In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promised, “I will build My church.” What was Jesus promising to build in this verse? Did He have reference to a building? A denomination? An institution? While these concepts are often designated as the “church” in common parlance, the fact is that none of these definitions accurately picture what Christ meant.
The Church Is People
The Greek word that is usually translated “church” in our English Bibles comes from a Greek word that originally had no inherent religious meaning. Instead, the Greek term ekklesia originally referred to a group of people. A good illustration of this meaning is found in Acts 19. While Paul was preaching in Ephesus, a mob formed in opposition to his message. In Acts 19:32 Luke says that the “assembly was in confusion.” “Assembly” here is ekklesia. Later, in verse 39, the town leader insists that proper charges be brought before the lawful assembly.” Again, “assembly” is ekklesia. So the root meaning of the word “church” has to do with a group of people.
Consequently, when Christ promised to “build [His] church,” He was pledging to bring together a group of people. Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:25). He did not die for bricks and two-by-fours, or for a cluster of congregations, or for an ecclesiastical machine. He died for people, and those who submit to Him in obedience are brought together into His group of people, the church.
The One Body
Another metaphor that is often used to describe Christ’s people is “the body.” This term is synonymous with the term “church,” as is evident from comparing Ephesians 4:4 and 1:22–23. In 4:4 Paul states, “there is one body.” In 1:22-23 he refers to “the church, which is His body.” Putting these concepts together, we can conclude that there is one church.
The emphasis of NT teaching on the “one body” is that there is no distinction among Christ’s group of people regarding race, gender, nationality, or social standing. Even the centuries old distinction between Jew and Gentile is removed in the one body. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one...and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross” (Ephesians 2:14, 16).
In this sense, the one body is equivalent to all those who have trusted in Christ, unlimited by time or geography. We are saved, added to this body, when our faith culminates in baptism. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The one body, then, refers to all those who have truly been born again (John 3:3-5). It describes Christ’s people from a universal perspective, all the saved of all time. One more point should be stressed. As portrayed in the Bible, the “one church” is never seen as a collection of churches. It is neither a collection of local churches nor a collection of denominations. It is simply the collection of all individual Christians. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). When we think of the “one church,” we must make sure our concept is the biblical one.
Although the Bible teaches that there is one church, in another sense the Bible teaches there are many churches. Passages such as Revelation 1:4; Galatians 1:2; and Romans 16:16 speak of “churches.” This is because the Bible also uses ekklesia to describe local groups of Christ’s people.
Local congregations as depicted in the Bible have a very simple organization. They are independent and self-governing. The NT is absolutely silent regarding any form of denominational organization. There was no centralized control center for local churches as organized by the apostles.
It is true that there are men called “bishops” or “pastors” or “overseers” mentioned in the NT. But these terms all really describe just one office, and usually the NT calls the men who do this work “elders.” These men have authority only over the congregations of which they are members (1 Peter 5:1–2).
Local churches are to follow the pattern for organization, work, and worship set forth by the apostles. Failure to adhere to the apostolic pattern is serious (see 2 Thessalonians 3:14).
At conversion we are added to the body of all other sincerely converted souls, the church in the universal sense. Then we join ourselves to a local church we believe is doing God’s work in God’s way. Are you a part of the one body Jesus promised to build?