What is the Church?

What is the church?

a) A church (lowercase) is an organized group of Christians who meet regularly to worship God and practice their faith. The place where this group gathers may secondarily be called a church.

b) A Church (capital) may be a structured network of churches held together by common identity, governance, beliefs, and practices. Sometimes a Church in this sense and a denomination are considered one and the same; e.g., the United Methodist Church

c) The Church (capital) is the entire number of believers who, according to Christian teaching, have experienced salvation from sin and reconciliation with God. This universal Church can be seen as identical with or manifested in a visible and organized Church or as invisibly present in all churches where Christians gather.

Identifying the Church

How do I know that a church is part of the Church? Three prominent answers have been:

  1. Valid apostolic succession and is recognized as conforming to historic doctrines and practices.
  2. Correct doctrine as taught in the Bible and its practices conform with biblical example.
  3. Empowered by the Holy Spirit to find the fullness of salvation in holy living and the exercise of gifts.

“Church” is one of those words that seems obvious until it isn’t. In its most frequent, everyday use, the term refers to a location. A church is a building or gathering place where Christians worship God by means of prayers, hymns, sermons, and sacraments or ordinances. Thus the phrase “go to church.”

The Multifaceted Nature of “Church”

Many a child raised in a churchgoing family has heard the message that this is misleading. The building earns the name church by association. When a believer speaks of “my church,” she usually means her religious community. Itis not a gathering place but the people who gather together, forming an organized fellowship in which the Christian faith is taught, practiced, and passed down from one generation to the next.

This is the primary meaning of the Greek word in the New Testament that our English Bibles translate as church. This word, ekklesia, did not originally have a religious connotation. Literally meaning “called out,” ekklesia was used by the ancient Greeks to refer to the public assembly of a city’s citizens for the purposes of political decision-making. The application of this word to Christian gatherings, which is especially prominent in the letters of Paul, emphasizes that the believer is an active participant in what the church does.

While Paul writes to and about the various churches that he has founded and oversees, there are also times when he and other New Testament writers discuss “the church.” The singular points to some reality that both transcends and includes all the local churches in which Christians live their faith. In English, this definition of the word can be marked by capitalization: one refers to “Church” instead of “church.” For this meaning, the word is universal in scope, referring to all Christians as a single body. Different doctrines and practices divide the Church into three major categories within Christianity – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant – as well as into the smaller categories of movements, denominations, and non-mainstream groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

Relationship Between Churches and the Church

What is the relationship between churches and Church? How does one know that a particular assembly is part of the universal Church?

One answer that arose very early in Christian history emphasizes institutional continuity. The Church is a structured body of believers founded by Jesus Christ and is based on the principle of apostolic succession. According to this doctrine, Jesus appointed his twelve disciples, later known as the apostles, to be the leaders of the faith. As they spread out from Jerusalem to proclaim the gospel, they appointed new leaders in the churches they founded. Those leaders would, in turn, lay their hands on others and mark them out as leaders, forming a connecting chain across time and space.

A major proponent of this view was St. Ignatius of Antioch, a second-century bishop (“overseer”), who argued that no gathering of believers could technically be the church unless a bishop was present and in charge. “See that you do nothing without the bishop,” he wrote. Any independent gathering of Christians apart from the sanctioned leadership was a false church.

Hierarchy and Sacraments

In time, this model developed into a hierarchical system in which patriarchs or archbishops in major cities were responsible for all the Christians in a large territory. Under them served the bishops, each of whom led a set of churches in a smaller area known as a diocese. Each local church was run by a presbyter (Greek for “elder”), which eventually became the word priest for English speakers. The bishops were authorized to baptize new Christians and ordain presbyters. The presbyters were authorized to serve the Eucharist (what many also refer to as “Holy Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper) and discipline believers who had sinned.

With some variations, this is the model of Church one finds today in the Roman Catholic Church, the various Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches, and with greater variation, among some Protestant denominations such as the Episcopalians. For Catholics, the word “Church” with a capital C tends to mean the global institution with the Pope as its head. For the Orthodox and Protestant denominations, the Church has no singular leader, but is considered a “communion” of self-governing bodies with a shared understanding of Christian faith and practice and who recognize one another as representing how the Church should be manifested.

Comforting Boundaries

Historically, this model of Church has been comfortable with clear boundaries. Whoever is a member in good standing of the correct institution has access to the legitimate sacraments (not just baptism and the Eucharist, but others such as penance and anointing of the sick) and the assurance of salvation. Unbelievers and heretics (persons who identify as Christians but who do not belong to the “true Church” or do not believe the doctrines it teaches) are sadly hell-bound. St. Cyprian of Carthage summed up this perspective in the third century: “Outside the Church, there is no salvation.”

This confidence has always been challenged by schisms, or divisions of Christians into competing institutions that each claimed to be, in the words of the Nicene Creed, the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” For many centuries, it was not considered possible that believers in Christ could really be split into various factions. After all, Jesus had prayed in John 17 that “they all may be one.” Paul also stressed the unity of believers when he wrote that there is “one faith, one Lord, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). If some people over there left our Church, it was reasoned that they did so because they never truly believed, or that they had abandoned the true faith. But what to do with the fact that these supposed heretics also confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, practiced the sacraments/ordinances, and had their saints who lived lives of exemplary holiness?

