As far as I can count so far (i.e., this writing is very much up to a later revised version), there are ten definitions of the word church that would be recognized by either a) our culture at large, b) North American church culture, or c) the believers of the era in which the New Testament writers were writing through the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire (roughly 30 to 320 A.D.). The last is important in that that is the group that the New Testament writers were writing to, and no meaning can be the correct meaning if it would not have been recognized by those persons as a meaning., and the first two reflect everything, including mistaken understandings, that have happened since then. Why this is important for believers in Jesus is reflected in point #9
Definition 1: a denomination. Our general cultural and church culture would recognize this as a meaning of “church,” but this is something that could not have crossed the minds of the early believers. Therefore, when we read the Word, this definition is in no way, shape, or form what the writer was intending as the main meaning. This could only be defended by saying that what one was reading is allegorical, as in Jesus and the boats sailing the Sea of Galilee in John 6:22-23 (I know an attorney in Florida who defends the existence of denominations by this reasoning, but I would maintain that, even if it is appropriate to understand boats to be allegorical to denominations, one could equally state that the allegory could also be to churches, even institutional churches, but even so, definitions 3 and 7, below, are more appropriate than either).
Definition 2: a building. As in 1, our general and church cultures would easily recognize this as a definition of church, but the early believers would not, as they did not have buildings until the
Roman Empire legalized Christianity and force buildings upon them, as the state recognized paganism had.
Definition 3: a Christian version of what in the
is called by law a 501(c)3 corporation. It is not “the” Christian version, as parachurch groups, missionary organizations, and other Christian groups which do not attempt to be churches can still be 501(c)3’s. As the early church was officially illegal, they would not have thought of church in that way, although they easily could have thought of the organization behind the pagan temples in that way. U.S.
Definition 4: the officers and/or CEO of the not-for-profit corporation, as was in definition 3. Within the general culture, at least certain government agencies would recognize this definition as equivalent, as far as they were concerned, especially if the organization did something contrary to one of their laws or rules. Church culture probably would not see this as a definition of church, and again, this definition could not have been imagined by the early believers.
Definition 5: All believers in history. Because our general culture so much would see church as definitions 1, 2, and 3, and would be most concerned with now and the near future, extremely few of these persons would see this as a definition of church. In church culture, the amount would be somewhat greater, because a greater amount of persons would understand the history of the faith. Among early believers, they would clearly recognize this as a definition of church, although it took at least a generation before this definition was significantly different from the next.
Definition 6: All believers in an area or city. As with definition 5, most persons within
our general culture are so concerned with the now and the near future to see this definition as relevant. Within church culture, the amount is, again, slightly greater by the amount of people who have cared to know the history of the spiritual family. The early church would have recognized this definition. When Paul wrote his letters to the various churches, and John wrote what Jesus directed him to to the seven churches, the letters were directed to all the believers in the city or area, and specifically not written to the leaders, as would be the norm if writing to a traditional church today.
Definition 7: Because, for centuries, the only recognized church in the western world was the organization we now call the Roman Catholic Church, to some, the word “church” is equivalent to that organization, specifically. Clearly, it would be impossible for the believers of New Testament days to have had any idea of that definition. Only a few believers who might be involved in that organization think of that as a definition, at best. Within the general world, particularly among unbelievers who grew up in a subculture dominated or, at the least, affected, by that group, there is that association. We see this most often within people in the general media, as in news reporters and entertainers. For persons who did not grow up in or near this subculture, this definition is irrelevant, except historically.
