What is a church? How might we answer that question? Where should we start?
We could start with the word itself. In the New Testament, the word “church” is translated from the Greek word ekklēsia. An old idea that still gets passed around today is that ekklēsia means “called out ones,” given that ek means “out of” and klēsia comes from the Greek word for “called.”
This sounds nice—we’re the called-out ones!—but most of the time, this approach isn’t a great way to determine a word’s meaning. A butterfly isn’t a fly that likes butter, right? We need to look at how a word is actually used to know what it means, and by the time that the New Testament was written, the word ekklēsia did not mean “called out ones.” Instead, it had the basic meaning of “assembly,” and there’s two threads that tie together to help us understand this.
Old Testament Background
The first thread is from the Old Testament. In the centuries before Christ’s birth, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. This Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint, was the Bible used by many Jews in the time of Christ. Many Christians today are surprised to find out that the word ekklēsia is used, by one count, 65 times in the Greek Old Testament. Most of the time, the word refers to the assembly of Israel—when the people of God would gather together before Him.
For example, Deuteronomy 9:10 speaks about the day when “the Lord had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly.” The day of the ekklēsia. The day when they gathered together before the Lord.
Joshua 8:35 refers to Joshua gathering all Israel together to hear the law, and says that “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly [ekklēsia] of Israel.” And on and on it goes, 65 (or so) times.
Ekklēsia also has a secular background. The word was used within Greek politics to refer to the assembly of a city’s citizens. We actually see this use in the New Testament in Acts 19, which describes the riot in Ephesus. Verse 32 says that “the assembly was in confusion.” When the town clerk gets them quiet, he tells them in verse 39 that “if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly.” And then in verse 41, “when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”
Guess what word is used for “assembly” in each of those verses? Ekklēsia. “Church.”
By now we can see how the word “church” basically means “assembly.” And that helps us understand one of the essential aspects of what a church is. A church is a group of people which gathers—assembles together—regularly.
The Myth of the City Church
There was a time that I really struggled with this. I was seeing all these uses of ekklēsia in the Old Testament and other places in the Bible, and saw that it was always talking about an assembly, an actual gathering.
But that observation was rubbing up against another idea I held to: the city church. Many Christians are familiar with the idea that, according to the New Testament, there’s a “church” in each city or town, made up of all of the Christians in that area. So the “church in Rome” was all of the Christians in Rome, and the “church in Colossae” was all of the Christians in Colossae. Those Christians happened to meet in little gatherings in different people’s homes, which were sometimes called “churches,” but nevertheless they were all a part of the one church in that city.
I struggled with this, because how could all those Christians be called an “assembly” (ekklēsia) if they were always meeting in smaller groups and never actually assembled together? If the “church in Rome” just met in a bunch of different houses, how could they properly be called a church?
I knew about the universal church—that all Christians from all times are sometimes called “the church.” Like when we read that “Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). But we know that all of God’s people from all time will be gathered together in the presence of God one day. Hebrews 12:23 speaks about this heavenly assembly or “church” (ekklēsia) as a spiritual reality even now.
But you can’t say the same thing for Rome or Ephesus. So I was really curious, and started doing some research.1And was greatly helped by Jonathan Leeman in his book, One Assembly.
And what I found is that the idea of a “city church” is—if you’ll pardon the pun—an urban legend. When you actually look to see what the Bible says, it’s not there.
Let’s start with Rome. We know that there were multiple groups of Christians meeting in different “churches” in Rome. In Romans 16:5, for example, Paul sends greetings to Prisca and Aquila and “the church in their house.” So there’s at least more than one “church” or gathering in Rome. And yet Paul wrote his letter to “the church in Rome,” right?
Wrong. The letter to the Romans is addressed “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7). There is no reference in the Bible to “the church in Rome.”
What about Colossians? We know that there were multiple smaller “churches” in Colossae. Colossians 4:15 talks about the church in Nympha’s house, and Philemon, written to a Colossian Christian (Colossians 4:9), speaks about “the church in your house” (Philemon 2).
But Paul wrote a letter to “the church” in Colossae, didn’t he? Once again, that’s not what we find. “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Colossians 1:2).
Didn’t Paul write any letters to the church in a specific town? He did. 1 & 2 Thessalonians are two examples. Both are written to “the church of the Thessalonians.” And yet neither of them say anything about more than one church or gathering. Nothing about “the church in their house.”
There’s only two more letters written by Paul which are addressed to a church in a location, and those are the letters to the Corinthians. “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
1 Corinthians is a long letter. Corinth was a big city. Surely there must be all kinds of evidence of multiple house churches in Corinth, right? Actually, it’s the opposite. 1 Corinthians is full of references to the church gathering as one.
- “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4).
- “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 11:18).
- “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Corinthians 11:33).
- “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Corinthians 14:23).
- “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
There was a church in Corinth—a group of Christians who met all together regularly. On the other hand, when writing letters to groups of Christians who didn’t meet all together as one, Paul avoids referring to them collectively as “the church.”
