The New Testament Definition of a Church

Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt



What is the Universal Church?

Definition: The Universal Church derives its definition from the baptizing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The key verse on this is 1 Cor. 12:13,"by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body." We see from this passage that the church is like the physical manifestation of Christ, i.e., his body. 

Other passages which use the same imagery are Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:11,18,27. The point in all of these passages seems to be that anyone who has experienced this baptism is automatically a member of the body of Christ.

Words used for the church in the New Testament


The word translated "church" in the English Bible is ekklesia. This word is the Greek words kaleo (to call), with the prefix ek (out). Thus, the word means "the called out ones." However, the English word "church" does not come from ekklesia but from the word kuriakon, which means "dedicated to the Lord." This word was commonly used to refer to a holy place or temple. By the time of Jerome's translation of the New Testament from Greek to Latin, it was customary to use a derivative of kuriakon to translate ekklesia. Therefore, the word church is a poor translation of the word ekklesia since it implies a sacred building, or temple. A more accurate translation would be "assembly" because the term ekklesia was used to refer to a group of people who had been called out to a meeting. It was also used as a synonym for the word synagogue, which also means to "come together," i.e. a gathering. "Body of Christ" Since believers have been united with Christ through spiritual baptism, they are sometimes corporately referred to as the body of Christ. (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:11,13,18,27; Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:30) The idea seems to be that the group of Christians in the world constitute the physical representation of Christ on earth. It is also a metaphor which demonstrates the interdependence of members in the church, while at the same time demonstrating their diversity from one another. (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:14-17)

The Temple of God

(1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21,22; 1 Pet. 2:5).

The Jerusalem From Above or The Heavenly Jerusalem

(Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22). Both of these terms (as well as "temple") illustrate how the Old Testament notions of outward sanctuary have been replaced with the literal dwelling of God in his people.

Bride of Christ or Christ's Betrothed

(Eph. 5:25-32; 2 Cor. 11:2). These titles refer to the love and loyalty existing between Christ and believers.

What is the Local Church?

In this discussion exercise, ask the students to describe the scope or area encompassed by each of the following references. The point is that in each reference, the word "church" is in the singular. Since the scope of what is meant by each reference is different, we can draw conclusions about what constitutes a local church.

Discussion exercise:  
For each of the following verses, answer the question: "What geographical area is being described?"

  1. Col. 1:18
  2. Acts 9:31
  3. 1 Cor. 1:2
  4. Rom. 16:5,10,11,14


  1. Col. 1:18 the church throughout the world
  2. Acts 9:31 the church throughout a region
  3. 1 Cor. 1:2 the church in a city (compare 14:34)
  4. Rom. 16:5,10,11,14 several house churches within one city

Question: What are some implications can we draw from these four passages concerning what size or structure a group must have to be considered a local church?

Answers: The word "church" is not a technical designation of a local group of any particular size or structure. Instead, it apparently described any extent of locality under discussion.

Therefore, in answer to the question, "What constitutes a local church?" the scriptural answer is that any part of the universal church which is somehow local can be said to be a local church. We would suggest this holds even down to the level where ". . . two or three have gathered together in my name. . . " (Mt. 18:20) This seems to be Christ's version of what is necessary to have a local church. 

A church of two or three may not be a very good church in that it is not able to fulfill all of the functions that are appropriate for a local church according to the New Testament, but this does not mean that it is not a church. A distinction must be made between that which determines the "being" of the church versus the "well-being" of the church.

The Local Church in the New Testament

While the definition of the local church is based upon our understanding of the universal church, the imperative passages about church life usually refer to the local church (i.e., Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12,14; Eph. 4).

The significance of this is that if we try to apply principles like the inter-working of the members of the body as taught in 1 Cor. 12 to the universal church, we move away from the intention of the author to focus on the interaction of members on each other in Christian community.

Likewise, no structure or polity is given for the universal church except the unifying influence of the apostles who planted the local churches. There is also an example of a council of leaders from more than one local church meeting to resolve differences in Acts 15. We cannot say what the biblical pattern of extra-local church government was, since it is not given.

Optional discussion: It is customary in many theologies to construct a restrictive definition of what constitutes a local church. Sometimes several conditions, such as the proper observation of the sacraments, the presence of duly established clergy, a formal government, and ministry to all ages are given before a group can be called a church. What might be the motive for constructing such added conditions?