The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.
After reading in Grudem and McGrath, and any appropriate Elwell articles, critique Grudem’s definition of the church. Here are your guiding questions: Is this definition adequate for what the church is, in its essence? If so, why? If not, what else should be written for a proper definition of the church? Is there more detail or are there some biblical images which would make for a better, more appropriate definition of the church?
Grudem’s definition: The church is the community of all true believers for all time.
By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.
Indeed, Matthew 18:20 is a perfect starting point for examining the essence of the “church.” Many have quoted this verse throughout church history. Jesus says whenever two or more gather in His Name “[T]here am I among them.” A great secular example of this concept is stated in AA literature, indicating all that’s required to hold a “meeting” is two or more alcoholics coming together to discuss recovery. I am particularly impressed with Miroslav Volf’s statement regarding appearance of the Spirit of Christ (in an “ecclesially constitutive” way) when two or more believers gather. “Constitutive” generally indicates having the power to establish or give organized existence to something. Many theologians throughout church history have started with this concept when defining the essence of the church. Volf warned about the tendency toward individualism in Protestant ecclesiology, saying constitutive is instrumental in understanding what Matthew 18:20 truly means. Volf wrote “there is no reign of God without the church.” He further claims there is no church without the reign of God. This indicates “church” is not merely an institution, location, or building.
Grudem identifies the basic definition of church as “the community of all true believers for all time,” aligning the Old Testament and New Testament context of “church.” The Septuagint often uses the term qāhal to identify church as “congregation” or “assembly,” which can also be used to indicate a summon to assembly. Dispensational theologians hold divergent views on the relationship between Israel and the church. For example, Grudem notes that Lewis Chafer believes God has two distinct plans for His people: (i) Israel for earthly blessings, and (ii) the church for heavenly blessings. The rub here is that God does not have separate purposes for Israel (OT) and the church (NT), rather a single intent—establishment of His kingdom in which Israel and the NT church will share in all His blessings. Grudem says many NT verses describe the church as the new Israel. Stanley Hauerwas addresses the aspect of the church as a community, separate from the world. Emphasis is placed on discourse and interpretation and the sharing of the Christian message with the world. Hauerwas believes “the whole body of believers therefore cannot be limited to any one historical paradigm or contained by any one institutional form.”
Ephesians tells us that Christ loves “the church” and gave Himself up for her (5:25). Obviously, Christ did not suffer and die to protect a building. Paul provides a non-dispensational definition of the “old” and “new” church in Romans 2:28-29, stating, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God” (NRSV). God’s promises to Abraham apply to the entire church or community of believers regardless of historical period or dispensation. The only distinction is “forward looking” faith under the OT and “backward looking” faith under the NT. In support, Paul wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).
The essence of church is not merely institutional or physical; it is spiritual—a continuation of God’s overall plan for salvation and adoption for those who believe in Christ Jesus. As Grudem states, “Abraham is not only to be considered the father of the Jewish people in a physical sense,” but He is also “the father of all who believe.” P.L. Metzger says the church is, “The community of the Triune God, serving as the concrete manifestation of God’s eschatological kingdom in the world.” It is fair to consider “church” to mean a gathering. It is chiefly the “community” of believers gathered in a pattern somewhat similar to political and other gatherings. However, this is not the only meaning of church in the Judeo-Christian religion. Jesus did not reveal a new God but a new way of worshiping the same God. For example, Paul describes the church as a whole and as each local church body. Despite dispensation, denomination, or geographic locale, wherever and however the church meets, it is the whole church. It is holy, in that it is sanctified by God, set apart for a specific purpose; however, it is never to “withdraw into a religious ghetto no longer concerned to save the world.” The church is catholic in that it is full, complete, and lacking nothing. It is apostolic relative to being entrusted with ecumenical teachings of its apostles and establishment of a global set of doctrines that are taught and handed down in a consistent manner. Metzger expresses the importance of “the whole church’s true oneness, holiness, and catholicity, not as an end in itself.” It is responsible for determining proper church governance and for globally mediating the ministry of Christ.
