Ask the average person today what they think of when they hear the word "church," and you're guaranteed to get a wide range of answers. What in the world is this word? What is its meaning? What isn't its meaning?
First, let's trace a little history. Church is a word related to Christianity, at least in the English language. It almost universally has a religious connotation, and is not used for non-religious applications. For example, you wouldn't refer to the crowd at a basketball game as a church. They're just a group of people--the crowd, the audience. But put that same group of people inside a large building with stained-glass windows and pews, and people would call it church.
Our English word church is linguistically derived from a Medieval Greek word meaning "the Lord's." However, when we see it in the Bible, what we are seeing is the translation into the English language of the Koine Greek word ekklesia. Koine Greek is the type of Greek language that the New Testament was written in, in the first century A.D., and passed out of use around the ninth century A.D.
Interestingly, in the Greek language the word ekklesia does not necessarily carry the religious connotation of its English counterpart, church. In fact, the inherent and basic meaning of ekklesia is simply, "a called out group (of people)." For examples of non-religious use in the New Testament, we can reference Acts 19:32, 39, 41. Here ekklesia represents a tumultuous gathering of citizens (v. 32, 41) as well as a political body (v. 39) in the city of Ephesus, and in both cases is commonly translated "assembly."
It is also very relevent to note what the church is not:
- It is not a building, cathedral, or chapel. No physical edifice is the church. They are just brick, mortar, boards, and cement. Interestingly, Scripture does liken the church to a building, but a spiritual one and not a physical one. The people are symbolically the spiritual house of God. The church is the people, not the place where they gather.
- As commonly as we refer to attending a worship service as "going to church," this is also not the church. We may go to gather with the church, yes. But the church is the people, not the worship service they participate in.
The word does not occur in the Old Testament, of course, because the Old Testament was written almost entirely in the Hebrew language. In the New Testament, its first mention is during Jesus' life and ministry on earth, when Peter confesses Him as the Christ. Jesus responds by mentioning His plan to establish His church,
"I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." (Matthew 16:18)
Here the church was mentioned in a future tense. By the first part of the book of Acts, we find that the church had been established and was in existence. Starting from the Day of Pentecost shortly after Christ's resurrection, the church was a living, growing group of people. By the fifth chapter of Acts, this body of believers was being referred to as the ekklesia:
"And great fear came over the whole church..."
Clearly, the church had been established.