What Is The Church?

       The word church appears multiple dozens of times in the New Testament (NT). It is seen as descriptive of those who are followers of Jesus and what Jesus represents. It is also seen at times as designating the location where followers of Jesus came together for worship. When used in this manner, it is not unlike the NT word “synagogue”.

       “Synagogue” is the transliteration of a Greek word that literally means a gathering of people.  A transliteration is where you match the letters of a word in one alphabet with the letters of a word in a different alphabet. In the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, this Greek word is used over 200 times to refer to a gathering of people.

       In the Greek NT Scriptures, the word came to be regularly used to designate the location where such gathering takes place. Buildings were Jews gathered on the Sabbath to worship came to be called synagogues.

       The synagogue as a place of assembly is believed to have first appeared at the time of the Babylonian captivity when Solomon’s temple was destroyed and the need arose for the Jewish captives to meet in community of worship.  While there is no direct mention of such gathering places in the OT, it is evident that the synagogue was an established institution in the first century.  The synagogue is mentioned dozens of times in the four Gospels and the book of Acts but is not mentioned in the letters of Paul or other epistles found in the NT narrative except for James 2:2 where this Greek word is rendered as meeting or assembly.

       In his book entitled Antiquities, first century Jewish historian Josephus writes that synagogues were used in a variety of ways including being used as schools, as a place to hold communal meals, as hostels, and even for political meetings.  This was all in addition to their use as a place of Sabbath worship were the Law and the Prophets were read and discussed.

The Word "Church"      

      The word "church" is an old English word pronounced "cirice" or "circe." It is derived from the German word kirika, which comes from the Greek word κυριακός (kuriakos).   Kuriakos is from the Greek root Kurios, which means "lord."  Greek Lexicons define kuriakos as something related to or belonging to a lord. Kuriakos appears only twice in the Greek Scriptures. In 1st Corinthians 11:20 it refers to the Lord's (κυριακν) Supper and in Revelation 1:10 it refers to the Lord's (κυριακ) day. Some believe the word "church" is derived from a word in ancient Celtic dialects which means circle.  It is pointed out that the place of worship for these ancient peoples was always circular.

       The word ekklesia (ek-klay-see'-ah) is the Greek word commonly rendered as “church” in the NT. In checking several Greek Lexicons, this Greek word has the meaning of assembly, gathering or meeting.  It is unclear and frankly puzzling why translators of the Greek Scriptures into English choose to use the word "church" in translating the Greek word ekklesia.  The English word church traces its origin to the Greek word kuriakos and not ekklesia. To derive the English word "church" from the Greek ekklesia is a virtual miss-translation. Translation involves replacing words in one language with words of similar meaning in another language. The word “church” does not have a similar meaning to ekklesia.        

       The Englishman John Wycliffe was the first to translate the Biblical Scriptures into English in 1382.  However, Wycliffe did not translate from the Hebrew and Greek but from the Latin. He translated the Latin word ecclesiam into the English word chirche. In a number of English translations subsequent to that of Wycliffe, the translators rendered ekklesia as “congregation.”  These translations include Tyndale’s translation of 1526, the Coverdale translation of 1526, and the Bishop's Bible of 1568.  Rendering ekklesia as "congregation" is in line with its definition in the Greek whereas rendering ekklesia as "church" is totally foreign to the Greek definition of ekklesia.

       Some historians have noted that the word “church” was placed into the 1611 Authorized King James Version by orders of an appointee of King James named Bishop Bancroft.  Bishop Bancroft is said to have instructed the translators not to translate the word ekklesia as “congregation” or “assembly” but to use the word “church” instead. Why "church" was substituted in this manner is uncertain. Various theories have been advanced over the years as to why "church" was used to translate ekklesia.  One such theory sees the word "church" being defined in such manner as to mean having a  kingly sovereignty over the Christian community.

