In both the Old and New Testaments, Scripture describes the Church generally as the body of Christ, God’s people who worship God in the presence of God. This is evident from the practice of the first humans, Adam and Eve, from Genesis 1:27 onward. Our first parents enjoy such close communion with God that He speaks to them directly (Gen. 2:15) and walks with them in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). Indeed, our first parents function as the household of God on through Seth and even into the household of Israel. However, after Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden and thus from the presence of God. After the Fall, God’s people must commune with Him through different means, for direct access in the Garden of Eden is no longer an option.
As humanity continues to move east of Eden, the communion of God’s people with Himself is dictated no longer by the face-to-face contact of the Garden, but rather by the mediation of Aaronic priests through the Levitical sacrifices, namely the Day of Atonement of Leviticus 16. After some time, though, God tells His people that His presence among the people of God will not be mediated by the blood of bulls and goats forever, for a new covenant is coming in which the presence of God will be mediated to the people of God by “a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever” (Jer. 32:17-18).
Of course, Christ in the Incarnation fulfills the Levitical laws and mediates the New Covenant to His people, the Church, through the Word and the sacraments. The Church, then, is the people of God who worship God in the presence of God from Genesis to Revelation. For example, St. Paul tells the Gentiles in Ephesus that, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20). Clearly, then, the Gentiles are added into the household of God, the Church, which had already existed even before the Incarnation, even in the Old Testament. The Church has always been the people of God who worship God in the presence of God.
The Church, as the people of God who live in the presence of God, has marks which distinguish her not only from the rest of the world, but also from false churches of false religion. The marks of the Church according to Scripture most narrowly are the Word rightly preached and received, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly dispensed. In addition to a church being part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, these marks help distinguish further the true Church.
The true Church preaches the true Gospel of justification by faith alone apart from works (Gal. 1:8), for the Church is the foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Thus, a church which neglects the true Gospel by adding works to faith is a false church. Additionally, the true Church rightly administers the sacraments, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper as instituted by Christ as means of grace. The true Church celebrates baptism into the Triune name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, both of new believers and covenant children (Mt. 28:19). It also celebrates the Lord’s Supper as administered to believers (1 Cor. 11:20-29). St. Paul notes that if the Lord’s Supper and baptism are not received in faith, then it is not the sacraments of which they are partaking but rather judgment (1 Pt. 3:19-20). Finally, the true Church exercises appropriate church discipline with its congregants, as Jesus points out in Matthew 18:15-17 and as St. Paul prescribes in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 for restoration and holy living of its congregants. As is clear from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, church discipline is administered that the congregant in question might repent of their sin and return to right and holy living. In fact, these have been the marks of the Church since Genesis 3, for the preaching of the Word, the sacraments in the form of the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and unmediated discipline in the form of exile from the Garden are all present in the first household.
As the people of God who live in the presence of God, the Church and Her members live the life of faith as the holy Body through the Spirit of Christ. For example, the Church is not the institution which mediates faith to Her members. Rather, faith and repentance are gifts of Christ (Acts 11:18, 2 Tim. 2:25). When a person is regenerated to saving faith in Christ and by Christ, they necessarily become a member of the Church universal, or the body of Christ (Acts 2:47). The Church is united in one Lord, one baptism, and one Spirit, across all ages and continents, and the unifying mark of all these members of the Church universal is faith in Christ.
The Church is not merely an ethereal entity into which someone is grafted upon conversion. The believer must continue to live the life of faith within the context of the local church. The Bible knows nothing of a Christian who is not involved in the life of the local church, for God’s people are commanded to come into His sanctuary (2 Chr. 30:8) as one people (Jn. 17:21). Paul’s physiological illustration is helpful here, for one cannot function rightly as a part of the body of Christ if they are in fact cut off from the body for which Christ gave Himself up. For the Church is the body of Christ, and is individually a member of it (1 Cor. 12:27). This image is especially instructive, for in living the life of faith, each congregant brings different God-given gifts to the local church, just as the body has different parts.