Church…church…church. It seems every cavernous corner of modern day Christianity is steadily echoing the refrain: “You need to go to church! You need to go to church!” Indeed, many leaders and pastors of the American 21st Century seem to be absolutely enthralled and enamored with getting as many people as possible to enter the doors of their church.
But is that the answer to the world’s problems? A religious building or liturgical service? And just what is the church REALLY?
As Disciples of Christ, who are trying to purposefully walk hand in hand with Jesus during each and every day of our lives, I believe it is always good for us to return to the rudimentary elements and fundamentals of orthodox Christianity. And to properly do that, it will require us to examine what comes directly from the pages of scripture, not just from the mouth of a particular man or preacher (myself included).
Because … “God’s Word always trumps the opinions and ideologies of man!” And that includes the definition, implementation, and purpose of His Church. So when it comes to answering the question, “What is Church?” we should first find out what the scriptures have to say about the “Church” before we can obtain a well balanced and biblically based answer.
And frankly, before anyone can find that answer, many Christians AND Non-Christians will first have to empty themselves of any preconceived notions or ideologies, ALL of their potentially incorrect presuppositions, and any biased viewpoints which have been heavily influenced by the American, Westernized “church” of the 21st Century.
In fact, I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough; and it will be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible for many to actually do. If any reader encounters something from scripture that contradicts what they already believe, they have to ask themselves, “Am I going to be willing to allow scripture to change my mind and bring proper, biblical correction to my subjective beliefs and opinions?”
After all, there is only one way to properly execute and implement sound, hermeneutical practices in regards to any study of scripture and that means we are going to have to first be willing to declare that scripture is spiritually paramount and uniquely superior above any human opinion or belief.
We have to be willing to first come to terms with that concept, and come into agreement with the idea that scripture is the only true “North Star” by which ALL of our spiritual compasses must be set …… otherwise there is no point in even reading it in the first place…….because your subjective mind is already made up.
If however, you are willing to examine scripture through an unbiased filter, then let’s take some time to find out what GOD has to say about His church. So before continuing on, quickly look and read the following passages: Matthew 16:18, Matthew 18:17, Acts 8:1, Acts 11:25-26, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Colossians 4:15, and Philemon 1:1-2.
In all of the passages listed above the English word ‘church’ is used in place of the Greek word known as (Gk: ekklesia). This word ekklesia in its most basic sense is a word which means something or someone who is called out or called forth. Or stated another way, it is a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some sort of public place or public assembly.
Ancient Greeks like Thucydides and Herodotus used this same word in their extra-biblical writings and used it to mean: an assembly of the people who convened at a public place or made up a council of people for the purpose of deliberations.
Now just stop and think about that for a few minutes and let it really sink in. Let it begin to replace your typical understanding of the English word “church” which usually means a building instead of people. I’m going to state this again … ekklesia means: an assembly of the people who convened at a public place or made up a council of people for the purpose of deliberations.
Completely commensurate with this, we see in Acts 19:38-39 a strikingly similar usage of this word ekklesia, in the exact same context that the ancient Greek writers used it, when is says this, “38So then, if Demetrius and the craftsmen who are with him have a complaint against any man, the courts are in session and proconsuls are available; let them bring charges against one another. 39But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly (ekklesia).”
Settled in the ekklesia.
Settled in the assembly.
Settled in the “church”.
As we study this word further, it’s quite informative and interesting to see how it is used in the Septuagint. (For those who don’t know, the Septuagint is just a fancy word for an ancient translation from the late 2nd Century B.C., where the Hebrew Bible was translated into the common language of Koine Greek for its first century audience.) In that translation, the Greek word ekklesia is translated from the Hebrew word: qahal. And qahal is used many times in the Old Testament to mean an assembly of the Israelites in numerous, different passages:
Numbers 14:5 says, “Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly (ekklesia) of the congregation of the sons of Israel.” (See also: Deuteronomy 9:10, Judges 21:8, and 1 Chronicles 29:1)
What’s also interesting is that there is a use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament that is describing an event which took place in the Old Testament:
Acts 7:38 says, “This is the one who was in the congregation (ekklesia) in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers ; and he received living oracles to pass on to you.”
So contrary to popular opinion, and our modern day vernacular, what we see taught in Scriptures is a uniform understanding of what the word ekklesia means, in both the Old and New Testaments … and it’s not how we are most commonly using the term today. Instead, it is used to mean an assembly of people, primarily Christians, who are gathered together in the name of Christ.
Or put another way, it is any group of people who have placed their hope and trust in Jesus Christ and have chosen to follow Him (i.e. Christians), and then gather together for united fellowship, exhortation, and edification. They are the ‘ekklesia’ of God…the literal church of God. And what’s hugely significant for us to realize is that THEY are the church…the people; NOT the building or structure they might be gathered in.
So many of us have been raised from birth, and erroneously taught during the entire course of our lives and Christian walks, that the “church” is something completely different than what the bible actually says it is.
