When I first wrote on this subject a couple of years ago as an entry on my blog, tevyebird.blogspot.com, it was entitled “8 definitions of the word “church”, but over time, I’ve found definition 9, then 10, 11, 12, and then 13. If after hearing this, you notice another that I have missed, please, let me know. It is very easy in the western form of Christian society for the impression to be made that the person speaking “knows everything,” even if such person overtly says that we are all together on this journey of growing in following Jesus, in part because the person speaking as recently studied through the subject to put together the speech, and, usually, the audience is unaware of what will be presented to them, and, even if they were aware, are not given an opportunity to interject additional information or ask questions or challenge statements made by the speaker, notably unlike how Jesus presented what He said to the world. As you will see, though, what I am about to say, in a way, is saying something subversive to that cultural attitude. I hope I do this in a manner that does honor to the Holy Spirit desiring to direct us to follow Jesus as He would wish.
I should tell you a little about myself. I grew up in the Midwest United States to parents who, if you asked, would have said that they were Christians, but never went to church except for social reasons—weddings, funerals, me being in the Christmas play. At about 8, they started dropping me off for Sunday School at a nearby church. Between my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I came to faith in Jesus, as the Holy Spirit spoke into my spirit about the things I was seeing in the world. After high school, I went to a state supported college, and was involved in an Inter-Varsity group, which subtly established in me a respect for what scripture said over and above what was the status quo attitude within whatever group of believers I was around. I have, over the years, been involved, first, with churches in a Calvinistic denomination, later undenominational charismatic churches, and over the past few years, simple, organic churches. I am sure what I am about to say reflects something out of all these parts of my walk in desiring to follow Jesus, but my desire is that what I say touches your spirit in bringing out some points of God’s Word that just may be underemphasized in our culture. Some of what I will say might just be more obvious if we were in a culture that was more overtly oppressive to us believers, which, at least as I see it, is somewhat more the historical norm.
As I said when I started, I have noticed 13 different definitions of the word “church” and its rough equivalent in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, ekklesia, with consideration for the cultures and languages it has passed through from then to now. Of these 13, I would divide these definitions into two groups—1) definitions which are rightly definitions of the word that Jesus, when He said it to whomever He was speaking to, meant, and the apostles, as they wrote and spoke it to the early church, and 2) definitions that cultures, both within and outside the true church have, intentionally or not morphed, distorted, and changed the word to mean. These are definitions that Jesus, the apostles Jesus sent out into the world, and the early church would not have recognized or had any thought of as being the meaning of that word. Such definitions, read into scripture, distort the Word of God into something other than God’s Word without our realizing it. Some of this has been done by well meaning brothers and sisters, but, that is no excuse for our living in that once the Spirit points it out to us.
First, I will start with the second group, those definitions that, at least some, persons in our culture, both believers and non-, would recognize as a meaning of the word “church” that were not and could not be something Jesus and our early brothers and sisters in Him would have thought of as being what that word meant. In all cases, these are definitions that did not begin to evolve into the word until early in the fourth century. These are changes whose beginnings are co-coordinated with politicians in the Roman Empire legalizing Christianity in the early 4th Century, with an eye to controlling it, possibly unintentionally, and then again, possibly intentionally for their own purposes.
The first definition is the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not trying to say anything overtly anti-Catholic, or pick on this tradition. Others have done those things, sometimes malevolently. It is just that, in this culture, approximately one-quarter of the people were born to families that consider themselves Catholic, and within that background, with some, just the word “church”, usually capitalized when in print, implies everything connected to that organization and tradition, whether said in a positive, negative or neutral manner.
To vary only slightly, the second meaning I will mention is “denomination” of which one might argue that the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, in eastern Europe and Middle East, and Thoma, in India, are the originals, somehow forming by the sixth centuries, with many others coming later. In modern business terminology, denomination is to a local church of that denomination as a business franchisor is to a franchise, a concept that the early church couldn’t have dreamed of being a meaning of the word.
The third meaning is a certain building, or certain type of building. As the early church was considered in the Roman Empire to be an illegal organization, once the Empire decided that it wasn’t part of Judaism, they couldn’t have had buildings if they wished to, because, to be legal, a belief had to be ancient. As much as we know how Jesus existed back to eternity past, the Roman government saw it as beginning with Jesus on earth, and they had their own paperwork about his death on the cross. From what the books of the Bible that describe the New Covenant era, Acts through the early part of Revelation, we see one meeting at the side of a synagogue, and other meetings in homes. With that part of the church today that lives in areas in which it is illegal, we know that they meet in homes, in the woods, or wherever. Jesus taught the church to be people, his followers, who met together.
