We are going to begin a study on “Getting to Know the Lord’s Church.” We often talk about many scriptural concepts assuming that everyone is on the same page in defining what we are talking about. But more and more, in conversations I have and things I read, I find that we may not have the same understanding about the church. Before we can go into detail about the nature or function of the church, we must first build the foundation so that we have the same understanding of what the church is scripturally. A proper understanding of the church will lead us to greater knowledge and appreciation of the work of Christ.
Scripturally, What is the Church?
The church defined
In the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek, the word church is given as “ekklesia.” This is a compound word, ek- which means “out, out of”, and the word kaleo- which means “to call, to bid.” Thus, ekklesia was used of a group of people who had been called out of some place or relationship and into another one. Greek literature, as well as Vine’s and Thayer, shows that this word was most often used in regard to “a gathering of citizens called out of their homes and into some public place.” We can see the word ekklesia used this way in the book of Acts. Turn to Acts 19:29-32, 39-41. Ekklesia, which is translated “church” in many other place, is here translated assembly. In this text we see it refers to people who had been called out of their homes and into a public place. What we see is that the word can be used in a religious sense and in a non-religious sense in the scriptures. Here is refers to the citizens of Ephesus gathering together.
Church in the Old Testament
We also find the word ekklesia used of the assembly of people in the Old Testament. Turn to Acts 7:38. Here we read of the church that was in the wilderness. How could these people in the Old Testament be called a church? Notice the context back in verse 35. God, through Moses, had called the people out of Egypt and into the wilderness to enter the promise land. This is the thrust of the speech of Stephen. The Jews were God’s chosen people, called by God, yet rejected Him and fell in the wilderness. Now, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew so we cannot look back to see the use of the ekklesia since it is a Greek word. However, the Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus and the apostles quoted from. In Deuteronomy 9:10 we read of ekklesia here translated assembly. This can also be found in many passages including Deuteronomy 4:10, 18:16, 23:1,2,3,8. So in these passages we are looking at the assembly of the Jews.
The point that we need to see is that when we read church, ekklesia, we are not necessarily talking about the church of Christ. The scriptures speak of it as an assembly of people, an unruly mob, and the assembly of Jews. It is people called out of one location or relationship and into another location or relationship. Therefore, when church or ekklesia is referring to Christ, we are speaking of people who have been called out of the world and into Christ by the gospel.
Ekklesia: a collective noun–a collection of people
We also need to see in the New Testament that the word ekklesia, often translated church, is always a collective noun. A collective noun is a thing that is composed of a plurality of elements. We have many words that exemplify the meaning of a collective noun. Many sheep is a flock, one sheep is not. One person cannot be a family. A jury consists of many members, not one person. Congress is many people not one person. Thus church cannot be one person, but designates more than one. When we read church, we need to think of a collection of people.
We have many passages to validate our conclusion. 1 Corinthians 1:2 says the church of God which is at Corinth. In Acts 20:28 the elders are given the charge to shepherd the church of God. The seven churches in Asia in Revelation 2-3 speaks of groups of people in each of the seven cities mentioned. Let us look at Matthew 16:18, a very popular passage. Jesus says here, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” What was Jesus describing that He would build? Was He building a corporation? Was He building an institution? No, He was building a called out group of saved people. Many of the problems that arose over institutionalism begins with a misunderstanding of what the church is. If the church is an institution, then it cooperates with other institutions. But the church is not an institution people enter, it is people!
Now, let us be sure that we do understand that the church was instituted by God and that it does have organization. But we must see the church as a plurality of people who have been called out of this world. Consider the passages we just read. Was Paul speaking of an institution in 1 Corinthians 1:2, the church of God, or the saved people in Corinth? Were the elders in Acts 20:28 to shepherd an institution or the saved people of Ephesus? When we read church which belongs to Christ, we must think of Christ’s calling of people out of the world into a saved relationship with Him.
Synonyms for the church
But this does not have to be pure speculation. Even if we had absolutely no knowledge of the Greek language, we could still understand the meaning of church (ekklesia) in the scriptures. Turn to 1 Timothy 3:14-15. Verse 15 says, “but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” How is the church of the living God described? As a household of God. It is described as a family, a collection of related people. It is a collection of related people. Turn to Ephesians 1:22-23 where we will see a similar thing. Here we read, “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Here we read that Christ is head over all things. How is the church described here? As His body, which is a collection of related members.
