Home Pastors The Doctrine of the Church: Its Meaning, Members, and Means

The Doctrine of the Church: Its Meaning, Members, and Means

doctrine of the church

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once made the following important observation: “If we do not understand the . . . doctrine of the Church, there is a sense in which all its appeals and exhortations and indicatives will be quite meaningless to us.”

Far too many professing Christians seek doctrinal truths or practical applications of the truths of Scripture for their own personal use without recognizing the fact that God has first and foremost revealed everything in Scripture to the Church collectively considered. But what is the Church? This is a difficult question to answer, since Scripture speaks of the Church in a variety of ways. Sadly, more often than not, individuals have failed to rightly distinguish between the many sides of the biblical teaching about the church. In order to answer this question, we must give a brief consideration to the origin of the word “church,” the different ways in which Scripture speaks of the church, and the defining attributes of the church.

Doctrine of the Church

Defining the Church

The English word “church” comes from a translation of the Greek word κυριακόν. Geerhardus Vos suggested that it “comes from the Greek κυριακόν…‘what is of the Lord,’ ‘what belongs to the Lord.’” In our English Bibles, however, the word ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία) has been translated “the church.” The word ekklēsia carries with it the idea of something or someone being “called out.” Those who have trusted in Jesus have been “called out” of the world by God. The word also carries with it the idea of being “gathered together.” On account of this, the English words “congregation” and “assembly” are translations of the Greek word ekklēsiaThe church is the assembly of the saints who have been redeemed and called out by God in order to be gathered together to worship Him. This definition covers the teaching of Scripture both in the Old and New Testament. In his dying speech, the first New Testament martyr, Stephen, spoke of Moses as the “one who was in the congregation (ἐκκλησία) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians over matters related to the Lord’s Supper, saying, ‘When you come together as a church (ἐκκλησίᾳ)…” (1 Cor. 11:18). From this word, the biblical meaning of “the church” is formed.

Doctrine of the Church: Biblical References

There are a number of titles Scripture employs in order to help us understand the nature of the church. In the Old Testament God addresses the sacred assembly (ἐκκλησία) by the name “Israel,” “the Daughter of Zion” (Ps. 9:4Is. 1:862:11Micah 4:8), “The Daughter of Jerusalem” (2 Kings 19:21Song of Songs 2:7Lam. 2:13Zeph. 3:14), “Jerusalem,” “Jacob” (Ps. 14:753:6Is. 9:810:2127:9Jer. 10:25), “Judah,” “Ephraim,” “Zion,” and “the City of God.” In the New Testament, He refers to the Church as “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27Eph. 4:12), “the bride of Christ,” “the people of God,” “the house of God” (Heb. 3:1-610:21); “the Temple” (1 Cor. 3:16-19Eph. 2:21), “the children of God” and “Israel” (Gal. 6:16). All of these names and analogies have their own specific meanings by which the various aspects of the life of God’s people is represented.

However, in he doctrine of the church, when we seek to distinguish between the different ways in which Scripture speaks of the Church, theologians have used the following four categories: the invisible church, the visible church, the church militant, and the church triumphant.

A biblical view of the church must rightly start with what we might call the invisible church. Eric Alexander has humorously noted, “the invisible church is not that group of people that are noticeably and regularly absent from worship on the Lord’s Day.” Rather, the invisible church is the body of believers who are mystically united to Jesus Christ. Viewed from this perspective, the Church is the totality of the elect on earth and in heaven—those who have been effectually called by God, have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, and are savingly united to Him by faith. This is what the Apostle has in mind when he speak of Christ loving the church and giving Himself for her (Eph. 5:22f).

However, the invisible church appears in time and space as a collective group of professing believers gathered together in a particular locale in order to worship God. Seen from this side, it is right for us speak of the visible church. It is to the visible church—with its God-appointed leaders—that the totality of biblical revelation is addressed (Phil. 1:1Rev. 1:4). The Old Testament was written to the Church-State of Israel. The New Testament epistles are addressed to particular visible churches throughout the world. For instance, the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica. In each of them, God addresses circumstances particular to the life of each local congregation. Each of these congregations consisted of a mixed multitude of professing believers—some of whom were savingly united to Jesus and some of whom are hypocritical in their profession. While the invisible church determines what the church is, there will always be “false sons in her pale.”

Derek Thomas has explained the biblical distinction between the visible church and the invisible church, when he writes,

“In the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the church comprises the “whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof” (25.1). This is otherwise known as the invisible church. In another sense, the church is the body of the faithful (1 Cor. 12:27Eph. 2:21–22Rev. 21:2, 9), consisting of those throughout the world who outwardly profess faith, together with their children (WCF 25.2). This is otherwise known as the visible church.” – (Derek Thomas, “Church”)