       The English Christian community had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 when the Catholic Pope refused to grant an annulment of England King Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  What followed was the creation of the Church of England with the English monarch acting as head of the English church. Since "church" has its roots in the Greek word kuriakos, which is defined as something related to or belonging to a lord, it is very likely that calling the Christian community "Church" was seen as better reflecting the fact that the king was seen as the head (lord) of the Church of England just as the Pope was seen as the head (lord) of the Roman Church.   

Ekklesia and the Hebrew Scriptures:

       The translators of the Septuagint frequently use this Greek word to describe the congregation or assembly of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Here is one example.  

       Deuteronomy 31:30: And Moses recited the words of this song from beginning to end in the hearing of the whole assembly (Greek ekklesia in Septuagint) of Israel. The Hebrew word translated "assembly" is qə·hal and is defined in Hebrew Lexicons as assembly, convocation or congregation.

       Stephen used the Greek word ekklesia to describe the congregation of Israel in the desert.

       Acts 7:37-38: This is that Moses who told the Israelites, `God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.' He was in the assembly (ekklesia) in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.

Ekklesia and the Greek Scriptures:

       The word ekklesia is found 115 times in the NT.  The first time ekklesia is seen in the NT is Matthew 16:18.

       Matthew 16:18: And I tell you that you are Peter (Greek petros, a small stone), and on this rock (Greek petra, a huge rock) I will build my church (ekklesia), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

      Here Jesus tells Simon he is a petros (a small stone) but upon a petra (a huge rock) Jesus would build His "church" (ekklesia).  It should be evident that in Jesus speaking of building His church upon a large rock, He is talking about Himself as this large rock. In both Romans 9:33 and 1 Peter 2:8, Jesus is referred to as a petra.  It should also be evident that when Jesus was talking about building His ekklesia, He was not talking about a physical building or specific location as such but a gathering, assembly or congregation of people who would follow Him. When did the building of Jesus' ekklesia begin?

       It is a tradition within Christianity to view the Day of Pentecost in AD 31 as the birth of the church. However, there is nothing in Scripture that says this.  Pentecost was simply the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples of Jesus gathered together in the upper room. There is every reason to believe that this gathering of disciples was already the ekklesia of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon them gave confirmation to this and empowered them to carry out the commission Jesus gave them to take the Gospel message to the world. 

       Was the ekklesia that Jesus said He would build already in the process of being built during the time of His ministry?  In Matthew 18 Jesus gave instruction to His disciples as to taking a dispute before the ekklesia if it could not be settled between the two parties involved or in the presence of two or three witnesses.  What ekklesia was Jesus referring to?

       Matthew 18:15-17: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church (ekklesia); and if he refuses to listen even to the church (ekklesia), treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

        Matthew 18:18-20: "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." 

       In speaking of using two or three witnesses to bring about a resolution of a dispute between two brothers, Jesus appears to be referencing the instruction given in Deuteronomy 19:15," One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses."  Since this is instruction given under the Old Covenant which was still in force at the time of Jesus' ministry, Jesus may have been referring to the ekklesia of Jews that regularly met in the synagogue and worshiped within the context of Old Covenant regulations. 

      However, Jesus also tells His disciples that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." This is the same thing He had told Peter as recorded in Matthew 16:19. "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be  bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."  Is Jesus, in 18:18-20, directing this teaching about binding to the existing Old Covenant Jewish ekklesia, most of who didn't believe in Jesus, or is this being directed to a developing Christian ekklesia, an assembly of those disciples of Jesus who did believe in Him and whose decisions regarding the resolution of disputes would be honored in heaven?

       Matthew 18:1 records that Jesus was addressing his disciples. When Matthew 18 is compared with what appears to be a parallel account in Mark 9:30-37, it is apparent Jesus was addressing the twelve and not a larger audience. In Matthew 18:21 Peter is seen as following up on what Jesus had just said about resolving a dispute between brothers by asking how many times one is required to forgive a brother.  Since in the NT the word ekklesia is used multiple dozens of times to identify an assembly or gathering of believers and followers of Christ, it doesn't appear out of line to see those who followed Christ during his earthly ministry identified as His ekklesia.  Jesus said He would build His ekklesia. It seems reasonable to conclude that those who became followers of Jesus during His ministry were the foundational members of what would become a worldwide ekklesia of Christ.

