August 16, 2022

How Do We Define Church?

Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people?

For many of us, the rhyme was a cute way to picture a church with people in it– until someone came along and told us that the church is the people, so we open the doors to see the church– and 4 year olds everywhere became very confused!

It turns out, however, that how we define “the church” makes a difference on how we interpret various passages of the Bible and how to apply it to ourselves today.

What Do You Mean By Church?

Many Americans conflate the church building with the people that are part of the church. So we ask questions like “What church do you attend” or “Where do you go to church”, which is different than “Where does your church meet?”

The English word ‘church’ is derived from the Gk. adjective kyriakos as used in some such phrase as kyriakon dōma or kyriakē oikia, meaning ‘the Lord’s house’, i.e. a Christian place of worship. ‘Church’ in the NT, however, renders Gk. ekklēsia, which mostly designates a local congregation of Christians and never a building. Although we often speak of these congregations collectively as the NT church or the early church, no NT writer uses ekklēsia in this collective way.

The New Bible Dictionary

So this term is not all churches, nor a building, but the gathering in a local area. So if it’s not a building, but can happen in a building, how do we decide whether a meeting of any group of people is a meeting of the church or not?

What do we see from the New Testament?

There are a few different instances where we see groups of believers getting together to worship God in the New Testament. We know that in Acts 2, a group of 120 were meeting when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and after that 3,000 came to be numbered with them. What we don’t see is them renting out a large auditorium to get together– we see them having fellowship in a part of the Temple. I don’t see it being as much a service as a steady stream of people that come in to hear the Apostles’ doctrine.

We see that there’s some order in place, as Ananias and Sapphira bring their money to the gathering, and then leave, having given more than they bargained for.

We know that as persecution began, many fled to house churches, and when Paul is writing his epistles that they are directed to people who own the houses that the believers are meeting in.

We also have record of Pastors leading groups of people.

Lastly, there’s a verse stating that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is there.

So What Is a Meeting of the Church?

What I get from this is that a meeting of the church is not a meeting in this building, and probably doesn’t have to be an official meeting at all. It could be a formal meeting with a bulletin, songs and a message, or it could be a group of people gathered together in a home practicing discipleship with a group of people.

Anywhere the body of Christ gathers to pray, praise and learn about Jesus could fit under the umbrella of a church– a local gathering.

What’s important is the people– like the rhyme says– not the building.

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