It comes as a great shock to many ‘church’ members that Jesus is recorded as using the word ‘church’ only twice and in neither case did he mean a physical building. Yet that is what legions of church members have been conditioned for centuries to mean when they use the word ‘church’, i.e. the building they meet in with other Christians, usually on Sundays.
The word Jesus used, and the one most commonly translated as ‘church’ in the New Testament is the Greek word ‘ekklesia’. It is not primarily a ‘religious’ word but a secular one that just means an assembly of people who gather together or are connected with each other for some, not necessarily religious, reason.
It gained its ‘religious’ connection when it started to be applied to gatherings of Christians.
More broadly, ‘ekklesia’ can also mean the fellowship of all the believers living in one particular town or place, or even the universal totality of all Christians. That is people can be members of an ‘ekklesia’ even when not physically present with each other.
It is the word Jesus used in Matthew 16:18 when he said ‘On this rock I will build my church’, by which he meant the Christian movement of followers that would be built on him down the coming centuries, and in Matthew 18:17, in the context of congregational discipline, when he said ‘go tell it to the church’, by which he meant the local congregation of followers.
Most importantly, in all the above cases ‘ekklesia’, generally translated ‘church’ in English Bibles, means a group of Christians, large or small, never a building or institution or organization. It many ways it is unfortunate that translators of the bible into English chose to use the word ‘church’, whereas translations into other languages use a close equivalent of ‘ekklesia’ that makes the origin of the word clearer. For example – Welsh ‘Eglwys’; French ‘Eglise’; Spanish ‘Esglisia’, Portuguese ‘Igrega’ etc.
In fact, the ‘Ekklesia’ (Church) is a spiritual ‘Organism’, not a building, nor an institution or an organisation, and this is made clear by a range of Biblical images. For example-
1. In 1 Corinthians 12 we see that a Christian is someone who has by the Grace of God been transplanted into the ‘body of Christ’ i.e. a spiritual organism.
2. In John 15:5, Jesus pictures his followers as those who have been grafted onto himself, the ‘True Vine’, again an organism.
3. In 1 Peter 2:9 ‘building’ imagery for the ‘church’ is indeed used, however Christians are described as ‘Living stones’, that is people who are being built into a ‘spiritual house’, again not a physical building.
A Christian is a member of the spiritual organism ‘church’ all the time by virtue of the fact they are a member of the ‘Body of Christ’. That is, it is a matter of ‘Who’ we are, and ‘What’ we are, and most definitely not ‘Where’ we are. So expressions such as ‘I go to church’ are a theological nonsense because we cannot ‘Go’ to ‘Who’ we Are, or to ‘What’ we Are!
Further, it should be noted that ‘ekklesia’ can mean a group of people who are connected with each other for some reason but who are not physically present with each other. For this reason, and highly relevant for our time and I believe the future, a Zoom meeting of Christians giving God His worth (i.e. Worship from the Old English ‘Weorthship’), learning from the Bible, praying together, mutually encouraging and caring for each other, planning and using the group for missional activity is a legitimate expression of New Testament principles for Christian community. i.e. an ‘ekklesia’.
The Covid Crisis has, or should have, forced many Christians to realise that the expression of ‘church’ does not have to be the building-centric model.
There is another matter that plays into the question of what is ‘church’? For centuries western Christians have gathered together on Sundays in the sizeable congregational model beloved of many. Such a gathering is of course a biblically legitimate expression of New Testament-voiced Christianity, however it must not be forgotten that this has not always been the main one. In New Testament times Christians met in relatively small ‘house churches’, of which there would have been a number in a town or city. For example, the ‘church’ in Ephesus was likely a network of small house churches. The big congregation model did not arise until centuries later, most probably due to the large influx of people wanting baptism after the Emperor Constantine was baptised and legitimised Christianity, previously a persecuted religion.
One thing Covid-19 has done is to expose a lot of pre-existing conditions and attitudes that are unhelpful to mission, including the lack of commitment and spiritual maturity demonstrated by intermittent on-line ‘attendance’ and diminished giving. Another one of these is the not uncommon bondage to ‘church buildings’ as the only form of ‘Proper’ church. In these Covid times of restrictions on larger Sunday gatherings, expressions such as ‘I can’t wait to get back to ‘proper’ church’, or comments about ‘I can’t wait to go to ‘church’ again’, or ‘the feeling of reverence I get in a ‘proper’ church building’ have regularly been heard. However, they indicate a lack of understanding as to what ‘church’ is, and may even amount to an idolatry of ‘church buildings’ that negatively controls their involvement in ministry and mission.
Moreover, such statements are missionally problematic because they indicate a flawed theology which focuses on buildings as being what ‘church’ is. This means that resources are consumed by the most expensive (in terms of land, buildings and staff) model of Christian community it is possible to think of, yet one that is largely missionally unfruitful.
The Covid 19 crisis has presented an opportunity to re-examine what ‘Church’ is and why it has been failing in its core business of making disciples for many decades. One of the reasons is the theologically false fixity on the ‘ekklesia’ as a building and what takes place in that building. As we have seen above this is false.
In summary, the ‘ekklesia’ (church) is a spiritual organism comprised of all those who are members of the ‘body of Christ’ wherever they are, gathered or dispersed. That is an organism that God has created through Christ to be an agent of his kingdom-building work through the active mission of the Gospel in word and deed.
Why is all this important? It is important because the ‘Proper church is a building in which we have to meet’ mindset, is a bondage which damages God’s Kingdom-building mission
Unless and until the Christian community is unshackled, unbound, from it’s bondage to the mindset of many, that is the extremely resource-heavy building-centric model, and seriously starts to seek to develop other legitimate and missionally fruitful NT-voiced expressions of Christian Community, the Mission is lost. So-
‘When is a ‘Church’ not a ‘Church’?
‘When it is a Building’