Ecclesiology is the study of the Christian church: its identity, origin, purpose and structure. The precise nature of each of these attributes can vary greatly according to context, however I believe there are underlying values and concepts which provide the basis for defining ecclesiology in every context.
To begin a discussion about church, I must first define the word “church.” “Church” is defined by popular use as a building which people of a particular religion use to gather, worship, and facilitate other functions. However, that is not the biblical understanding of the word “church.”
Church is People.
The term ecclesiology comes from the Greek word ekklesia which simply means “assembly” or, more literally, “to be together.” At its core, the concept of church has no necessary implication of buildings, but of people existing in a community with one another. In other words, church is not a building; church is people.
Church is Universal & Local.
In a universal sense, the church refers to the global community of Jesus followers throughout all space and time. Any and all genuine Christians are members of the church, individuals who together comprise an entity that can be referred to as a singularity.
On the other hand, a church can refer to a more localized, immediate community of believers who live and worship in proximity to each other. A “local church” is defined by geographical location, and personal relationships within that context.
Therefore, we can refer to “the church” singularly (Acts 9:31) or “churches” plurally (Revelation 1:20) depending on the context.
Biblical Metaphors for the Church
My definition for “church” thus far is rather broad and vague, with far-reaching and complex implications. The concept of church is indeed very complex, so metaphorical illustrations can be very helpful in understanding it. As such, I will examine three biblical examples which serve to enrich our understanding of the nature of church.
The Church is a Body.
1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 12:12-31, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 1:22, 4:4, 4:15-16, 5:23, 5:29-30, Colossians 1:18, 2:19
Just as each Christian is a small yet vital member of the vast church of Christ, each local church is a unique and important part of the global church. The human body is an excellent illustration of how that works, in that one body is made up of many parts, each member with a vast variety of different roles, and all reporting to the head. When one part of the body is compromised, it affects the whole body’s wellbeing, and the body works best when all its members are working in harmony and balance.
The human body is comprised of many systems: the circulatory system, respiratory system, reproduction system, etc. Each system is made up of various organs, which are comprised of combined tissues, which are maintained by individual cells, and so on. Each entity, from the entire body down, is singular and unique, yet comprised of equally singular and unique entities.
This concept leads to practical implications. Just as we have different body parts to perform different tasks, so the church has a variety of people with unique gifts, callings, and responsibilities. 1 Corinthians 12:15-21 is humorously literal with this illustration, imagining a foot not wanting to be a part of the body because it is not a hand, or an eye saying to a hand that it is unneeded. Verse 17 even imagines an entire body that is just an eye or an ear, to emphasize how absurd that idea is.
Verse 26 of that same passage brings up another practical point: the shared suffering and joys of belonging to a body. We all know how much a simple papercut can affect how we feel the rest of the day, let alone a sprained ankle, sore tooth, or stomachache. On the other hand, a back or foot rub can have an equally significant impact. In the same way, the lives of people in the church impact the lives of other people in the church, both negatively and positively.
Of course, there is one body part which is more crucial than the rest: the head. Without a head, a body is dead and useless, but with a head, a whole body can be animated, led, and coordinated. This speaks in part to the importance of leadership within local bodies, but more significantly it illustrates how vital it is for any church to be connected to their true head, Christ.
Perhaps the most literal aspect of referring to the church as a body is the fact that the church is referred to as “the body” of Christ. That is, the church is the physical faculties of Christ’s spirit on Earth. We as individuals do not live up to His perfect example, but together are His chosen method of accomplishing His work until He returns.
The final attribute of the “body” metaphor I’d like to point out is the ideal state of harmony and balance: the unity of a stable equilibrium between interdependent parts. This ideal state is known physiologically as homeostasis and could also well be applied to the ideal state of unity in the church. Even before “the church” in the Christian sense existed, unity was an ideal for God’s people, (Psalm 133:1). and is a major theme represented by passages describing the church as a body. Unity does not mean uniformity, rather a wide variety of people all being led by the same Spirit in order to accomplish the mission of God and exist together in a community of love.
The Church is a Building.
1 Peter 2:5, Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Corinthians 3:9-11
The second example is that of a building. This may be somewhat of an ironic illustration after stressing that church is not a building. This is not as literal of a metaphor as that of the body, but the language and concepts of buildings and construction lend well to the purposes of this discussion.
