One of the biggest obstacles I find with discussing the matter of church is just agreeing on the definition of the word. For the purpose of understanding how I will use church in my future blog posts, and to provide a common frame of reference, I will now attempt to lay out my definition of church.
First off, what makes this subject confusing is that in our present day we most often use the word church interchangeably amongst what are actually three different and separate notions:
- Church can be referring to a physical place, like a building – as in when people say, “Where do you go to church?” or ” In what town is your church located?” or “I left my bible at church last week.”
- Church can be referring to a formal organization, like an institution i.e., the Catholic Church, Lutherans, Baptists, or Assemblies of God. You might hear someone say, “What is the name of your church?” or “I’m glad the church took a public stance on that issue”.
- Church can also be referring to an event, like a meeting – i.e. “The next time we have church I hope we sing this song.” or “Wasn’t church good last Sunday??”
In my opinion none of these three ideas describe what the true nature of church is when we look at how it was used in the New Testament writings. In fact, I am going to argue that the intended meaning, as seen in context of the Bibles text, is completely missed when we talk about church in these ways.
So first, let’s take zoom out and take a birds eye look at the word church as it is used across the New Testament and see if we can get a bigger picture of what it means. Let’s find a more simple and exact definition. Then, with a more simplified understanding of church, we can drill down in on how it’s used in the New Testament and see if church has any more specific connotations we should attach to it.
THE SIMPLEST DEFINITION OF CHURCH
Church simply holds to one broad overarching definition. In it’s most simplest form, church is a word used to refer to the people and family of God.
Who are in this family? It is made up of the people who have come to believe in and on Jesus who have now been united as equal members of His family through a spiritual new-birth via God’s Spirit through faith.
Along with church, the bible uses many other words to describe the people/family of God. They are: the body, the bride, the believers, the brethren, the saints, the elect, the flock, the disciples, the beloved, the household or home of God, the followers, or Gods family. All of these words are used interchangeably to group and refer to Christians as a whole or in part.
Wow, there are lots of words and phrases used to describe or refer to the family of God! Why so many? Different words are employed so that we can understand His family from a variety of view points, which in turn give us a greater picture of this unfathomably wonderful relationship with God.
To illustrate this we’ll do a silly and cliché visualization. Let’s imagine seeing a mountain. I’m personally thinking of Pikes Peak in Colorado….Why? Well, I have some vivid memories of that mountain. I used live in a junky apartment in Colorado Springs, CO at the foot of Pikes Peak. How junky? Well, the absence of locks on the exterior hallway doors meant that the homeless would sleep in our hallways on cold nights…no big deal to me but the net effect was that the place would smell because the homeless would often urinate in the hallway. The apartment manager was terribly unfriendly and unhelpful, and the place was falling apart both on the outside and inside. When my father -in-law visited and took a shower the shower head shot off and smacked him in the head. The apartment smelled like a smokers paradise and there were chunks of linoleum missing from the kitchen floor. It was kinda a dump. My wife and I were in bible college at the time with very low paying jobs by western standards and it was all we could afford. But we are just happy to have a roof over our heads. The only good part of that apartment was that the living room window was positioned in a way that allowed us to get an okay view of the western slope of Pikes Peak. I found a not-so-good snapshot of that view in my old pictures. You might be able to make our the mountain if you squint. You’ll see a silhouette of my cat “Lucky” too.
Ok, back to our visualization. Now…picture that same mountain again. As you see it in your minds eye begin moving around it from different directions. Imagine traveling 10 miles over it and seeing it from the north. Then do the same to the south, west, and east. You’ll see the same mountain but you’ll see it with contrasting light, faces, rock formations, landscapes, and slopes. You’ll realize that there is way more to this mountain that what you could see or express from just the one viewpoint that you started with. After looking at all of the different sides of the mountain the end result is that you will get a more fuller picture of what this mountain is in it’s totality.
In the same way, the Bible uses multiple words to describe Gods family, all with their varied connotations, so as to help us to comprehend the depths and all-encompassing nature of His multi-faceted family dynamic:
Disciples characterize the people of God’s family as ones who continue to follow and learn, the elect characterizes God’s people as those that are desired of and chosen by God which shows us the value that God places on his family, brethren refers to how we ought to associate with one another in the family without respect of persons or regard to hierarchy, saints in that we in Gods family are now purified, holy, and set apart for God through the righteousness provided in Christ, the body in that we are equally interconnected together, with no one member more important, resulting as to be a tangible extension of Jesus’s presence on earth, the bride as to understand the intimacy and passionate desire that God has for His family. and church in that we are a group of people bonded and assembled together for a united purpose.