The fourth modern meaning of church is a local organization, which in a denomination, as referred above, is the equivalent of a franchise, or if not connected to a denomination, looking otherwise similar. Usually that includes an owned or rented building, a name, such as XYZ Church, its formation as a not-for-profit corporation, in many countries tax-favored status for giving to it, and oftentimes a payroll and corporate officers. For the same reasons I said earlier, none of that were things the early church associated with the New Testament word ekklesia. These were things associated with most other beliefs the Roman Empire was familiar with, and helped give those to the Christian faith upon their legalization of Christianity.
The fifth meaning is one aspect I just mentioned, the special tax-favored corporation. This came from the Roman Empire. In the days of the early church, the Empire had already given special tax status to the temples of Roman paganism, and special tax favored status to the pagan priests. When the Empire legalized the Christian faith, they gave that same favored status to the church. As the church didn’t have buildings, they got them, and to the degree that they didn’t have occupational leaders like the other beliefs that Rome saw, they got them, originally in the form of persons to be in charge of the buildings. History shows that, when the Roman Empire created those jobs, many orators conveniently “converted” to accept a regular speaking position that went with the church coming to look like other beliefs.
The sixth meaning is unique to the U.S., in that church can refer to the persons who set policies for a church corporation, insofar as the IRS will take certain of the benefits away from urorganizations that make certain policies, such as overtly recommending political candidates publicly within official meetings or performing certain types of protest activity, particularly referring to the activities of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS, the church that goes around protesting at funerals of deceased soldiers and homosexuals. Since this is so current, it is obviously not a meaning of church like the early believers would recognize, or even believers today in many parts of the world. One can recognize that, in everything I said above, there is not even a vague connection to any part of scripture.
That covered, here are seven meanings of “church” that the early church would recognize. I can make this statement because of the context in which they are referred to in scripture. Number seven is all believers in history. In the book of Hebrews, chapter 12 verses 1 and 2, the writer of this book wrote, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” While this passage does not use the word typically translated church in it, it describes all believers who have passed on before us as being a part of us, and relating to running the race of faith, a thing only us, the saved, do.
Number eight is all believers in a city or area. The first place we see this is in Romans chapter 1 verse 2, where Paul wrote, “To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul makes an equivalent greeting to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1 verse 2 and 2 Corinthians 1 verse 1, and other books directed towards all the believers in a city. In Galatians 1 verse 1 through 3, Paul wrote “Paul an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches in Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” In this case, Galatia is an area in what is now northern Turkey. It is a point of note that Paul addressed his letters to all the believers, and not a specific leader, and that in his greeting to the church in Galatia, he specifically referred to himself as an apostle, and clarified that that came from God and not any man or group of men. Corollary to that is that, if one is gifted to a ministry, you are gifted even if no man recognizes it, and you aren’t gifted even if some person or organization gives you a title referring to such a spiritual leadership gift. Acts chapter 5 verse 12 is the one verse, mentioned earlier, in which we see the New Covenant church meeting at a religious building, Solomon’s Porch, an addendum to a synagogue, but the notable feature was miracles occurring in connection to the presence of the apostles, with a subsequent increase in believers and unbelievers respecting them, but not daring to join them, except upon belief.
Definition number nine is, simply, a group of believers, as we see described in Acts chapter 2 verses 40 to 47, which says, “And with many other words he (Peter) exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation.’ Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” This group of verses is one many traditional churches of our day are sometimes hesitant about quoting due to the statement in verse 45 about sharing all things in common. You and I need to search the scriptures for oneself. I see this as a quality mentioned just this once, but I see it as a quality that appears consistently in the true church when almost everyone is extremely poor and/or suffering from political or social oppression, which over history is far more common than what we who live in this culture can relate to. For our culture, key words here are “received” and “believed.” We live in a culture in which many so-called “Christian” organizations have administrators, professors, and so-called pastors who do not believe the historic faith Jesus delivered to the church. By definition, an unbeliever is not part of any church. The church is believers as a group or groups. We can respect an intellectually trained person’s human rights, intellect, abilities, and other positive human traits, but such a person is not, by scripture, part of the church, nor has received spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church.
