Ecclesiology: the study of the church. Pretty simple, right? Now, think of defining “church” to someone who has never heard of it before. Not so simple anymore. This has been a subject of debate for believers of Christ since Pentecost. Wayne Grudem, the author of Systematic Theology, defines the church in this way, “The church is the community of all true believers for all time.” In the book, ChristianTheology, Millard Erickson describes the Church as “the whole body of those who through Christ’s death have been savingly reconciled to God and have received new life. It includes all such persons, whether in heaven or on earth. While universal in nature, it finds expression in local groupings of believers that display the same qualities as does the body of Christ as a whole.” These are wonderful definitions for a general idea of what a church is and how it functions, but what components are to be considered when studying how a church should be structured?
The Universal Church and The Local Church
There are distinctions to be made between the universal Church and the local church. The universal Church is invisible. The local church is visible. As members/attendees of Restoration Church we are part of a local and visible church. Restoration Church is a place where believers can be known by their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a visible representation of the universal Church. The universal Church is universal in that all believers of Christ are a part of the body of Christ all around the world. Some important distinctions to remember about the universal Church and the local church are:
The Universal Church
The universal Church brings humility - God is working not only in your community but all over the world.
The universal Church brings context - what is our role in the universal church beyond my own community?
The universal Church brings encouragement - in times of trial we remember that we are part of a greater body.
The universal Church displays Creation - the whole world was created by God.
The Local Church
The local church brings you under authority - there are visible people watching over you as a shepherd watches over his flock (in the image of Jesus!).
The local church brings a depth of relationship - Relationships develop through small groups and serving with one another.
The local church gives instruction in orthodoxy (generally accepted doctrine and practices of the church).
The local church is where believers live out the assignment of the universal Church - “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
The local church provides an invitation to be part of the universal Church - “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope at your calling–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).
What are more distinctions that you could consider when thinking about the universal Church and the local church?
What Makes Up a True Church?
When studying what a church is, there must be true churches and false churches. Rightly teaching the Gospel and the Scriptures, as well as administering the sacraments (baptism and communion), are marks of a true church. What other marks of a true church should be considered when evaluating the true-ness of a church? Mark Dever, a theologian and pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, suggests there are 9 marks of a true church:
Many theologians have differing opinions on how to evaluate if a church is true or not. We, being part of God’s people, should all consider how to make this evaluation based on our Biblical readings in the New Testament.
Biblical Images of the Church
There are many images of how the church is described sprinkled throughout the Bible. Here are some examples:
The People of God: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:10
The Body of Christ: “He is also the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.” Colossians 1:18
The Temple of the Holy Spirit: “Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is holy, and that is what you are.” 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
Some other images of God’s church are of a bride, a priesthood, and a branch from the vine. Look to see how many images God uses to describe the people that he created and loves. They are endless as is God’s love for his people, his church.
There are varying aspects of ecclesiology. It is a subject that has so much to it that it can be studied for your whole life - and you should! As you read through Paul’s letters, and throughout the Bible, be attentive to how God sees the universal and local church. At its simplest form, the church is to be made up of image-bearers of Christ pointing each other and unbelievers toward Christ. As extensive as the study of ecclesiology can be, don’t lose sight of your purpose as a disciple: to follow Christ and lead others to him.
Bonus: As you begin studying ecclesiology, it is also fascinating to consider how culture is affected by churches (and vice-versa). I would recommend reading the book Loving the City by Timothy Keller.