All of the different words for the family of God carry various colors and hues of meanings. Each one of them highlight a certain attribute or characteristic of the family, but together they are talking about the same idea at it’s core – the people and family of God who are in relationship with Him together.
We need to be careful not to use the characteristic(s) of that which a entity displays to define what the entity actually is.
This simple definition of church is contrary to the three modern usages of church I started with. Those usages, a building, an organization, and an event, describe characteristics related to God’s family dynamics. But none of them accurately tell us what the true nature of the church is. We need to be careful to not use the characteristics of that which a entity displays to define what the entity actually is…although, this is kinda what we have done with church. So, lets reclaim the original meaning of church as the family of God.
So with that in mind we will need to do some refining:
- Church is NOT a building – but one characteristic of the family of God is that some members attend meetings in buildings. And many of these building are dedicated for the sole purpose of hosting events for God’s family.
- Church is NOT an organization – but one characteristic of the family of God is that some have chosen to align and identify themselves with a specific Christian organization or denomination.
- Church is NOT a event – but one characteristic of the family of God is that family members gather together and do share in communal events.
Now that we know that the most simplest definition of church is God’s family, and know that church is just one of many descriptive words for God’s people, lets look at some examples in the New Testament. Let’s now zoom in and look at the specific side of the mountain that the word church is intended to paint for us. Does “church” carry any deeper meanings intended to be attached that word?
DIFFERENT SIZES OF GOD’S FAMILY
Church can either refer to ALL of the people in God’s family, that is as the whole or sum total of all believers in Jesus, or to only a FEW people in God’s family in varying numbers and locations.
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” In this example we see that the word church is clearly not talking about a building. And it’s not talking about a meeting either. Jesus is talking about a family, a group of people, a worldwide church, built around the revelation that the disciple Peter had about Jesus being the Son of God, the Christ. Church, here in Matthew 16:18, is referring to what would eventually become the global body of believers. Galatians 1:13, I Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 1:22, 3:9-10, 5:23-32, Colossians 1:18 and 24 also use the word church to refer to sum total of all global Christians.
Church can also refer to small numbers or little pockets of believers. In Philemon verses 1-2 the author writes, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker- also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier–and to the church that meets in your home”. In this passage from Philemon verses 1-2 the author greets God’s people, who are “the church” associated in this one house. These are people that have believed on Jesus who are regularly gathering together and associated with Philemon’s home. This must have been a pretty small number of people. Only enough to fill one house. That’s a stark contrast to when church is used to describe the whole global family.
So it is evident from these two examples that church can be used to describe different sizes of God’s family. Which can be as many as the full totality of worldwide saints and also for small numbers of the elect. Church can be applied to both a broad or a narrow grouping of Christians. When church is used for a smaller number of believers a question that comes to mind is, “what characteristic did these groups of believers share that allowed them be called a church?” What specifically linked them together that they would be called a church. Let’s continue our study….
CHURCH AS LOCAL COMMUNITIES
Next, the most frequent way that church is used in the bible is used to refer to a group of believers that live in relative close proximity to each other. There were no vehicles that enabled people of old times to get around quickly. And unless you were going to take a long walk or saddle up your whole family on expensive horses your interaction with fellow followers of Jesus was geographically relegated to just your city of residence.
Also, as we read through the entirety of the New Testament writings, we see that these believers who lived in close proximity to each other shared in everyday Christian life. We will go into this far more in depth in later posts but the brief point I want to make here is that these early believers functioned more as a family rather then just as members of formal organization. While the writers of the New Testament used church in a way that groups the people of God together into locally identifiable areas, church also carries a more a of relational component to its meaning. This relational component would be probably better grasped in modern times if we called them local communities instead of churches. Here are some New Testament examples:
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church ( local community of believers) of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia.” – II Corinthians 2:1
“Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church ( local community of believers) shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only.” – Philippians 4:15
“For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church ( local community of believers). – I Corinthians 4:17
There are over a hundred passages where the word church is found in the New Testament. In reading through them all I tried to count how many times it is used to refer to these local communities. I lost count. It’s probably 85% of the time. I also found interesting that in over 111 passages there are more than 30-40 distinct churches and regions of churches mentioned in the New Testament. Also, the target church(es) of each book in the New Testament varies as well – Philemon is written to just one little community small enough to fit into someones house. Other books are addressed to all of the Christians assembled in a particular city such as Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Romans. Then other books are written to whole regions or larger geographical areas where a multitude of churches existed such as Galatians and 2 Corinthians, James, I Peter, Revelations.
