A church is certainly not that building down at the corner with the beautiful stained glass windows and the steeple on top. The church may meet there, but that building is not the church.
The original word in Greek, ekklesia, is composed of two words: ek, meaning, “out from,” and kalleo, meaning, “I call.” The full and simple meaning of “church” according to the original Greek word is “I call out from.”
When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” He was saying, “I will call my people out of the world. They will assemble in my name, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against them.”
This shows that Jesus’ called-out people will rally as an army. They will take the world for Him. The enemy will not be able to stop the advance. This invincible army will be motivated by the love of God within the hearts of its members. They will have a message of love and forgiveness on their lips.
Actually, ekklesia has two meanings: that of being called out, and that of being assembled together. We cannot experience church until we come together.
My wife and I are ONE. We are ONE even when we are separated from each other by many miles. But we do not experience the benefits and blessings of our marriage union until we come together.
In the same way, you and every other believer in your city constitute the church in that city. Even when you are not assembled together you are still the church. But you cannot receive the benefits and blessings of church until you assemble.
To assemble does not mean that you all have to be in the same place at the same time. That will probably never happen in any city.
“PEOPLE MOVING TOGETHER”
John Dawson, in his book, TAKING OUR CITIES FOR GOD, says, “There is no absolute model for what a local church should be.
“I once spent an afternoon with over one hundred spiritual leaders from several denominations. We tried to come up with a universal definition of a biblical local church.
“You may think that it was an easy task. However, we became very frustrated.
“Consider all the circumstances of people on the earth. Then examine all the various models of the Church in the Bible. You will now begin to understand our frustration.
“After many hours of discussion, we had produced many good models. However, we found no absolute definition for the Church other than ‘people moving together under the lordship of Jesus.’”
I like the definition “people moving together.” Most of us have been led to believe that the church is a building — standing still.
If God were to shake everything loose until there was nothing left but a simple, basic New Testament church, what would we have left?
Imagine that I take away all the unnecessary things from what I understand church to be. What would remain? It is our purpose in this chapter to answer that question.
First let us examine the word “parachurch.”
WHAT IS PARACHURCH?
Recently I read a book that sought to explain the nature of the church. One title in the book was “What Is the Relationship of the Church to Parachurch Organizations?” The author made the following observation:
“The Bible is clear that it is through the Church that God is going to accomplish His great purpose. However, the Church has not always been what it was supposed to be. For that reason, many believers have become discouraged with the Church. They have seen that the Church, as it is, has not met certain obvious needs.
“Caring and concerned Christians have wanted to meet these pressing needs. For this reason, they have established missionary societies, orphanages, Christian business men’s organizations and other similar institutions.
(Editor’s note: These organizations are often called “parachurch ministries.” The word “parachurch” means “outside the Church,” or “alongside the Church.”)
“As God continues to restore and strengthen His Church, the need for these organizations will diminish. Church fellowships will be ministering to the needs of people everywhere.”
It is obvious in the above quotation that the writer felt strongly that parachurch was not really church at all. It seems he felt that something less than church had come along until the real church could be healed or awakened to do the work it ought to be doing.
This is a classic example of the following idea: “If it doesn’t look like a church it isn’t a church.”
The fact is — When a “parachurch” organization is made up of born-again believers in Jesus who are come together to serve and worship Him, it is not “parachurch,” — it is church!
CHURCH IS PEOPLE
Church is not organization, institution or denomination. It is “people moving together under the lordship of Jesus.”
It would be difficult to find a true “parachurch” organization. Such an organization composed of Christians would not be “parachurch.” It would be CHURCH — GOD’S CALLED-OUT PEOPLE! Even if some members were not born again, it would still be church. What church is there without some unsaved people in attendance?
A few years ago I also had an incorrect idea about parachurch. In my teaching ministry I would often say, “If the church was doing what it ought to be doing, we wouldn’t need all these parachurch organizations.”
It never once occurred to me that these parachurch people were just as much a church as we were, even though the building they met in was not shaped like ours. I did not realize that they were the people of God, moving together under the lordship of Jesus.
Our oldest son has been a member of a well-known “parachurch” organization for many years. This group is doing an outstanding job in missions and evangelism. It is growing very quickly all over the world.
A few years ago my son and I were discussing his future with this particular organization. I shared that I had some negative ideas about the organization because it was not a church, but a “parachurch” organization.
He seemed apologetic, and fully agreed with me. He said that what he and others were doing in that organization was being wonderfully blessed of God. However, he felt that its ministry was still not what God really wanted. This was because it was not happening through a church, but rather through a “parachurch.” (He was also confused about church and parachurch.)
A day or two later I was driving along in my car thinking about my conversation with my son. I felt the Lord gently asking me: “What is it that makes an organization a church?”
As I tried to answer that question, I sensed God gave me a revelation. I had never before seen so clearly as I did in that moment of time.
An organization is not a church because it has a certain shaped building that people call a church.
It is not a church because it has been duly certified by the federal government as a church.
It is not a church because it has been recognized by a denominational headquarters as a church.
It is not a church because it has regular Sunday morning services, and practices baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
It is not a church because it meets on a regular basis or in a particular location.
IT IS A CHURCH SIMPLY AND ONLY BECAUSE IT IS GOD’S CALLED-OUT PEOPLE MOVING TOGETHER UNDER THE LORDSHIP OF JESUS.
