People often talk of 'the church' meaning the stone building down the street, or
perhaps the church as an organisation or institution. But what does the Bible say
about it? The New Testament presents two views of the church:
1. The universal church
The universal church is the sum-total of all born-again people, past, present and
Many have already died and are with Jesus. The rest are in a variety of circumstances
and denominations all over the world, but because they're all born again they belong
together. They're the redeemed community.
2. The local church
The local church is a group of Christians living in the same area who are joined
in conscious committed fellowship under their appointed leaders.
A 'church' that's a mixture of saved and unsaved, genuine believers and mere churchgoers,
isn't a church at all by New Testament standards. Neither does the idea of denominations
(Baptists, Methodists, C of E etc.) have biblical support.
Ideally, there would be one local church in each town or area, meeting in many congregations.
Sadly, over the centuries the body of Christ has become fragmented so that each town
today has many local churches, all with different labels and loyalties. But in John
17:20-23 Jesus prayed that all God's redeemed people would be united. Because his
prayer is guaranteed its answer, we should build in the meantime on structural principles
that will pave the way for it.
Who leads the church?
We're used to thinking of vicars, ministers, rectors, priests, etc. but the New Testament
uses different terms. Leaders there fall into two main categories:
1. Leaders with a trans-local ministry
Ephesians 4:11-13 'It was he [the risen and ascended Jesus] who gave some to be apostles,
some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,
to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built
up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and
become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.'
These leaders not only have gifts from the Lord for building up the church but are,
in themselves, gifts to the church. Normally they will have a sphere of influence
wider than the one local church where they are based.
An apostle is 'an expert builder' (1 Corinthians 3:10), a kind of spiritual architect.
He can see the overall 'shape' of a church situation and has authority and wisdom
from the Lord to build it, to spot areas of weakness and to appoint leaders.
He's a person of initiative, sparking off new projects and breaking open new ground
with the gospel. He'll have the ready following of other leaders and be a source
of inspiration to them. Like Paul, he'll have an 'apostolic team' of other leaders
who work under his overall direction.
Apostles and prophets work closely with each other. Together they're often known
as 'foundation ministries' because they lay the foundations of local church life:
Ephesians 2:19-20 'You are…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.'
Prophets are stirrers and inspirers, enabled by the Spirit to perceive the mind of
God for the times. They see through all the details of a church's life to the goals
God has in mind for it. In a word, they are people of direction.
According to Ephesians 4, evangelists—like the other ministries—were given not primarily
to the non-Christian world but to the church, 'to prepare God's people for works
of service' (v12).
The evangelist's concern is to see people come to know the Lord. He inspires and
trains Christians in evangelism. More than that, however, he gets on with the job
himself and sees results.
If apostles and prophets together draw up blueprints for the spiritual building,
the evangelist works at the quarry-face directing the blasting of building-stones
from the rock.
Pastors and teachers
The pastor/teacher shepherds the people in accordance with the ways of the Great
Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, and teaches them the Word of God as a basis for living.
To continue the building metaphor, he shapes the individual stones so that they fit
smoothly into the overall structure.
2. Leaders at local level
The local church is governed by a body of elders, as we noted in an earlier lesson.
Some of them may also be apostles, prophets, evangelists or pastor/teachers, combining
their local involvement with a wider ministry. In the New Testament, Peter is an
example of such a combination—he was an apostle, but also an elder of the church
in Jerusalem (1 Peter 1:1; 5:1). Most elders, however, will just have a local role.
Each church will ideally have several elders (James 5:14; Acts 14:23; 20:17; Philippians
1:1). Each one will function according to the ability and measure of grace and faith
the Lord has given them, but the elders' emphasis will be on working closely together.
Each elder will meet the character qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1
and 1 Peter 5, and each will have a specific area of responsibility in keeping with
their gifts and abilities.
A deacon is an agent of the elders, carrying out some specific, regular responsibility
on their behalf and by their appointment—usually of a practical nature.
'Deacon' means 'servant'. Of course, every member of the church serves the whole
in one way or another, but not all are deacons. These are people whose service has
become a ministry from the Lord. They are publicly appointed as deacons of the church,
being of proven character according to the standards laid out in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.
The church in the house
Jesus enjoyed a closer relationship with some people than with others. For example,
of the seventy-two disciples he sent out (Luke 10:1) there were twelve with whom
he was particularly close (Matthew 10:2-4). Three of those—Peter, James and John—seem
to have been his special friends (Matthew 17:1; Luke 8:51).
You, too, need various levels of relationship and the church provides them in the
First, the joint meetings of the whole church are great times of praise, worship
and inspiration. In them you feel that you're part of something big and powerful
in the purposes of God.
Second, meetings of the local congregation are more relaxed, with greater scope for
But, third, you also need more intimate fellowship with a smaller number of Christians.
Group meetings, like this one, are an ideal way of satisfying this need. These groups
will often meet in people's homes (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15). The informal atmosphere
of a home encourages a relaxed and easy openness in the Spirit. Small groups are
outposts of the kingdom of God in the community, demonstrating in real-life terms
what Christian caring and sharing is all about.
Some small-group activities will be organised by the leaders. But you don't have
to wait for things to be arranged for you; just start sharing the life of God naturally
with those closest to you. Be open and hospitable. Offer your help in gardening,
decorating or whatever. Pray with one another, encourage those who are having a tough
time. Do fun things together. Plan a picnic or a barbecue. Just share life!
Are 'new churches' starting a new denomination?
Hopefully not. The dictionary defines a denomination as 'a religious sect or body
designated by a distinctive name' (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). The name usually
refers to a particular aspect of God's truth that the denomination emphasises. For
The Baptist Church - baptism of believers by immersion central.
The Presbyterian Church - presbyterian form of government (multiple elders) central.
The Pentecostal Church - baptism in the Holy Spirit central.
The Apostolic Church - present-day apostleship central.
'Free' churches - freedom or independence from external control central.
We simply aim to be scriptural in all we do, and don't want to adopt any denominational
label. We just want to be God's people touching a needy world. And we're anxious
to reach out in fellowship to all who are the Lord's, whatever their denominational
affiliation. This way, we can help 'keep the unity of the Spirit' (Ephesians 4:3)
until, in the open and loving atmosphere thus created, 'we all reach unity in the
faith' (Ephesians 4:13).
So don't go around saying, 'Ours is the best church' or 'Why don't you leave your
church and join ours?' Just get on with living for Jesus, trusting him to join to
us those he wants. Our main aim, anyway, isn't to draw people from other churches
but to reach the lost and see them added to the fellowship.
[At this point a local church using these materials can insert local details]
Learn by heart
Ephesians 5:25-26'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make