The contents of these letters, as we’ll investigate in later posts, bear witness to the community driven nature of each church or region. And it is from these letters that we can put together a vignette of what community life looked like for these early believers and the ways in which God’s people lived out and practiced their faith.
So while we must first hold to a broad understanding of church, in that it is made up of all believers in the family of God, it can more narrowly be used to refer to local geographical groups of Christians who live out a community life of faith together. And in fact, this is how church is most often used in the New Testament and where we see it in it’s most familiar context.
WHAT ABOUT MEETINGS?
Lastly, in a small handful of places, and that mostly in one chapter of the New Testament, we find church used in a way that is more aligned with how it was used in secular terms. The word church, which comes from the Greek word ekklesia, literally means an assembly. An assembly is another word for what we would just simply call a meeting. And the word Ekklesia far pre-dates any association with a religious body of people.
Using church in the bible for this context, that is to refer to the church as its nature being a meeting, is rare. But when it’s used this way we can understand why it would be used like this if one remembers that this type of usage echos the true root meaning behind the word ekklesia. If we look at that word in how it was used in a non-christian context we see that it was reserved for meetings or gathering of people.
In Acts 19:14 we even see ekklesia used to refer to a angry mob of non-Christians who had gathered together. In speaking to this angry mob the city clerk of Ephesians said this:
“If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it. After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.” (NIV translation)
In both examples found in Acts 19 when the word assembly is found it is the exact same word that is translated as for church – ekklesia. This is the most basic form and root meaning behind this word so it makes sense that the author of Acts used this word to describe the spontaneous gathering of people. Ekklesia isn’t a religious word. An ekklesia is just a gathering of people…a gathering of any kind of people. Ancient Athens Greece used to call it’s governmental body the ekklesia. They were called out group of citizen assembled together to direct and make decisions about the states affairs whether that be taxes, declaring war, or other issues needing to be addressed in the community.
The scholars who translated the Bible could have used the word church here in Acts 19 and it would have been just as accurate, but of course it would probably confused us as readers because that’s not how our English language as become accustom to understanding the word church. It has now become a religious term. But, anytime you are in the physical presence of a group of people for a purpose, like at work for a meting or community block party, you could technically call that a church too.
Here are two examples where the New Testament uses ekklesia when talking about a meeting of God’s family:
“I give thanks to God that I speak in tongues more than any of you, but in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” – I Corinthians 14:18-19
“So what is to be done, brothers? When you assemble, one has a psalm, another an instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Everything should be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let it be two or at most three, and each in turn, and one should interpret. But if there is no interpreter, the person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God.” – I Corinthians 14:26-28
Church is very rarely used in the New Testament to refer to a meeting proper. And when taken in a larger context across all of the New Testament writings I think it would be wrong to presume or assert that the sole defining characteristic of the early Christian experience was hinged on meetings. Meetings, gatherings, or formal assemblies are only one dynamic that the New Testament family of God experienced. Yes, they are attributes of the church, but they certainly do not define the nature of the church.
But as I mentioned before, this is kinda what has happened when we think of church today. We tend to think of a church meeting as a weekly capstone of our Christian life that happens on a Sunday. We think of the weekly meeting are the bottom of a great “pyramid of Christian faith”. That attending or participating in the weekly worship service is the cornerstone by which every other brick is laid for Christian life. As long as we get our “church” in on Sunday’s we doing the most important thing. I disagree. And in my opinion it is in this misunderstood compartmentalization of our faith where we hinder Jesus from expressing Himself fully in our lives. I would argue that church is more of a community and lifestyle of believers in which no one event is more important or significant than the other. Any interaction that believers have with one another, whether it’s in a formal meeting, or with the presence of ordained clergy, or in an official “church” capacity, should be held in equal regard and treated with the same spiritual value, worth, importance, and with a strong recognition of God’s very presence in their midst via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Much, much, much more to say about meetings with the context of church community but I’ll get into that dynamic in later posts.
The simplest definition of church, as I titled this post, starts with understanding that it is two fold:
- Church is at first very broad term. It means the family and people of God. And church is one among many words that that the bible uses to refer to the family, i.e. believers, the bride, the body, etc. This is the core definition of church by which any other definition grows out of.
