The church is the assembly of the redeemed. It’s where God’s new covenant people are found. It’s where God’s people gather to worship, nurture through discipleship and care, and proclaim the gospel to each other and an onlooking world. [1] It's “the body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify him together by serving him in his world.”[2] Because the New Testament doesn’t give us a formal definition of the church, these definitions are derived from a multitude of images used in the New Testament to describe the church. [3] Some of these images are used more frequently than others.

For example, the church is “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), “the family of God” (1 Pet. 4:17), and even “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). These images serve as analogies that shape our understanding of the church. Let's examine three of the most common images to help us better understand Christ's church. 

The Flock of God: A Relationship Image for the Church

Jesus refers to His followers as a flock in Luke 12:32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In John 10:16, Jesus speaks of a fold that will listen to His voice. The apostle Paul cautions the Ephesian elders, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28–29). And Peter exhorts the elders of the exiled churches to “shepherd the flock of God among you…being examples of the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2–3).

This image focuses on the shepherd-sheep relationship between Jesus and His people. As our Shepherd, Jesus is our provider and protector (Ps. 23). And His provision and protection are comprehensive. Timothy Witmer writes, “sheep…are always completely dependent on their shepherd. They never outgrow their need for the shepherd to care for them, feed them, lead them, and protect them…the imagery of shepherd-sheep captures the comprehensive sovereignty of the shepherd over the sheep and the need of the sheep to yield to his care.”[4] Charles Jefferson reminds us that “Jesus never called Himself a priest, or a preacher…but He liked to think of Himself as a shepherd.”[5] 

The shepherd-sheep relationship teaches us something about the Shepherd, but it also teaches us something about the church. Sheep are to be carefully watched. They are prey for wild animals (1 Sam 17:34–35). And unlike cattle, they are not driven but are led. They are known to follow their shepherd as he leads them and calls for them. Hence, “the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4).

The shepherd-sheep imagery is also used to describe our relationship to leaders in the local church. Jesus' undershepherds are to have a shepherd-sheep relationship with the flock. This means pastors are to carefully watch over the flock. They are to provide and protect them. They are to lead from ahead rather than drive from behind. This imagery helps us to understand what kind of relationship we have with Jesus and what kind of relationship we ought to have with His undershepherds.

The church is led by a Shepherd who will protect and provide for His flock. And He leads in a way that is not domineering. He is a patient keeper and guide. Likewise, those called as undershepherds or pastors are to protect and provide for the flock. This involves leading in matters related to affirming sound doctrine, biblical discipleship, and church discipline. Finally, the shepherd-sheep imagery reminds us that we are prone to wander and easy prey for wild animals. This reinforces our need to stay close to the Chief Shepherd, our undershepherds, and the flock of God, lest we find ourselves in the hands of “fierce wolves.” 

The Body of Christ: A Unique Image of Unity and Diversity

Another common image used for the church is the human body. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4–5). The church is rightly called the body of Christ. Although the major focus of this image is unity, the image also illustrates diversity. Thus, the focus of this imagery serves to teach us about the unity and diversity of the church.   

Paul stresses the unity of the body when he writes, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). The body of Christ imagery challenges the church to push aside ethnic and social distinctions. In the extreme, the church is a group of people who would have no other reason to gather than that they have Christ. The stress on unity is more than a call to stand as one. It is a call for those who would otherwise be strangers and enemies to stand as one (cf. Eph 2:14–16). Commenting on the example of the early church, namely, that those within different social classes and cultural backgrounds were together in the same local church, Ajith Fernando says, “In a world that is being torn asunder by ethnic strife, this may be one of the most powerful contemporary demonstrations of the glory of the gospel we have to offer the world.”[6]

Paul stresses the diversity of the body when he writes, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14). Here Paul is highlighting what is obvious about the body. Although we have one body, that body has different parts. Paul extracts more meaning from the image, writing, “If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.” (1 Cor. 12:15–16). Focusing here on the diversity of the body, it is the various parts of the body that serve as an image for the various “parts” of the church. This is clear because Paul uses the various parts of the body to teach us not to consider one member of the church more significant than another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). The point is that our body needs an eye and a hand and a head and a foot to function properly.

What is the correlation between the members of our physical body and the members of the church? In writing to the church in Rome and Corinth Paul connects the various parts of the body to the various gifts found among the members of the church (cf. Rom, 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:27–30). This suggests that the body of Christ serves to teach the church something about her nature and expression. In her nature, the church is formed indivisible yet in her expression she is diverse.

The Dwelling Place for God: A Locus of God’s Spirit

The final image is that of the dwelling place, or building, for God. We find this image in Ephesians 2:19–22 and 1 Peter 2:4–7. In this image, we see many features. The foundation of the building is the apostles and prophets and Jesus is the cornerstone. With both the foundation and cornerstone laid, the church is “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22). Peter fills in the image when he refers to believers as “living stones” (1 Pet 2:4–5). Thus, we have a detailed image of the church which includes its members, the apostles and New Testament prophets, and Jesus Himself.

What is the significance of such an image? In using the imagery of a building, both Paul and Peter are highlighting the Spirit’s role in the life of the church. For, it was in a physical temple that God’s Spirit dwelt. One of the most significant and profound truths of the New Covenant is that the church has become the dwelling place for God. And this dwelling place is assuredly not a physical building, but a spiritual building—the church of Jesus Christ. The church is a spiritual building in which its members “like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). John MacArthur writes, the church is “the place where God manifests His glory on earth most clearly, and the proper nucleus and focal point of spiritual life and worship for the redeemed community.”[7]

In light of these three images, we have a robust and profound picture of the church. As the flock of God, the church is in the caring and careful hands of the Chief Shepherd. As the body of Christ, the church is united in its form yet diverse in its expression. As the dwelling place for God, the church is the very locus of God’s Spirit—a holy temple in the Lord. I hope that these images might be more than a reminder of the importance of the local church, but might remind us that the church is something worth fighting for.


 [1] Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 117.

[2] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 3. 

[3] For a list of 96 images for the church in the New Testament see Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960).

[4] Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010), 13.

[5] Charles Jefferson, The Minister as Shepherd: The Privileges and Responsibilities of Pastoral Leadership (Fort Washington: CLC Publications, 2006), 11. 

[6] Ajith Fernando. Acts. The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 471.

[7] John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008), 326.