Definition 8: a group, gathering, or mob. It should be noted that the Koine Greek word ekklesia, which has been translated “church” in most English versions of the Bible, might have been more accurately translated “gathering, assembly, or group.” The mob in Acts 20 rioting against Paul was described by the word “ekklesia” but it clearly wasn’t a church, given they were in support of the idol makers in Ephasus, and they were making idols of a fertility goddess. Why was this translated church? I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical, but the translators of the KJV and all following versions of the Bible were in the employ of a denomination, seminary, or book publisher who knew that most of their sales comes from persons connected to traditional churches. The words “gathering” or “assembly” would clearly indicate that the writer was speaking of believers meeting together and not the denomination or corporation, and, by the time they were translating, the word “church,” although not technically incorrect, was sufficiently vague to the superficial reader, and as unbelievers or young believers we are or were all superficial readers, so the distinction would almost assuredly not be noticed. We must also take note that, the day and social pressures being what they were, we cannot say these persons were doing something intentionally incideous, but may have not realized this error of nuance, given that the KJV translators, in Ps. 42 and eight other places wrote “hart” instead of “deer.” For note, a hart is a specific group of deer species native to central
, and none of the Old Testament takes place anywhere near there, although the KJV translators lived there. Great Britain
Definition 9: a group of believers in Jesus who met regularly to worship. The early church did not have buildings, organizations, rituals, or even the New Testament. They had the Holy Spirit, the teaching of Jesus that some had personally experienced, the teaching of the apostles and others who learned from Jesus and communicated his teaching to them, and the Old Testament, which Jesus’ ministry on earth was largely, although not completely, a fulfillment of. They had the oppression of a society, which consisted of a Roman Empire that did not trust the people of Israel and the Jews (for a considerable period of time they would be seen by unbelieving non-Jews as a part of Judaism), the Jewish leaders did not trust them in that Jesus was seen to be attacking the status quo, and by unbelieving Gentiles in general due to their upholding Jewish moral law. Such an oppressive society drew them together to help each other in everyday ways in addition to overt worship. Acts 5:13 shows that the surrounding people respected them, but people did not join them unless they, too, came to faith in Jesus.
Definition 10: Let me quote 1 Thessalonians 5:11—“Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.” This is telling us that Paul said that the believers in Thessalonica comforted each other and edified one another. Our general culture would not see this as a definition of “church” because they aren’t, for the most part, looking through our building walls, and, if they come in either in person or by the far more convenient method of television, would not see this happening. If we asked this to church culture, in the way I did above, quoting a scripture, I am certain a great many would say they do this, because they are convinced they are following scripture, and that their leaders would not have them do any different. Look at the parts of this phrase—first, “comfort one another.” I could go on for a long period of time telling reasons why persons within any of the early churches would need to be comforted. Who was to do the comforting? One another. Who does the comforting now? To a degree one another, but in many places, this is seen as a job for the leader designated (depending on the church) as priest, pastor, elder, or even a specific visitation pastor. Most modern traditional churches are so big that no one can know everyone, everyone knows, at best, only a few, and some are isolated from nearly everyone. Too much of that is totally a function of the change in and distortions to the church forced on it by a variety of secular cultures. The second part of that phrase is “edify one another.” It is easy to look at the word “edify” and think it is something like our more common English word “educate”, and that the priest, pastor, elder, or someone does that via sermons or homilies on Sunday morning, and “Bible studies” on Sunday evening or (usually) Wednesday. First, as any educator or education professor can and has told persons for decades, lecturing is the poorest way to actually teach information. It is even more so if everyone knows they will not be given a test. “Edify” would be better translated “build up”, as is synonyous with “encourage” or possibly even “mentor.” Further, who is to do this? Each other. One person, particularly a professional who is inside the walls of an office writing sermons, is, to some degree, cut off from the outside world, no matter how well read. I throw in “mentor” in light of the idea that, to a large degree, our example is Jesus. How many disciples did he put much of his life into for three years? 12. What gives anyone the idea that he/she can direct thousands or hundreds, or even much past 20? Let me start by saying that, if you don’t know a persons name, you don’t have much of a relationship.
If this is the case, why do leaders take on guiding such a great amount of people? First, that’s the way its been done for generations. Second, as the church has chosen leaders according to academic credentials or ego, as opposed to spiritual and natural gifting, obedience to the Holy Spirit, maturity,
Leaders have come to see spiritual leadership as an occupation, and would feel rightly threatened if a significant amount of believers came to believe that their giving to God should go directly to needs, as opposed to organizations that spend money mainly on buildings and payroll. Third, if “each other”, or rather, all believers, actually do all the work of ministry, it would be out of everyone’s control except the Holy Spirit. I, for one, would like to support no program outside of the direction of the Holy Spirit. From what I hear, that way of the church operating, as it is in countries where the church is officially illegal, seems to be more powerfully changing lives than the scripturally distorted but well-meaning ways we do things in the free world.
As such, I cannot financially support traditional corporate churches, but wish them well. If we had a coupe-de-etat today, a dictator could close them down by just declaring their land and bank accounts confiscated. All institutional churches I know of have no plan for helping their paid staff in such an occurance, and the paid staff oftentimes has no other marketable skills. There is no scriptural direction to set up a “church” in the way that is common in our culture.