Another Model: Doctrinal Accuracy and Fragmentation

A second major model of the Church came into view with the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther concluded that the Roman Catholic Church was teaching incorrect doctrines. He and other Reformers, such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, sought to correct what they considered false teachings by appeals to Scripture. Because the Catholic hierarchy was not receptive to such corrections, the Reformers abandoned the principle of apostolic succession and dared to found their own networks of churches, each claiming to be a restoration of the true Church.

In this view, each church can be considered part of the true, universal Church because of doctrinal accuracy. A Christian has assurance of salvation because one has been taught, and has assented to, the correct understanding of the gospel. Doctrinal accuracy is maintained by the presbyters, elders, or pastors of the churches, who carefully study the Bible and then agree to shared confessions of faith that demarcate true and false belief. Various networks of churches may be structurally independent but recognize one another as Church because of their common faith, in a manner somewhat similar to the Orthodox churches.

As with the Catholics and Orthodox before them, many Protestants tended to view Christians who belonged to other church organizations as not being Christians at all. The Reformers denounced Catholicism as a pretend Church and its adherents as superstitious and damned “papists.” Catholics, in turn, thought of Martin Luther as mentally insane or demon-possessed, and dismissed Protestants as apostates who abandoned Christ.

Fragmentation and Denominations

Protestantism’s declaration that the visible “Church” had strayed, alongside its commitment to the independent study of the Bible apart from prevailing traditions, resulted in ongoing fragmentation over the centuries. Instead of one Reformation, there were many. Over time, groups emerged with names that we recognize today: Baptists and Mennonites, Methodists and Presbyterians, and more. Frequently, each group understood itself as the properly reformed and truly realized Church. Sometimes, interactions with “heretics” were limited, and “foreign” marriages with outsiders were considered beyond the pale.

Over time, Christians have struggled to reconcile themselves with their seemingly permanent divisions. Protestants came to view their distinct networks not as the Church but as particular expressions of the one Body of Christ that they shared with other believers, despite often deep differences of opinion. The idea of the denomination was born: a group that shares a certain set of beliefs and practices, which is one among many such groups that understand each other to be Christian.

A generous Shift

With the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church also adopted a more generous tone, relaxing the strict identification of the universal Church with the institution that happens to have the Pope at the top. According to official Catholic doctrine, the universal Church “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church but is present in Orthodoxy as well as the “ecclesial communities” of Protestants.

Although there are conservatives in multiple denominations who reject such overtures, Christians now often make a distinction between the invisible Church and the visible Church. The invisible and the universal Church are the same, being the total number of all true Christians – a fact that only God knows. The visible churches include both true Christians and “nominal” Christians, those who are associated in some way with Christians and Christian activity for reasons that may not include “true faith” in Christ.

Visible churches provide communities in which the universal Church may be acted out through reading Scripture, teaching dogma (core truths of Christianity) and doctrine (biblical interpretation), living righteously, and performing the practices Jesus has commanded, such as baptism and the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. Christians increasingly live out their ways of being Church with the humility that no community has perfectly manifested God’s intentions. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the ecumenical movement has brought different Christian groups into dialogue with the hope that they can be reconciled and one day restore visible unity.

A Third Model: Holy Spirit Empowerment and Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement

The continuing divisions of Christianity, as well as the struggle to live what has been preached, have been an impetus for a third major model of the Church, which is found in the rapidly growing Pentecostal/charismatic segment of Christianity. This is the understanding that individual churches are best understood as manifesting the universal Church when believers are open to empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Correct structure and correct doctrine are not necessarily denied, but they are secondary to the lived experience of the Spirit enabling Christians to overcome sin, find healing in body and soul, and witness to God’s power in the exercise of spiritual gifts, some of which we may call “miraculous.”

All Christians believe in the empowerment by the Holy Spirit, they disagree in their how they understand the scope and purpose of the Spirit’s activity. Some in the Church believe miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and fresh words from God ceased once the canon of the Bible was made complete. These “extraordinary” gifts authenticated the gospel when it first began to be preached, and are no longer needed.

Pentecostal and charismatic Christians believe speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, prophetic words, and other seemingly inspired worship practices are normative for Christians. Such believers have both formed their own denominations and have remained in existing denominations to serve as spokespersons for spiritual renewal. For example, large numbers of Roman Catholics identify with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which has the official endorsement of the institutional leadership. Pentecostal/charismatic Christians have rarely understood their new assemblies to be the exclusive, true Church. Other Christians have not been viewed as lacking salvation but missing a deeper life in the Spirit that is available to all believers.

Unity Amid Diversity

Generally speaking, all Christians agree that “the Church” consists of a universal body of believers. Local assemblies are immediate communities in which Christians learn about and live out their faith. These communities may be independent, understanding the universal Church to be invisible, or they may belong to one of many denominations or movements. Depending on their theology, Christians may identify their church as authentic if it has valid apostolic succession, correct doctrine, Spirit empowerment, or even some combination of these characteristics.


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