Number ten is a group of believers who comfort and edify, or build up, each other. In 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verses 9 through 11, Paul wrote, “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who dies for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore, comfort one another and edify one another, just as you are doing.” Now, I could have quoted just verse 11, but it’s important to read any scripture in its context. The sentences just before it help with that, in that Paul makes reference to the previously mentioned definition of all believers in history. In verse 11, Paul tells us of the church doing two things—comforting one another and edifying, which means building up, one another. Both these things can only happen when believers are interacting with one another, and caring for one another. A prerequisite for this is at least knowing one another. This is probably little mentioned in our culture due to almost all traditional churches being structured such that people don’t really know each other and rituals are set up such that it isn’t possible for all believers to build up one another. Let me point out that that isn’t the fault of most of our church leaders. They were taught how to do things by the previous generation, who were taught by the previous generation, and in some cases are directed to do things a certain way by the denomination/franchisor. On the converse side, many small group Bible studies, and even some traditional churches’ home or cell groups more closely meet this definition of church than our society’s traditional churches. I’m attempting not to say this in condemnation of any particular group, but if one has found that the Holy Spirit has seemed to do the greatest things with regard to you and others you know growing in faith in meetings and situations outside traditional services, I would encourage you to consider that this may be the Holy Spirit also attempting to say something to us about what church is. This idea also negates the traditional structure of that one person oftentimes referred to as a pastor being the one through which most to virtually all of the “edifying” goes through, in a manner that makes most others contributing nearly impossible, and that person believing that he/she is responsible for doing, or at least coordinating, it all.
The eleventh definition of church comes from a teaching of Jesus to the disciples in Matthew chapter 18 verse 20. As we know, the culture Jesus was walking in was far different than our own. Why didn’t people think it strange that this group of twelve men followed Jesus around? Because that was how a rabbi taught his group of students, and for that manner, how the Greek teachers taught their students. The modern university concept began evolving around 1200 A.D. Being taught in that manner, no one was going around attempting to check Jesus’ transcripts as to whether he was accredited by the rabbis in Jerusalem somewhere to do this; they saw Him walking around like a rabbi who was teaching a group of students. Further, they were in a culture where the rabbis debated whether women counted as humans. As such, they had made a rule, which cannot be found in the Old Testament, that to begin a synagogue, it took a minimum of ten men. Now, we know that Jesus certainly indicated that women were equal to men before God, as indicated in John chapter 4, the story of the woman at the well, and Luke 10, the story which contains Mary sitting and listening to Jesus teach, which is something the rabbis of the day would not have allowed. In this passage, it appears that Jesus was teaching the disciples without others around them at the time. In Matthew 18 verses 19 and 20, Jesus says, “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” We have heard it taught that this is telling us about the importance of believers agreeing in prayer. Might I suggest that Jesus is also defining as few as two believers making up a church. How do I get this? Well, what is Jesus going to be doing in the midst of them? He knew that the Holy Spirit was going to be sent to earth to indwell believers. Paul tells us in Colossians 1 verse 18, “And He (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” Nowhere in scripture does it tell us that any human, even if we label him or her by a name like pastor or priest, is the head of the body. The word "priest" in a variety of religions around the world, ancient and modern, means a person who is an intercessor between God and man, but Revelation chapter 1 verse 6 tells us that all believers are kings and priests. Pastor, as a title of a church leader, did not develop until after the Reformation, as it was obvious to the leaders of the Reformation that the title priest was theologically inappropriate to the Christian belief. Jesus is and wishes to direct the church. My understanding is that western traditional church leaders will maintain that they must do the leading, and that Jesus leads in some spiritual manner, but that implies that the Spirit doesn’t actually, in an everyday manner, direct us, and He does to the degree that we allow Him to. Now, I understand that in western culture, some brothers and sisters in Jesus who I know love Jesus and His church may subliminally or overtly feel threatened with regard to their paycheck by this. Let me just say that this isn’t nearly as upsetting in the areas where there is official or societal opposition to believers in Jesus. We will get to paychecks a little later.
