Interestingly, in the Gospels, there are only two instances where the term “church” appears in the words of Jesus. One is Matthew 16:18 and the other is Matthew 18:17. In contrast to this, Jesus uses with the word “kingdom” over 50 times just in the book of Matthew alone. This apparent lack of emphasis on the church and obvious focus on the imminent kingdom should raise questions in the minds of Bible students. Of course, those questions have, in fact, been raised and a variety of answers offered.
One line of reasoning postulates that Jesus announced an imminent kingdom coming but then changed His mind and substituted the church after He encountered Jewish opposition to His ministry. This introduces the idea of a church age which spans the time between Jesus’ earthly ministry and His anticipated second coming when He finally gets to establish the kingdom as originally planned.
Another, perhaps more palatable explanation because it reflects more highly on God’s sovereignty, is the contention that the kingdom and the church are one in the same. This response raises some additional questions for me. For instance, why do Christians call themselves church people rather than kingdom people? Seemingly, the more prevalent term used by Jesus would be the way His followers would want to identify themselves.
Admittedly, the books of the NT following the four Gospels make ample use of the word church, which translates from a Greek word meaning the “called out or the assembly”. And at the same time the kingdom continues to be mentioned frequently as a future reality (Rev. 4:10). This observation would seem to negate the idea that the church and kingdom are the same entity.
Despite the manifold use of the term “church” in Acts, the Pauline epistles, and elsewhere in the NT, it still seems strange that Jesus had so little to say about this entity we know as the church. How did the imminent kingdom announced by Jesus (Matt. 3:20) morph into the “church” we know today?
The term “kingdom” as used in te Bible always seems to imply an entity with universal scope and divine leadership. The term church, however, often refers to a more local entity, though it occasionally carries an apparently wider scope. Certainly in the religious vernacular of our time, the word church almost always draws to mind a local congregation, operating under local, human leadership
One could easily conclude that the churches as we know them today are not like the churches of the NT and never could be. First of all, the churches described in the NT accounts were instructed directly by Apostles, having no complete Bible to use as a guide. The NT churches were involved in a vital way in ushering in the kingdom which Jesus had promised from the earliest moments of His ministry. Once the kingdom was a reality, the purpose for the churches was fulfilled. This offers an explanation for the lack of emphasis on the church in the teachings of Jesus. The ultimate reality was the kingdom, not the church. Paul and the other NT writers were dealing with a transitory phase in working with the various local churches. Once the universal kingdom came, the local church ceased to have a purpose. The kingdom within requires no external manifestation and certainly no surrogate rulers and leaders.
The term “institutional church” is often used to describe what exists religiously within Christianity today. That term may not be easily defined, but I believe a couple of key characteristics are almost always attached to groups known as churches. The first is an organizational structure which defines leadership roles and grants power to a few. Secondly, churches are generally identified as being the conduit through which God’s blessings are meted out to mankind. Such blessing is said to be gained by affiliation with that particular group or one like it. Thus the existence of human leaders and the claim of being the fountainhead of God’s blessing are two sure marks of an institutional church. These aspects may have been associated with the church of the NT, but they have no place in the universal internal kingdom proclaimed by Jesus.