What is Church?
When I say ‘Church’ people get a number of different images and ideas of ‘The Church’. As such it is important to frame what the Church IS and what it DOES. So let’s draw back further to get the broader view then zone down on the practicalities.
Jesus himself gives us an important starting point
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Greek: ECCLESIA), and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matt 16:18
Jesus does not use a new phrase to describe the Church but a common one, that being the ECCLESIA. This word is found approximately 118 times in the NT. “Ecclesia” becomes the primary word to describe the body of Christ.
Though used in slightly differing ways, it never loses its core and essential meaning.
If a Greek person were to read this they would immediately think of the Ecclesia in Athens, the great gathering of the people. It expressed the operation of the self-governing Greek state or City, a distinct assembly.
This is the same word used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the assembly of Israel when called together by God in places such as Duet 18:16. It is also the same word used to describe the assembly of people that come together in The Great Theatre in Acts 19 to campaign against Paul and the Gospel.
Jesus’ ECCLESIA is a…
distinct community based around a distinct claim (that Jesus was the son of God, the Messiah, Matt 16), and centred on a distinct event (the death and resurrection of Jesus, 1 Cor 15:14) called for a distinct purpose (Matt 28:18 – 20).
There are three crucial ideas that are reflected in the idea and use of Ecclesia that matter A LOT.
Catch these, because when one thinks of the Church, people are given to think of programs, what it can do for them. We think of the stylistic expression of the band, the quality of the speaker, the kids programming BUT though these have some minor level of importance, NONE OF THAT IS CORE TO THE IDENTITY OF THE ECCLESIA.
This is crucial because there are a lot of myths, nice sounding ones that go around.
The ECCLESIA is
1. CALLED OUT – from the world The call of the kingdom is ‘out’ from the principles, practices and allegiances of the old and into that of Jesus. We see this dynamic clearly in the account of Jesus and the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17 – 31).
2. CALLED TOGETHER
The Ecclesia is literally an assembly of people.
I have unfortunately over the years heard well-meaning preachers say ‘YOU are the Church’! or individuals say ‘I am the Church’. These statements are not true. WE are the Ecclesia. An individual can NEVER be ‘the gathering’. You can no more be the Church individually then you can be married or a family individually.
In Hebrews 10:19 we see an often stated passage that is regularly misunderstood.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
NOTE here: profession of faith – Who do you say I am?
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:19 - 25)
Now some try to discount this and the connection to intentional corporate assembling claiming they ‘had a coffee with a Christian, surely that is REAL Church’, or they prayed together with someone, or they even just met with a couple Christians. None of those elements reflect the Biblical depth of what Church actually is.
The word used here for meeting together is synagoging’ (Επισυναγωγή), a clear and intentional echo of the Synagogue, the Jewish gathering hall.
Speaking to a Jewish background audience. He calls on their understanding of true local biblical community. A community connected specifically around
a) Common Identity (Eph 3:17 – 19, 1 Cor 12:27)
Our identity is Jesus. We are ‘chosen in Christ’ (Eph 1:4) What matters is not what separates us but what unites us (Gal 3:28).
b) Common confession (His death and resurrection 1 Cor 15:14)
The biblical community is built around biblical confession. The central confession is that expressed in 1 Cor 15: 3 – 7
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Cor 15:3 – 7)
c) Common leadership (Titus 1:5 – 9, 1 Tim 3:1 – 13, Acts 14:23, Eph 4, 1 Peter 5:1 – 4, Hebrews 13:17) Right at the heart of the biblical community is biblical leadership. The emphasis on the appointment of these in the New Testament is clear and repeated. Acts 14:23 gives an example of this when it says “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” The standards of which are made clear in Titus 1 and 1 Tim 3.d)
d) Common Assembly (Acts 20:17, Heb 10:19, 1 Cor 16:2) From the very beginning of the Church, this was frequently on the ‘Lords day’ or the Sunday. We don’t believe Sunday holds absolute precedence over any other day (such as Friday or Saturday gathering) but the specific, regular gathering of the Church is taught in scripture and directly taught from the very earliest Church writings. We see this not only in scripture but clearly recorded externally. Justin Martyr (155 A.d) a second century Christian philosopher and apologist wrote:
“We all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter made the universe, and Jesus Christ our Saviour rose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturday, and on the day after Saturday, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them these things which I have passed on to you also for your serious consideration.” Justin Martyr’s First Apology
In the gathering of the Church we see clearly the common expectation of the use of Spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12 – 14, 1 Peter 4:10), encouragement (1 Cor 14:3, 1 Thes 5:11) prayer and repentance (James 5:16) singing (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16, 1 Cor 14:15, Psalm 96, James 5:13) communion (1 Cor 11:23 – 32, Luke 22:19, Acts 20:7) the reading and preaching of the word (Acts 2:42 – 47, 1 Tim 4:13, 2 Tim 3:16 – 17, 2 Tim 4:2).
What is important to note is that scripture does not mandate the rigid observance of every element of these in a single meeting at all times but these elements should be regularly expected. The breadth of what God expects of the Church to do cannot really be contained in a single short convenient ‘service’ rather the richness of these are ultimately found in the broader community. The church must be more than a single convenient gathering in the week as many treat it. It can and should be more but it certainly cannot be less. Often people ask what essentially amounts to a legalistic question, ‘Do I have to go to Church every week?’. Note the question is a reflection of a problem, inadequate and law bound concept rather than one motivated by the love of Christ, an identity rooted in being ‘in Christ’. It is essentially like asking ‘Do I have to go to family dinner every week?’ If one views ‘Church’ as a family, as a body then that question will seem crazy. When we recognise Church as a family, we devote our self to the gathering, even when it is inconvenient. The third crucial element implied within ecclesia meets with the five element within "Synagoging'
3. CALLED INTO or e) Common Cause (Matt 28:18 – 20, Mark 15:16 – 17) In Christ, we become a people, but not just a people that would live for ourselves, or become obsessed with ‘my gift’ but rather the Apostle Peter frames it saying “…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9 – 10)
Note, that simple reason, the Church is chosen “THAT you may declare the praises of him…” (1 Peter 2:9)
One of the key things that we must not forget is that the Church’s first priority is not itself.
If there were to be a survey of why people were part of a specific ECCLESIA/CHURCH I guarantee the words often would be 'the band is cool', the worship is awesome, the speaker is great, our kids love the kid's ministry. All these are fine and well but the Church is not a mall. It is a community on mission.
The Church itself as a local community is not a new idea, it is built on the Jewish expression of the synagogue as it was built on the Biblical idea of a local believing community. Each Church community may have different times or different cultural or pragmatic expressions of these core elements in ‘Ecclesia’ but the simple reality is that like a family when we are part of one, those rhythms, those expressions need be something we sow our lives into.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:19 - 25) CHECK OUT 'FOUR WAYS TO LOVE THE CHURCH