- If we further dig and hone in on it’s treatment in the New Testament we see its main usage narrows in that it refers to groups of Christians who were geographically linked together in close proximity (usually cities and towns) who shared in an every day relational component. Churches then, in a narrowed New Testament context, are local relational communities of the people of God.
FINAL THOUGHTS: RELATIONAL COMMUNITY LIFE. WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
If you are a believer in Jesus then you are a member of the family of God. You are a member of His grand eternal church! You are apart of the body of Christ which is His presence on earth, you are part of the flock, you are one of the brethren, Welcome!
Now that you are in the family, what do you do? How does you family interact with one another? How does this family live amongst each other? What does daily life look like for a member of this family? What constitutes a healthy community? Do you need to have formal meetings to be a community? What about the need of elders and leaders? What about offerings and donations? Is there a need for centralized organization? I’ll spend more time on these in later posts but for now I’ll throw a tiny bit of content out there to prime the pump.
Lets do a sports analogy: The New Testament doesn’t describe the believers experience as an independent sport like golf, or archery. A quick read doesn’t portray the early church as an isolated me-verses-the-world experience. It’s clearly more community based. Okay yes, but……what TYPE of community? Is the early church described to us like a football game where one person (like a pastor of a church) has the goods and everyone is out there trying to receive the pass? Or better yet, is it described to us where we are only spectators watching from the distance while the real spiritual people, like priest and pastors, get to play the game? No. At least I don’t think so. And that not by any measure.
So then, how DOES the New Testament demonstrate our relationship with the church?. I’d say it’s more like a community game…like my old favorite, hacky sack.
Just as in hacky, we stand close together and integrally linked. Everyone is an equal and everyone participation is needed and valued. Stronger skilled players help the new and weak players yet no one takes preeminence. Folks increase in learning and skills develop not from a top down leadership approach but from a side-by-side non-hierarchical style. And at the heart of it we are all in it together trying to keep this thing going. This very loose analogy is closer to how I see the church of the New Testament functioning (of course minus the hacky ball hog that spends five minutes trying to bust out all of their tricks before passing it to the next person!!).
Relational community is a HUGE aspect and element of the family of God. Except for the four gospels, and the book of Acts, the entire New Testament is made up of personal letters written to exactly that: distinct geographical groups of believers who formed relational communities. As we read these letters we see that their understanding of being in the church of God wasn’t limited to a once a week meeting on Sunday where they heard only one person preach, sing pre-selected songs that the worship team picked out, and kept silent. Rather, it was a community based, day to day, one to another, interwoven, all-in, and interactive life experience. And, when they DID have meetings, they were fully participatory where everyone was encouraged and free to share. A far cry from how many of us see and experience the church today.
Community life as believers, which I define as seeking out, sharing, and expressing the Lord Jesus one to another, was first modeled by Jesus toward His disciples while He was on earth. It was then practiced by His first followers in Jerusalem and continued to be modeled in the communities of the Middle East and Europe that are written about in the New Testament. These interactive communities, where the Lord Jesus is further enabled to manifest Himself on earth, were the inevitable by product of the message that his followers spread. The followers of Jesus that went out and spread His word were not traveling the world to make converts who just merely believed in a new intellectual concept and sat on it. Neither did they go out and share Jesus with new people for the sole purpose of getting them to go through the ritual of a Sunday church meeting where you sing a few songs, hear a preachers message (that you forget before you get to your car door), drop a twenty in the offering plate, and then go home and wait till next week. Instead, what we see are individuals who experienced a miraculous life changing new birth, received the promised gift of the Spirit that enabled a tangible intimacy with God, and then lived an interconnected life together in local communities to accomplish God’s will and purpose on earth. Did each community do it successfully or perfectly every time – LOL, not even close! But this is the way in which these communities were set up. And it enabled them with probably the best method to allow them to experience and share Jesus in their midst.
I challenge us as the church, us as the global body, to go deeper in our communities. Deeper in that we seek out a more relational person-to-person lifestyle of faith that allows Jesus to flow through us without rules, or hierarchy, and break out of the cast that the traditional church has modeled and taught to us. If we truly have God living in us through His Spirit, the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead (Romans 8:11), then each one of us, not just the clergy, should be like a river flowing and bursting forth with living water to one another. That gets me excited!! And I yearn and desire for that to become more of a reality in my own life just as much as I do for every believer and community in God.
We are the the church. We are the community and family of God. A special people called out of the normalities of this world into a family-like relationship with God and His people. And it is in our local communities, in our churches that is, where we are most strongly enabled to worship, learn, serve, love, and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below!