"I went to Jerusalem to become acquainted (Gk. istoria) with Cephas" - Paul's words from Galatians 1:18.

The Definition of the Church

At the heart of the issue for all of us within the Southern Baptist Convention who have a heart for missions and church planting is the definition of the "ekklesia," or as it is in English "church." Unfortunately our English word doesn't come close to the meaning of the Greek word. Ekklesia is a compound word which means "called out." The "church" is simply those in the world who have been called out by God's grace to faith in Jesus Christ. If a person considers the church "it" instead of "they" then that person's Biblical thinking about the church is already lost. For a better understanding of "ekklesia" the article by Baptist theologian John Reisinger entitled The Ekklesia would be a great place to start.

The International Mission Board has given an official definition of a church. The following information comes from Board approved policy . To help us consider the church as people rather than "an institution" it might be an interesting exercise to place the phrase "called out people" as a synonym for the word church. Could it be that problems arise when some see the church as an institution and others see "them" as a "called out people?"

CHURCH DEFINITION AND GUIDELINES Approved by the Board of Trustees in January of 2005

Bob Pearle moved that recommendation on Church Definition and Guidelines be approved. This recommendation was approved. (Following the trustee meeting, grammatical changes were made and the following is the corrected copy.)

The definition of a local church is given in the 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message:

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.


We believe that every local church is autonomous under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His inerrant word. This is as true overseas as it is in the United States. Some churches to which we relate overseas may make decisions in doctrine and practice which we would not choose. Nevertheless, we are accountable to God and to Southern Baptists for the foundation that we lay when we plant churches, for the teaching that we give when we train church leaders, and for the criteria that we use when we count churches. In our church planting and teaching ministries, we will seek to lay a foundation of beliefs and practices that are consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, although local churches overseas may express those beliefs and practices in different ways according to the needs of their cultural settings. Flowing from the definition of a church given above and from the Scriptures from which this definition is derived, we will observe the following guidelines in church planting, leadership training and statistical reporting.

1. A church is intentional about being a church. Members think of themselves as a church. They are committed to one another and to God (associated by covenant) in pursuing all that Scripture requires of a church.

2. A church has an identifiable membership of baptized believers in Jesus Christ.

3. A church practices the baptism of believers only by immersing them in water.

4. A church observes the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.

5. Under the authority of the local church and its leadership, members may be assigned to carry out the ordinances.

6. A church submits to the inerrant word of God as the ultimate authority for all that it believes and does.

7. A church meets regularly for worship, prayer, the study of God’s word, and fellowship. Members of the church minister to one another’s needs, hold each other accountable, and exercise church discipline as needed. Members encourage one another and build each other up in holiness, maturity in Christ, and love.

8. A church embraces its responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission, both locally and globally, from the beginning of its existence as a church.

9. A church is autonomous and self-governing under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of His Word.

10. A church has identifiable leaders, who are scrutinized and set apart according to the qualifications set forth in Scripture. A church recognizes two Biblical offices of church leadership: pastors/elders/overseers and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.


Baptist Bro said...


I have no Landmarkist sympathies, but I am troubled to see Reisinger and others hang their hat on the definition of Ekklesia as “called out ones.” This is supposedly based on a “literal” translation, based on the supposed etymology of the word. It is a fallacy to think that the definition of a word necessarily depends on its etymology. Take the English word “understand” for example. When you say “I understand you,” are you saying that you take an upright posture beneath that person? Of course not, but that is what the etymology of the word would suggest.

Moises Silva, Donald Carson and others have written on this fallacy of derivation that won’t seem to die. Please don’t be a part of perpetuating it.

Wade Burleson said...

Thanks Bro for your comment.

It is not only the etymology of the word that gives us the understanding, but the context of Scripture and the grammatical use of the word. Church ALWAYS represents people in the Bible, not an institution --- ever.

You may disagree, but I would prefer proof from Scripture.

Anonymous said...

Church definitions and guide lines seem pretty straight to me. My concern might be with your foreword to them. What problems arise? You say if some refer to it as an institution which means "an organization having a social, educational or religious purpose" Is not that what called out ones do? We are not invisible. I am not trying to be argumentative but somehow I am sure that any mature Christian knows where the word "church" comes from. Where are the problems?

Been there, done that. said...

Interesting. I didn't see anything about having the word "Baptist" in the name or on the sign in the definition or in the guidelines. But I did see a lot about Great Commission Christians (GCC) in the guidelines that were given back in 1995 when the IMB moved to its current program.

John Moeller said...

I learned as a child;

Here is the door, here is the steeple, open the door and here’s all the people.

If it’s not the people, then it’s just a big building where all the chairs face the same direction….

in•sti•tu•tion n A place for the care of persons who are destitute, disabled, or mentally ill….. Yep, that describes it.

