What is the church and who belongs to it?

As elders, we have been thinking a lot about church membership lately. The opening sections of a document we have been working on ask ‘what is the church?’ and ‘who belongs to the church?’ Below are how we answer those questions:

What is church?

When many people think of church, they immediately think of a building. The church, they suppose, is the building in which Christians worship God. Others think of church in terms of meetings. But the Bible never refers to church in these ways.

In the Bible, church always refers to a group of people. But the Bible uses the word in two different ways:

  1. The universal church of all Christians across all times and places (Mat 16:18; 1Co 15:9; Eph 5:25f)
  2. The local church of Christians in a place at a given time (Act 8:1; Act 14:23; Rom 16:5; 2Th 1:4)

The universal church is the church as God sees it. Only God knows all who truly belong to him (Joh 10:14; 2Ti 2:19). We cannot see into the hearts of those who profess faith. Therefore, the universal church is invisible to us. It is made up of all true believers across all times and places.

The local church, by contrast, is the church as we see it. It is made up of all those people who profess faith in Jesus Christ and have committed to one another in local fellowships. Each local church is a visible expression of the universal, invisible church.

Normally, when the Bible says church, it means the local church. In most instances, the word refers to a local group of people who love Jesus, are committed to one another and meet regularly to hear the Word preached and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

Who belongs to the church?

All who truly believe by faith in Jesus Christ, the elect of God for whom Christ died, belong to the universal church. Scripture is clear that Jesus is the one who builds the church (Mat 16:18) and he died specifically for the church (Eph 5:25f); those chosen by God before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4f). This means salvation is entirely a work of God’s grace and is received by faith in Christ (Eph 2:8f).

By contrast, the local church is made up of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and have joined in membership through baptism. There are two reasons why baptism marks our entry into the local church. First, the Bible presumes that all Christians in the local church have been baptised (cf. Rom 6:3f). This presumption is rooted in Jesus’ universal command to be baptised as the visible sign of belonging to the church (Mat 28:19f; Act 2:38-47). Second, water baptism is the visible representation of the spirit baptism that has already taken place within the heart of the Christian (cf. Joh 3:1-8; 1Co 12:12f). Spirit baptism brings a person into membership of the universal, invisible church while water baptism brings one into membership of the local, visible church.