Grudem delineates various metaphors for the church. It is a family—we are brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Tim. 5:1-2); it is branches on a vine—and we are grafted in (Jn. 15:5); it is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:32); it is an olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24); it is referred to as a field of crops (1 Cor. 3:6-9); it is a new type of temple, not build from stone but comprised of believers who are living stones (1 Pet. 2:5); it is a new group of priests (1 Pet. 2:5); believers are referred to as God’s house (Heb. 3:6); it is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-17). Christ is the head, and the community of believers is the rest of the body (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16). The church is witness to the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12). Grudem notes, “The church is the custodian of the kingdom (for the church has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven: Matt. 16:19).” In fact, John Calvin states that the church must possess the “marks,” i.e., the true and accurate Word of God and observance of the sacraments.
In conclusion, I believe the descriptions provided by Grudem are adequate for defining the essence of the church. Grudem provides well-delineated aspects of the church: form, regardless of dispensation; the nature of its ecclesiastic duties; metaphors for the various “operations” of the church; its function under the Old and New Covenants. The apostle Paul smartly explains why the entire church consists of believers under both covenants. Calvin identifies the main “marks” to be demonstrated by the church. Volf warns of the risk of “individualizing” Protestantism if the church is bifurcated in any manner. Jesus assures us that when two or more gather in His Name, He is present among them. Finally, there is no reign of God without the church, and there is no church without the reign of God.  The church is, in every way, a demonstration of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One of my classmates raised an interesting question: Do you believe that some of our Churches have strayed waway from the message of Christ? By this I mean unifying and doing the work commanded for us to do or do you believe that Christ is the head of all churches no matter how they perform as a community?
You’ve raised an interesting question. My first reaction is simply this: I agree that many churches have strayed from the systematically assembled doctrines of Christianity. This is more a failure of human proportions, of course, that it is a chink in the armor of God’s church. When “churches” stray from doctrine and Scripture, it is the people themselves who stray, and not the Body of Christ. “Church” is the manifestation of God’s kingdom, centered in Christ. The Greek word for church does refer to “assembly,” or “sacred gathering.” Services include liturgy and ritual, grounded in sound doctrine. In its missional capacity, it celebrates and participates in sharing the salvation of Jesus Christ
The Church is a temple, a “chosen people,” a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation.” We read in the Nicene Creed that the church is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic (formed and grown according to the teachings of Christ as handed down through the apostles). Perhaps any congregation that fails on a number or, sadly maybe, all of these levels is not part of the church—the Body of Christ. P.L. Metzger said, “For preserving unity, growing in holiness, and accomplishing its mission, the church has drawn from episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational forms of government. No matter the version, most important is determining how the form of church government highlights and mediates Christ’s authority as head of the church to the entire body.”
Because of the foregoing, I do not believe Jesus could be considered the “head” of any body of believers that has drastically strayed from mission, ministry, Scripture, canon, and proper church governance and operation. If it could be (or, worse, had to be) said that Jesus Christ is the head of all churches, even ones that are simply not fulfilling the Great Commission, edifying one another, following church canon that has been systematically developed throughout the history of the church from the Day of Pentecost to today, as handed down through the apostles, then no, I do not believe such a church or congregation is truly a part of the Body of Christ no matter what it says on the lighted sign in the front yard.
 Miroslav Volf, After our Likeness (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), x.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 853.
 Stanley Hauerwas, “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” in The Christian Theology Reader (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 436.
 Grudem. 861.
Stanley Hauerwas, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 436.
 P.L. Metzger, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 183.
 John Calvin, “On the Marks of the Church,” inThe Christian Theology Reader, Ibid, 416.
Calvin, J., “On the Marks of the Church,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed. (Chichester, West Sussex, UK), 2017Grudem, W., Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.
Hauerwas, S., “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” Ibid.
Metzger, P. “Church,” Ibid.
Volf, M., After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing), 1998.