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What Is the Church?
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:
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.
As we saw on the previous page, the church is a called out group of people. To be called out means that the group of people is different than everyone else, that there is something distinct, identifiable and common among each person in this group or body of people.
The Bible carries abundant references to this "calling", as the inspired writers wrote to the people who make up the church:
"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9)
"For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." (Acts 2:39)
"It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Thessalonians 2:14)
"Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful." (Colossians 3:15)
From the above references, we can summarize several basic points:
This demonstrates the meaning of the word ekklesia - it is simply a group of people who have come out of one "realm" and into another. This is in holding with the wording of the apostle Paul in Colossians 1:13-14,
"For He rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."
So to wind this down to one simple statement, the church is the saved. Nobody who is not saved is in the church, and nobody who is saved is not in the church. They are one and the same thing - to be saved is to be in the church.
To understand this, some of us may need to scrap our traditional preconceived ideas of "church membership." Is the church sort of like a "club" that you join by signing up? Do you maybe have to go through some initiation process? In a sense, yes, and we'll get to that in a minute. But the ironic truth is that there is nothing you can do to add yourself to the church, to make yourself a part of it. Instead, starting from the day the first sermon was preached,
"...the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47)
"Their number" simply refers to the number of saved people. The King James Version even simply says, "the Lord added to the church..." So who makes you part of the church? That is God's work. Apart from God's grace and choice to add obedient believers to His church, there would be no church at all. What we simply need to know is, what are God's criteria? We just saw it straightforwardly enough in the above scripture: He was adding to the church those people who were being saved. The very moment they were saved (see v. 41) they were added by God to the church. So the criterion is that you be saved.
Thus, as mentioned before, in a very limited sense, the church is something you join, just not by your own doing or merit. You do what God told you to do, and He promises that He will add you to the church. Not because you earned it, or qualified. But because you have submitted to Him and allowed Him to change you and to add you to His church.
Joining the church should not be the sinner's primary motivation for coming to repentance and salvation, not at all. Our primary motivation is to be right with God, to have our sins taken away so we can glorify Him and be with Him for eternity. When you come to God with this motivation and obey Him, He will in turn add you to the church as a result of your choice to reconcile with Him. It is first between you and God. For a case study on how these people in Acts 2 were saved and added to the church, just read back over the preceding verses, Acts 2:36-47.
Perhaps it would also be helpful in a discussion like this to observe the different "senses" in which the church is mentioned in Scripture.
The Universal Sense
In the universal sense, the church is the worldwide body of the saved. This is the sense that we have been referring to in the previous two pages of this article. It is everyone around the world, of every nationality or location, who is saved. Scriptures where the church is referred to in the universal sense abound, but some examples include Matthew 16:18, 1 Corinthians 10:32, and Ephesians 1:22-23. One passage that beautifully captures the essence of the universality of the Lord's church has the following being declared to Jesus in heaven,
"Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9)
Indeed, praise be to God that today the church exists in the vast majority of nations currently on the earth, all around the globe. Men and women of all skin colors have obeyed the gospel, the very gospel which is being preached and taught daily in countless languages and dialects!
It is in this universal sense that every believer who is saved is added to the "one body" of Ephesians 4:4. As it is written,
"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:13)
When speaking in this universal sense, it is important to understand the "church of Christ" not as a name but as a relationship, a designation of ownership and allegiance. It is the church that belongs to Christ.
The Local Sense
Along with the universal sense, the other sense in which the church is mentioned in the New Testament is the local sense. This geographical sense simply refers to individual congregations of the universal church, in various local vicinities. As it is neither practical nor possible for the entire, universal church to assemble together at any given time (until heaven!), Christians around the world gather together with other Christians in their locale, in the area where they live. It is convenient to refer to these as "congregations." It is here that brethren who live near each other share daily and weekly fellowship, worship together, and learn together (among other things).
We can see many examples of these local churches in various cities in the book of Acts and the New Testament letters:
In mentioning these separate "churches," Paul was not speaking of multiple universal churches, but of the numerous local "churches" (congregations of the one universal church) in each city, when he said, "All the churches of Christ greet you." (Romans 16:16)
The Regional Sense
While the universal and local senses are by far more relevent and common, there is also the regional sense. This is where areas or larger geographical regions are mentioned in which multiple local churches exist. For example,
Places such as Judea, Asia and Galatia were not specific cities, but rather they were larger provinces in the Roman Empire which was ruling at the time. A modern equivalent would be to say "the churches of California," or to identify the same group of congregations as a limited part of the universal church: "the church in California." By the grace of God, there are even many cities around the world today with numerous congregations due to the greater size of the city and/or the greater number of saints in the city; for example, "the churches in Sydney."