As we dig into this series discussing how the body of Christ – “the Church” – puts their faith into practice as they meet together, the inescapable first question is, “What is the church?” That question is immediately followed by “What is the church supposed to do?” These two questions are the target of this post.
What is the Church?
The idea of “church” carries so much cultural and linguistic connotation that it has come to mean many things across the world. For hundreds of years before the Protestant Reformation, talking about “the church” always referred to the Roman Catholic church. In scholarly debate, there is always a discussion whether “the church” references the entire body of Christian believers around the world (as in Matthew 16:18) or only the local assembly of Christians in a regional area (as in John’s letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3). Then there is always the question of whether the word church refers to the people (i.e., “we are the church”) or the place where the people meet (i.e., “let’s go to church”).
To understand what “the church” is, we need to dive into the original language in the New Testament. We might find that the biblical understanding of “church” is quite different from what our modern vernacular would imply.
The Greek word used for “church” in the New Testament is “ekklesia.” So let’s begin by taking a deeper look into what it means.
1. An “Ekklesia” is Always the People; Never the Place
The Greek word “ekklesia” was used widely in the first century to mean an assembly of people brought together by a specific purpose. There is not a single case where the word ekklesia was used to refer to the location or building where this group met. It always meant the group itself.1
However, confusion around this word may still remain as the word “ekklesia” is used throughout the New Testament to point to different groups of people. Thus, depending on which use is assumed, it can affect our theology.
Ekklesia is used to describe all believers everywhere in some cases (like Ephesians 1:22). At other times it is used to point to all Christians in a particular city or region (like 1 Corinthians 1:2). However, we are going to use an even narrower meaning. As we discuss “church,” we will be referring to a localized group of believers who regularly meet together for worship and service to one another (such as in Romans 16:5 or 1 Corinthians 16:19). These small, individual congregations of Christians are usually referred to as “a local church” as opposed to “the universal church” or “the American church,” etc.2
The “local church” will be our primary focus in this series because the idea of a “gathered assembly” is at the core of the word ekklesia. For us to be the church, we must meet together (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is in the gathering that our orthopraxy will be proven or not.
2. The Ekklesia Had Legislative Authority
In the New Testament times, the word ekklesia most often described a select governmental or legislative body,3 such as the Roman senate or the Jewish Sanhedrin. These assemblies would meet together to make formal decisions regarding various legal matters, whether secular or religious. These assemblies carried designated authority to rule over some domain of community life.
This governmental use of this word makes sense, then, when Jesus shares His plan to build His “ekklesia“:
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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”
An Embassy of Heaven
Jesus’ first stated purpose for His ekklesia was that it would move into territory ruled by sin, death, and the devil and take authority over the domain of hell (tear down their gates; their defenses). Thus, the church would have the authority to bind and loose spiritual realities in the earth. I view this in much the same way that one nation will set up an embassy in another nation to bring governmental influence over the laws and culture of the host country.
We see this legislative function further when Jesus began delegating His divine authority to His disciples.
And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”
He gave them the title “apostles,” which, as we have discussed before, is another governmental word for a certain class of military leaders, similar to modern-day ambassadors. Their authority was to replace all of hell’s influence on earth with God’s Kingdom reality.
It is clear from these and other passages that Jesus’ “church” is an earthly delegation representing Him and carrying His legislative authority as Lord over all things.
3. And Ekklesia is a Body Formed From Shared Beliefs
The other regular use of “ekklesia” in the first century described a group of people who gathered around a shared set of beliefs or a common purpose. We read of groups such as the “ekklesia of Pythagoras” or the “ekklesia” of animals who gathered to hear Orpheus speak in the works of Himerius.4 This use of “ekklesia” can also be seen in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) when referring to gatherings of “the congregation of Israel.”5
Regarding the church, we can see the expectation that we, too, would be a community built around our shared faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We see this repeatedly as the early church leaders are commanded to teach and protect sound doctrine in the church.
[An overseer of the church] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites…”
A Community of Faith
We must see that the purpose of the church is to be a community of believers in Jesus Christ. This is foundational. He is the reason we are together, and together we strive to live out our shared faith in Him as the Messiah and Son of God.
Although many great civic organizations and social clubs exist that people can participate in, the church is not one. Unless you are a follower of Jesus, you cannot be a member of His ekklesia.
This fact has led to confusing and controversial situations where some groups call themselves part of Jesus’ church (universal) yet do not firmly hold to a firm faith in Christ, as revealed in the Bible. For example, the Unitarian church allows people of any religion or belief system to claim membership and does not have a common biblical doctrine as its foundation. They cannot, therefore, be considered a Christian “church” in biblical terms.
The same is true for the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” (Mormons). Though they use Christian terminology, their doctrine has rejected the truth of the New Testament, and their shared faith is based on another contradictory book. Thus, though they would be considered an “ekklesia” in general terms, they are not the biblical “ekklesia of Jesus Christ.”
For a group of people to be considered “the church of Jesus Christ,” they must hold to and proclaim a biblical doctrine grounded in the Bible.
What Is the Church Supposed to Do?
Having laid the foundation for what the church is, I think we can also form a pretty clear picture of what the church is supposed to do. As we look at why believers are called together as an ekklesia – a local church assembly – we can conclude from this discussion that the following purposes should apply when a local church meets together.
1. To serve as an embassy of heaven on the earth, empowering God’s ambassadors (all believers) to bring the reality and power of God’s Kingdom to the world.
This will necessarily affect how we come together to worship, pray, and serve one another, as well as how we practice spiritual gifts, engage in spiritual warfare, and reach out to the lost around us.
2. To proclaim Christian doctrine as found in the Biblical scriptures and form a community centered around these shared beliefs.
This will lay the foundation of our life together in fellowship and will place a high demand on how we study the scriptures, preach the Word, engage in discipleship, and much more.
As we move forward in this series, we will discuss how these various practices ought to be done in order to fulfill these broader biblical mandates.
Beyond the Greek Understanding
One final note I want to make is that while it is helpful to get our foundational understanding of what “the church” is supposed to be from the language Jesus used when He established it, we must also take into consideration that the Bible is full of other commands which make Jesus’ ekklesia quite different from all other local bodies in the world. As we move forward, we will highlight many of these things, but I believe two of them are essential to note now.
The first is that Jesus repeatedly said that He is the head of the church, both universal and local. The elders and other leaders are servants under His leadership. When a human leader puts himself or herself as the highest authority in the church, it ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ. Instead, it becomes a personality cult or a system of hierarchical domination.
Secondly, Jesus said He was sending His Holy Spirit to guide the church in all things, both doctrinally and practically. This means that we will find things particular to Jesus’ ekklesia, which may be far different from secular counterparts. We cannot and should not depend on the traditions and “best practices” of men for the direction of the church. Instead, we must always be listening to the Holy Spirit for how we “do ministry.”
This also means that as all believers have access to the same Holy Spirit, we all have a purpose and place within the life of the church and ought to have the willingness and freedom to fulfill our roles in their service to the Lord. Thus, while there will be those that God calls to places of leadership in the body, there is not a single believer who is “just a member” or is excluded from taking part in the works He has planned. If you are a believer in Jesus, you have a place. (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26)
1 D. W. B. Robinson, “Church,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 199.
2 Ernest Best, “Church,” ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 134.
3 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 303.
5 Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 168.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Anthony Scott Ingram.
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