WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
In our modern, British culture there are so many definitions of what Church is, and even what it’s function is.
Church, depending on your view or bias is a powerful force for good, relevant today as it ever has been. Others view it as an outdated institution whose time is up, it needs to die for the advancement of a civilised and advanced society. Still others, within the Church, view certain expressions of Church as outside of God’s intent and speak negatively, or even nastily, of anyone who isn’t of their denomination or network.
In the Greek New Testament, we find that there are two words which are usually used for church.
Ekklesia is the first word we’ll examine. It has this definition: “summoned ones”, usually translated as “assembly” or “congregation”.
Ekklesia can refer to two things:
- UNIVERSAL CHURCH (Ephesians 1:22-23).This is the Church to which every believer belongs. It’s worldwide and spans history.
- LOCAL CHURCH (Romans 16:1, 1 Corinthians 1:2) You might call this the “on the ground” ekklesia. An expression of church in localities. As a Christian, you are, and should, belong to both.
Let’s see if we are able to understand better what ‘church’ is by looking at the original meaning of ekklesia. In the Septuagint (which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) it translates “ekklesia” from the word “qahal”, which means “to summon”. So in the original Hebraic sense, it means God’s people are called together by God, in order to: listen to – or act for – God.
In the days of classical Greece, ekklesia was a word in common use. And it referred to all the people who had the right of citizenship in Greece – you may have been living in the country, or even born in the country, but in those days that did not automatically mean you were a citizen with all the privileges that came with it, such as voting. For example, women and children weren’t allowed to vote, and slaves and foreigners were banned from participating in government, regardless of gender.
Being counted as a citizen took you to a different level.
These citizens would come together and direct the affairs of the city. Their powers were almost unlimited. They could declare war, organise treaties, elect generals. They were responsible for the conduct of all military operations. Basically, to be a part of the ekklesia meant a summons for every eligible person to come and to shoulder responsibility for the decisions made. With this information in our minds, like me, do you find it interesting that the translators chose to use this word when referencing God’s Church?
Could God – who I believe, through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, directed the translation and the bringing together of Scripture – have in mind that His church should be moving in that same frame of reference? That God’s ekklesia should also be moving in power and authority directing the affairs of the world and really seeing His Kingdom rule come?
I really believe it does!
God‘s ekklesia is those He is summoning together to hear His word and do His will with the power He has provided. This might come as a surprise to some who see the Church as something weak and ineffective, whose societal influence has weakened in recent times.
I think It’s a call for us all not only to enjoy the privileges of belonging but to shoulder our responsibilities as well. The Church is God’s powerful vehicle of bringing in His kingdom – in fact, I would say it is His preferred vehicle through which this will happen.
We – as the Church – exist for Him!
God has, particularly over the last few decades it could be argued, restored the function of praise, faith, service, spiritual gifts and ministries to His Church. And I think the restoration is ever continuing as we begin to understand better that we come together as His Church to enable us to go out into all the world as an apostolic people, fully equipped, encouraged and giving our all.
Not everything that calls itself “church” is actually church. We’ve probably become too accustomed to the Church being thought of as anyone who attends a building on a Sunday, and even the building itself. This is particularly true from a secular point of view. Before I became a Christian, I certainly thought of it like that! Church to me was a building with a tower and within it a man who only worked on a Sunday, dressed up with fancy socks and frocks and with smells and bells to match.
How wrong I was.
In God’s eyes – it’s actually people that make up His Church, but not all people.
I think as far as God’s concerned there are only two groups of people: those who have acknowledged Jesus as Lord and have received eternal life, and those who still remain in the Kingdom of darkness and are spiritually dead. These people may even, probably out of habit or obligation go to church on a regular basis. But “going to church” for these people, I’ve heard it said, is no more than dressing a corpse!
Let’s look at that second word that’s used for church: Koinonia (pronounced: Koin-OH-nia).
The definition of koinonia is “fellowship”. This word is one of the most beautiful words in the New Testament. It describes a partnership where people come together and share life. Fellowship is, at it’s most basic, referring to a strong togetherness.
We can further define koinonia, from fellowship and then to togetherness if we think about it in these three ways:
- To have shared in something. (A common experience)
- To have a share in something. (A common possession)
- To want to share in something. (A common objective)
God, having called us into His Church, wants us to live in close relationship with each other so that we might be a demonstration to the world of His excellent life.
Let’s delve a little deeper into these three statements:
a) Common Experience – To have shared in something
All those in the Church can come from backgrounds with varying degrees of difference, but the experience we all share is that we have accepted the free gift of eternal life that comes from knowing and receiving Jesus. This is something some folks call the ‘binding bond’ where we share our experience of Christ together. (You can read my thoughts on this ‘binding bond’ towards the end of this post.)
1 Corinthians 10:16 says: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (NIV)
So as we gather together as a local church weekly we are sharing a common experience of Jesus.
