What Is The Church?
The church is not a building, but the people who heed the call of Christ through the gospel and thus become His body.
We cannot and should not underestimate the misunderstanding that exists in the religious world and beyond regarding the word “church”. People often talk about “going to church”, but no such expression is found in the Bible. It is also common to hear someone refer to the meeting place or building for Christian assembly as the church, but no apostles or other inspired writers of the New Testament ever employed the term that way.
We all need to appreciate the fact that the church is a New Testament institution. The word “church” comes from the Greek “ekklesia”, which means a “called out” body. It derives from “ek” (out) and “kaleo” (to call or summon).
Originally, “ekklesia” was used among the Greeks to designate a group of citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of the city or state. It thus didn’t have a religious meaning among the Greeks. In general, the term signified any group of people who was called out and gathered together for a certain purpose. It has this sense in Acts 19, the chapter which relates the incident of an angry mob that rose against the apostle Paul in Ephesus, accusing him of blasphemy against their goddess Dianna.
The public officer in charge of dealing with the altercation demanded that the crowd dispersed, and he explained that grievances, if there were any, should be brought before a legally constituted assembly with power to hear the case. He said, “But if ye enquire any thing concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly” (v. 39). The word used for “assembly” by Luke, the author of the book of Acts, is “ekklesia”. In a preceding passage, v. 32, and a succeeding one, v. 41, “assembly” is translated from the same “ekklesia”.
The Greek word came to be applied to associations of Christians. First, it denotes the whole of the people who heed the call of Christ through the gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:13) and thus become His people and body. Of these subjects Jesus said, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This entity is further described as the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23).
The second application is that of the body of professed believers who meet congregationally in a specified local community to worship God and accomplish the work to them assigned by Him. These are not a company that have come together to share their own thoughts and opinions, but a body of people called together out of the world to hear the Word of God.
One example of the local sense is found in Acts 20:28. Luke wrote, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Timothy 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:1). This was an instruction from Paul to the elders of the church at Ephesus, that he had called for a meeting with him in the city of Miletus on his way to Jerusalem from his third mission, to care for the spiritual welfare of the local church.
When “church” is used with this sense in the plural, it refers to the whole of the congregations in a district or region (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1; Galatians 1:2). This is the meaning of this statement by Paul in Romans 16:16, “The churches of Christ salute you.”
All local congregations make up the universal church Jesus promised to build, and did bring into existence through the agency of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). The universal body of Christ is under the authority of Christ and is organically structured (Ephesians 1:22). Each congregation exists independently (1 Peter 5:2), overseen spiritually by elders who have a pastoral role (Titus 1:5-9; Acts 14:23), ministered in the Word of God by a preacher (1 Timothy 2:7) who is also called minister (2 Timothy 4:5), evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5) and teacher (2 Timothy 1:11) and is assisted in its day-to-day affairs by deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13; Acts 1-6).
You will note that the word “church” is not the only name for God’s people. They are also called “kingdom” (Hebrews 12:28), “household” or “house” (1 Timothy 3:15), “flock” (1 Peter 5:3), and “temple” (2 Corinthians 6:16).
The New Testament never refers to the church as a material building, neither does it contain the statement “going to church”. You can’t go to church when, if you are a faithful Christian, you are a part of it. Christians rather “come together” (Acts 20:7).