Ecclesiology Theology

What Is Church (and why it’s not a small group)

When talking with people about what is “church” I often hear someone say, “But hey, the Bible says ‘where two are gathered in Jesus’ name, I am with you.’ People will often use this phrase to describe how a small group is a church. Yet, the context of that passage has nothing to do with what a church is or what a church does. In Matt 18:19-20 the context is correcting another believer and prayer, not what is or is not a church.

What is the Church

Photo Credit: Peter’s First Preaching (The Bible and Its Story, vol 10)

With that said, let’s look at what the church actually is. From my understanding of the Bible there are seven key elements of a church.


First, the church is commanded to go into all nations and make disciples.

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20, NLT)

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Second, baptism is another thing that the church should regularly do. Baptism is one of the first steps of obedience of a new believer to give external evidence of an internal change (Acts 9:18-19; Rom 6:1-11).

Peter describes this process at the beginning of the church in Acts 2, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38, NLT).


Third, the church should regularly practice the Lord Supper as a tangible reminder of what the Lord Jesus Christ did for us through his bodily death and resurrection (1 Cor 11:17-34).


Fourth, the church should be hearing the Word of God, wrestling with it, and seeking to obey what it teaches.

Evidence of hearing and seeking to obey God’s word is seen in Paul’s letter to Timothy: “Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them” (1 Timothy 4:13, NLT).

Peter also indicates the same thing, “And remember, our Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction” (2 Peter 3:15–16, NLT).

Both of these passages indicate that a regular practice of the church was listening to and seeking to obey God’s word.


Fifth, there needs to be some uniformity about what constitutes the Bible and the core teachings of it.

For example, believers in the New Testament affirmed the Old Testament (Matt 22:29-32, 43-45; John 10:35). Now we accept the New Testament as part of the God’s Word too (Heb 1:1-3; 2 Peter 3:15-16; Rev 22:16-19).

These are some of the “basic agreements” that constitutes a church.

  • Belief in the Triune God of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • Belief that Jesus is the Son of God—fully God and fully human—as our Savior
  • Belief that Jesus is coming back


Sixth, songs and hymns seem to be included in what believers should participate in (Eph 5:19).

The two most well known “hymns” or “confessions” of the New Testament are in Philippians and Colossians.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11, NLT)

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NLT)


Seventh, one of the elements of a church—the body of Christ—is that it is made of up believers that exercise their gifts. There are four main passages that describe the church as having members who each are supposed to use their spiritual gifts: Rom 12; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4; 1 Peter 4. I think we can all agree that these spiritual gifts are something that the body of Christ—the church—has and should employ.

However, if we have small groups that have four people in them, there is no way for everyone to exercise their spiritual gifts. If you have the gift of hospitality then the person who hosts the group at their home is going to exercise their gift, or if your gift is teaching then the person that facilitates the discussion somewhat gets to use his or her gifts. 

The point is that a small group does not allow all believers to exercise their spiritual gifts. Therefore, a small group is not considered a church. 


The point of this blog post is to show you that there is no substitute for a gathering of believers as part of the church. And, that gathering-in order to be considered “church”-needs to make disciples, baptize believers, take the Lord’s Supper, hear and obey God’s word, have uniformity on teaching, sing songs and hymns, and use spiritual gifts.

There is no substitute for the gathering of believers with or without a church building to participate in church. As a Small Groups Pastor that last thing I ever want to do is become the “pastor of 19 churches” because our church has 19 small groups. Those small groups are a gathering of believers that are part of a larger body of believers.


If you’re interested to learn more about the church, here are some suggested resources listed in order of preference.



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By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at