My Three Churches: The Church in the New Testament

A few days ago, Mike Bergman asked the question, “What is a Church?” His post and the good discussion that followed put me in mind of a post I did some time ago at sbcIMPACT.  I thought it might be good to update and repost that article.

For a couple of years, when Baptist Identity bloggers were much more active than they are today, the subject of ecclesiology was one of the most hotly debated topics.  BI adherents focused almost entirely on the local church and some even questioned the present reality of the “universal church” – even calling it illusory or imaginary.  Those who give more credence to the existence and importance of the universal church often view that group as separatist, divisive, exclusivist and elitist. There were some pretty intense discussions and some strong words exchanged.

These discussions have died down, but the issues are still important.  The question I would like to address in this post is simple:

What does the New Testament mean when it uses the word “church?”  Does the way the NT uses the word support those who give little credence to the universal church, or does it support those who value it more highly?


My methodology was relatively simple.  I fired up the Logos software and identified every reference in the New Testament for the word ekklesia and its variants.  I lay no claim to the scholar’s mantle, nor am I an expert in historical theology.  I just went through every NT reference to the church and asked this question:  what is in view when the word “church” is used?  Does the author have the local church in view or the universal church?

I would like to share my observations with you.  I would encourage you to do something similar – get a concordance or a Bible software and observe the setting of the word in the Word.  I am amazed at how often we argue theology by quoting historical figures or quoting key the0logians.  Ultimately, theology is derived from scripture (or it should be).  So here are some simple observations of the use of the word “church” in the NT.

Thesis: I found that there are three common and distinct ways in which the word “church” is used in the New Testament.  In the original post (and I have kept the title above) I referred to them as three distinct churches.  David Rogers challenged me that they are not so much distinct churches as different iterations of the one church of God. His point is well-taken.  These are three manifestations of the one church.  The first use of the word is the one most commonly used.  The second has fewer references and the third is the least frequent reference.

What Isn’t There

There is obviously no instance in which the term is used to describe a building or structure.  Of course we all know that, but yet we still feed that mental picture of the church as a building, an ecclesiastical organization or an institution.  Even evangelical Christians, who should know better, fall into this unhealthy pattern.  I tell my wife, “I’m going to the church.”  I know very well that the building at 4301 Old Lakeport Road is not the church.  Its not the “house of God.”  But I continue to use that unfortunate phrase.

I think we need to watch our terminology more closely.  Its not just a harmless semantic point.  When we use the word church to describe a building or a religious institution, we are feeding a false view of the Body of Christ.

My Gathered Church

Most references to church refer to the gathered saints – called from the world into fellowship, worship and service to the King. The “local church” is far and away the most common church mentioned in scripture.

I will take instruction from someone more knowledgeable in church history than I, but my understanding is that the saints gathered in homes around their city. The Jerusalem church was at 5000 people early on in Acts, and there is no way they all met together. All over Jerusalem, churches gathered in homes or wherever they could find to meet to worship the Crucified and Risen Lord and be discipled. At least 4 times I can find, a specific reference is made to a church that meets in a particular home – the basic unit of “the church.” Romans 15:5 references the church that meets in Prisca and Aquila’s home. In Colossians, a church met in Nympha’s home (Col 4:16). Philemon 2 also mentions a house church as does 1 Corinthians 16:19.

A church seems to be a gathering of believers. In 1 Corinthians 11:18, Paul gives instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper. He says, “When you come together as a church.” He also gives instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14 on the role of women in worship and the use of tongues and prophecy. All of these seem focused on the church gathered for worship and edification.

As I said, it seems clear to me that the vast majority of references to the church referred to a gathering of God’s people. I found very little instruction on issues that we spend much time arguing. There is little on could find on the qualifications for membership or the administration of baptism or communion. Scripture discusses their meaning, but has precious little I could find about the means of observing them.

My Geographical Church

This is what I focused on in my last post. There are many references in scriptures to “the church” (singular) in a city. The church at Ephesus. The church of Corinth. The church of the Thessalonians. There seems to be a sense in which all of the individual churches that meet in a particular town are also seen as a single entity.