In Acts 8:3 we read of Saul making havoc of the church. What was Paul persecuting and making havoc of? In Galatians 1:13 Paul says that he persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. What was he persecuting when he persecuted the church of God? I think we understand that we are looking at God’s group of saved people. In Ephesians 5:25 we read that Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. What does Christ love? Us and gave himself for us. I hope that when we read church that belongs to Christ or speak of the church which is Christ’s, this will be what comes into our minds. The saved people of God. Notice 1 Corinthians 10:32, “Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God.” Here are three groups of people: the Jews, which are people, the Greeks which are people, and the church, which are people.
How the Church Has Been Falsely Defined
As an institution
This is something we have covered earlier, but we need to say a few more words about this. We must wonder where this idea came from. During the reformation period, many were fighting against the Catholic church and its errors and abuses. One of the errors of the Catholic church is its teaching that it is an institution that saves people. However, the New Testament never speaks of the ekklesia, the church, saving people. In Acts 2:37 the people ask what they must do to be saved. Peter does not respond that the church saves and they need to join the church of Christ. Who saves? Jesus saves. We sing a song that Jesus saves, not the church. Yet this error has arisen again as people suggest that the church saves people.
Verse 47 tells us that the Lord adds us to his group of saved people who are in fellowship with God only after we are saved. This is parallel to verse 41 where three thousand souls were added to them. Who is the “them?” The other saved people of God. Again, if we say that the church saves, then we need to think about our definitions. What we are saying is that we save people, because we belong to the church. We know that is completely false. The Lord saves, not us.
As all religious people
Some want to define the church as all religious people, regardless of denomination. They want us to believe that the church is made up of all the denominations that are out there. So it does not matter where you go, you are in the ekklesia. But this is clearly against the scriptures as well. If this was the case, why was Jesus so upset at all the religious leaders who were preventing people from truly learning and worshipping God if all religious people are saved? Furthermore, why did Jesus say these words in Matthew 7:21-23, that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven? The church is the group of people who have been called out of the world and belong to Christ and are in fellowship with him. We cannot believe that someone is part of the Lord’s body but has not fully given his or her life to the Lord and is not obedient to the commands of Christ.
As a building
This one is fairly common as well. Many think of the church as the building where Christians meet. We even hear people speak of going to church, which conjures the idea that the building is the church. We sometimes see places on the web or advertising that says “church of Christ” and then shows a picture of the building. This is why some congregations have their signs say “a church of Christ meets here,” to help designate to people that the building is not the church. People are what make up the church.
But this false distinction goes even further and can cause other problems. Many make rules that apply in the church building but do not apply other places. This would be like suggesting that women cannot teach in the assembly in the church building, but they can if the assembly met in people’s homes. This defines the church as the building and not the gathering of the saved in Christ. The church can be gathered outside of this building. We are still to conduct ourselves as Christians and as the family of God outside of these walls. This is just a building and is not the church. It is the church’s building.
Christ and His Glorious Church
Reference to us
We may ask the question why all of this is important. Why do we need to know this information? It is important because the passages we are about to read are not to be applied to some third party institution, but rather applied to you and me. Notice Ephesians 3:20-21. Paul says that “to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus.” Our lives, as saved people of God, should show the power and glory of Christ. We are responsible to show the world the power that Christ worked in us through his blood. We see that these passages put a personal responsibility upon each of us. Look at Ephesians 5:25-29. Here we see the love that Christ showed for each of us who are saved. It is a continuing love so that we can be presented glorious to Christ. We are the ones who are to be without spot or wrinkle without blemish, holy to Christ. These are to be descriptions of us.
We must live up to our calling
Therefore we need to live up to our great calling. Christ has shed his blood for each of us so that we will respond to him. He is looking for a response that we see in Acts 2:37 when the people were cut to the heart. We should be cut to the heart to see the great work that Christ has done. He has called us out of the world and into the glorious light of his son. We are added the called out group of saved people who have a relationship with Christ when we obey his commands, as we see in Acts 2:38.