The church is described in multiple ways throughout the New Testament, but a helpful definition is found in the Baptist Faith and Message, our statement of faith:
“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…The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ, which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.”
The church can be understood in two ways: the universal church and the local church. The universal church is all of God's people throughout all ages. This is a helpful definition, but when the New Testament speaks of the church and how we are to be within it, it speaks primarily of the local church.
As humans living our lives in a specific God-ordained time and location, our local church is what we need to understand and be an active part of most.
What Makes a Church a Church and Not a Bible Study?
Four primary marks distinguish a church from a Bible study—preaching from the Word, the ordinances, church membership, and church discipline.
First, preaching. There is usually very little preaching in a Bible study, and that's a good thing. A Bible study is a group discussion where fellowship happens. On Sunday morning, the pastor preaches, and for a church to be legitimate, the pastor must preach from the Word.
Now, this may seem obvious, but it's not uncommon for churches to preach very little of the Bible from the pulpit. A church must preach the Word.
Second, the ordinances. A church must practice the ordinances of Christ—baptism and communion. Baptism is rich with meaning and symbolism, and one of its functions is to join people to the local church.
“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” – Acts 2:41
Conversely, communion is a repeated ordinance that reminds us of our union with Christ. It is, like baptism, an ordinance for the church, not for a Bible study.
Third, membership and discipline. A church must practice membership for two reasons. First, baptism and membership go hand in hand because baptism joins one to the church. Second, membership is essential to practice church discipline. How can an unrepentant person be disciplined out of the church if he was never a part of it?
Membership is not solely for the purposes of discipline, but it is an essential aspect of it. Membership also comes with all the blessings of being a part of a local body of Christ. It is a means of grace in sanctifying the individual and the church.
These four marks distinguish a biblical church. More could be said, but these are the fundamentals. It's important to understand this distinction so that the church knows what it's supposed to be and other organizations (bible studies, non-profits, etc.) do not try to take on roles and responsibilities that are not theirs to take.
Is the Church Just a Man-Made Institution of Empty Religion?
This question comes from a legitimate problem of some churches. Throughout history and even now, the church has been used and abused as an institution for power or simply a reason to get together with friends.
But this is not the purpose of the church, nor was it invented by man for these wrong purposes.
Jesus was the church's founder, giving it a specific mission and purpose. He said it like this:
“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18
The founder of the church is Christ, and the Savior of the church is Christ. He lived and died for the church, and before he ascended into heaven, he gave his church a mission, the great commission.
The church has a job to do while it waits. It is to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth.
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." – Matthew 28:19
Man did not make the church, and it's not a place of empty religion. It is the congregation of God's elect who worship and love him while they wait for his return. The church is a people. It's the people of God. The church has a mission, and that mission is to bring the gospel to all nations.