And I’m not trying to make some mere scholastic distinction for the sake of collegiate discussion and theological debate … a distinction which lacks any real difference. Instead, this is, and has been, a significant error in the 20th and 21st Century epoch of time and one worth noting. Because the Americanized and predominantly Westernized understanding of the word “church”, is not what the Bible teaches. Nor has it ever been God’s intention for it to be used as such.
To drive this point home, beyond any reasonable doubt, just go back to all of the aforementioned passages we first looked at, and every time you see the English word “church,” replace it with the words “religious building” and see if the passages still make sense. And then, replace the word “church” with “people,” or the “people of God” and see how it makes perfect sense.
Honestly, if the “church” in Philemon 1:1-2 is a structure or a building, Paul’s admonition is utterly ridiculous because he’d be saying, “Greetings Philemon my brother, and greetings to the building in your house.” Clearly the house they met in wasn’t the church …… the church was the people who met there. And for some present day Christians this remains true, because the field they currently meet in isn’t the church; but the people who meet in that field are.
And the barn that Christians meet in isn’t the church; it’s the people who are in the barn who are the real church.
And even all of the fancy, commercial facilities all over the United States right now, with their cascading cathedrals and luxurious artwork, are not the real church; it’s the people who meet inside those facilities and religious buildings that are the true, biblical, church of God!
Christ promised His Disciples that He would build His people through Peter’s leadership; not build a religious building through Peter’s craftsmanship.
And it is Christian leaders who are supposed to govern the body of Christ (the church) and enact biblical discipline over people; not inanimate buildings.
And when a great persecution arose in Acts chapter eight, are we to believe that a great persecution rose up against the walls, bricks, and wooden structures of the Christians …… or did the persecution rise up against the people of God?
And when Paul and Barnabas lived in Antioch in Acts chapter eleven, they met and studied with people; NOT inanimate buildings and structures. And the people were first called Christians there, not the structures they gathered in.
And Paul’s exhortation in Romans 16:5 was intended for individuals, real human beings … NOT religious institutions.
And when Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Corinth, in 1 Cor 1:2, he was expressing himself to his brothers and sisters in Christ, not buildings dedicated to the work of Christ. In fact, in this specific passage Paul’s words provide us with the very definition of what it means to be a part of Christ’s true church … His body … the veritable bride of Christ: It is people who, “…have been sanctified;” and “…who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Those PEOPLE are the church!
And finally, it should be self evident that in Col 4:15 Paul isn’t asking anyone to be a fruitcake and provide a greeting to inanimate, lifeless, architecture …… he’s asking them to greet real people.
The bottom line is simply this: The true church of God is people … not platforms.
The true church of God is made up of bodies … not buildings.
And the true church of God is the Bride of Christ … not the architecture of men.
And in addition to all of this, perhaps the greatest principle of all is readily recognizing that the church is in fact GOD’S!
It’s HIS church
It’s HIS body
And it’s HIS bride!
Which makes it utterly ridiculous for people to always say something like, “At MY church we do x, y, z… At HIS church they do things like this. At HER church they don’t know how to do blah, blah, blah.”
Lastly, once we have a correct, biblical understanding on what the church really is, it will probably come as a bit of an eye opener and a spiritual shock, but American Christians really need to “Wake up and smell their spiritual coffee” and realize that ”America doesn’t equal Christianity; and the spiritual condition of God’s church, all over the earth, isn’t predicated upon the spiritual condition of America.”
AMERICA is not the church of God!
And AMERICA is not the ‘special people of God.’
And I know this will ruffle a whole bunch of feathers out there, but commensurate with that last statement and all that we have seen from scripture, this also means that ISRAEL is not the ‘special people of God’ either.
God’s universal church (His people) is actually FAR BIGGER than any one measly nation or gathering of people from only one particular race or ethnicity.
God’s church is actually made up of EVERY believer all over the face of the earth. Therefore, individual gatherings of Christians all over the earth are but one expression of God’s universal church covering the entire globe.
This is precisely why Paul emphatically stated in Gal 3:26-29, “For you are ALL sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are ALL ONE in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”
“But wait a minute Marc, I’m not a Jew… how can I be one of Abraham’s descendants?”
Because your ethnicity doesn’t matter … that’s why! What matters is whether or not you are a son of God through faith in Jesus Christ – that’s what makes you one of Abraham’s descendants.
And the opposite of this is also true: If you’re a Jew and you have no faith in Jesus Christ, then you are not a son of God, and you are NOT one of Abraham’s descendants…….period! It’s not Jewish blood in your veins that makes you a descendant of Abraham; it’s Jesus’ blood on the cross that does.
This precisely the same kind of thing Paul states in Romans 9:6-8 saying, “6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”
The truth is, the church is not a building or a structure.
And the church is not AMERICA.
And the church is not an ethnicity, race, or creed.
And the church is not a nation, or a national identity.
The church is ANYONE … ANYONE who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and puts their faith and hope in Him, and HIM alone.
The church is PEOPLE!!
Which is why Paul gives the following instruction to the ‘church’ universal in Ephesians 4:11-12 saying, “11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;”
The building up of the BODY OF CHRIST – THE PEOPLE!
