14)

The Catholic Church is guilty of this, it has cast a stumbling block upon its members in many ways and in many times.

Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. (Revelation 2:20)

The Catholic Church is guilty of this.

Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works. (Revelation 2:22,23)

Judgment against the Catholic Church for her corruptions.

And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations. And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. (Revelation 2:26,27)

The church must be pure or God will judge it. I believe the Protestant Reformation is one way that God has judged the church.

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15,16)

The Catholic Church is guilty of this.

4. Local Body of Christians ...

This aspect of the church is really just a subset of the previous but with a focus on a smaller group, usually one parish rather than a denomination, diocese, patriarchate, metropolitan, etc.

Likewise greet the church that is in their house. (Romans 16:5)

This must have been a rather small congregation. It seems that there were many houses with many local churches which were all part of the universal church.

As I teach every where in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17)

There are local congregations called the "church".

When ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you. (1 Corinthians 11:18)

This is referring to church meetings.

Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God. (1 Corinthians 11:22)

Those who are corrupt and behave poorly in relating to Christians of a lower social class are said to despise the church. How can such as these be valid leaders unless they repent?

If therefore the whole church be come together into one place. (1 Corinthians 14:23)

There are to be public meetings of the whole church when possible.

Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: (James 5:14)

Apparently, the dull-witted clerks at my local Catholic parish don't consider me to be Catholic because I neglected to join a local parish. Thus, they have a wrong view of the church. I am a member of the church, the body of Christ, because of my faith, not because of my membership in a local parish.

The Church is One ...

Christ's church is united — it is not fractured. Faith-filled, believing Christians are in unity with one another and with Christ. What is often missing is that Christians don't relate to one another in love.

The Catholic Church claims that the church is fractured and divided because some Christians are not Catholics. They admit that all Christians are in communion with the Catholic Church (considering it as the only "true" church) but for non-Catholic Christians this communion is imperfect. The Catholic view is that finally achieving Christian unity requires membership in the Catholic Church for all Christians.

I reject the notion that institutional unity is the measure of Christian unity. It seems odd that a lukewarm Catholic is a better Christian than a Spirit-filled non-Catholic.

A side-effect of the Catholic view of unity is that even non-believing Catholics are considered as Christians united to Christ because they are united to Christ's church, the Catholic Church.

Throughout history Catholics have persecuted and killed fellow Catholics claiming a just cause. To defend the Catholic view of institutional unity in these cases requires that we ...

  1. deny that these people are really Catholics at all, or
  2. insist that they are being disobedient to Catholic teaching (unfortunately Catholic clergy are all too often the ones to blame — are these ordained popes and bishops not really Catholics after all?)

This demonstrates the point of this section that unity is of the heart, not institutional. The following New Testament passages illustrate this...

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)

They are in unity because they are united to Jesus, not because they have an external institutional unity. Once a person becomes a member of the body of Christ they are by definition in unity. God the Father certainly answered Jesus' prayer so this unity is real, not merely an elusive goal.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus. (Romans 15:5)

Christians are to have a spirit of unity. This does not mean an institutional unity but that we love one another.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)

Christians are to manifest the unity which they already possess in Christ by living at peace with one another.

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

The unity referred to here is not an institutional unity.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:13,14)

It is having love for one another that is the essence of the unity of the faith.

Christians are therefore free to establish a multitude of religious institutions — many churches, denominations, and communities. These are all in unity with one another if we would just believe it and act like it.

Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches claim that it is the Eucharist which provides the basis of unity. They both believe that the other has a valid Eucharist yet they each claim that the other is not in unity because only they are the "true church." They don't allow members of one group to participate in the Eucharist of the other group. Weird. They practice non-united unity.

Church Fathers ...

There are many passages from the Church Fathers indicating that we are to be united with the one church. (Link) These were all written at a time when there really was one united church. Now that the church is fragmented some of these passages don't strictly apply anymore.