Why the Phrase “The Church In…” isn’t Always Clear in Scripture

In the New Testament, when you read the phrase “the church in,” what do you think about?

A specific assembly of Christians meeting in a certain place?

Or the segment of Jesus’ body that was living in a specific town or region (regardless of where they assembled)?

In the post “Separating What is from What Should Be,” I discussed the challenge that I face in properly applying various first century Christian teachings and practices, particularly regarding the church, to today’s world of religious confusion and denominationalism.

In this post, I want to expound upon those thoughts regarding the way we understand the church and use some images that I’ve created to help me. Perhaps they will help you, too.

Today, the way society thinks about “church” is heavily impacted by culture and tradition.

The Christ-follower is challenged to maintain a biblical view of church.

Yet, once we have a strong grasp on how the Scriptures define and use the term ekklesia (church), we are then challenged to apply that concept in today’s world.

Let’s begin with a simple high-level overview of Jesus’ church.

Sinners come to Jesus for Salvation and He adds them to the church

Every Christian has a past, and that past includes sin.

The gospel convicts us of our guilty and lost condition in the eyes of GOD our Creator, Sustainer and Judge.

Then the gospel offers us a solution—Jesus.

We can receive forgiveness and salvation through accessing Jesus’ blood.

When we accept the gospel invitation and die with Jesus to our past life of sin, Jesus adds us to His church.

Jesus' church is worldwide, but Christians live in one location and are called to assemble

Jesus’ church is comprised of spiritual Christians worldwide.

Each of these Christians, however, is physically living in a certain location.

GOD instructs Christians to meet with one another frequently for the purpose of edification and encouragement, to help one another grow and become more like Jesus daily.

In Scripture, the phrase "the church in" has two meanings.

When the Scriptures use the phrase, “the church in…,” there are two possible meanings.

  1. The passage may be referring to all the Christians in a specific location, such as “the church in Judea” or “the church in Samaria.”
  2. In some situations, however, the passage is referring to a specific assembly of Christians, such as “the church in her house.

    Some locations, such as Rome, apparently had multiple assemblies of Christians meeting in different locations. We need to be careful that we don’t assume that the phrase “the church in…” is referring to a single assembly of Christians, or that all Christians in a location met together.

Let's consider a practical example using the fictitious city of Metropolis.

So let’s look at a practical example to illustrate the principle and challenge that we have.

In the fictitious city of Metropolis, there are multiple physical churches (i.e., assemblies of professed believers).

Some of these churches (assemblies) are teaching and practicing a different gospel and thus are not truly part of Jesus’ church.

Others are obeying Jesus’ gospel.

As we drive down the street, we can’t tell the difference just by physically looking at them. After all, Jesus has told us that the kingdom could not be seen visibly (Luke 17:20-21).

Not all churches meet in church buildings.

In addition to the church buildings which are clearly visible from the street, other Christians may assemble in schools, theaters, gyms, or houses.

These congregations may or may not be approved by Jesus as well.

In other words, Jesus’ approval doesn’t depend upon the location of our meeting.

If GOD sent a letter to the church in Metropolis...

If GOD wrote a letter to all the Christians in Metropolis, He might address it “to the church in Metropolis.”

By contrast, if GOD intended it to go to just one assembly of Christians, He might address it “to the church in Bob and Sally’s house” or “to the church that meets at 904 Main Street.”

So, when we read the Scriptures and see a reference to the church in a particular location, we need to be careful to try and properly discern the intent of that reference from its context as to whether it is a reference to all Christians in a location or a specific assembly.

Likewise, we need to try our best to properly apply teachings regarding the church by keeping the first century definition and “model” in mind.

I’ll expound upon this further in future posts.


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