This question, often asked innocently by people we meet, reflects the common idea of what a church is. Although some people think that a "church" is a religious institution, most believe that the word simply refers to a religious building. In assemblies gathered to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we know that this is not a biblical notion, and yet we find from time to time that there is not a clear understanding of the scriptural meaning of "church" or of the distinction between a local church and the large aspect of the church which is composed of all believers from Pentecost until the coming of our Lord at the rapture.
The Church which is His Body
New Testament Doctrine
This large aspect, referred to as the Church which is His body (Eph 1:22, 23) is one of the great themes of the Bible. Notice that when the Church is introduced, the Lord Jesus is seen in resurrection by the mighty power of God, and is exalted and glorified in heaven. God, by the same power, has raised us up also, and has made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:6). The Church then, is seen as heavenly in design and destiny, and is the unique masterpiece of God through which He will display "the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus in the ages to come" (Eph 2:7).
The Lord Himself introduced the subject in Matthew chapter 16, and based His teaching upon the confession of Peter that He was "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v 16). It was the resurrection that marked Him out as "the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of Holiness" (Rom 1:4), and it was subsequent to the resurrection of Christ that the Holy Spirit came down on the day of Pentecost to establish the Church through the baptism of the Spirit. "For by (in) one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor 12:13). Every true believer comes into the fullness of these blessings on the day of salvation (Eph 1:13).
Old Testament Pictures
An interesting picture is given in Genesis 2:21-25, where God caused that deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and then he "built" (margin) the woman and brought her to Adam. This picture is given before sin entered into the world, and would emphasize that this is Gods eternal purpose for His Son, and that it is totally a sovereign work of God.
Rebekah (Gen 24) and Asenath (Gen 41) are additional pictures of brides provided to share the wealth and glory of men who were, in turn, pictures of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is no mention of human involvement in relation to the "Church which is His body," for it is a special, divine, work of God. Every member of the body moves under the control of the Head alone, and in doing so contributes to the welfare of all the other members. This is the truth of Colossians 2:19, where Christ is Head of the body. In Ephesians, He is head over all things to the Church, where the Church is seen in association with Him as He controls and brings blessing to the universe of God.
The Local Church or Assembly
Just as the Lord Jesus laid the foundation for the large aspect of the Church in Matthew chapter 16, so, in Matthew 18, He lays the basis for all further teaching on the local assembly as practiced in the Acts and taught by the apostles. Significantly, the background is one of contention, with the Lord outlining the process of reconciliation between the two parties; and if unsuccessful, then judgment and discipline should follow.
Matthew 18:20 is the only form of church constitution found in the New Testament, and in it the Lord defines what a local church is. The word church, ekklesia, is simply a "called out company" or "assembly," but in Acts19:39, the town clerk in Ephesus further qualifies an assembly as a lawful one when it has the proper authority for its existence. Matthew 18:20 provides us with both the power and authority for a true local church.
"Where two or three are" -a distinct locality where this spiritual entity exists.
"Gathered together" -the perfect passive participle used here, indicates an action which was complete in the past and continues its influence to the present. The Lord Himself calls and gathers His people together. Today we would describe it as a "24/7" experience.
"In My Name" -the expression conveys the requirement for total correspondence to all that is consistent with the Lord Himself. It is used to convey:
association with His interests.
identification with His person.
"There am I in the midst of them" This wonderful promise of His presence in the midst of His own precludes the idea of regional oversight, and endows each local church with an autonomy and responsibility to the Lord alone since He has pledged His presence among them.
In the first three chapters of the Revelation, we see the Lord Jesus assessing the spiritual condition of the various assemblies in Asia, but they are written for us today, so that we may remember that no detail or activity in any local assembly escapes His notice.
Some distinguishing features of a local assembly which are in contrast to the church, the body of Christ, may be useful for young believers. The local assembly:
1. Is essentially a doctrinal fellowship. Acts 2:42 - And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and (in the) fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
2. Has an overseeing eldership of men raised up by the Spirit of God to lead, feed, and defend the assembly (Acts 20:28, 1 Pet 5:1-4).
3. Makes a gender distinction: males (1 Tim 2:8): women (1 Tim 2:9)
4. Has membership qualifications to observe, moral and doctrinal (1 Cor 5:12, 13; Gal 1:8 ,9).
5. Has a geographical location, but is not confined to a building or room.
When asked if we go to church, we should remember that we are not isolated individuals arbitrarily deciding to attend services in some building, but we gather together with believers of kindred spirits, because we have been called out and gathered together by the Lord Himself, and meet in His Name. He has promised to be in the midst of all such companies.