What the Church Is

September 22, 2011

By Dan Nelson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

Great confusion exists over what the church is. If we understand what the church is and what God wants to do through us in the church, then we can function as the body of Christ. This will help us to grow as Christians.

There are several reasons for the confusion that exists over what the church is. Luther did not get it right in the Protestant reformation. He affirmed the way a person is saved is by grace through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for us, but he retained the invisible church, retained infant baptism, and the Lord’s Supper remained more than a memorial ordinance. Just because non-denominational groups are everywhere does not mean God can not use them. These groups go to visible churches to take up offerings. A recent Christian televangelist said, “Take your money and send it to a spirit-filled church.” The assumption is every believer makes up the church. They comprise the kingdom of God but not the church.

I want to help you understand what the church really is if you will hear with the word of God. I do so that we can be the church as the body of Christ in this community.

These progressions tell us what the church is:

I. The Church is a PEOPLE.

“For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:18).


The church is not a building but a people. It is a living organism. He is the head, we are the body. John was beheaded and he ceased to exist in this life. Christ’s body is people and the head and body should not be severed. The chicken with its head cut off could function but not for long.

I started to entitle this message, “How not to be a Spiritually Homeless person. Some homeless people chose to be where they are but others are forced out and we are to have compassion on them and try to help them. But no born-again believer should be without a spiritual home. If I were to ask you where you lived and you said everywhere, that would be a crazy answer unless you lived out of a motor-home.

But that’s the way many believers are who say they are not members of a local church but members of the invisible one. You are just as much spiritually homeless as one is physically homeless.

The building is not the church. We say we are going down to church. What you really ought to mean is you as a church are going to assemble at the meeting place of the church. We sometimes call the building “the sanctuary.” That actually means a place where endangered species live. The church is not an endangered species. It is marching against the gates of Hell. There are those in society who would like to put the church in a closet or put us out of existence, while bringing out things that should not even been in the closet in the first place.

The early church did not have buildings. So they rightly understood that church was people. Paul reminds them of who they were and what they had become. It is a sign of inclusion instead of exclusion. To be fellow citizens with the saints means that we share common rights and privileges.

The Baptist church is the closest form of government to our own government because of free election on church matters. James Madison went to a Baptist business meeting conducted by John Leyland to see a working model of how our government should operate.


“In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).


To be a church people have to be born-again by God’s Spirit and indwelt by the Spirit of God.

We look at the church page in the newspapers and there are so many churches. God’s Word doesn’t necessarily say that every group that calls itself a church is a church. The true church of Christ brings God’s Spirit into the building where it meets.

We are building together on the foundation of Christ, 1 Cor. 3:9. We are building together. We are not like bricks tossed to one side, charcoal fire burns better together.

I find it interesting we come together for God to inhabit us. God does inhabit the praises of His people. People can come together without the Holy Spirit and God will not be there in their lives. People can meet together in houses called churches and the Holy Spirit in our lives.

God is omnipresent through the Holy Spirit. He can be in more than one place at a time. We are building on the foundation of Christ, Matt. 16:18. The Holy Spirit is the connecting link. The same Spirit that raised Jesus is the one who was in the early church, and who is in us. Acts 2:42; Matt. 28:20.

Each of the medieval cathedrals took more than a lifetime to construct. They were in a building program all the time. God is constructing his churches through us, and he is still building on them.


“In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21).


The church meets at a place at a particular time on a regular basis. It is not invisible but a house made of real people who have been called out of the world. It is not an invisible body but a real one.

There is no such thing as the Baptist church. There is a Baptist church at a certain place. We are not a part of the Baptist church. We are one of many Baptist churches affiliated together for missions, and fellowship. When you say “Baptist Church,” I ask, which one are you talking about?

You can only be at one place at one time. Do you live in a specific address? By the term “universal” we are saying it is everywhere.

Emphasizing denominationalism over a local is the wrong move. I would rather have a church built on the Word than just a big church without any convictions (John 17:17).

It’s like the argument people use against baptism. Someone says baptism doesn’t save anyone so why make it an issue. It’s because I’d rather stand before God baptized the right way than the wrong way.

