The ‘church’ in NT Greek is ekklésia, which is made up of two words – ek and kaléō. ek means “out from and to” and kaléō means “to call”. Literally, ekklésia means people called out from the world and to God, the outcome being the Church, i.e. the universal or total body of believers whom God calls out from the world and into His eternal kingdom.
There are three sets of concepts of the church that we must know in order that we may know how to love Christ’s church in the right way.
Concept #1: the catholic church and the local Church
This comes from the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Lord mentioned the church only twice, both in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 16:18 He is referring to the catholic church and in Matthew 18:17 He is referring to the local church.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mat 16:18 ESV)
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mat 18:17 ESV)
The catholic church, or sometimes called universal church, are the assembly of people who are justified and saved through believing in the God revealed by the Bible from the time of Adam. Some of them are currently in paradise, some are yet to be born, and the others are still sojourning in the world fighting the spiritual warfare. In other words, the catholic church is all the people living in the past, present and future generations whose names are written on the book of life of God.
The local church is the assembly of believers at a particular geographical location. The catholic church is seen through the local church. The local church, on the other hand, is constituted by the members of the catholic church. Local church may be regional. For example, the Church in Corinth or Minor Asia in the first century; Truth Baptist Church in Singapore in the 21st century; the Churches in the villages in northern Thailand; the Hosanna Baptist Church in Penang. The local church may also be a house church, such as the church in the house of Aquila and Prisca in the New Testament. (1 Cor 16:19)
Reformers have identified three basic marks of a church: the preaching of the word of God, the sacred ordinances of Baptism and Lord’s Supper, and last but not least the discipline of the saints. Without any of these it should not be called a church.
Every local church is a complete church by itself regardless of the size of the congregation. She has Christ as her head, she has the Spirit of Christ working amidst her, and she is a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Ti 3:15). When we talk about the purpose or mission of the church, we are referring to the local church. All local churches share the same purpose, mission and functions: to witness Christ and proclaim the Gospel wherever she is. All local churches share four common functions: evangelism, worship, nurturing and justice or mercy ministry.
The Lord Jesus gave us the concepts of the catholic and local church so that we may know one fact: before a disciple is baptised and becomes a member of the local church, he is already a member of the catholic church. This acknowledgement is extremely important and has direct implications on the individual as well as the local church. To the local church, it means that she has the duty to shepherd any believer who has not been baptized and thus is not yet a member on the church’s register. To the individual believer, it means that I should join a local church to worship the Lord, to fellowship with other believers, and to be fed and cared for by the appointed shepherds so as to grow spiritually. Falling short of that, I will be likened a withered arm, or a crushed foot and Christ’s body will be unhealthy because of me (1 Cor 12:26).
Therefore, all members of the catholic church, that is all true believers of Christ, should be a member of a local church; and all members of the local church should be members of the catholic church. However, quite commonly we see Christians sin and denounce their faith, some of them are even pastors or elders. In other words, there is a disparity between the glorious church presented in the bible and the church in real life. As a result, many believers become disappointed with the local church. Thus, theologians introduced a second set of concepts for the church to explain this phenomenon: The visible and invisible church.
Concept #2: the visible church and the invisible Church
Augustine of Hippo, the renowned theologian in the 4th century, was the first to bring out this concept. He called it the true body of Christ and the mixed body of Christ. Reformers in the 16th century took it further and called it the visible and invisible church. Needless to say, the catholic church is invisible, and the local church is visible. But the differentiation is needed because the local visible church does not fully coincide with the invisible catholic church.
The Bible references of this concept are the parable of the weeds and the separation of the goat and the sheep, both taught by our Lord Jesus Christ.
“But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Mat 13:24-30)
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Mat 25:31-33)
There are wheat and weeds, or sheep and goats in the local church. The weeds and the goats are those who proclaim to be believers but are actually not. In other words, if one looks at the membership register of the church, not every name can be found on God’s Book of Life. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith states it clearly: “the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.”
Therefore, not all members of the visible church are members of the invisible catholic church. What is the proportion of the invisible in the visible church? None of us can tell. But the Lord warns us, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Mat 7:14a)
Let us acknowledge the gap between the visible church and the invisible church and try our best to close that gap.
As an individual, let us not be sceptical about the authenticity of the believers we meet in church but trust that the Lord knows those who are his (2 Ti 2:19). Let us not be disappointed with the church when something bad happens but continue to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. (Phi 2:12)
For the church, let us handle the matter of membership with prudence. Do not carelessly issue membership for the sake of expanding the membership register. Every member of the local church ought to have the true confession of “Jesus is Lord” and the true conviction that “God raised him from the dead” (Ro 10:9) because Jesus said that “on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18) The rock is, of course, not Peter but the confession of Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16)
On the other hand, the church ought to diligently shepherd the believers, encourage them to be doer of the words, to grow in faith and in their relationship with God. Though we do not have access to the Book of Life, the Lord wants us to examine the life of a believer to decide whether to baptise him and include him in the church register, “You will recognize them by their fruits… A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Mt 7:16-18)
Concept #3: the church gathered and the Church dispersed
Every local church exists in two state: the gathered state and the dispersed state. This is because we are called out of the world as a people and are sent back into the world to witness for Christ.
When the church gathers her members in the name of her head Jesus Christ, for example, Sunday service, prayer meeting and fellowship meeting, this is the church in her gathered state.
When the members of the church return to world and serve the Lord by working at their workplace, they are serving the Lord as a dispersed church. As we are the member of the Lord’s body, the church is where we are.
To illustrate, when you use your right hand to help an old lady carry a heavy bag, is it you or the right hand of yours doing good? So whenever you are doing charitable work as a follower of Christ, it is the church dispersed that is doing the charitable work. Similarly, when you are upholding justice at your workplace for the Lord, or comforting the downhearted, or helping a neighbour, or giving to the poor around you, it is the church dispersed that is doing all these.
We usually see this as a personal good work. The concept of the church dispersed elevates it to a higher level of good: it is the local church, in this case Truth Baptist Church doing good in her dispersed state through you. Similarly, when you are sharing the Gospel with a colleague at your lunch hour, it is Truth Baptist Church doing evangelism in her dispersed state through you! O how beautiful is the mystery of the church!
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat 28:19,20)
Read this instruction carefully and we will find that the Lord was speaking to every believer as well as to the church, that is, to the church dispersed and the church gathered. In the book “The Other Six Days” by Paul Stevens, it was mentioned that the church generally exists in her dispersed form for six days and in her gathered form for one day, and thus the influence and impact of believers at their workplace should not be neglected.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us be diligent to seize every opportunity “to do justice and to do kindness” (Micah 6:8) and to make disciples of all nations for the Lord Jesus Christ! Let the good work of the church be seen wherever Christians are, so that the church may be praised and the Father may be glorified.