Jesus spoke of Himself as being the key, in fact, a lot of Biblical scholars would argue – and I think I would agree – that Jesus was speaking about Himself as the rock on which the wider, universal Church would be built.
b) Common Possession – To have a share in something
In Acts 2:44 it says: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” (NIV)
Here’s a thing to point out – this doesn’t mean that they lived communally, but it’s actually that they were willing to make available to each other whatever they had. They had a vested interest in each other’s welfare. They applied this principle materially and spiritually.
“From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16 NIV)
(Also see: 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, 1 Corinthians 14:1)
c) Common Objective – To want to share in something
If we reflect back to the use of the word “church” in Classical Greek, I asked us to consider that the Church is meant to be a very powerful fighting force.
We have a common objective – to advance the kingdom and hasten the coming back of The King.
This is practically worked out by the following:
1) We participate (there’s that word again!) in the Gospel. 1 Philippians 1:5-7 “…because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (NIV)
We should be a witness of the Good News of Jesus Christ ourselves, but just as importantly encourage and support our brothers and sisters in their efforts to work this out – and remembering in particular those who have given over the lives to ‘living by the Gospel’ – by this I mean they don’t have another ‘job’ to fall back on.
We can be this support by:
- Praying – (Colossians 4:3) “And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.” (NIV)
- Giving – (2 Corinthians 8:9) “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (NIV)
- Going – (Matthew 9:37-38) “Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (NIV)
Our common objective – to advance the kingdom and hasten the coming back of The King is also worked out practically by:
2) Supplying in the local church the following:
- Our presence – (Hebrews 10:24-25) “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 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.” (NIV)
- Our selves with our time, our gifts and our talents – (Romans 12:1-2) “Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies [dedicating all of yourselves, set apart] as a living sacrifice, holy and well-pleasing to God, which is your rational (logical, intelligent) act of worship. And do not be conformed to this world [any longer with its superficial values and customs], but be transformed and progressively changed [as you mature spiritually] by the renewing of your mind [focusing on godly values and ethical attitudes], so that you may prove [for yourselves] what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect [in His plan and purpose for you].” (AMP)
- Our money – (Malachi 3:8-12) “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings [you have withheld]. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, this whole nation! Bring all the tithes (the tenth) into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you [so great] a blessing until there is no more room to receive it. Then I will rebuke the devourer (insects, plague) for your sake and he will not destroy the fruits of the ground, nor will your vine in the field drop its grapes [before harvest],” says the LORD of hosts. “All nations shall call you happy and blessed, for you shall be a land of delight,” says the LORD of hosts.” (AMP)
- Our faith – (1 Thessalonians 1:8a) “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere….”(NIV)
Let me now write about this ‘Binding Bond’ that I mentioned earlier, which has the condition of togetherness embedded within it.
This condition of togetherness within the Church – particularly, the local church – I think would naturally be impossible. People in the Church are from all kinds of backgrounds and for some, if it wasn’t for Christ and His Church expressed in the local, would never have met.
There are many things that could pull apart our togetherness. Let’s face it, the devil has a good go – he’s called the accuser of brethren (brothers and sisters) but in many places, it seems that he doesn’t even have to bother because foolish Christians do the job for him! The only army where they shoot their own soldiers on purpose is an expression that comes to mind.
But here’s the rub, the Church of Jesus Christ is not a natural structure it is, in fact, supernatural, and it’s established on the promises of God – a covenant that God has made with us. Again and again, the Bible emphasises the “covenant” nature of God. Covenant is an important word; it means at its simplest a “binding contract between two parties”. The covenant that we have with God is amazing because He instigated it. There was nothing that we could offer Him in the deal, yet He chose to give to us. This covenant has been established through the blood of Christ – it’s a blood covenant. Covenants nearly always include conditions that have to be met by each party. The covenant that God has made with us is filled with precious promises:
- Forgiveness of sins
We equally we keep covenant with God:
- Being faithful to Him
- Abiding by His law – which is one of love
- Fulfilling our service
- AND importantly – Keeping Covenant with each other.
Some Christians can see the Church as remote from the world around them. They might view it a safe haven from an unpleasant world. Their first consideration is always whether or not the church is meeting their own needs. Yet, as I hope you’ve got from reading this, the church was never brought to birth by God for defensive purposes. It was initiated by Him for advance.
To repeat a sentence I wrote above: I believe God’s Church – which is expressed through the local – is the primary vehicle for advancing God’s Kingdom.
It’s a nursery school, a college and a family firm that births, equips and trains God’s people to play their role in changing the world, and seeing His rightful rule come. It carries with it righteousness and justice!
“Instead, let justice roll on like a mighty river and integrity ﬂow like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:24 (J.B. Phillips)
The Church consists of a people that are part of a covenant community and should have a relationship with a living local church expression of the Universal Church.
The Church belongs to God, and as His people, we should allow Him to have His way with us.
The Church is not dying and ‘going away’, but will go from strength to strength, until His Kingdom covers the Earth, Christ has returned and is united with His Bride!