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The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5)

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Perhaps the most fundamental term that is applied to the church is that of the people of God. The church is composed of those who are God’s own people. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

At the beginning of the church, the majority of its members were Jews. Their race, culture, heritage and former religion was Jewish. Of course, the term Jew had, and continues to have, the dual connotation of race and religion. However, Paul later wrote to the Galatians that the New Testament people of God, the church, should remember that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The ethnic origin of church members has no bearing on their relationship with God. The people of God are called and chosen by grace, not by heritage or right.

The church becomes the children of Abraham through the righteousness given to Christians because of the saving work of Jesus Christ (Romans 4:6; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:29). Paul called Christians “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Just as God was present with the nation of Israel in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, so He was with His called-together and chosen New Testament church (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ezekiel 37:27). The transition from children of Abraham to followers of Jesus Christ involved trauma and turmoil in the New Testament church. A change in focus from race to grace formed the background for the majority of Paul’s epistles. Many found it difficult to accept a change from righteousness through heritage to salvation by grace.

The watershed event in the conversion of gentiles, those who were not Jews, was the calling of Cornelius. He was a Roman officer, a centurion. He was a gentile, by anyone’s definition. The miraculous story of how God revealed His plan to include gentiles in the household of faith is recorded in the 10th chapter of Acts. God clearly provided supernatural guidance for Peter, leading him to understand that Cornelius was to be accepted as a child of God. Paul further explained, “As He says in Hosea: ‘I will call them my people who are not my people; and I will call her my loved one who is not my loved one,’ and ‘it will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, you are not my people, they will be called sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26).

The church is people, not a corporate body. The church is not a building or a structure. The church is not a multinational institutional conglomerate. The church is people. This does not mean that the people of God should not be organized or that no formal structure should exist. The New Testament gives a basic structure and coherency to the people of God. Unfortunately, the history of Christianity demonstrates that the people of God have often been overlooked, forgotten and even abused by the corporate institution of the church.

The “Ekklesia”

Jesus’ disciples used the Greek work ekklesia to refer to the church of God. The fact that God inspired the writers of the New Testament to use this word is instructive. Until the New Testament writers applied ekklesia to the church, the Greek word was used in a political context and meant an assembly. It did not refer to a religious body. Now the word referred to the people of God themselves, whether they were assembled or not.

Many have broken down the word ekklesia to its two constituent parts and have defined the intended meaning by the etymology of the word. Approached from this perspective, the word means “call” and “out of.” Some have then explained that he church consists of those who have been “called out of the world.” While the fact that Christians are “called out” is biblically correct, the word ekklesia does not have this exact meaning. The word might be better translated “called together.”

So, the members of the New Testament church saw themselves as a called together, chosen people, the people of God. They were the people of God at all times, and not just when they were assembled together for worship services.

The Kingdom of God

Jesus Christ has saved us from the ravages of sin and its consequences (Ephesians 2:5, 8). We have received the Holy Spirit, the seal and guarantee that we will one day inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14; Titus 3:5-7).

Jesus brought the gospel of the kingdom of God. He preached, taught and started that kingdom. It started as small as a mustard seed and began to grow (Matthew 13:31-32). He called His church together “from the dominion of darkness” of this world and brought us into His kingdom (Colossians 1:13-14).

The kingdom is a present reality, a life-support system for those who believe and accept Jesus Christ and His gospel. Christians become part of the kingdom of God on earth. However, Christians experience the kingdom only in a partial sense. The fullness of the kingdom is our destination and our goal. Yet, a foretaste of the kingdom is present now in the Body of Christ. It is this present reality that enables and empowers us to be Christian pilgrims (2 Peter 1:3-4).

Members of One Body

Paul provides a significant metaphor that explains the church and its functions. He tells us that the church is the Body of Christ. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). He explains further, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (v. 27).

This is a metaphor rich with meaning for Christians. It allows for and demands both unity and diversity, cooperation and individuality. No matter how we or others may perceive our function, our individual role is vital to the functioning of the whole. Paul emphasizes the worth of every Christian with the metaphor of the Body of Christ.

In their book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, Paul Brand and Philip Yancey comment on this relationship: “In our Western societies the worth of persons is determined by how much society is willing to pay for their services. Airplane pilots, for example, must endure rigorous education and testing procedures before they can fly for commercial airlines. They are then rewarded with luxurious life-styles and societal respect. Within the corporate world, visible symbols such as office furnishings, bonuses, and salaries announce the worth of any given employee. As a person climbs, he or she will collect a sequence of important sounding titles (the U.S. Government issues a book cataloging ten thousand of them).”

Brand and Yancey continue: “Living in such a society, my vision gets clouded. I begin viewing janitors as having less human worth than jet pilots. When that happens, I must turn back to the lesson from the body, which Paul draws against just such a background of incurable competition and value ranking. In human society, a janitor has little status because he is so replaceable. Thus, we pay the janitor less and tend to look down on him. But the body’s division of labor is not based on status; status is, in fact, immaterial to the task being performed. The body’s janitors are indispensable. If you doubt that, talk with someone who must go in for kidney dialysis twice a week” (pp. 38-39).

It should be encouraging to realize that we have a contribution to make. That we are members of the Body of Christ and that Christ needs us is part of the good news of the gospel message.

The People of God by Greg Albrecht

The church is people, not a corporate body. The church is not a building or a structure. The church is not a multinational institutional conglomerate. The church is people!