What does it mean to be the ‘church’?

I write a column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on the phrase ‘Word of God’, on the theme of ‘Mission’, on the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘, on the ministry of ‘Healing’, on the question of ‘Welcome’ and on the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’. Here I explore what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.

‘Churches forced to close during the pandemic!’ ‘Churches re-opening for worship!’ Such headlines demonstrate the confusion that many experience—within the ‘church’ and outside it—as to what ‘church’ actually means. Our English word ultimately derives from a Greek term kyriakos, meaning ‘of the Lord’, and you can see the transition in the Scottish term ‘kirk’. But the words in the Bible that are translated ‘church’ are quite different—and that is where the confusion arises.

Congregation of Israel

You might think that the term ‘church’ only occurs in the New Testament, but that is not quite true. The Old Testament frequently refers to the qahal of Israel, which the Authorized Version (quaintly to our ears) translates as ‘the congregation of Israel’. Most modern translations render it ‘the community of Israel’, ‘the assembly’, or simply ‘the Israelites’. 

But the Greek version of the Old Testament translates this with two different terms: synagoge (mostly in the Pentateuch) from which we get the term ‘synagogue’, the gathering of Jews for worship; and ekklesia (mostly in the historical narratives), which has come into English as ‘ecclesiastical’. The wisdom book Ecclesiastes is sometimes known by its Hebrew title Qoheleth; the ‘teacher’ in verse 1 is a person who gives teaching to the qahal or the ekklesia, hence the book’s title. 

Throughout the narrative of the Old Testament, the qahal of Israel is supposed to have several characteristics. The verb qhl related to this noun has the central meaning of ‘coming together for a common purpose’, often to make decisions together, or gather for war—or for civic or religious purposes. The underlying idea here is of unity—and it is the disunity of Israel which is a repeated problem in the narrative. The conflict between the different tribes in the Book of Judges are resolved by the establishment of the monarchy in Samuel-Kings, but the later split between the northern and southern kingdoms is depicted as the great failure of the people, weakening both sides. 

Called and set apart

But the people are called to be more than ‘one’; they are also called to be holy: ‘Be holy, even as I am holy’ (Ex 15.11). This is the repeated refrain throughout the regulations in Leviticus (Lev 11.45, 19.2, 20.7 and so on) which is picked up in the New Testament (1 Peter 1.16) and undergirds the vision of God’s people as a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Ex 19.6). Being holy has a negative aspect to it, as it involves being different and distinct from those around. But it also has a positive aspect, reflecting and drawing from the holiness of God.

Their unity and holiness do not, however, eliminate difference. The people continue to have tribal, clan and family affiliations, and distinctive cultures. We even learn that they have regional accents, when in Judges 12.5 the Ephraimites cannot say the word ‘shibboleth’ properly. Ironically, the term has now become a byword for something that divides people or marks tribal identity. 

All of this springs, not from the inherent qualities of Israel, but from God’s call on them. It was God who called Abraham from Ur to the land he had promised; it was God who called them out of Egypt to inherit the land; it was God who called them to this distinctive life from Sinai; and it was God who called them out of exile to return to the land. 

The New Covenant People

These four characteristics—being one, being holy, being ‘catholic’ (finding unity across differences), and being ‘apostolic’ (called and sent by God)—carry over into the New Testament vision of the ekklesia of God, but with some important new twists. 

The unity of God’s people is no longer defined by ethnic identity, but by incorporation into Jesus. The question of the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers was the biggest challenge facing the early Christians, but Paul sees it as the centre of what God has effected in Christ: ‘he has made the two one’ (Eph 2.14).

Our holiness comes from dwelling in Jesus, and having the holy presence of God dwelling in us by his Spirit. Paul’s consistent term in addressing those he writes to is ‘holy ones’ (‘saints’). The diversity of this holy, united people is found everywhere; the leaders in Antioch come from every ethnic and cultural context (Acts 13.1); the list of Paul’s associates in Romans 16 shows similar diversity; and in Rev 7.9, the ones around the throne are from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’—all because we are called by God and given a message to proclaim. 