       In Acts 1:15 it is reported that Peter addressed about 120 believers as to the need to replace Judas as one of the twelve. There is every reason to believe these 120 believes were part of an already existing ekklesia that Jesus said he would build.  On the Day of Pentecost it is reported that "about 3000 were added to their number that day" (Acts 2:41). Use of the phrase "their number" indicates that there were already a number of believers that existed prior to the Pentecost event which was now being added unto. It should be apparent that the ekklesia of Christ began to develop during His ministry and constituted those who were gathered together as believers in Jesus.    

       That ekklesia is seen as an assembly, gathering or meeting of Christians is seen in the following examples.

       Acts 8:3: But Saul began to destroy the church (ekklesia). Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.

       Acts 9:31: Then the church (ekklesia) throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

       Acts 12:1: It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church (ekklesia), intending to persecute them.

       Romans 16:4-5: They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches (ekklesia) of the Gentiles are grateful to them.  Greet also the church (ekklesia) that meets at their house.

       As can be seen by the context of these passages, ekklesia is referring to Christians as a group or body of people and not to a specific location where they may have gathered to worship.

       It is evident, however, that Christians did meet in specific locations and as time went on the locations where they met became known as “churches” much like the word synagogue came to refer to the location were gatherings of Jews took place.  Here are some examples.

       Acts 14:23: Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church (ekklesia) and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

       Acts 15:41: He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (ekklesia).      

       Romans 16:16: Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches (ekklesia) of Christ send greetings.

       Revelation 1:4: John, To the seven churches (ekklesia's) in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne,

       While ekklesia in these passages still means assembly, gathering or meeting, it is apparent that specific gatherings of Christians are being identified as meeting in specific locations.  In some cases the location was simply somebody’s house.  In other cases it may have been a rented building. As already mentioned, the Greek ekklesia appears 115 times in the NT.  About half the time it is used to identify Christians in general and about half the time it is used to identify a specific group of Christians meeting together at a particular location. It must be kept in mind, however, that the physical location of where the ekklesia meet is not the ekklesia, it is those gathered at the location that are the ekklesia

 Ekklesia as "called out ones."

      Some see the Greek ekklesia, as it pertains to the ekklesia of Christ, as meaning “called out ones.”  Ekklesia is seen as being called out of the world at large for a specific purpose.  However, this meaning is not inherent in the Greek word itself.  The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich Greek lexicon, which is considered the Gold Standard of Greek Lexicons, does not associate such meaning with ekklesia. Ekklesia is simply defined in this Lexicon as an assembly, gathering or meeting of people for a variety of purposes and not that such assemble results from being called out from a larger group. This Lexicon provides many examples from early Greek literature of ekklesia being used to simply refer to an assembly or gathering of people. While such gathering may be for a specific purpose, it doesn't mean such gathering was called out from a larger group to fulfill such purpose.      

       For example, in Acts 19 we see ekklesia used to describe the mob that gathered to oppose Apostle Paul and then used to describe what kind of gathering is acceptable to deal with the situation at hand. In these verses the translators translated ekklesia according to its normal usage in the Greek language.

       Acts 19:30-32: Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. The assembly (ekklesia) was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there

       Verse 39:  If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly (ekklesia)  

       Verse 41:  After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly (ekklesia).

       How did the Greek ekklesia come to be defined as “called out ones” and how did the moniker “called out ones” come to be defined as being called out by God from the world at large for special purpose which is how “called out ones” is usually defined.

        Etymology is a word that describes the study of the origin and history of words. The etymology of ekklesia is the Greek verb ek-kaleo which means “to call forth” This etymological meaning came to be associated with NT passages which speak of our being called by God.

