What is the Church?


     The word "church" appears to be derived from the Greek kuriakos, meaning belonging to the Lord. The Greek ekklesia and the Latin ecclesia are of particular interest. Ecclesia is the word from which we derive the idea of ecclesiastes or church matters. Ekklesia is the Greek word that the Holy Spirit used, word rendered "church," to designate God's people. Ekklesia was a word already in the Greek vocabulary prior to the writing of the New Testament. In common Greek usage, ekklesia denoted an assembly. This is easily understood when we realize that the collective noun ekklesia is made up of two words; klesis, a calling and ek, out. Hence, a calling out. Ekklesia is used in its common sense in Acts 19: 32, 39, 41 and translated "assembly." Moulton and Milligan stress the use of ekklesia in the Septuagint and comment that "it is the LXX term for the community of Israel" (The vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, pg. 195). Another work remarks, "Congregation or community of Israel, especially in its religious aspect as the people of God" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol., 1, pg. 651). The inspired Steven used ekklesia in the sense of God's community in his famous sermon (Acts 7: 38). As we develop our study, we shall find that the New Testament assigns to ekklesia a richer meaning than it heretofore enjoyed.

     What the church or ekklesia is. As we consider the scriptures, we discover what God's ekklesia actually is.

     The church and the kingdom apply to God's people, church from the standpoint of the called out and kingdom from the perspective of those over whom Jesus reigns. Jesus in his statement to Peter in which he promised to build his church, immediately said in the same breath: "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven…" (Matt. 16: 18, 19). I submit that Jesus is referring to the same people when he used "church" (ekklesia) and "kingdom" (basileia). The church came into existence in Acts 2 and Peter was the featured speaker who used the keys of the kingdom (he opened it by preaching the gospel, Acts 2: 14ff.). Please appreciate the biblical fact that if one is part of God's called out (the saved), one is subject to Jesus' reign. It was Jesus who said, "And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Lk. 6: 46). The notion that Jesus can be one's Savior without being one's Lord is totally foreign to the scriptures. It is, therefore, correct to say that the church is the kingdom.

     The church is the body of Christ. Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus the following:

     "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1: 22, 23).

     The fact that Jesus is the head to the church expresses the intimacy between Jesus and his church. The statement also articulates the idea of Jesus' authority. In the physical analogy, the body looks to the head for direction. The body without the head is out of control. Thus it is in the spiritual sense. Denominationalism is simply bodies without Jesus as their head, they are doing what they want to do and are not submitting to Jesus' authority and headship (Matt. 28: 18).

     The church as the bride of Jesus. The scriptures offer the idea of the church being married to Jesus. Paul said to the Corinthians, "For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11: 2). In Paul's familiar analogy, it is evident that the church is the bride of Jesus (Eph. 5: 22-33). Denominationalism would have Jesus to be a polygamist by insisting that Jesus is married to all the extant man-made religions. However, Jesus promised to build one church, his church (Matt. 16: 18, cp. Eph. 4: 4, 1: 22, 23). Again, in the teaching of the ekklesia being the bride of Jesus, we see the intimacy between Jesus and his church.

     The church is said to be the "pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3: 15). It is in the setting of the installment of elders and deacons that Paul said that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim. 3). Hence, I understand "church" in this case to allude to the local church with its organization and structure.

     What the ekklesia is not. Any complete exploration of a term or concept necessarily involves the positive and negative consideration.

     The church is not simply an after thought. Premillennial teaching would have us to believe that Jesus came to establish his kingdom and failed, as a substitute or after thought, Jesus then established his church. Such a notion is not only false, but also presents a weak and subject to the caprice of men God. Jesus did in fact establish his church/kingdom (see Col. 1: 13).

     The ekklesia belonging to Jesus is not a denomination. We never read of the church as part of a confederacy or group that was governmentally tied together with an overseeing board or headquarters. Elders were appointed in every local church and each local church was self-governing (Acts 14: 23; I Pet. 5: 1-3). The "seven churches of Asia" were simply seven local churches that met in the area of Asia (Rev. 1: 11). However, these churches did not share the same problems (chs. 2; 3). This fact is reflective of the independence of each of these churches.

     The church is not a party or clique. Paul cogently denounced the clique mentality (I Cor. 1: 11-15). Paul's abhorrence of cliques and the party spirit is seen in the fact that Paul was actually glad that he himself had not baptized more of the Corinthians, "Lest any should say that I had baptized in the name of Paul" (I Cor. 1: 14, 15). Denominationalism is basically men rallying around different men. An example is the circumstance of Lutherans rallying around Martin Luther, even in spite of Luther's request that men not do this.

     Last of all, the ekklesia is not simply a social, humanitarian club. I know that in view of common religion today, it is hard for man not to think of the church as a social club. However, it is degrading to think of Jesus' church as a glorified social order featuring fun and frolic (cp. I Tim. 3: 15).

     A semantical consideration of ekklesia as used in the New Testament. The Greek word ekklesia is found 115 times in the Greek New Testament, the first occurrence is Matthew 16: 18, the last Revelation 22: 16. Let us now consider some of the nuances and ideas that are presented in different usage of ekklesia and thus learn more about what the church is.

