‘The Church’ vs. ‘a church’

The word ‘church’ is familiar to everyone, but you may not have thought about all the diverse ways in which we use it.  And many people don’t appreciate the very special meaning that the word has for Christians.  Let’s talk about the more mundane uses first:

  • A building used for worship: “Turn right at the big stone church.”
  • A worship gathering: “Did you attend church this last Sunday?”
  • A congregation: “My church is planning a special event next week.”
  • A denomination: “I was raised in the Lutheran church.”
  • A social institution: “The constitution guarantees separation of church and state.”

We freely use the word church in all of these ways without any real confusion.  Like many other common words with multiple nuances, we infer the correct one from the context.   And just as with other common nouns, we don’t capitalize the word ‘church’ unless it is being used as part of a title or proper name, like “Emmanuel Lutheran Church.”   In other words, church is a pretty ordinary word in the English language.

But there is one special way in which Christians use the word ‘church’ which is anything but ordinary.   In fact, it is so unique and extraordinary that it warrants being capitalized all by itself because it refers to God’s own singular and unique organization.   This is The Church – the collection of all true believers!  The membership of The Church stretches backwards in time to the patriarchs, and forward in time to generations yet unborn and includes people from every place on the globe and every status of life.

There are many names that have been used to designate this special Church of God’s including “The Church eternal”, “The Holy Christian Church”, the “Church invisible”, and “The One True Church.”   The New Testament often refers to this assembly of all those saved in Christ simply as “The Saints.”

But perhaps the most important New Testament name for The Church is “The Body of Christ.”   Saint Paul makes this identification in Ephesians 1:22-23 when he says:

“And [God] put all things under his feet and gave [Christ] as head over all things to the church, which is his body …”

This image of The Church is particularly powerful in the way it ties all faithful followers of Christ into a single entity that functions as His presence on earth.  St. Paul is eloquent in explaining how all of our differences work together for a common will and purpose.

 “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”      (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

So when we distinguish ‘a church’ and ‘The Church’ we are distinguishing between things created by people, vs. God’s one holy universal (catholic) and eternal Church instituted by Himself.  Those are certainly not the same thing!   But is there any connection?   Well: yes and no.  First of all, every truly Christian church body tries hard to be aligned with The Church – that is, to conform to the teachings and practices most faithful to the Gospel message.  In this sense, EVERY truly Christian church has a place in The Church.  Yet, Protestants as a whole reject the idea that the Body of Christ can be identified with any particular denomination.   It is not our human institutions and allegiances that make us part of God’s Church, but our relationship to Jesus as those who He redeemed.  Thus, though we put our best efforts into making “our church” conform as closely as possible to “His Church,” we are under no illusions that it is ever a perfect match.  And we would certainly never deny that salvation can be found outside of our membership!  Rather, we humbly acknowledge that the only affiliation that ultimately matters is being one with Him.


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