The word “church” is often thrown around as much as the word “Christian” is in the English language. With much usage, comes much opportunity for misuse and misinterpretation and the meaning of a word can become lost or changed over time. I believe this has occurred with the word “church” today. What is the church? What is it for and what it’s purpose? By going back to the Bible, we will see clearly what the church is and why it is so important not to lose sight of its origins and purpose. Let’s begin.
The word “church” first appears in Matthew 16:18 when Jesus tells Peter that upon this rock He will build his “church” or “ekklēsia”. This word used here for church can mean a gathering of people in a public place, a gathering of Israelites, or a gathering of Christians as mostly used in Acts and the letters. The word “church” when used in the Bible is referring to a group of people gathered together, not a building. Whenever we see this word in Scripture our minds should automatically envision a group of people and this will help develop a new paradigm about this word.
The reason why the church is a group and not a building is because of what this group of people is supposed to be and do. The church is supposed to be a dwelling for Spirit as the temple was the dwelling place in the old covenant. When Paul writes to the people in Ephesus, he writes, “And in him, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). Paul is telling the Ephesians that because they have been made one through the Spirit, which he had just mentioned, they are becoming a dwelling place for the Spirit because the Spirit is uniting them together as is described in 1 Corinthians 12:13. Jesus must also be the head of this group of people as is mentioned in Colossians 1:18.
The goal of this group of Jesus followers, or the church, is to be the floodgates to the entire world about Jesus and the good news of the Kingdom that He brings. The church is to be the salt and light of the earth (Matthew 5), they are to be the encouragement to the world and the ones to bring the gospel to their community.
The way we go about reaching this goal displays the beauty of the unity of the church. Paul talks extensively on this topic in his letter to the people at Corinth. Paul compares the church to a human body. Paul’s theology says that just like the human body has many parts (eye, ear, mouth, etc,) they all come together to form one body. Likewise, the church also has many parts (in this case, people) and all these people come together to form one body of people, unified through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Romans 12 discusses that each of us have been given a different gift from God to be used in the church. All of these gifts are used to reach the goal of bringing and keeping followers of Jesus together.
The church can also be thought of as the universal church under which Christ is head and which every Jesus follower is a part of, but there are also individual congregations or gatherings of people. If you’re a Christian, you are part of the church. However, you may not be part of a local gathering in which case you should look for one to be a part of so that you can use your gifts for that group of people and beyond.
So as we can see, the church is not a building. The church is a group of people gathered in the name of Jesus continuing what Jesus started. We come together and form the church and when we separate, the Spirit guides us so we can continue the church mission even when separated.