The author of the book I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH, Alfred Kuen wrote:
“It is easy to get bogged down with unimportant issues and questions. There does not seem to be a clear-cut way to define a local church.
“When, then, can a body of believers be called a church? I personally tend toward a simple definition: a body of believers can be called a church whenever that group meets together regularly for mutual edification.
“Jesus said, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matt 18:20 kjv).
“It is clear what Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, felt Jesus meant. Tertullian said, ‘Where there are two or three believers, even laymen, there is a church.’”
Jim Montgomery, author of DAWN 2000: 7 MILLION CHURCHES TO GO, also addresses the question, “What is a church?” He writes: “I’m impressed with how a group of Christians faced this most fundamental question in China.
“These Chinese believers remarked — ‘Many older Christians said that they could not predict the future form of Chinese churches. They turned to the Bible for an answer. They found there that the house-church form was a legitimate church. Paul mentions a house church in 1 Corinthians 16:19.
“Later, we found a book by Wang Ming-dao. He was perhaps the most highly respected believer in China on the subject of the church. Because of his faith he was put in jail for more than 20 years. He believed that where there were Christians, there was a church.
“We were happy about this. Our group consisted of only a few people. However, we assumed we actually were a church, and our head was Jesus.
“Wang Ming-dao’s statement, ‘Where there are Christians, there is a church,’ is a profound definition. Especially is it profound because it comes from a church growing rapidly and laboring under the most difficult circumstances.”
A CONGREGATION OF BELIEVERS IS A CHURCH
A few months ago I was teaching a small group of believers in the village of La Rumurosa in Old Mexico. I was explaining Matthew 18:20 — “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them.”
In Spanish it says, “Donde hay dos o tres congregados en mi nombre, alli estoy en medio de ellos.”
One word leaped out at me. I had never noticed it before. It is the Spanish word congregados which means “gathered” in English.
“Gathered” means “congregated.” “Where two or three are CONGREGATED in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This reminded me of the English word “congregation.”
I asked the group of Mexican believers, “According to this verse, how many does it take to make a congregation?” As I waited for them to answer, I was struck with the weight of the answer that was forming in my own mind.
Two or three is all it takes to make a congregation — a congregation of believers with Jesus in the midst is a church! This does not mean just any two or three people. It means two or three who are called by Jesus’ name, because they belong to Him.
JESUS IN THE MIDST
“Jesus within” is the experience of the individual in his own private walk with the Lord. “Jesus in the midst” carries the same meaning within a church fellowship.
“Jesus in the midst” is Jesus walking among us, touching us, speaking to us through the gifts of the Spirit. It is Jesus flowing through the members of His Body, the Church.
“Jesus in the midst” is the corporate experience. “Jesus within” is the private experience.
When two or three true, born-again believers come together in His name, Jesus is IN THE MIDST. Jesus in the midst is CHURCH!
This is a different experience than Jesus within. We cannot experience Jesus in the midst while we are alone. We can only experience Jesus in the midst when we are in company with others — at least one or two others.
Are two or three together a church in the fullest sense of the word? Yes, it is a church in the fullest sense of the word. It is the basic church.
You can have more than two or three and it is still a church, a church in the fullest sense, but it does not become more church because there are more than two or three. It only becomes a bigger church.
THE ROLE OF CHURCH LEADERS
What about pastors, teachers, apostles, evangelists and prophets? Is it a church without these being present? Yes, it is a church, even without all of the above.
The fourth chapter of Ephesians says that the Lord gave all these five ministries to the church. He gave these gifts to something that was already in existence.
When Paul went out from Antioch on his first missionary journey, he established churches in four cities. On his way back to Antioch, he ordained elders for those churches.
This indicates that the Holy Spirit, Who is the author of the Book of Acts, knew these were churches BEFORE leadership was appointed.
“And when they had preached the gospel to that city … they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium and Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples,
“And exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.
“And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they had believed” (Acts 14:21-24).
The elders were chosen out of the disciples who made up the churches. Disciples were people called by God out of darkness into light. These sort of people are THE CHURCH! Notice that the writer of Acts uses the words “disciples” and “church” interchangeably.
Notice also that Paul felt it safe to leave these newly-formed churches in the hands of the Lord on Whom the people had believed. This is a key statement and needs to be more fully understood.
We who are in leadership in the church have sometimes wrongfully placed too much importance on ourselves. We do this when we assume that the church cannot function without our total “watchcare” over the flock.
A bishop, elder or pastor is an overseer and a feeder. He functions as a father or a nurse to his spiritual “children.” However, there needs to be a limit to his spiritual oversight. Many leaders have too often violated this.
The major violation by us as church leaders is that we have almost completely taken the ability to minister away from the people. We have given this ability to the “professional clergy.”
WHAT, THEN, IS A CHURCH?
If we take away all that is not essential in the church, that leaves only what is essential. Then we would have Jesus and at least two people who have come together in His name.
Two people who have been born again, meeting together to acknowledge Jesus’ presence, is church at its most basic level. It doesn’t matter where or when these two people meet. When they come together to honor Jesus it is still church.
This, of course, does not mean that this essential level is where the Lord wants us to operate all the time. Praise God for larger groups. But let us never lose sight of the basic church. If we do, we will tend to fall back into forms, rituals, ceremonies, religiosity and legalism.