Definition number twelve is merely “group.” In Acts chapter 19, we have the story of the idol makers’ guild in Ephesus organizing a protest against Paul’s presence in the city. In that city, the religion was the temple of Diana (or Artemis). This was a fertility cult. It was a worship of sexuality, and that included cult prostitution. It was a key part of that city’s religion, which had turned into a major moneymaker for the city. In most cultures of the day, except Judaism and the small groups of believers in Jesus, sexual abstinence outside of marriage was unheard of, at least for men. In Roman culture, married relatively late in life, and previously had a variety of sexual experiences (hetero- and homosexual). In Jewish and almost all the other cultures, sexuality in women was controlled by their being married off between 12 and 16 years of age, just as a girl was beginning to have sexual feelings. In Ephesus, an exception was made, in that women were expected, at least once, to be the object of a sexual sacrifice in the temple. As Ephesus was a portage place, as it had been determined over time that ships sailing in that area were safer portaging at Ephasus, having the ship rolled over about a hundred yards of land, and put into the other side, as opposed to sailing through a narrow rocky channel, of which there was about a 10% chance of sinking the ship. Sailors, never throughout history known to be a moral lot, were willing to contribute significant portions of their salary to the temple for the opportunity to “sacrifice.” Ephesus, as a city, made big money from the portaging ships and via their temple, getting the sailors’ money, to the degree that, by 50 or 51 A. D., when the incident described in Acts 19 happened, the temple of Diana had 22 branch temples scattered around the Mediterranean region, making money for some people in Ephasus.
The idol makers sold idols. Because it isn’t easy to find in books, a question might be asked, “Were the idol makers making idols which we might consider pornographic?” The answer is that, as of this time, archeologists have not found any idols made that can be definitively connected to these idol makers, so the official answer is, we don’t know. We can say from what we know about similar groups in other parts of the world and persons of all cultures who have given themselves to immersing themselves into this type of life, probably. Anyway, Paul was leading persons to faith in Jesus, and those persons turning from the cult of Diana was cutting into the idol makers’ profits. They could claim that, in their protest, they were defending their city’s civic and cultural pride and the economic status of the city. It is reasonable to say that they were looking out for their own pockets. Either way, they organized a protest. The Roman Empire didn’t much care what cities and areas outside Rome did, so long as they received their taxes and that there were no protests or rioting. Organizing a protest threatened the city officials’ jobs, which explains the city officials’ actions in the chapter, which seems to us in our culture to be strangely inconsistent.
Now, in Acts 19, this mob or protest in most English Bibles is referred to as a “gathering” or “assembly” in verses 32, 39, and 41. In the original Greek, the word Luke used was “ekklesia”; the same word in all other places is translated “church.” What this tells us is that ekklesia had a secular meaning, that an ekklesia was impermanent, and that it was a vague term, as there is no reason to believe that the mob ever met before or after—like our word, “group”. The extra meanings we have added over the centuries are exactly that, added, and not what the writers of scripture were communicating.
To this effect, the theologian Jon Zens has made the observation that, if we were translating the word ekklesia into English for the first time right now, the most exact word would be the phrase, “town meeting” which I mention as definition thirteen. In the early church’s local bodies of believers, believers all knew each other, didn’t meet in a religious building, had as their only ritual baptism, which was the initial public sign of being a believer. They shared with each other as there was need, and shared a simple meal, from which centuries later the ritual of communion was made out of. Spiritual leadership came out of believing, maturity, and gifting. The power of communion is, and is today, as believers shared their lives with each other while sharing food. As they had no buildings or payroll, any money was collected as needed to help the poor, both within and outside the church, and to send mature believers to go where people had not heard the message of Jesus. Even then, as now, one main example was Paul, who had a skill which would support him in missionary work without financial help from other places. Worship was not a ritual, but how one lived one’s life.
If I have said some things that you have not heard before, I encourage you to not only check out scripture, but also what we know of the history of the day, which is significantly more than some would have us believe. Also, I believe that it is a sign of the end of the age that we average everyday believers without portfolio have available the resources, which includes the Bible, but for this purpose, is also various historical documents, both by believers and unbelievers, to confirm what Jesus taught the disciples, who taught the early church, in both literary context of the Bible and the cultural context indicated by historical documents of the time, and how they practically lived out the direction of Jesus, through his apostles and other believers in the first few generations.
As I said in the beginning, I have come to believe that we learn better from discussion than lecture, so are there any questions?
All quotations of scripture are from NKJV.
Much of this can be found in George Barna and Frank Viola, Pagan Christianity, Present Testimony Ministries/Tyndale/Barna Books.
The reference on “town meeting” came from John Zens, The Pastor Has No Clothes, Lincoln, NE: Ekklessia Press.
The information about the idol makers of Ephesus comes from, www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=2268