GuyMuse said...

Could it be that problems arise when some see the church as an institution and others see "them" as a "called out people?"

As you say, "defintion of church" is at the heart of the matter. Whether one views the church as an institution, or as a "called out people" will pretty much determine how all the other interrelating issues mesh.

I personally see that both expressions/definitions of church are alive in today's world. The problems seem to begin when we try to force one defintion over the other as the only way of defining a NT church.

This has been our trouble on the mission field as well where those national brethren who understand "church" to be an institution, reject those expressions of NT ekklesias being planted that are non-institutional.

Jeff Richard Young said...

Dear Dr. B,

Thank you very much, sir, for prompting and hosting this discussion, which is very important for our denomination.

I'll chime in with Baptist Bro. "Called out" may be the etymology of the word, but the part of the meaning that operates in the word "ekklesia" is the fact that the "called out" ones have been called out to assemble. Therefore to say that the church is those who have been "called out" is weaker than to say that the church is those who have been "called out to assemble" or "called out to form an assembly."

I'll give the proof from scripture that you desired of him at this point. Jesus said, in Matthew 18:17, "tell it to the church." He does not mean that you should go to each person who has been called out, but that you should go to the assembly of those who are called out.

Another point: When the BFM or the IMB gives several elements that define a church, does this mean that if any of the elements is not present, the group is not actually a church? Or does it just mean that all of these elements SHOULD but do not HAVE TO BE present in order for a group to be a church.

For example, does a church that meets all other items in the description, but that does not govern itself under democratic principles, but instead under the authority of the pastor or a group of elders constitute a church?

Love in Christ,


Baptist Bro said...


'Church' does indeed always refer to people, not an institution. But the point has been pressed by Reisinger and by you that it means 'called out ones,' when in fact the usage of the first century, including the NT authors, supports the translation 'congregation' or 'assembly.'

Villa Rica said...

Brothers All,

Could a church be a grouping of hungry people that found BREAD and were strengthened by said grouping and BREAD in order to go out and tell other hungry individuals where to find the BREAD?

LivingDust said...

Brother Wade,

This proposed definition of a church does not once (not one time!) specifically mention God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. Kindly advise the folks that wrote this "definition" to try again and this time recognize the role of the Holy Spirit and God the Father in the "church".

Villa Rica said...

Brother Livingdust,

I am sorry that you were offended by this simple definition. I was actually just making a point about the function of a N.T. church.

I just assumed that anyone posting on this blog would have the understanding of biblical theology to know that God the Father and God the Holy Spirit were, are, and always will be in perfect harmony with God the Son (THE BREAD--John 6) as relating to the church.

Again, my basic purpose was and is to speak to the functions of discipleship and evangelism in the body. My statement is correct in relating to both the universal and the local church.

Both the church universal and the church local are made up of people making it a living organism, ordained of the Father, redeemed by the Son, empowered by the Spirit to glorify the Father by faith in the Son, exercising the gifts of the Spirit to reach a lost world by holy living and open expressions of the gospel to the ends of the earth till the return of Christ to claim His Bride which is the afore mentioned universal church which is comprised of all true local churchs which are ultimately comprised of individuals that are washed in the Blood of the Lamb which was slain before the foundation of the world.

Naturally, all of the above happened in perfect accord due to the absolute unity of the Trinity.

Again, forgive my simplicity about the church function of one fed begger telling another hungry begger where the BREAD is.

Villa Rica

blampp@juno.com said...

I get the idea from our discussions that anyone who see's a predominant useage of ekklessia as being a visible "called out group" is Landmark. Does that infer that anyone who see's the predominant view as universal is Romanist? Out of the thirty four uses with various plural endings, the translator's of most Versions used the plural English to describe what seems to be best described as "covenanted congregations" gathering in specific locales. Many of the singular uses, are specified to a particular location? It appears to require a real stretch of the imagination or a little iesegesis for Riesinger to reach his conclusions leading to a general grouping as universal in scope.....
Yeah, I know, I seem to have "gone to seed" (that suggests overly mature or even rotten) but it still seems to reflect Jesus' use of "Kingdom" as a better descriptive word of choice!

Theophilus said...

Isn't it amazing how we can get so bogged down with words as if it has no application to real life? Here's another one of those scholarly sounding Greek words--koinonia. My understanding of the definition of this word is intimate fellowship or community. Scriptural metaphors for church are of a body and a building in which each member has a vital and necessary role as a part of the whole.
We can easily get lost in American, or Western, or Southern Baptist cultural understanding of church and lose sight of the Kingdom Culture definition. This is a HUGE danger on the mission field and has been for centuries. The story goes that in China in the 19th century it was said that when a Chinese person came to Christ, "one more Christian, one less Chinaman" because the churches being planted by missionaries were very Western rather than Chinese. I see this still happening today in the part of the world we serve (not by the IMB, of course, but that is the danger if we are not careful!). Please, let's don't get lost in argumentative academia yet again. Our goal must be to plant local expressions of Kingdom Culture, ones that obey both the Great Commandments and the the Great Commission in ways understood locally. Millions, even billions, of lives are at stake. Let's keep our eyes on the Prize!