The verses above refer to Christ as the cornerstone, the apostles the foundation, and the rest of us the “living stones” of a spiritual “house” which is continuously being built by God. This illustration is helpful in several ways:
First, it reminds us that without Christ, none of the church is possible. The “cornerstone” was the piece of a building upon which the rest of the construction depended.
Secondly, it recognizes the significance of the work of the early apostles. While subordinate to Christ, they facilitated an immediate and expanded model of the church, exemplifying the life of imperfect humans led by the spirit, living in community, and spreading the gospel.
Lastly, I like to take the metaphor even a bit further than the text explicitly does. Thinking of Christ as the cornerstone, us as the stones, and the Father as the designer, I see God’s Spirit as being the “mortar” which connects and unites all members of the church. Without this amalgamating element, the stones would not stay together, and the building would fall apart.
The Church is a Bride/Wife.
Revelation 19:7-9, 21:2, 2 Corinthians 11:1-4, Ephesians 5:25-27, Matthew 25:1
The last example is that of a bride. This example serves to illustrate not just the nature of the church itself, but of her relationship to God, and, more specifically, Jesus. I believe this metaphor is significant because it emphasizes the love relationship between God and people, while explaining how we as the church should anticipate the return of Jesus.
Describing the church as a “bride” or “wife” is an overt reference to the multi-faceted affection, desire, passion, and love that God has for His people. It acknowledges the love of John 3:16 and John 15:13. It also maps onto language in the Old Testament comparing God's people to a (usually adulterous) wife. This is a reminder of how painful unrequited or scorned love is for God. (Jeremiah 3:8, Ezekiel 16:8)
Given the examples above, it is unsurprising to find that Jesus told multiple parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to wedding-related events. (Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13) Each is used to illustrate different points of perspective, but in each story, God (Jesus) is portrayed as the bridegroom and His people (the church) as the bride. Matthew 25 primarily makes the point that when the bridegroom returns, only those who are “prepared” and “ready” will be able to join the feast. This of course ventures into eschatological discussion, however I think it is worth briefly mentioning here. The church as a whole (and subsequently each of her members) has an imperative to anticipate, look for, and prepare for Christ’s return with the same eagerness and readiness as a bride awaiting her wedding.
Where Did Church Come From? (Origin)
The global church as we know it today began with the work of one man, Jesus, and the subsequent obedience of His disciples. Jesus stated implicitly His intent to “build” His church in Matthew 16:18, before “the church” was even known as such.
The book of Acts chronicles the events immediately following Christ’s ascension, beginning with the disciples waiting for the arrival of the Holy Spirit, who came on the day of Pentecost. The result was a rather explosive kick-off for the church: that day saw about three thousand people added to the church in Jerusalem. In the days that followed, they (including many visitors from out of town) spent time together and supported each other by sharing resources and liquidating assets. This allowed them to learn from the apostles, worship together, and continue growing in number as a community in which everyone’s needs were met and God’s power displayed. (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37, 5:12-16)
This all drew significant attention, and eventually persecution from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Ultimately this led to the scattering and decentralization of the church throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1) which began to fulfill Jesus’s commission to the apostles. (Matthew 28:16-20) However, the apostles remained in Jerusalem, while a man named Saul was at the forefront of seeking and executing Jesus followers. In an act of divine intervention, Jesus appeared to Saul and changed his perspective rather abruptly. (Acts 9:3-19) Saul’s conversion completely redirected his zeal, and he moved to the forefront of spreading the gospel everywhere to everyone, with ground-breaking special attention to non-Jews as “an apostle to the Gentiles.” (Romans 11:13, Ephesians 3:1) His ministry to Greek-speaking people also resulted in him being more commonly known by the Greek version of his name, “Paul,” in later years.
The remaining history of the church is quite long, complex, and at times sordid, but mostly beyond the scope of this discussion. Cultural and technological shifts have altered global contexts in which the church exists, and we can observe highs and lows in the moral and theological fiber of the church over time.
What is the Role of Church? (Purpose)
The church exists to carry out the mission of God as Christ’s body, spreading the gospel and existing together in love and unity as an image of God Himself. This purpose is already somewhat implied by the identity of the Church, and modeled in the origin of the church, but I will try to make a few practical points for applying this purpose in a modern context.
Church Equips and Sharpens.