       However, as Greek scholars point out, ek-kaleo means nothing more than to call forth people to assemble which is what ekklesia means. Ekklesia does not mean to be called our from among an existing group of people. As one scholar I read stated it, "there is no lexical reason to define ekklesia as meaning to be called out from a larger group.  It simple means an assembly of people that voluntarily get together for any variety of purposes." The word has no specific religious connotations. 

       So while there certainly are Scriptural passages that speak of being called by God and being called out of this world to serve God, it is probably more accurate to say such calling results in our becoming part of the ekklesia and not that the calling itself is the ekklesia

       While ekklesia is rendered as church in most translations of the NT and church has become associated with buildings were Christians assemble, the building is not the church.  The church (ekklesia) is the assembly of Christians who come together in community of worship. When Paul spoke of churches in his various letters, he was referring to various groups of Christians in various locations and not to buildings where such groups met. Earlier we saw in Romans 16 Paul asking the Roman Christians to greet the church (ekklesia) that meets at the house of Priscilla and Aquila.  The church was the assembly of Christians who met at the house of Priscilla and Aquila.  Their house wasn’t the church.

How is membership in the Christian ekklesia to be defined?

       While the Greek word ekklesia is commonly used to describe an assembly or gathering of people for any variety of purposes, in the NT it is primarily used to identify people who believe in and follow Christ. Thus, ekklesia is seen as the body of Christ. 

       Ephesians 1:22-23: And God placed all things under his (Jesus') feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church (ekklesia), which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

       Ephesians 5:23: For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (ekklesia), his body, of which he is the Savior.

       Colossians 1:24: Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church (ekklesia).      

       As already discussed, the Greek word ekklesia means assembly, gathering or meeting. It is commonly used to identify those assembled together for a particular reason. When NT writers use this word, it is primarily used to identify those who assemble as followers of Christ Jesus. The reason for followers of Jesus assembling/gathering/meeting together (ekklesia) was to associate with those who became followers of Jesus.  Paul makes it evident in the introduction to his first letter to the Corinthian brethren that the ekklesia are those who have assembled together as followers of Christ Jesus.

       1st Corinthians 1:2: To the church (ekklesia) of God in Corinth, to those sanctified (Greek: hēgiasmenois) in Christ Jesus and called to be holy (Greek: hagios), together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours:

       Here the ekklesia is identified as those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. The Greek word translated "sanctified" is found hundreds of times throughout the NT in various tenses and has the general meaning of being separated for special use and purpose.

       The phrase “to be,” as in "to be holy," is not in the Greek manuscripts. This passage can be read as, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called holy.” Many translators render the Greek word hagios in this passage as "saints" as they do throughout the NT.

         In Greek literature outside the NT narrative, hagios was used to describe things devoted to and set apart for the gods.  Hagios is used hundreds of times throughout the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) to identify persons, places and things as holy to God. When you see how the word holy appears in context in the numerous Scriptures where this word is found, it gives the strong impression of something or someone that is separate from the ordinary or something dedicated to such separation.

         Paul appears to define gatherings (ekklesia) of Christians as people who are separated from the ordinary for special use and purpose in Christ Jesus. He appears to see the Christian ekklesia as consisting of all those who call on the name of Jesus.  Acknowledging Jesus and responding to what He taught and did appear to be the basic definition of ekklesia as it pertains to Christians.  Throughout the NT, being part of the ekklesia of Christ is seen as acknowledging salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus and living a lifestyle that reflects the moral and ethical standards taught by Jesus and expanded upon by Paul and others. Is there more that is required of a person to be considered a member of the Christian ekklesia?

        Some believe that in order to be considered a member of the ekklesia (church), one must attain to and demonstrate a certain level of good works. The various gifts of the Spirit listed in 1st Corinthians 12 and various good deeds performed by the church as recorded throughout the NT narrative are seen as defining membership in the church. However, to define membership in the church in this manner becomes very arbitrary.  The gifts of the Spirit and other deeds performed by members of the Christian ekklesia are not shared equally among believers but are diverse in manifestation. Who is to decide what level of good deeds makes one a member of the ekklesia or disallows such membership?