Anonymous said...

We use a very simple, yet effective and Scriptural definition that has led us well...A church is a group of people, who recognizes themselves as the Body of Christ and act as such.

Maiden said...

When does a Bible study become a church? Do you believe a Bible study is a church? Since Would it be best to start 5 Bible studies or churches with 3 people or 3 Bible studies with 5 people? 5 Bible studies makes the annual reports look better.

Bob Cleveland said...

I had to laugh when I read this:

"A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, EXERCISING THE GIFTS, RIGHTS, AND PRIVILEGES invested in them BY HIS WORD." (Emphasis mine).

So it is God who determines the gifts, and it seems that the church would be obligated to exercise them.

I guess what it says about churches on the field not being SBC is true.

I am willing to bet that it has happened that SBC missionaries, who were without the gift of other tongues, have started churches in the field, into which God has dropped that gift. How could the IMB then have any relationship with that body?

The really funny thing was that, when I read that paragraph, my first thought was of George Orwell's line that "All animals are created equal, but some are created more equal than others".

Wade Burleson said...

Good discussion one and all.

I believe the IMB must come up with a good working description of a "local church" and I think we have done a pretty good job of it.

My concern is simply that we NOT forget the church is people not an it.

That's all.

Also, Rex, you make some good points but I could not post your last comment. Way to personal and derogatory. I am trying to focus on issues not personalities.


Paul Burleson said...

Wade, check me out on this but I thought in Matt. 18 there was, as of yet, no regularly functioning assembly of the church. Could it be that this is a reference to a called out group [which the word means] of your choosing, ie call out a group and tell it to them?
Is it not also true that the one and only place a word is used indicating a "place of assembly" is in Heb.10:25 where "assembling" is used which is the word from which we get "Synagogue"? It is not Ekklesia there. It is the only reference that indicates the gathered place. So....would this not indicate that the concept of Ekklesia meaning called out people is FAR MORE PREVELANT than the idea of the place where they assembled?

Just some questions I thought might need to be looked at. We all agree that called out ones assemble. But the assembly place or even group assembled were not the recipients of the Great Commission it seems to me, but the "called out ones" themselves. ALL OF THEM.

This may be of no significance but I'd rather send it to you than to the comments. Great stuff you're posting. Keep it up.


Wade Burleson said...


No need checking it out. As usual from the top of your head more is said than most with a week of research! :)

Wade Burleson said...


I really like your simple definition.

Wade Burleson said...

Baptist Bro.

In secular usage of the word ekklesia I agree with your assessment.

In the context of Scripture the called out were "called out" by God's grace into a "body" of believers called "the bride of Christ," "the elect," etc . . .

This does not negate a local ekklesia, but it simply means the local ekklesia is only a part of the entire ekklesia or "kingdom" of God.

An understanding of this I believe keeps us from being isolationists from other evangelicals.

LivingDust said...

Brother Villa,

Thanks for your reply to my observation. You are correct in assuming that most of us on this blog are aware that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were, are and will always be in perfect harmony. But I stand by my position that the definition should be changed to add a clear reference to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The words you wrote would be an excellent addition - "made up of people making it a living organism, ordained of the Father, redeemed by the Son, empowered by the Spirit to glorify the Father by faith in the Son".

knnuki said...

This definition of "church", though understandable, is far more restrictive than scripture is. If we are to honor God, shouldn't we be specific where scripture is specific, and vague where it is vague? Scripture should guide us, not vice-versa.

Neil Cole would say church, in its simplest definition, is "the presence of Jesus, working in the world among His people." Sounds pretty good to me and does not, as far as I can tell, violate any scriptural mandate.

Greg Cloud said...


I like Brother Villa Rica's description of a church--one fed beggar telling another hungry beggar where to find the bread. It goes not only to form, but also to function.

A church is like a hospital. It is a place where the sick and injured of spirit go to find rest, encouragement and healing. How dreadful it is that we all too often are not. It has been said that the Christian Army is the only army in the world that shoots its own wounded. We are often quick to judge, and quick to exact some form of punishment. We take our victims of sin and cast them out of fellowship, when it is love, fellowship and encouragement that they need from true christians to pull them out of the grasp of sin. Oh, me.

Love in Christ,


Shoshana L said...

