Of course, all of us know that the Bible never refers to a building as a church.
But beyond that, I have found at least three ways the Bible uses the word, and then two other ways I believe we can use the term accurately.
1. The church is sometimes spoken of as a completed people. These are the references where the church being spoken of is made up of all those who belong to Christ of every age and every place.
Some refer to this as the “invisible” church, but that would be slightly inaccurate. The Bible may speak of the entire visible, living church at a point in time. What is important is that that the “whole” or “completed church is in mind. The church is “less visible” to any one of us than it is to God.
We should keep in mind that this sense of the church is always spoken of in relation to Christ- his “body” for instance- or the apostles. This is not the organized local congregation.
When Jesus said “I will build my church,” it was this church he was speaking of. The 144,000 in Revelation 7 are the whole church on earth, while the unnumbered church in the second half of the same chapter is the entire completed church of all times and places. Many references in Colossians and Ephesians are to the church in this completed sense.
All those who belong to Jesus are part of this church, with all its benefits and promises.
2. Church may also refer to all the Christians in a particular location, relation or situation.
Most of the time the New Testament speaks of the church, it is referring to all the believers in a particular city or geographic region, such as the church in Galatia, Corinth or in Rome. No names of individual congregations are ever used other than houses where particular meetings take place. It is obvious that the Christians in an area felt this loyalty strongly.
The Apostles address these regional churches and Jesus does the same in Revelation 2 and 3. It is strange that Christians today almost never use this way of speaking about the church, as a result of out many painful divisions.
The evidence of the New Testament and early church history indicates that bishops presiding over these areas were the key leaders in the church. Seeing a bishop as “your” particular shepherd was basic to geographic identity. These “regional/city” shepherds were in many ways the key to unity.
It is difficult to know how much organization and what kind of boundaries were at work in a regional church. I believe bishops were regional leaders, but there is some evidence that elders and deacons were not only congregational leaders but also exercised authority in a particular geographic area.
For example, in Titus 1:5, Paul tells Titus that his mission was to appoint elders “in every town.” The deacons appointed in Acts 6 seem to have a ministry beyond just the church in Jerusalem, as we see with Phillip.
Other kinds of relationships also stand in the area between the completed church and the local congregation. These may include James or Peter addressing Christians in a particular situation, such as the twelve tribes in the dispersion (James), or particular exiles (I Peter.)
3. Church is also used of individual congregations who meet and function together, usually in a house or a particular place where meals or worship can take place together.
Paul, in Romans 16:1-3, addresses the church that meets in a house. The Corinthian letter also shows us house churches or meetings in a public hall. 2 and 3 John clearly have house churches in mind.
Paul says that the Corinthians leave their homes and come together to eat. Is this house churches coming together as a larger group? Or families coming to a house church gathering?
House churches were most likely the place were elders functioned as “pastors” to individual congregations, but at the same time these gatherings were aware of their connection to the larger church in their city or region, and to the church as completed, Christ-purchased whole body.
In these congregations, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, some baptisms were likely administered (while others may have been larger gatherings), discipline was carried out (see Jesus in Matthew 18) and worship occurred.
The Didache, an early Christian document describing church life in the late first/early second century, seems to be describing a network of house churches with connectedness and unity with those in their area.
It would be interesting to know how much diversity of various kinds occurred from house to house, but it is almost certain that there was diversity on various levels, and as we can see, some divisions.
There are two other senses of church I think are solidly Biblical, though the word itself is not used.
4. Jesus says in Matthew 18, the same chapter where he spoke about local church discipline, that where two or three or gathered in his name, there he is in the midst of them.
I believe this indicates that smaller gatherings, within families, friendships, workplaces, schools, mission/ministry teams, etc., are “the church” in a way that is less than formally complete, but nonetheless true, as Christ promises to be present. The may not be churches or the church, but they are “church” in a true sense in their particular setting.
5. Where one person is isolated, they alone are the church. The Ethiopian Eunuch was “the church” in a very real sense, as is any one of us who find ourselves isolated from other Christians for various reasons.
I’d simply like to suggest that we remember all of these ways of speaking of church are important. As a divided and imperfect church, we all should pray for manifestations of unity and returning to the New Testament’s view of church. But we should also realize that any one of us may find ourselves outside of a local congregation, but still part of Christ’s church and Christ’s mission.
Local congregations are vital to the movement Jesus began. But any one of us may, due to circumstances, events, providence, service or even sin, find ourselves relying less on a congregation and more on smaller groups or the church in an area/city.
We should promote the New Testament sense of church, and be critical- even opposing- forms of church that wind up as detrimental to the pattern we see in the New Testament.