What is a Church?
Many refer to the church to indicate a building or a Christian denomination or just any religious group. How does the Bible define the term “church”? First, this requires a general definition of the term “church.” The word “church” comes from the Greek word ekklesia which means “congregation, gathering, or assembly.” The Old Testament Greek translation called the Septuagint uses this term nearly fifty times. Often it is a general reference to the gathering of people into a congregation or assembly. According to the Englishman’s Greek concordance it is used one hundred fifteen times in the New Testament. It is used in both a secular and a religious sense. Thayer defines the church as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place: an assembly” (195,196). Trench describes it as “the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs” (Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, 1,2). The term itself is not exclusively a religious term. In fact, in Acts 19:32,39 it is used to refer to a mob at Ephesus which was outraged over the ministry of Paul. In verse forty-one it is used to describe a group of silversmiths. Whether the word is used in a secular or religious sense must be determined by the context or by descriptive titles.
The Greek term ekklesia is a compound word: the preposition ek meaning “out of” and the noun klesia meaning “a calling”. Therefore, “church” literally means “God’s called out ones” or “those called out by God.” For God has called them “unto his kingdom and glory,” and to obey the gospel “to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 2:12,14). The church is composed of those who have been called out of the kingdom of darkness (error) into his marvelous light (truth).
The English word “church” is derived from the Greek root word “kuriakos” meaning “of or belonging to the Lord.” It is used twice in the New Testament in this sense: 1) in reference to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20) and 2) in reference to the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). Romans 16:16 refers to the “churches of Christ.” The prepositional phrase “church of Christ” shows the possession of the church by the Lord.
Thus, this phrase is not a title as in a denominational designation, but it is an expression of identification with Christ as its possessor (1 Peter 2:9). Christ has full fights to claim ownership of the church. 1) He is its builder (Matt. 16:18); 2) He is its foundation (Eph. 2:19,20); 3) He is the chief cornerstone (1 Cr. 3:11); 4) He gave Himself for the church (Eph 5:25); 5) and He bought it with His own blood (Acts 20:28).
The noun “church” is a collective noun. A collective noun is made up of several individuals or elements. Examples of collective nouns are: troop, jury; team; crew; family; assembly; pride of lions; herd of cows, pod of whales; congress of baboons, covey of quail; flock of geese; school; committee; company; crowd. A single cow cannot be a herd. It takes more than one cow to make up a herd of cows. A congress of baboons would consist of many individual baboons. One baboon could not be referred to as a congress. So a church is made up of an assembly of people. Several other collective nouns have been used synonymous with the church, such as, body (Eph. 1:21-23) or family (1 Tim. 3:15). Furthermore, the word “church” is not denoting the material building, for it is a collective noun like the words “herd” and “flock”. In Matthew 18:17 is found the words of Jesus saying, “tell it unto the church, if he neglects to hear the church…” The church can hear and speak, because it is people, not brick and mortar. Only by a figure of speech known as “metonymy” may the word “church” be used to designate the building where the saints assemble. However, literally and scripturally the church is something different than the edifice in which it meets. A school is a collective noun referring to students. However, most associated the term with the place where the students assemble to be educated.
Although the building in which a congregation meets may be an architectural wonder and have a sign identifying it as the “Forum Terrace Church of Christ,” it is only the building in which it meets. No matter where or in what the saints meet, it is only when they are gathered together do they constitute a church. The “church” discussed in the New Testament never refers to “a denomination.” According to Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary a denomination is “a religious organization unifying a single legal and administrative body to a number of local congregations” (221). “A denomination is a group of persons adhering to a particular creed under a distinctive name, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians are separate Christian denominations” (Funk and Wagnalls Ency. College Dictionary, 1136). It is akin to the arithmetic term “denominator” and suggests a fraction or a part of the whole. It has been used in reference to different stamp values and currency, such as, a one, five, ten, twenty, etc. bill. “Made up of units of a designated kind…(1) The act of denominating; specif., the process of embodying and fixing concepts and classes in languages, naming…(2) A sect or a school having untied by a common faith and form of worship and discipline, as, the Baptist denomination” (Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary of the English Language).
The first reason the term church is used in the New Testament is not in reference to a denomination it is because the early church was not divided up into religious divisions or denominations. Often churches will advertise themselves as undenominational or non-denominational. In fact, they are really inter-denominational in that they accept any denomination. The prefix “un” suggests a lack of the quality of the thing signified. For example, “unbelief” means the lack of belief. “Undenominational” means the church lacks the quality of being a denomination or religious division. The prefix “non” means simply “not.” The church in the Bible is not a denomination or is it divided up into separate religious groups. Paul taught the Corinthians that religious divisions are not to be a part of the New Testament church. “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). “That there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). The church of the first century was neither Catholic, Jewish or Protestant. It was not made up of Baptists, Methodists or Catholics.
Another reason “church” does not refer to a denomination(s) is the fact that there were no denominations in existence during New Testament times. Christ never promised to build a denominational church (Matt. 16:18). His blood was never shed to purchase a denomination (Acts 20:28). The apostles never joined any denominations. They never encouraged a single person to join a denomination. In fact, the closest example of a religious division in a New Testament church is condemned by Paul (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
The New Testament speaks about local churches and the church universal, but never a denomination of churches. A denomination is not the universal church, because it is not composed of all the saved on earth. The Methodist denomination for example only claim to represent part of the saved on earth. A denomination is not a local church for a denomination is composed of many local congregations which adhere to a particular religious creed. Therefore, a denomination is smaller than the universal church and larger than a local church. Since the New Testament never mentions such an organization it is unscriptural.
Daniel R. Vess