       For example, if the Christian ekklesia is to be defined by members doing A, B, C, D and E, what if some only do B and D or A and E. Are they not considered members of the Christian ekklesia because they are not doing A, B, C, D and E? 

       The works of the ekklesia are quit diverse as seen by the many different things the church has done historically and is doing at present. Many works performed by the church are also performed by other organizations that are not the church. For example, providing for the poor is seen in Scripture as a work of the church.  Such work is also done by non-Christian groups as well.

       Good works are performed by many groups (ekklesia's) that would not be considered groups sanctified in Christ Jesus and called holy.  Therefore, seeing good works as identifying and defining the NT ekklesia becomes problematic. It is not good works but being sanctified in Christ Jesus and called holy that is the common denominator seen in those who make up the ekklesia seen in the NT. 

       While those who make up the NT ekklesia will manifest various gifts of the Spirit and other behaviors associated with being part of the NT ekklesia, such behaviors are works of the ekklesia and not the ekklesia itself. What defines the NT ekklesia is not the works it performs but what those works are based on. What they are based on is Christ. Belief in the Christ event and all it represents is what defines and identifies the NT ekklesia as opposed to any other ekklesia.

       This is no different than a Moslem who does good works. Such a person is part of the ekklesia called Islam. This Moslem's good works doesn't define his being a Moslem. It is allegiance to Mohammad that defines him as being a Moslem. 

       Should doctrinal agreement and/or organizational conformity define membership in the Christian ekklesia?  As we know, there are multiple dozens of Christian assemblies that have differing organizational structures and different understandings as to doctrinal/theological matters. Membership in the Christian ekklesia cannot be based on adherence to a particular doctrinal understanding, organizational structure, a certain level of manifestation of gifts of the spirit, level of good works or even belonging or not belonging to and meeting with a local ekklesia of Christians. 

       Some argue that since ekklesia means assembly, gathering or meeting, being a part of the Christian ekklesia demands being a part of a local gathering of Christians and not going it alone.  It is argued that by definition you can't be part of the ekklesia of Christ as a loner Christian.  Since ekklesia is defined as an assembly, gathering, meeting or congregation, it is believed that by definition being a member of a Christian ekklesia means participating in a local church.   

       It is certainly true that throughout the NT, we see gatherings/congregations of Christians identified as Christian ekklesia. However, when Christ said He would build His ekklesia, He wasn't thinking in terms of local ekklesia's but was speaking in a universal or corporate sense that includes all those who would become his followers. He was speaking of ekklesia as a whole and not to its individual parts.  I believe He was speaking in terms of the common denominator Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 1:2.  He was speaking of those who would become sanctified in Him and called holy. He was speaking of those who would call upon His name. He was speaking in terms of those who would acknowledge Him as the Son of God, salvation though His death and resurrection and commitment to His teachings. It is these dynamics that places one in the universal/corporate body of Christ which is identified as the ekklesia of Christ.

       Ephesians 1:22-23: And God placed all things under his (Jesus') feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church (ekklesia), which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

       Ephesians 5:23: For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (ekklesia), his body, of which he is the Savior.

       Colossians 1:24: Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church (ekklesia).   

       While participating is a local ekklesia of Christians is certainly a good thing and can provide mutual support in Christian growth, development and service, it is coming to the place of being sanctified in Christ, being called holy and calling upon His name that really defines membership in Christ' ekklesia.  

       The only constant that gives definition to the NT ekklesia is acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and Savior and a commitment to live by the law of love that he taught.  It is Jesus who is the rock (petra) upon which the ekklesia is built and it is belief in Jesus and all He represents that defines membership in His ekklesia.

       Matthew 16:18: And I tell you that you are Peter (Greek petros, a small stone), and on this rock (Greek petra, a huge rock) I will build my church (ekklesia), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.