What is the church? Many metaphors, one reality

As a new believer, I read everything I could get my hands on to help me understand my new faith. Prayer and evangelism. Suffering, salvation, and grace. The nature of Scripture. (And I even read Scripture too!) But I hit a wall when I reached one specific topic: the church.

The issue wasn’t a lack of material. I had plenty to read. The problem was much seemed as confused as I was. Most focused on deconstructing what church is or should be. “Incarnational,” “organic,” authentic,” and “missional” were among the more common descriptors. But for all my reading, I didn’t have a greater sense of what makes the church the church.

So, I went to where I probably should have started. I began studying my Bible to get a sense of how it described this thing we call church. And what I found was liberating.

The church: one people, united yesterday, today, and forever

The Bible doesn’t describe the church the way we often do. It doesn’t describe the church as a specific location or event.1 Instead, in virtually every instance, the church refers to God’s people (for example, see Matthew 18:17; Acts 5:11; 8:1,3; Colossians 1:9).

But these aren’t references to God’s people generically. God’s people are the church when we gather together, and across time and space.

An assembled group of believers, in one place and time

In one sense, the church is Christians who have united together to celebrate and proclaim the gospel in word and deed. Whether in a dedicated building, a school, or a field, they are the church in a specific place and time. Romans 16:16, 2 Corinthians 8:1, and Galatians 1:2 are just a few places we find this truth.

All Christians united across all time and space

Not only is the church a time- and location- bound reality, it is also a universal one. All people who have ever believed the gospel—and will ever believe—are united in Jesus. Regardless of language, ethnicity, or moment in history, all Christians past, present, and future are the church. John 10:16; 17:20, and Revelation 5 all point to this reality.

United in the gospel, even in our differences

Whatever else we want to say about the church, this understanding has to be our first priority. The people of God are the church (2 Corinthians 6:16). Together.

But unity in the gospel doesn’t mean we agree on everything. We do have disagreements on what some might call secondary matters. That is, matters of faith and practice that are not essential for salvation. We can still be united in the gospel and disagree different issues. Approaches to baptism. Who can or cannot be a pastor or elder in a local church. Beliefs about specific spiritual gifts. The same is true of most other issue we use as an opportunity to divide: political preferences, ethnicity, socio-economic status, nationality, and language. These things should not—and must not—be allowed to divide us in our essential unity.

The church is God’s people, uniquely and wonderfully made individuals, united in the gospel, a reflection of the oneness of the Trinity, living as witnesses to God’s kingdom here, now, and throughout all time (Matt. 28:18-20; John 17:20-23).

Many metaphors for the church, but one truth

But this is not the only way the Bible describes the church. Scripture also deepens this understanding by using several different metaphors.

  • The church is the body of Christ, living as Christ’s representatives here on earth, under His authority as the head of the body (Colossians 1:18), and dependent upon one another as we grow in grace and live on mission (1 Corinthians 12).
  • As the bride of Christ, the church is eternally united with Christ our bridegroom (Revelation 19:7; 21:2,9; 22:17).
  • The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, indwelt both individually and corporately, empowered for encouragement and mission, and bearing the fruit that can only be the result of the Spirit’s presence in our lives (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 12:12-13; 13; Galatians 5:22-23).
  • We are a priesthood of believers who may freely and boldly approach God at any time (Romans 5:1-5; Hebrew 4:14-16).

All of these metaphors point to the same truth: we need one another to grow in our faith and to fully express our faith.

We are dependent upon each other in the body and on Christ as the head of the body. And as parts of the body, we all play different roles in its functioning. We are the bride of Christ, united with Christ just as husbands and wives are united in marriage. But as the bride, we are also distinct from the bridegroom (Ephesians 5:22-23). All Christians have the same Spirit dwelling within us. But the Spirit also gives each us gifts that are unique to his purposes for us (1 Corinthians 12:11). We share a calling as a royal priesthood, but we also hear one another’s confessions and pray for one another (1 Peter 2:9).

The dual reality that makes our mission flourish

We are diverse people united as one people in Christ. Both of these things are true. And this dual reality is what allows the church’s mission to make disciples to flourish. We are all equally empowered for the task. We share the same Spirit’s inexhaustible power. And we have one message to proclaim. But we are all called to do so in different contexts and with different gifts to meet the needs of the time and place in which God has called us to make disciples.

This is the kind of understanding of the church I was looking for all those years ago. An understanding that celebrates both the unity and diversity of God’s people—one church and many churches all working together in our shared mission as the church.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in a book I wrote in 2018 called Devotional Doctrine (currently being substantially updated) and was published on The Gospel Project blog in 2020. This post has been revised for style and content. Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

  1. While Scripture does describe the Tabernacle and later the Temple as being central to the worship of the Jewish people, these physical locations are not analogous to the church—something Jesus hints at in John 4.[]

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books for adults and children, as well as multiple documentaries and Bible studies. His latest book, I'm a Christian—Now What?: A Guide to Your New Life with Christ is available now.