When I was a little boy, the word church had two basic definitions, we went to services called church and there was a building where we met called the church. Sometimes we went to the church to go to church, which for a little guy could be a tad confusing. Occasionally we would meet with other churches for a sing together, which made it even more confusing because inevitably the pastor would say something like, “it is such a blessing to bring the church together.” What church was he talking about: our church, or one of the other churches that was there? I remember asking my mom which church he was talking about and she really confused me when she replied, “Oh, all the churches. We’re all the church.” At that point I gave up trying to understand until I had become an adult and I started helping a parachurch ministry called Campus Life. At one leadership meeting, the club director said he appreciated seeing the Church band together to reach kids for Christ. I started to understand that besides local churches, there was a larger expression of these churches called the Church. What are the meanings of church? Where do we find the term church in the Bible and why do we have so many definitions that we use?
Part of the problem with our trouble defining the word church is because of the English translations of the Bible. The New Testament has a couple of different words in its original language of Greek that is translated into the English word church. The word church is transliterated from the Greek adjective kyrialos, or the noun kuriakon, which refers to that which belongs to the Lord. This word from the Greek became kirche in German and then church in English and it primarily meant a building used for Christian assembly. It eventually was also used to translate the Greek word Ecclesia into english which meant in the New Testament most often the assembly of Christians that came together. In the New Testament this word was used by Jesus to describe the assembly of his disciples in the larger context in , when he referred to the Ecclesia that would be built. In the book of Acts, these assemblies were used to describe Christians that came together in certain locations, such as where it described the assembly of Christians in Jerusalem. Paul used the word to describe local expressions of the church in several places in his letters, such as and . Despite the many uses of the English word church, the main meaning biblically is the assembly of people who gather together as disciples of Jesus and ultimately the entirety of his disciples.That is the basic definition we will work with as we continue to explore this issue.
While these are the definitions of the word we use for church, there are also illustrations that the Bible gives us for the church that can also be helpful in defining it. One example is that of a family. In Jesus was told that his family was outside wanting to speak with him. He replied,
“Who is my mother and my brothers? Stretching his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
This means those who consider themselves disciples of Jesus are now members of a new family that assembles together on a regular basis. Not every family member may be able to get together at every gathering, but because they are a family they usually have the desire to do so. However, like most families this family also has the strange uncles or aunts that make the gatherings sometimes interesting, to say the least. But because they are part of the family, we can overlook the eccentricities because there is a deep connection that we want to maintain. It has been my experience that when the local expression of the church is healthy this family dynamic becomes very evident.
Early in our marriage my wife had to have abdominal surgery to remove her Gall Bladder. This was before some of the more modern Laparascopic surgical techniques were being commonly used in our area and so her surgery would require two weeks of home convalescence. We had two children at the time, including our son Quentin who was only 4 months old. I was working 3 jobs, one full-time and two part-time, in order to produce enough income to make ends meet so I was away from the house at least 12 hours a day, every day of the week. We had no idea how we would be able to take care of our children let alone help my wife during her convalescence. At the time our family was not attending church regularly and we had no close friends in the area as we had recently returned from overseas military duty. We really had no idea what we would do, when the Church sprang to life. A close friend who was part of the church in which I had grown up came to our house the day before the surgery and informed us that she and some other people in our church had arranged for someone to come to our house during Dorinda’s convalescence and would not only attend her but care for our children. In addition they had arranged for meals to be brought over twice a day for the entire TWO WEEKS. We were amazed. After my wife recovered I asked our friend how she was able to arrange for so many people to help and she said something to the effect of, “That’s what a church family does.” That episode obviously had a major impact on how I understand the church functions best.
Another illustration that the Bible uses is of the body. In the book of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul uses it as an example of how the church corporately has similar elements to a human body.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:12–13 (ESV)
As Christians we are part of a larger body, a body that has essential parts that are needed to function properly.This is one of the reasons why not being part of a local expression of the body in a local congregation hurts the cause of Christ. We become part of the local body so that we might fill a role needed in order for that body to perform correctly. The members, like the human body, can only do what they are intended to do if they have the rest of the members around with which to work. Those members need one another in close proximity in order to function properly and without that they can’t perform the role assigned by the head, Jesus Christ. As Paul points later in the same passage:
“If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” –21 (ESV)
In defining the church though it might be helpful to also look at trends in the approach to the weekly gathering of Christians that don’t seem to have any biblical examples. One current definition or illustration that seems to be popular in the western church right now that doesn’t have any biblical example is that of a business, and one that perhaps most closely resembles a restaurant. It seems part of the western church culture has turned the weekly gathering of Christians into a consumer driven event rather than a gathering of a family or the operation of a body as the Bible illustrates. In our next segment we will explore this trend and a few others to see why and how this has happened.
18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (ESV)
8:1 And Saul approved of his execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (ESV)
2 and all the brothers who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia: (ESV)
3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (ESV)
46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! (ESV)
19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? (ESV)