It is interesting that this is not true of regions. 1 Corinthians 16:1 (and Galatians 1:2) mentions the churches of Galatia. 2 Corinthians 8:1 speaks of the churches of Macedonia. 1 Thessalonians 2:14 speaks of “the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.” In a region, there are churches. In a city, there is one church. And yet, each home gathering of believers is also a church.

I believe that God sees the church in a particular city as a unified whole.  This is sometimes called the  “city-church” principle.  There is one church in Sioux City.  It meets in different buildings, worships with different styles, has some divergent beliefs and practices.  But all churches in Sioux City that hold to the gospel of Jesus Christ are part of one geographical church – the Church of Sioux City.

How does the city-church work? How can Baptists and Assemblies and Wesleyans and Presbyterians all see themselves as one church.  It is possible that we will never attain the biblical ideal on this, now that the church has diverged so much doctrinally and no longer has apostolic authority to guide it. But I do not think that the difficulty in achieving this kind of mindset should stop us from striving toward the ideal.

I have seen what I think is a model of this concept. In Cedar Rapids, I was pastor of one church, Northbrook Baptist Church. But we had very active and wonderful fellowship amongst the churches. We met for fellowship, we prayed for one another, we engaged in shared ministry projects. In the most difficult time of my ministry there, the prayer of my fellow pastors carried me through. Most importantly, perhaps, we blessed one another with our words.  We viewed ourselves as partners in ministry. While we maintained our separate churches with different convictions and styles, we also viewed ourselves as part of a whole, part of something bigger than simply my local church.

It is kind of nebulous and hard to describe. I can only tell you that I was once involved in a city-church, and it was a great blessing.

My Greater Church

If a Baptist preacher does not alliterate his points, the Baptist police issue a citation.  So, I called the “universal church” the “greater church.”  Alliteration regulations fulfilled, we will return to use of the proper term.  The Bible makes it clear that there is a real and important universal church.  There are several passages that  clearly refer to that “imaginary” universal church – all the redeemed of all the world and all the ages.

Paul told the Corinthians “We were all baptized in one Spirit into one body and given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Since Paul was not baptized into the local church at Corinth, there had to be something bigger than a single local church in view here.  In that same chapter, verse 28, Paul says that God appointed in “the church” (singular) apostles, prophets, teachers and so on. But, there were not apostles in each local gathering, were there?  Paul is speaking of the whole church, not any individual part of it.

I found two markers for the universal church. Every time the phrase “the church of God” appears it seems to be refer to the universal church. (1 Corinthians 10:32, Galatians 1:13, 1 Corinthians 15:9) It also seems that the phrase “the body of Christ” points to the church universal. Ephesians 1:22-23 talks about how God made Christ “head over all things to the church, which is his body.” Colossians 1:18 says that Christ is “the head of the body, which is the church.” In Colossians 1:24, Paul talks about his sufferings and how they relate to “Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Perhaps the clearest references to the universal church come in the controversial discussion of husband/wife relationships in Ephesians 5:23-33. It seems clear to me that the church there is universal more than it is local.


So, in a sense, everyone is right!  The greatest emphasis is on the local, gathered church, meeting for worship, fellowship, discipleship and ministry.  But the geographical church and the universal church are not ignored in the NT.  They are all important concepts.

I am a part of Southern Hills Baptist Church.  I am a part of the Church of Jesus Christ in Sioux City.  And I am part of the company of the redeemed in all the world and all the ages.  They are not really three distinct and separate churches, but three earthly manifestations of  the one true church of Jesus Christ.


  1. Dave Miller says

    I mentioned in the “Grinch” comment stream how much the blog world has changed. A year or two ago, ecclesiology was the hottest topic out there. Now, not so much.

    But I think that we always need to be refining our view of the church according to biblical standards.

  2. says

    I’ve not ever understood why some people deny the doctrine of the universal church, some of the passages on the church just don’t make sense w/o it… like Matthew 16:18…

    One thing I’m not sold on is the distinction between the city church and house church. Most churches in the NT time, it seems, are referred to by the city, and only a small few by a person’s house. With the lack of more references to the house church, I’m not convinved that the city church was divided into distinct house-congregations.

