This is an extremely pertinent question with a surprisingly simple answer. Jesus gave a satisfyingly simple answer when He replied to Peter, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:16; emp. added). That should settle the matter — the Lord only built one church, just as He said He would. However, for the rest of this article, we wish to ask: (1) “What is a church?” (2) “What do we mean by church?” and (3) “How does this affect me?”
There is a lot of confusion over such a simple question. Much of the confusion is simply because “church” is an ambiguous word in modern English. Many associate church with a building. On some cities in America, there are church buildings on every corner. One need only open a Yellow Pages for one’s town and see several entries under the subsection of “churches.” Some cathedrals have the most beautiful architecture. However, when Jesus said that He would build His church, did He have a cathedral in mind?
What Is A Church?
It should come as no surprise that God did not write the Scriptures in modern English. Usually when one reads the English word church, this is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia. In the first century, ekklesia was a common noun. Luke uses this Greek word referring to an angry mob that was in an uproar against Paul and his teachings (cf. Acts 19). This word was everyday street language in the Greco-Roman world. Ekklesia is a compound noun; that is, it has two components.
The first part “Ek” is a preposition in Koiné Greek. It is the same preposition for Exodus. It means “out of.” The second part “kaleo” is a verb in Koiné Greek. It means “to call.” In a literal translation, an ekklesia was a “called-out” assembly. It never refers to a building; in ancient times, the Greeks had a separate word for the place where an ekklesia met: the ekklesiasterion. In ancient times, city-states called out to the people to assemble for a task.
This word would develop in Christian usage. The New Testament writers use this word exclusively to refer to the called-out saints, with a few exceptions. Peter wrote that God has “called (kaleo) us out of (ek) darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). It seems that Peter was making a play on words of ekklesia. However, when used as a compound, we opt for an exact translation like “assembly,” “gathering,” or “congregation.” God has called us together into one body out of darkness for glorying in Him; He has formed us into the ekklesia (i.e., church).
What Do We Mean By Church?
When we assert, “There is only one church,” we are not asserting that there are not individual congregations. A clear example of this is in the book of Revelation. When Jesus spoke to the seven ekklesias of Asia Minor, He was speaking to seven literal groups. In his Roman letter, Paul basically wrote, “The various individual congregations of Christ greet you” (16:16; emp. added). However, there is only one church.
When we assert, “There is only one church,” we are not talking about church buildings with an exclusive designation as “Church of Christ.” James used the word synagoge for “assembly” (2:2), which described a building designated for worship and instruction (called “synagogues” by the Jews); thus, we know some first-century believers assembled in buildings designated for such. However, it’s highly unlikely they had signs for their buildings. Often early believers used a fish symbol to signal their meeting places during times of persecution. Some also met in each other’s houses (Acts 2:46). However, there is only one church.
When we assert, “There is only one church,” we are not referring to denominations. Indeed, while there were factions in the various congregations (see 1 Corinthians), the church is not a conglomeration of various groups. We cannot be united until we lay down our interpretations and bias. However, there is only one church.
When we say, “There is only one church,” what we mean is that all believers who have responded in faith to the gospel by repenting of their sins and being baptized in water collectively form one group of people – the “called-out” of God. Then the Lord adds these people to His church (Acts 2:47). These people spend the rest of their day following learning and following the pattern of the New Testament, living daily conformed to the Lord’s will (Eph. 5:17).
How Does This Affect Me?
It means that instead of turning to find a church in our Yellow Pages, we ought to turn in our New Testaments to find how to be like the church of the New Testament.
How do we become part of this one church? We read several conversion stories in the book of Acts, perhaps the most famous of them being found in chapter 2. When those who had heard the gospel responded in faith by repenting and being baptized in water for the forgiveness of sins, then and only then did the Lord add them to His church (Acts 2:47). Those who are in the church are people enrolled in heaven (Heb. 12:23). Jesus is the head of the church and the Savior of the body (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18).
Despite giving our various congregations proper names, the one church does not have a fixed, proper name. Many writers attached descriptors to describe them: those who belong to the firstborn, namely Jesus (Heb. 12:23), or those who belong to the living God (Acts 20:28). If one has multiple trees, they might need to differentiate maple, elm, or pine. However, the Lord only had one church, so it had no purpose to do so.
We must not divide the church. Our society is permeated with denominationalism, the idea that somehow the one church is segmented into smaller denominations like a giant pie. However, the New Testament warns against division, whether in petty squabbles or in a larger factitious way. Jude condemned those who divide as those devoid of the Spirit (Jude 19). Those in Corinth were people of the flesh because they divided (1 Cor. 3:1-4). Why do we not stop all this denominational foolishness and simply be Christians—members of Christ’s church? Isn’t that what He wants? Isn’t that what He laid out? To be Christians only and only Christians?
Jesus desired that His followers that would come to believe on Him through the apostles’ teaching would be united. His prayer was, “May they be as one…” (John 17:20-23).
A local church is “of Christ” is if is practicing New Testament Christianity. A local church is “of Christ” if the membership and the leadership are committed to being Christians only. A local church is “of Christ” if Christ and His Word are the foundation. There are plenty of buildings with signs that say a church is “of God” or “of Christ,” but their practices say they are not. And there may be churches which do not use the phrase “Church of Christ” on their sign, but they are “of Christ” because they are trying to follow New Testament Christianity. A sign does not choose whether a church is “of Christ” or “of the devil.” One must conform to the pattern of the New Testament to have salvation in Christ (Eph. 1:3).
My goal as a Christian is not about figuring out who is saved and who is lost. I have a hard-enough time worrying about my salvation than worrying about other’s salvation. My goal as a Christian is to preach the simple message of Jesus, teaching the whole counsel of God, and to live my faith with simplicity so that when people see me they will say, “That’s a truly God-fearing individual. I want to have the kind of faith that lives.” Certainly, there are people who have swerved from the truth and whose teaching is gangrene, upsetting the faith of some, but the Lord knows those that are His (2 Tim. 2:14-23). As a Christian, I must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting my opponents with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-26).
The Lord only built one church. If you would like to know more about it, the answers are in your New Testament. The writers of the Carolina Messenger would love to help you answer any question with a biblical book, chapter and verse, and encourage you to open your Bible and see if such things are so (Acts 17:11).
Stephen preaches at the Collinsville Church of Christ in Collinsville, VA. He is a 2012 alumnus of the Memphis School of Preaching in Memphis, TN. He is married to Rebekah and they have two children.