When so many denominations and cults claim to be the ‘one and only true church’, some kind of definition becomes important. However, the question is not as straightforward as you might think.
There are a number of possible answers, all of which have their pros and cons:
A true church is a community of people who are under the authority of the apostles and their successors (often represented by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, or some other body that claims its leaders to be in direct succession to the apostles).
God’s Church is indeed “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” (Ephesians 2:20) However, even during Jesus’ ministry, there were people who believed in Him, yet did not join His ‘official’ band of disciples (Mark 9:38). Far from excluding or condemning them, Jesus’ verdict was: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)
A true church is a community of people who subscribe to the basic Christian doctrines laid out in the historic creeds.
We recognise that there are some things so fundamentally basic to the Christian faith that they cannot be altered or dispensed with (I Corinthians 15:1-8). And anyone who does not agree with the teaching of Christ’s apostles does not belong in His Church (I John 2:18-23). However, who decides exactly where the line should be drawn? There were Christians even in New Testament times who struggled with fundamental doctrines (such as the resurrection of the dead – I Corinthians 15:12), and Paul never suggests that such people were not part of the church. If (for example) an absolutely ‘correct’ understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is considered essential for membership of God’s Church, how many of us would pass the test? Whereas demons would, without any problem (James 2:19)!
A true church is a community of people who have been born again (John 3:3) through the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:13).
Peter realised that Gentiles could be part of the Church when Cornelius and his family received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-46). Conversely, Paul once came across a group of ‘disciples’ in Ephesus who had obviously not received the Holy Spirit. Evidently he did not consider them to be a genuine church, because he re-baptised them all (Acts 19:1-7). “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:9) The difficulty for us, two thousand years on, is that we find it hard to agree on what constitutes evidence of the presence and activity of the Spirit. Are (for example) those churches that do not recognize and use the gifts of the Spirit not ‘proper’ churches?
A true church is a community of people who are obedient to Jesus Christ and meet together in His name (Matthew 18:20). Such a community comes into being through the preaching of the Gospel, and obeys Christ’s command to proclaim the Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20) through the preaching of God’s Word and through the administration of the sacraments.
This is basically Calvin’s definition of the Church: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’” (Institutes 4:1:9). Its strength is that is that it is centred firmly on Christ and the Gospel; without these, no group of people can describe themselves as a church. It does not demand perfect adherence to a standard, and so it is inclusive rather than exclusive. And yet there are some churches that would be excluded. Is the Salvation Army not a ‘proper’ church, because they do not administer the sacraments of baptism and communion?
Whichever definition we use, it may be fairly easy to recognize and agree on the central core of the Church, but the edges will always be slightly fuzzy. What sounds good in theory can break down in practice – simply because the real world is somewhat ‘messy’, and membership of a church (however we define it) doesn’t necessarily correspond to membership of God’s Kingdom (Matthew 13:47-50). Some members appear to be ‘in’ who are really ‘out’ (and vice versa). In the final analysis, “the Lord knows those who are His.” (II Timothy 2:19) And Jesus has warned us that on Judgement Day there will be some surprises (Matthew 7:21-23).
A Biblical definition of ‘church’?
The New Testament doesn’t have a special word for ‘church’; the apostles used ekklesia, the normal Greek word for ‘assembly’. So what makes an ‘assembly’ a ‘church’?
The New Testament letters were written mostly to churches, and many of the greetings at the beginning contain more than just the name of the church concerned. In them we read descriptions of the people who make up the church:
“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be His holy people.” (Romans 1:7)
“To those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be His holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:2)
“To God’s holy people, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 1:1)
“To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” (Philippians 1:1)
“To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers in Christ.” (Colossians 1:2)
“To God’s elect… who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with His blood.” (I Peter 1:1,2)
“To those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.” (II Peter 1:1)
“To those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1)
There are some common themes here: the love of God, a calling, faith, holiness, and of course a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
A church can therefore be defined as a community of people who have heard God’s call and experienced His love, who have responded by putting their faith in Jesus and acknowledging Him as Lord, and who are being transformed (made holy) by His Spirit.
This mustn’t be taken to imply that a church should be pure or perfect. None of the New Testament churches were! Surely it is a healthy sign for a church to contain a proportion of individuals who are ‘on the fringe’; at least some of them will be in the process of becoming Christians.