In the first century, the ekklesia of a city was the gathering of its citizens to make decisions and shape their life together. The ‘church’ is therefore not a building that can be closed, nor an institution that is in decline, but a people who are the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic, a vision we grow into by the power of God’s Spirit, and which will be perfected when Jesus comes again. 

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9 thoughts on “What does it mean to be the ‘church’?”

  1. I love this sentence:

    “The ‘church’ is therefore not a building that can be closed, nor an institution that is in decline, but a people who are the citizens of the kingdom of heaven.”

    Yes!! Do we understand what this sentence is telling us? It’s saying that we are entitled to limit our activity to fostering and enjoying the community of the righteous. We must not treat those whose lives are not changed by the gospel as if they are the church – or anything else such as a church building.

    Jesus was never seeking to bring about outcomes in the kingdom by negotiating with and seeking to persuade the religious establishment. As I write these words I realise I have been doing this – I need to change direction.

    • “It’s saying that we are entitled to limit our activity to fostering and enjoying the community of the righteous. “

      Isn’t that, in part anyway, the antithesis of the gospel? Jesus seems to have specifically *not* limited his activity to enjoying the community of the righteous. He seems to have got in some trouble for fostering and enjoying the community of publicans and sinners. The righteous don’t need so much fostering and enjoying. As Billy Joel once said, I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners have much more fun.
      Maybe I’ve misunderstood what you mean by righteous……..

    • Replying to both Philip and Andrew – in Matthew, Mark and Luke we do indeed see Jesus consorting with sinners. But in Acts and the Epistles, his apostles don’t do that – they preach across a divide, from their own community-of-believers into a distinct community-of-not-yet-believers. So sometimes one model is appropriate and sometimes the other. Ian, any thoughts?

      • Yes: Jesus didn’t just ‘hang out’ with sinners. He spent time with them in order that they might become saints—he was a doctor with sick people, making them well by preaching the good news that they could repent and change.

    • I do this we should be careful about the language we use, for sure.

      But just as we need to be precise in referring to ‘the church’ as only those believers claiming to be part of the body of Christ (Phillip’s point), so we also need to be wary of making said body sound like an elite ‘members club of the righteous’ (Andrew’s point).

      You are both right. 😉

      • I think that’s helpful Mat. The issue is that I claim to be part of the body of Christ but Philip has implied before that he thinks I’m a piece of wet wood (as he describes below).

      • When we think of church three things should come to mind ,1 fellowship 2 membership 3 leadership every human being is welcome into fellowship, when they express faith and believe in Christ they join the membership, when they grow and and have learned the teachings of Christ then they can be called into leadership and that’s the church on earth, when Christ returns He will take the righteous from every where to His church triumphant and militant home with him.

    • Oh dear. My apologies. I didn’t return until now to see any replies to my comment.

      I seem to be continuing an unfortunate habit of missing out important steps in my mind when writing things down.

      My point wasn’t to say that Christians are called to relate only to the church – that’s definitely not the case. My point is that we shouldn’t be relating to everyone who professes a faith as if they are family – as if they are the church. We should instead only relate as family to those whose lives are changed by the truth – because James says that those who have no deeds don’t have saving faith. What I observe in myself is that I spend time seeking to make people who profess a faith behave – I wonder about that – it may not be something that God wants me to do – I am inclined to keep hoping for people when I see some qualities in them. I think this is not what God wants us to do. We should either be starting spiritual fires or fostering those which exist – not trying to light fires with wood God has shown us is wet.

      It’s good to be cautious in coming to conclusions about the nature of other people’s spiritual life but I wonder if I am refusing what is plainly known to me (because I don’t want to let go).

      Again, sorry for the confusion…


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