11 Timothy 2:14-15 (Amp.)—

14 Remind (the people) of these facts and (solemnly) charge them in the presence of the Lord to avoid petty controversy over words, which does no good but upsets and undermines the faith of the hearers.
15 Study and be eager and do your utmost to present yourself to God approved (tested by trial), a workman who has no cause to be ashamed, correctly analyzing and accurately dividing (rightly handling and skillfully teaching) the Word of Truth.

Church. I think we all know in our hearts who the church is.

But let us consider. As the church, we are the Body of Christ. We are not our own. We belong to Him.

And if we belong to Him and are not our own, then the work belongs to Him and to Him alone.

He is the head. He is the One who holds everything together. He is the One we hold fast to, the One “from Whom the entire body, supplied and knit together by means of its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”

This thing that we do—delivering the Good News of the Gospel—is all His work. We do not control the work. We surrender to Him, and He does the work through us. We get to be co-laborers with Him.

He draws us, He saves us, He cleanses us, He regenerates us, He adopts us, He indwells us, He seals us, He baptizes us, He fills us to overflowing, He empowers us, He gifts us, He equips us, He matures us, He calls us, He sends us…

It is all His work. In fact, WE are His work.

And consider this: It takes an entire work of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to save one sinner!

This is a marvelous mystery that even the angels wonder at.

This makes it so important that we do not try to control God’s work--that we do not “handle the sacred things.” We must not handle or institutionalize or force man’s multiplied restrictions upon what God has given to us so freely for the salvation of others.

It takes a certain amount of organization, yes. It does take leadership and “follow-ship.” But more than anything, it takes a very… light… touch.

I was just reading this morning in Colossians 4 how Paul was asking them to devote themselves to prayer and to alertness, praying “that God may open up to us a door for the Word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned.”

Let’s see…alertness to prayer…that God may open the door….for the speaking forth of the Gospel…for which believers must be willing to sacrifice…

God is trusting us with so much.

We have doors before us that God has already opened and servants willing to walk through those doors. Let’s release them and trust Him, and see what our God will do!

Anonymous said...

Did you notice the definition of a church in the BFM has 451 words, and the added guidelines have 588? Do you remember they started with Ten Commandments and had over 600 when Jesus was born? The additions were made by Pharisees. Case closed.
Correction: God gave the Ten, but who gave BFM 2000?
Rex Ray

Anonymous said...

In the BFM 2000 definition of Church, the words that jump off the page is “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” But the words that sneak up on you are “…Church…is…GOVERNED BY HIS LAWS.” Since the BFM 1925 had the same words, what is wrong with that? The BFM 1963 saw the danger and replaced it with “…Church…is…COMMITTED TO HIS TEACHINGS.”
The 2000 changed the 1963 because the ‘powers’ saw an opportunity to have more power. A church that is “committed” is autonomous, but a church that is “governed” cannot be autonomous. One might argue if they govern themselves they are autonomous, and that would be correct, BUT look at the 2000 and see who is doing the governing.
The 2000 added, “Baptist deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches.” What is wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. EXCEPT it lulls you to sleep. It’s the pain killer before the knife. It’s the blindfold that hides the bullet.
You think nothing is being imposed on the church because they said they wouldn’t. So “office of pastor limited to men” (confession of faith), they imposed on Baptists, goes undetected. If they have a right to govern churches with one law, they have the right to govern churches with a thousand laws.
That is one reason the old conventions of Texas and Virginia and the fired people have rejected the BFM 2000. We pray someday Baptists will return to being Baptist.
Rex Ray

Anonymous said...

". . . every event of our lives ultimately works for our good and God's glory."

Come on Wade. You can't really mean that. Think of being a german jew in the 1930s and 1940s.

If you do mean that, a some explanation would be helpful.

Thanks in advance

Jonathan said...

A book on this topic I highly recomend is "Ekklesia: To the Roots of Biblical House Church Life" by Steve Atkerson.

Jeff Noble said...

Our church is rooted in a commitment to the authority of Scripture; however, I think many in SBC leadership too often forget that Jesus gave us another Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who would teach us and remind us of what He said. The Spirit is almost completely factored out of the essence of church in the IMB's definition.

I realize that any discussion on the Holy Spirit gives many traditional Baptists the hives. They get nervous and immediately start thinking of pew jumpers. However, there is a Spirit-led movement among new churches and new leaders today that recognizes that authority for a church comes from the God of the Word and not just man's interpretation of it...

Someone please help me reconcile these two statements:
1. A church submits to the inerrant word of God as the ultimate authority for all that it believes and does.
2. Under the authority of the local church and its leadership, members may be assigned to carry out the ordinances.

The issue of authority is huge here, and many a leader defaults to the "inerrant Word of God" argument, but they truly are more interested in their own interpretation of it rather than plumbing its depths and seeking obedience to it. (Reference the issue with Henderson Hills in another of Wade's posts.)