    I’ll agree that the city-church, especially when it numbered in the thousands, might have issues meeting together as a unified whole…but in the gospels Jesus did meet w/ thousands on hillsides and in Acts 2, they met not just in houses but attended the temple… I guess that begs the question (and I have no answer): how big were those temple gatherings and what were they like?

    I’m just in the line of thinking that house churches were their own entities for whatever reasons…

    • Dave Miller says

      Here’s my thinking on this. Many of the references to “church” clearly refer to the gathering of the church for worship – which I understand took place primarily in home fellowships.

      I agree with you about the universal church, but both the Landmark Baptists and some in the SBC BI group were pretty strong in their denials of the reality of the universal church.

    • Frank and Larry says

      I guess when I think of the “universal church” which is mentioned, but only in a very few instances in regard to “church,” I ask: “How’s the idea of a universal church help me serve the Lord as a believer?”

      The overwhelming majority of passages talking about “the church” refer to flesh and blood gatherings. The idea of a “city church” lacks sufficient support from Scripture. There is no indication whatsoever that large crowds (1000’s) gathered together for worship on a regular basis.

      While I believe in the idea and doctrine of the universal church, I do not see how to apply that doctrine to “doing church.”

  3. Joseph M. Smith says

    And the interesting thing is that none of the uses mentioned is equivalent to what we today call a denomination or even a family of like-minded denominations. So we do not speak of The Southern Baptist Church, and a few years back, when the American Baptist Convention was changing its name, there were some who want to name it The American Baptist Church. But more ecclesiologically proper heads prevailed, and the new name became American Baptist ChurchES.

    By your definitions, it would seem, it is improper for other denominations to call themselves “churches” … e.g., The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, etc. Neither local nor city-clustered nor universal.

    • says

      I would not call a denomination a “church.” I think your suppositions here are correct.

      However, I am publishing a series called “Brick Walls and Picket Fences”.

      In it I describe Christianity (gospel-based Christianity) as a city. This community of faith is comprised of many homes – the local churches. I guess, taking that analogy forward, the denominations might be neighborhoods. “Baptist Heights” and “Methodist Pines.”

  4. Gene Scarborough says

    I think your designations are accurate. Our problem with biblical references is that they deal with a time of church infancy. At the time most followers of Christ were under persecution and had to meet in secret places like the catecombs.

    If you met in a house, you were subject to being caught and arrested / killed. The NT letters dealt with problems and groups who were straying from the main course the Apostles and Paul knew personally.

    Is it not interesting how anything established on simple terms of “a group of believers in Christ” does not take that much time to diverge over personalities and differing minute details of theology. Add to this–cultural differences–and you have a basis for a divergence between one group and another.

    In modern days we seem to have such. I live in an interesting part of NC where Baptist churches are not that plentiful around Beaufort County. In this setting the Church of Christ is as plentiful as Baptists are elsewhere in NC.

    The history of most of these churches is some family or community base. People went out to establish a new church when they could not get along in the previous one. In most cases you end up with 1 or 2 prominent families which may or may not get along. If a minority get run over often enough, they just go out and start something new.

    I suspect that is the most basic motivation from the beginning = how you socially get along. Even though you share the same theology, the social structures enter in. It was certainly true of Jesus and the Disciples. Of the 12, Peter had the strongest personality. John was another strong one. Matthew, Mark, and Luke got their place as they gave witness in a Gospel bearing their name. None of the 4 Gospels are exactly identical in content and the differences can be explained by background and interest.

    Paul is another matter. Starting as a persecuter of Christians, his Damascas Road experience put him in competition with Peter. From this comes debate over whether a Gentile must become a Jew to be a follower of Christ.

    I think Satan loves dissent and personality conflict. Jesus’ greatest anguish outside the cross was with fussing and fignting between his most immediate followers. With such came his warning that “anyone harming one of these children (actual or spiritual) would be better to have a millstone tied to his neck and cast into the middle of the sea.”

    I think we can safely conclude that in the Early Church there was tension and difference almost from the beginning. In 3 years of Jesus and the 12 going about doing good, there was personal tension and an imperfect control of ego and personality.