     First, I suggest that a clear distinction between the church universal and the local church is seen. The church as presented in Matthew 16: 18 is the church universal or simply the called out of the earth. There is only one family of God, Jesus having only one bride. In contradistinction, we read of the "seven churches which are in Asia" (Rev. 1: 11). Only the saved are in this church, the church universal (Eph. 5: 27). There can be and are hypocrites and pretenders in some local churches (Matt. 13: 36-43, 47-50). As mentioned, these were seven different local churches (cp. I Cor. 1: 2; 4: 17). God adds by means of baptism to the church universal and man joins the local church (I Cor. 12: 13, Gal. 3: 26, 27; Acts 9: 27). The church in the aggregate cannot be divided while the local church can be and often is (I Cor. 1: 11, 1: 2).

     The church viewed in an area. We read, "And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things" (Acts 5: 11). Considered it its context, church or ekklesia is here applied to the local church in Jerusalem (Acts 5: 11 is the first occurrence of ekklesia in Acts in the Greek New Testament).

     Churches (plural) in a number of areas. "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judae and Galilee and Samaria," we are told, "and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied" (Acts 9: 31). "Church" is thus applied to local churches in different areas.

    The unassembled church in an area. There is the teaching that there is no church unless it is assembled. However, this view is not supported in the scriptures. "And when they were come, and had gathered the church together," the historian informs us, "they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles" (Acts 14: 27). Notice that the church in Antioch of Syria existed before it was assembled. Other wise, how could they "gathered the church together"? The "together" would constitute the assembled church, but the church is recognized in its unassembled state, if you please.

     The assembled church in an area. The noun ekklesia is spiritually used in keeping with its basic secular meaning. "If therefore the whole church be come together into one place…," wrote Paul to the church at Corinth (I Cor. 14: 23). The expression "come together in one place" is the assembled local church. The idea of the assembled church is a little plainer in the language, "For first of all, when ye come together in the church…" (I Cor. 11: 18). When Paul wrote, "let him keep silence in the church," he is not referring to the church universal or the unassembled local church, but to the assembly (cp. I Cor. 14: 35).

     There continues to be the movement that ekklesia should always and only be translated "assembly" in all of its 115 occurrences in the Greek Testament. This contention is not plausible. How can you gather the "assembly" together and how can the "whole assembly" be come together? (Acts 14: 27; I Cor. 14: 23.) We read of Paul before he turned to Christ thus, "As for Saul, he made havock of the church…" (Acts 8: 3). How was Saul destroying the church? We are told that he "entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison." To render ekklesia assembly in this instance is unacceptable. Paul was not destroying the assembly by waiting until these Christians had assembled, but he was searching them out in their private houses. We also see in this case of "church" the distributive usage, "church" is used for the individual members that comprise the local church (there is even the distributive use of "church" involving the assembly. I say this because we see the assembled local church, but an action to be performed in the assembly that is individual in nature, I Cor. 11: 17-28).

     "Church" is seen used of the lacking full organization local church or churches. I know this because of the language, "And when they had ordained them elders in every church…" (Acts 14: 23). These churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch were viewed as churches before they had elders.

     "Church" is used regarding a local collectivity of God's people in the fully organized state. "Paul and Timotheus…to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons," we read (Phili. 1: 1). The language, "all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi refers to the church; hence, the fully developed local church.

     Last of all, "church" is used regarding the local church functioning as an organized entity. In this sense, "church" is corporately used. In Paul's teaching found in I Timothy chapter five, we observe the difference between true individual and collective action (church). Consider the language:

     "If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed" (I Tim. 5: 16).

     The only way the church can fulfill this duty of relieving those of the context is by corporately functioning through the activation of the treasury. While money is in the hands of individuals, it remains their money, but when contributed into the local treasury, it ceases to belong to them (Acts 5: 1-4, cp. I Cor. 16: 1, 2).

     Beloved, "church" or ekklesia means all of the above and fully viewed, "church" includes all that we have studied. "Is not there a better way to translate ekklesia other than "church"? Many have demanded that ekklesia be translated "congregation." However, "congregation" has the same essential meaning as "assembly" and we have noticed the implausibility of always rendering ekklesia "assembly." "But 'church' is so misused, we should avoid it," some insist. Just because a term is misused by some is no reason to totally abandon the word. In fact, if we use this criterion, there would not be a term that we could use, I suppose. "Church" is generic and flexible enough that it seems to be capable of being used in all the instances in which ekklesia is used in a spiritual climate.

     As we have seen, "church" is often radically different from the common thinking. To consider "church" as being people who submit to and obey their King is considered radical today and, yet, this is the basic idea of the church "viewed as a kingdom" (Matt. 16: 18, 19). In view of the merging modern family in which there is equal headship, many Americans do not think of the church as subject to her head, Jesus Christ. Notwithstanding, as the "body of Christ" the church is subject to her head, Jesus (Eph. 1: 22, 23). The church universal is one and singular when numerically considered (Matt. 16: 18, Eph. 4: 4). This same unity is seen in the fact that Paul taught "every where in every church" (I Cor. 4: 17). There were no denominations (different churches, teaching different doctrines such as we have today, cp. Eph. 4: 5). Even when "church" is viewed in the sense of the organized called out functioning as an entity in a local arrangement, it is observed as a self-governing body working under the oversight of the local overseers or elders (I Pet. 5: 1-3, Heb. 13: 7, 17). It is important that we understand the ekklesia or church because the saved are only in the church and it is the church that will be presented without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 5: 23, 27).