What Is "Church"?
New Testament Church Series #2
"What is your church preference?", someone was asked. The reply? "Red brick."
An old, stale joke but one which illustrates the concept that many people have of "church". Ask ten people what "church" means and you will probably get ten different answers. But it should be obvious that we are not free to subjectively define a term as we see fit. Before we can engage in a productive study of "the church," or any subject for that matter, it is essential that we objectively define our terms, using commonly accepted
methods of defining words.
Definitions: The Reference Books
A few simple definitions of "ekklesia" from various word study sources will help us in establishing an all-important definition of our term. (While we will have a separate study of this, we want to point out here that both the Greek word "ekklesia" and the English term "church" are collective nouns. Webster says this is "a noun which in the singular form denotes a collection of individuals [e.g., army, orchestra, crowd]: it is treated as
singular when the collection is thought of as a whole and as plural when the individual members are thought of as acting separately." The real significance of this will become apparent in an up-coming study.) Now to the definitions.
"ekklesia...was the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs. That they were summoned is expressed in the latter part of the word; that they were summoned out of the whole population, a select portion of it, including neither the populace, nor strangers, nor yet those who had forfeited their civic rights, this is expressed in the first". Trench, Synonyms Of The New Testament, pp. 1-2
"ekklesia, derived via ek-kaleo, which was used for the summons to the army to assemble, from kaleo, to call...It is attested from Eur. and Hdt. onwards (5th cent. B.C.) and denotes in the usage of antiquity the popular assembly of the competent full citizens of the polis, city." Dictionary Of New Testament Theology, vol. 1, p. 291
"Ekklesia is the assembly of the demos in Athens and in most Greek poleis. The etymology is both simple and significant. The citizens are the ekkletoi, i.e., those who are summoned and called together by the herald. This teaches us something concerning the biblical and Christian usage, namely, that God in Christ calls men out of the world." Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, vol. 3, p. 513
Definitions: The New Testament
But one doesn't need lexicons and dictionaries to know something of the meaning of our term. Anyone with a good English text of the Bible should be able to read and, with some thought, arrive at an accurate concept of "ekklesia". As can be seen from the definitions above, "ekklesia" is not used in strictly spiritual contexts, and this can be determined from the New Testament. "Ekklesia" is used four times in a purely "secular" sense,
not denoting "church" as we commonly think of it, and an examination of these passages will help us to arrive at an accurate understanding of this term.
Acts 19:32,41---"Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was in confusion; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together...And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly." This assembly was made up of the silversmiths in town who had been "called out" by Demetrius for less-than-honorable purposes, resulting in a riotous mob. By way of contrast we read of another "ekklesia" in....
Acts 19:39---"But if ye seek anything about other matters, it shall be settled in the regular assembly." This was a group of people who could be "called out" to legally transact business. (The word "regular" [ASV] means "lawful, legal, lit., in law...or strictly, what is within the range of law". W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words, p. 646)
Acts 7:38---"This is he that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel that spake to him in the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received living oracles to give unto us:" This "church" was composed of the Jews who had been in captivity in Egypt but had obeyed the call of God through Moses to come out. For forty years they were assembled in the wilderness as they headed for the land God had promised to their father Abraham.
The terms "church" and "ekklesia" denote (a) an assembly of (b) a certain kind of people who (c) are collected or grouped together based upon things held in common and (d) having responded to a common call. When "church" is used in spiritual contexts, sometimes these people are assembled literally, other times they are "brought together" figuratively as we shall see in future studies. The type of people and the nature of the assembly (whether a "local church" or the "universal church") is always determined from the context.
It is vital that we understand the constituent elements of these assemblies are always people. Neither local churches nor various religious denominations are a part of "church"/"ekklesia" in its "universal" sense. When we think "church"--local or universal--and envision anything in addition to or instead of people we are making a tragic blunder.
Nor is "the church" some nebulous "institution" that Christ died for or to which people are added by God. Through the years preachers, in an understandable attempt to illustrate a point, have drawn circles or other objects to illustrate "the church" and then put people into "it." But "church" is not an "it." Any concept that makes "the church" one thing and the people something else is erroneous and will eventually lead to practices which are as much in error as the concept itself.
"Church", then, is a relationship or fellowship: in the universal church this relationship is "vertical"--- between God and all those who are saved ("our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ", 1 Jo. 1:3); in the local church it is "horozontal"---between individual saints ("the church of God which is at Corinth, even them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus," 1 Cor. 1:2.)
One final thought. From time to time there are those who attempt to blame all the woes in the religious world on the use of "church" as a translation for "ekklesia" and there certainly are erroneous concepts associated with the word "church." However, any English word chosen by translators to convey the meaning of "ekklesia" would have eventually been misused because there isn't an English word yet that has not suffered from abuse and had a connotation attached to it that is inaccurate. However, as important as semantics are, the causes of our "church" problems are much deeper than the word(s) we use to describe this concept.
As suggested in this present study, the word "church", when used in a spiritual sense, has two broad usees: "universal" and "local". Our next study will examine the significance of each.
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.2; February 1998