Most people identify a church with a location and building. How does the Bible identify a church? Read Colossians 1:21–23 and carefully notice who Paul is addressing: “And you” (pronoun second person plural) refers to the collective—the believers in Colossae, the church, a particular congregation (ecclesia, an assembly), not individuals and not a building. This collective is identified by the former, present, and future condition of its members. They “once were alienated [from God] and hostile in mind [toward the things of God], doing evil deeds [in disobedience to God]” (v. 21). However, through the gospel, these are “now reconciled in [Christ’s] body of flesh [the church] by his death.” (Note 1:20 where Paul states that Christ is to reconcile all things, making peace by the blood of His cross.) His goal is to present the church “holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (v. 22; Ephesians 5:26, 27). However, there is a condition: “if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (v. 23). Is this a warning to individual believers? That would be a mistake, for it is a church thing. Here is where one must focus if he is to understand the current church problem.
If Christ saves a person, it is forever (John 10:27–30). He cannot fall away. Churches, however, can fall away, as evidenced in Revelation 2 and 3. Congregations can be overrun by false believers, deceived through false doctrine, and infiltrated by false teachers. This has been the problem since the church began. For example, Paul admonished the elders from Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:28–32).
The church is compared to a flock needing care and protection, not a corporation that uses people in order to prosper. The church is a collective of redeemed and reconciled people struggling against sin and rebellion in the slow and painful process of sanctification. The church is a body of people sharing the same burdens in their joint pursuit of holiness. The church is an army of spiritual warriors standing shoulder to shoulder against principalities and powers, striving together and persevering in prayer. The church’s condition depends on God and His grace, not human programs and means. Read again Colossians 1:21–23 and study this passage and learn to think of the church in biblical terms.