If everyone is the church as I heard this week, who then is the pastor? What type of government will we have? Where do you meet? When do you meet? Do we emphasize Calvinism or Arminianism?

I believe in doctrinal purity over just shutting our eyes and saying whatever you believe is alright. Many give the impression “Don’t confuse me with the Bible. I’ve already made up my mind.” I’m amazed so many are so adamant on salvation, security of the believer, the Bible, but are loose on the church.

There are three big reasons why I believe the church is local:

A historical reason: Baptists have resisted the notion of a universal church encompassing nations, regions groups, etc. The refused to be forced into a state church they did not want to be a part of. Many lost their lives because being a part of the state church meant that they had to have their babies baptized. They would rather die for their faith at the hands of a state church than violate their consciences and go against God’s Word. You say it’s not that important. It is important because people have died for it.

A biblical reason: The term used in the Bible almost always refers to a local church. Some places it refers to the church as an institution but never as a universal invisible body.

These scriptures help us see the church as local: Acts 2:41, 1 Cor. 12:13. Eph. 2:21. Can you inhabit a spiritual invisible place.

Eph. 3:21: “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”

Eph. 5:30: “For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (Does Christ have an invisible body?).

1 Pet. 2:5: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”

I Cor. 5:3-4: “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ,”

2 Cor. 2:6: “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.”


A commonsensical reason: Do we have a house at a specific address? God has churches at specific places. Some say I don’t want to get that deep into it. It is a matter of doing the right thing, being a participating member of the local church. Would you rather have partial or full obedience to yourself as a parent?

J. M. Pendelton said,

“The churches in those early times were entirely independent, none of them being subject to any foreign jurisdiction, but each governed by it’s own rulers and laws, for through the churches founded by the apostles had this particular difference shown to them, that they consulted in difficult cases yet they had no judicial authority over them no supremacy.”



“And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:20).


The two great purposes of the church are:

(1) The Great Commandment:

“And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:27).

We must endeavor to keep or maintain unity as the bond of peace. God says if you can’t love others you can’t love Me (1 John 4:20-21).

“And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken after; But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Heb 3:5-6).


We have building inspectors that look at houses or buildings. We have fire marshals. God is always checking us out to see how we are doing.

Just because we take a stand for morality does not mean we don’t want certain people in our church. We want them all to come but our textbook is the Bible, not people’s personal opinions. The church does not operate by focus groups but by God’s Word. That is the focus of this group.

(2) The Great Commission:

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matt 28:19-20).


You need to be in a local church because you need a place to practice the Great Commission. The Cooperative Program does just that. You don’t live everywhere; you live in a specific place. He doesn’t say that para-church groups can’t do some of the Great Commission. God’s design is that the churches do that.

The problem is that for the church to be effective it needs to be a verb instead of a noun. We are a verb when we take the gospel to people, baptizing, and teaching. This commission applies until the end of the world, because Christ is always with us. The last group of disciples died before the first century. However, He is with us if we evangelize, baptize and disciple people.

Baptism is an ordinance the church practices as an act of obedience, and it symbolizes the incorporation of the new believer into the body of Christ—the church. How can the church be the church if we fail to do the second thing Christ commanded us to do in the Great Commission?

There is strength in delegation. If you had 12 disciples go bad and even one stays true, you have not wasted your time. There are many things I don’t want to be affiliated with if I am in a universal, invisible church, but the Great Commission is accomplished through the local church.

Why is it important to believe in a local church free from government and ecclesiastical interference?  Felix Manz was drowned in Lake Geneva in 1525. Why, because he baptized believers only and refused to have the babies of his congregation baptized. The law said everyone was in the state reformed church instead of freely letting them chose.

Will we function as the body of Christ in the world today? When we understand who we are and what we need to be doing, we should be Christ’s body whatever we do.

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The Church is visible only when it shows forth the Presence of Our Lord, in a way that is unmistakable for the whole world to see.


When I think of the church in terms of what St. Paul said, I think of two things. First, there’s the local assembly of believers. Then there’s the universal church: all believers of all time. I think we must recognize both definitions.

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