So this idea of a “city church” has no evidence to support it. “Church” just means assembly—a group of Christians who actually gather together (Acts 14:27). When the New Testament speaks about “the church in” or “at” a specific city (such as in Revelation 2-3), the most natural conclusion is that there was a single church assembly in that town which met all together regularly. That’s what the word “church” means, and that meaning is fleshed out by the very specific way Paul uses the word in his letters.
Not Just A Gathering
So, a church is a gathering. A church is not just people—it’s people who assemble regularly. A church is never less than that. But a church is also more than this. In other words, there’s a major difference between a church and a random gathering of Christians hanging out.
That last statement may be controversial to those who believe that any time you get a group of Christians together, you’ve got something you can call “church.”
But that’s not what we see in Scripture. The Bible shows us that a church is a group of Christians who not only meet together regularly but who are bound together by a common commitment to each other—an agreement to be the body of Christ together. This means that the church is not just any gathering of Christians, but a specific group that gathers regularly and knows who each other are.
We find this as far back as the book of Acts, where the church demonstrated a clear understanding of who was (and who was not) a part of them. Acts 5:12-13 says that the Jerusalem church was “all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.” So in other words, it was a definite group. It wasn’t just whoever showed up on a given day. They knew, and the other people knew, who was a part of the church—and who wasn’t.
Acts 6:2 says that “the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples.” This assumes they knew who all the disciples were. It wasn’t just whoever wanted to show up. They knew when they were all present and accounted for.
1 Corinthians 5 is a significant passage about the nature of the church. A man was to be removed from the church for unrepentant immorality, and Paul’s instructions say that “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:4–5).
Notice, first of all, “when you are assembled.” That’s important. It means that they had a way of knowing, “yes, we’re assembled,” or “no, not everybody is here yet.” Which means they knew who was and who was not a part of their church. It wasn’t just whoever showed up on a given day.
And then they were to remove that man from their community—putting him outside of the church, back into Satan’s kingdom. That makes no sense if a church is just any old random group of Christians. A church has a definite identity and a clear understanding of who is and who is not a part of that church (see also vv. 12-13).
Church discipline doesn’t work with an uncommitted, random group of people. It only works with a group of Christians who gather together regularly and who have agreed to some important things and made some level of a commitment to be a church together. Which means, that’s what a church is.
Now, there’s still more to it. According to 1 Corinthians 11, churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they gather together. The phrase “come together” is used 5 times in that chapter (vv. 17, 18, 20, 33, 34) and shows us that a church gathering as one to celebrate the Lord’s supper is a vital part of their life together.
Another key element to a biblical church is having Biblical leadership. 1 Timothy and Titus tell us that churches are supposed to have elders and deacons who have been vetted and meet certain character qualifications. And one of the important jobs of the elders is to teach and preach the word to the assembled people.
There’s more we could add, but taken together this all shows us that a church is not just any gathering of Christians. A church is a group of Christians who meet together regularly and who have some measure of a commitment to each other to be the body of Christ together, which includes biblical leadership and biblical teaching and preaching and a proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper and a right application of Christ discipline.
This is why John Calvin says that “Wherever we find the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ; there, it is not to be doubted, is a Church of God.”2John Calvin and John Allen, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3 (New Haven; Philadelphia: Hezekiah Howe; Philip H. Nicklin, 1816), 18.
That’s actually a Lutheran understanding as well. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 states that “the Church is the congregation of saints [the assembly of all believers], in which the Gospel is rightly taught [purely preached] and the Sacraments rightly administered [according to the Gospel].”3Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 12.
The Belgic Confession of Faith states that “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.”4Ibid., 420.
The Methodist Articles of Religion from 1784 state that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments duly administered, according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”5Ibid., 810
One of my favourite definitions of a church comes from the 1861 Swedish Baptist Confession of Faith: “We believe that a true Christian church is a union of believing and baptized Christians, who have covenanted to strive to keep all that Christ has commanded, to sustain public worship, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to choose among themselves shepherds or overseers, and deacons, to administer baptism and the Lord’s supper, to practice Christian church-discipline, to promote godliness and brotherly love, and to contribute to the general spread of the gospel; also that every such church is an independent body, free in its relation to other Christian churches and acknowledging Christ only as its head.”6W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 367.
These different traditions within the history of Christianity, many of whom have very different practices when it comes to the church, nevertheless share a common conviction that a church is a specific group of people bound together by more than just deciding to show up once in a while.
Why Does This Matter?
So, why does this matter? It matters because our spiritual future depends on being a part of a church. It’s not enough to say “I’m a part of the church in such and such a town,” and meet one week for a small group over here, and hang out with our family over here, and go to a service over there, and think that that’s all “church.”
We need to be a part of a church. A real church. A church to which we are accountable. A church that knows us. A church that can remove us from their midst if we start living like the devil while still calling ourselves a Christian. A church where we’ll participate and serve and love and be an integral part of the body.
In this stage of history, God’s “Plan A” is built around local churches—and there is no Plan B.
So, if you haven’t yet taken your place as a committed member of a local church, would you ask the Lord to help you do that? Don’t waste any time. We don’t have forever. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25).