Is God providing His people with apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc so He can build up some Sheetrock? Is He providing these kinds of workers in the church so He can build up some carpet, and a fancy new sound system? NOOOOO!! God is interested in the building up of His PEOPLE – the saints of God!
And if God is interested in building up His people, it really causes me to pause and ask the question, “What is the AMERICAN or WESTERNIZED ‘church’ interested in building today? What are they focused on?”
Are many Christians, and Christian leaders merely trying to build cathedrals, important positions and titles, and fancy programs? Or are they trying to build up the people of God for the works of service?
Are they trying to equip the saints and fill them with the power of the Spirit so they can go out and do the actual ministry of the church? The ministry that happens Monday through Saturday … NOT on Sunday mornings!!
And are they trying to turn their religious buildings into Field Hospitals for the hurting and broken, the sick and diseased among us … or are they trying to turn their religious buildings into spiritual country clubs and fancy concert halls?
Ephesians 5:25 tells us that Jesus loved His church so much …. He died for her!
Did Jesus die for Sheetrock or sheep?
Did Jesus die for pews or people?
Did Jesus die for sound systems or a sick and suffering society?
Christ died for His church – His people, His bride, HIS body made up of every tongue, and creed, and nation! And if we miss the scriptural fact that the Body of Christ is synonymous with the church, then we miss one of the most important and potent, metaphorical parallels contained within all the pages of scripture because Jesus died for people … not programs!
This is why Jesus said in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”
Jesus didn’t command us, “Go and build structures and cathedrals, and conduct religious services; making good church attenders of all nations.”
Did you get that? (if you didn’t … read it again!)
Christ would tell us today, that meeting in a building and holding religious services is not how He defines His church. He would define His church by those who have surrendered to Him and follow after Him; no matter where they are, who they are with, or what they are doing.
We CAN in fact be ‘living stones’ in the church of God as Peter states in 1 Peter 2:5, but we are to be ‘living’ stones …… not dead, commercial, lifeless stones who continue to have zero impact on the world all around us.
If Jesus had any interest in building earthly kingdoms, cathedrals, spiritual country clubs and Christian organizations then He wouldn’t have said the following: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (John 18:36)
God’s definition of church has always pointed to His people. But man’s definition of church has always pointed to buildings, organizations, and lifeless, liturgical programs.
Scripture is clear that when it comes to God’s church, it has always been about the body of Christ, not the building of Christ. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit … the veritable church of God.
We need to be interested in seeing the lost becoming found, the hurting and broken being restored, the dead and dying becoming born again; because that’s what Christ is interested in – not buildings, and programs, and fancy music, and espresso machines, and ATM machines in our foyers!
We are supposed to be trying to get people to join the family of God, not our ‘church’. The apex of our Christian experience should be to preach the gospel and help someone else to become born again; not getting someone to come to “church.”
When we make the mistake of thinking that God’s church is something that happens from 10:00am to 11:00am on a Sunday morning, inside a specific building, with special liturgical practices; then we miss the clear biblical teaching of what the church really is and erroneously conduct ourselves different from how God views His church and what He declares it to actually be.
On the other hand, if we are true Disciples of Christ, and we implement and practice the correct biblical definition of the church then we never actually stop being the ‘church’; we never stop being a part of the body of Christ each and every day.
In his book titled, The church has left the building, Jim Hayford expresses this concept very well when he says, “As long as we continue to allow church to be defined by real estate and architecture, and the liturgies, ordinances, and traditions that take place inside, we will continue to tragically limit the possibilities Jesus had in mind when HE ‘invented’ the church.”
We need to desperately reestablish some declarative statements and foundational axioms within the Body of Christ that accurately verbalize what the Scriptures actually teach about God’s true church:
#1: God’s church is not defined by architecture and man-made structures. In other words, God’s church is: anyone who is washed in the blood of Jesus; not any building with a steeple on it.
#2: God’s church is not some type of lifeless, commercial entity; it is a life giving organism – the body of Christ.
#3: God’s church is not a program, it is people.
#4: God’s church is not limited to a physical place, it occurs wherever His people gather together in unity.
#5: We shouldn’t be consumed with trying to get people to come to church; we should be striving to go and be the church!
#6: When the church is a program, its members are spectators; when the church is people (i.e. the body of Christ), its members are participants.
In closing, I want to reference one more quote from Jim Hayford and his book, The church has left the building, from page 22, “Worshiping, sharing, praying, and growing where ever they are—this is the church without walls. Yes, we gather often for corporate meetings. Yes, we have a place to meet and come in out of the rain. But church is never over. Evangelism is more than a special evangelistic ‘service.’ Ministry far exceeds something that can only take place on a platform or in a classroom. The church becomes a force moving out into the community with Gods’ grace and love rather than begging people to come in.”
Let’s strive for authentic Christianity and ask the Lord to show us how to stop trying to build an institutional church and instead continually submit ourselves to Him so that we can BE His church; a people of God who aren’t defined by a location or a building, but are defined by a Savior and their subjugation to Him.