There is an aspect of global cooperation when it comes to equipping each other for the work, however I think this begins as a function of local church bodies. Such equipping can take various forms and employs the variety of spiritual gifts given to believers. It is accomplished through discipleship, teaching, reproach, and encouragement. Holding each other accountable comes through genuine relationships, honest confession, and loving adherence to sound doctrine. All this should be done using Scripture as the primary tool and basis for truth. (See also Discipleship and Bibliology).
Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Church Provides a Family-Like Community.
This type of community is one which meets regularly to share in the basic components of Christian life, such as worship, food, friendship, scriptural study, etc. Whatever the logistics, the purpose for gathering is to “share life” through loving and meaningful relationships. This includes (but is not limited to) singing together, praying together, sharing meals, celebrating and grieving together, serving each other, and even just having fun and relaxing together.
Some such activities may involve large assemblies, while others necessitate smaller, home-sized gatherings. Often, I believe a combination of both large and small gatherings of various sizes can be a healthy pattern for a family. There can be great benefits to large numbers of people gathering, sharing resources, etc. However, that should never come at the expense of, or in place of, the familial relationships that are cultivated in smaller groups of people sharing in the natural rhythms of life.
One final note on the role of community is that it facilitates the observance of two ordinances: that of communion and that of baptism. Communion, by definition, is a communal function. Baptism is an event that naturally (though not necessarily) takes place in the presence of a gathering of people. Those two ordinances constitute two entirely different topics that I will not discuss in detail here; I just want to make a point that church can and should facilitate both.
Hebrews 10:24-25, James 5:14, Romans 8:15, 12:10-13, 1 John 4:7, Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 2:19, John 13:34-35, 1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 4:10
Church Enables Collective Outreach.
As much as people are meant to care for and provide for each other within church families, they are not meant to form isolated communities. They should also be mobilized and active within the larger context of their communities: their neighborhoods, towns, etc. In this way, people are not on mission merely as individuals, but as integrated and cooperative groups of people who are able to spread the gospel by means of proximity and intentionality in their communities. (See also Evangelism & Mission). As the church is the body of Christ on Earth, so it must follow His example of ministering to people, both physically and spiritually.
John 20:21, 17:11-16 Matthew 9:10-13, 2 Corinthians 5:20, 1 Peter 2:9-12, Mark 16:15, Matthew 25:35-40
What is the Anatomy of Church? (Structure)
In my experience, the identity, origin, and general purpose of the church are the most easily agreed upon attributes of ecclesiology. The most contentious and varied discussion seems to be that of church structure and logistical function.
The bible does not prescribe many specific details when it comes to this topic, so neither will I here. However, there are a few expectations which are clear. Some form of leadership and delegation of responsibility in any given community is natural, expected, and necessary, though all authority belongs to Christ, the true head of the church. Responsibility for leadership takes the form of various roles to help administrate, equip, teach, encourage, admonish, provide, serve, and protect.
These roles have multitudinous manifestations of nature and implementation depending on context. Leaders are referred to as “pastors” “elders” “shepherds” or “overseers” throughout Paul’s letters to early churches. He also mentions apostles and prophets, as well as evangelists and teachers. (Ephesians 4:11) However, I do not believe scripture provides any definite statutory prescription for a specific church model of structure and function. In fact, this is one reason why there are so many different types of churches in the world today.
What is prescriptive in those letters is the actual character and nature of people in leadership, and particularly “elders” or “overseers.” The way a local church runs on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis may differ drastically in different communities throughout the world, however the character and values of those in leadership should not, in essence, vary at all. (See Eldership Requirements & Responsibilities).
Acts 14:23, Titus 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, 5:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4
The other role described somewhat specifically is that of “deacon” or “servant” and simply refers to someone assigned to a specific task or duty. Because this tends to be an “official” and public role, there are similar character requirements listed for deacons as there are for elders. Many churches today still appoint deacons to varying degrees of responsibility and officiality.
Acts 6:1-15, 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Philippians 1:1, Romans 16:1
The church is people. We do not go to church; we are the church. We are connected by the Holy Spirit to the entire family of God throughout the world, as well as to our local families of servant missionaries. Together, under the leadership of Christ and His servants, we build each other up, serving each other and the rest of the world the way Jesus did on Earth. May we be faithful to God and to each other in love as we live and share the truth of God’s Kingdom in our lives, and in doing so join in God’s mission and continue Christ’s work as His hands and feet on Earth.