the weblog of Alan Knox

Replay: Defining the Church

Posted by on Mar 10, 2012 in definition | 7 comments

Five and a half years ago (in September 2006), I had only been blogging for a few months. But, I wrote one of my first (of many) blog series tackling the difficult topic of defining the “church” (or ἐκκλησία – ekklesia) from Scripture. Actually, in this series, I primarily looked at a few passages in the Gospels and Acts. But, hey, it was a start.

The first post (“replayed” below) was called “Defining the Church 1 – Matthew 16:15-19.”

It’s interesting reading back through the series now. I would probably say a few things differently, but, for the most part, I think I was heading in the right direction.

Here is the first post in the series. Links to the other posts are at the bottom of this post and each of the other posts.


Defining the Church 1 – Matthew 16:15-19

I plan to post a series that I am calling “Defining the Church.” My desire is to examine passages of Scripture that define/describe the church; and, through that examination, to develop a basic definition of the church.

The first passage is Matthew 16:15-19 –

He (Jesus) said to them (His disciples), “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are several things that we can learn about the church from this passage:

  1. The church belongs to Christ.
  2. Christ will build His church.
  3. The church will be built upon Peter.
  4. Death will not defeat the church.
  5. The church will be granted authority from Christ.

The church belongs to Christ. This seems obvious. Jesus says, “I will build my church.” The community (ἐκκλησία = “assembly, community”) of believers will be the possession of Christ himself. This is demonstrated throughout Scripture, especially when the church is called “the church of God” (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 1:2, 10:32, 11:22, 15:9; Gal 1:31; 1 Tim 3:5, 15; 1 Pet 4:17).

Christ will build His church. Again, Jesus accepts responsibility for building his community. He does not place this responsibility on anyone else. He does not assign this responsibility to anyone else. Does this mean that people play no role in building the church? No. But, it does mean that people must understand their role in relation to Christ’s role. As Paul stated: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase (1 Cor 3:6-7; i.e., 1 Pet 2:5).

The church will be built upon Peter. There are three interpretations of this passage. 1) The church will be built upon Peter who becomes the first bishop of the church. 2) The church will be built upon the confession of faith that Peter makes. 3) The church will be built upon Peter – and others like him – because Peter is a believer and follower of Christ. I believe the third explanation comes closest to explaining this passage. The church is built of believers and followers of Jesus Christ. Again, Paul explains this in 1 Cor 3: You are God’s field, you are God’s building (1 Cor 3:9).

Death will not defeat the church. This is another contested passage. This could indicate that the church will wage a spiritual warfare against the “forces of Satan,” but the church will not be defeated. Or, it could indicate that death (Hades) will not defeat the church, whether death comes naturally or as a result of persecution. The one who dies will not be separated from the church. The church that remains will not be defeated by death or persecution. I believe this latter explanation is most valid. The church is not frail, nor is it on the verge of destruction. The existence of the church is promised by Christ himself.

The church will be granted authority from Christ. I will discuss this and the phrase “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” in the next post.

From this passage, we learn that the church is built and owned by Christ. He builds his church with those who believe and follow him. We also learn that Christ grants some type of authority to the church, and that death will not defeat the church.



  1. Defining the Church 1 – Matthew 16:15-19
  2. Defining the Church 2 – Matthew 18:15-20
  3. Defining the Church 3 – John’s Farewell Discourse
  4. Defining the Church 4 – Acts 1-2
  5. Defining the Church – Implications


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-10-2012

    I believe “ekklesia” might be given more substance than the generic definition often assigned to it as an “assembly,” “gathering” or “community.” It is a special “called-out assembly,” comprised of citizens of the community, that is also “called together” for a special purpose: to address the welfare of the community.

    The parallels to this ancient, Greek city-state concept (still around in some form in Jesus’ day, Acts 19:29ff) which develop in the NT on a higher plane related to Jesus’ followers, I believe, is more than coincidental and informs how we should understand the church and its practices.

    This needs to be underscored in our day. Jesus modeled his church after the Greek “ekklesia” (“summoned assembly” or town hall), not the “theatron” (“place of viewing” or theatre). The town hall represents the church in the New Testament — an open meeting where everyone participates as co-equals, under the oversight and guidance of elders, in addressing the needs of the community. Yet most churches today resemble the theatre — a gathering of mostly-passive spectators watching a staged presentation.

    I would say that Jesus’ Ekklesia might be characterized and defined in the following ways from the NT:

    (1) called out of the world
    (2) to be citizens of Christ’s kingdom (saints)
    (2) to assemble corporately (the church, by definition, is conceived as a collective body, not individuals)
    (4) functioning “in session,” as co-participants & fellow members of God’s royal priesthood & kingdom, to conduct ‘kingdom business’ — teaching & mutual encouragement, fellowship (or sharing of God-given material and spiritual gifts), proclaiming/celebrating & anticipating the full-orbed blessings flowing from Christ’s person & work as represented by His covenant meal (the Lord’s Supper), and the prayers (many kinds of prayers: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication).

    In briefest form, you might say that Christ’s Ekklesia is His summoned saintly session.

    In Matt. 16, Jesus said He would build his church by the spiritual revelation of Himself as the Christ from the Father, through the witness of others, beginning with Peter, with God’s authority and power, which will ensure that it will abide forever. While this began with Peter, it included other “apostles and prophets” of the first-century church, with Christ himself being the only Cornerstone (Eph. 2:20).

  2. 3-10-2012


    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the definition in my final post in this series: “Defining the Church – Implications.”


  3. 3-10-2012

    I think #1 and #2 are two of the most missed points in the church today, eloquent speakers will build a large following, then build a building and take complete ownership of the “church” they build, not allowing Jesus in for ultimate control to move and change and direct as HE sees fit. I think very soon the system of the church is going to come crashing down and Jesus is going to truly take control once again!

  4. 3-12-2012

    Alan, I like your definition of the church. There are complementary facets, of course, of any biblical concept; hence various metaphors are used in Scripture which we can explore and experience in simple and sublime ways.

    I am overwhelmed with gratitude and joy that Christ sought and saved me to become part of His “one flock with one Shepherd” (John 10:16). This is one of the simplest and sweetest pictures of the church.

    The apostle Peter shows us that the richest and purest moments we experience as Christ’s brethren are known both in our Christian infancy, when we initially perceive and confess the greatness and wonder of Christ (Matt. 16:16), and in subsequent growth, when we are able to genuinely rejoice in suffering for Him, which culminates in glory: “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13).

    The revelation of His glory is the ultimate purpose and prize which should guide our pursuits and practices as His people.

  5. 3-12-2012

    Redeem Christianity,

    The difficulty, of course, is that Jesus builds his church through his followers. It can be easy to shift focus from Jesus to those he is using.


    I love all the metaphors!


  6. 3-14-2012

    With respect to your point #3, I heard it suggested one time that the Greek conjunction could also function as a disjunction, to be rendered “Your name is Peter, but on this Rock I will build my church” – with the stress on ‘this,’ contrasting himself (the solid rock) with Peter, the “rock of flesh,” as it were, no more sure than the rest of us.

    I’m not literate in Greek, however. Does this reading have any merit?

  7. 3-15-2012


    The conjunction is kai which is the normal coordinating conjunction.