This post is an old-fashioned Bible study, offering a clear understanding of the church.
Let’s begin with a basic word study.
Let’s examine what the Old Testament says, which was written in Hebrew (and Aramaic).
1.. The noun ‘eda means a gathering of people for worship or legal matters. It is an assembly or community. It is used 171 times. It can even refer to swarming insects (Jdg. 14:8) or herd of bulls (Ps. 68:30). Closer to our purposes, it is a worshipping community at Passover (Exod. 12:3). The people gathered as a community to witness the ordination of Aaron (Lev. 8:3). Mounce says that the community gathered for a specific purpose, while the next noun could be generic (p. 127).
2.. The noun qahal (pronounced kah-hal) describes a great gathering of people for civic or religious purposes. It is also called an assembly and is used 123 times. The people gathered together to hear the Song of Moses (Deut. 31:31). They witnessed Solomon crowned as king (1 Chron. 29:1) and received a blessing from him (1 Kings 8:14; 22, 55; 2 Chron. 6:3). A large gathering heard Ezra denounce mixed marriages (Ezr. 10:1, 8, 12, 14). People gathered in a large assembly to praise God (Ps. 107:32; 149:1; Joel 2:16). Hezekiah summoned the people to witness the rededication of the temple (2 Chron. 29:23-31). Finally, qahal can describe any gathering of people (Ps. 26:5), even the company of the dead (Prov. 21:16).
Now let’s look at the basics of the New Testament, which was written in Greek.
1.. The noun is ekklēsia (pronounced ehk-klay-see-ah). It is used 114 times, but four times it means a non-Christian political assembly: Acts 7:38 (see below); 19:32, 39, 41. So 110 times it refers to the church or more literally, “the called out.” Ek– means “out of” and klē– means “to call” or “to summon.” So God calls us out of our old life and into his new assembly. But we are not summoned temporarily, but forever. This assembly is never dismissed, as the political ones were. And we are not called out for ordinary purposes, but from darkness to light and to fellowship with one another.
The Greek noun mainly comes from Paul, who used it more than half of the times (Mounce, p. 110).
The deeper root of the noun lies in the assembly of God’s people in the Old Testament, which developed into the Jewish synagogue for people who lived away from the centralized temple. In Acts 7:38 Stephen says Moses was in the assembly of God in the wilderness, when the people were traveling to the promised land.
2.. Another noun is synagōgē (pronounced sin-ah-goh-gay), and we get our word synagogue from it. It is used 56 times and denotes “assembly, congregation and synagogue.” It applies to a gathering of Jews out in the provinces, away from Jerusalem, wherever Jews were scattered.
In any case, the church both grew out of the synagogue and outgrew it—progressed beyond it.
3.. The noun koinōnia (pronounced koi-noh-nee-ah) is defined as “fellowship, communion, participation, and sharing” (Mounce, p. 247). It means mutual sharing among believers. Paul uses the noun as the fellowship shared among the believing community and Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:9). The Eucharist or communion is celebrated in koinōnia or community or fellowship (1 Cor. 10:16). We should have no fellowship with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14). John uses the term as the fellowship with one another, based on the common fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3, 6, 7). It must be noted that this noun does not describe a physical gathering, but the spirit or camaraderie or attitude in the gathering of believers.
See the post What Is Fellowship?
Let’s look more deeply at the rich term. BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, has a long discussion, which I summarize here.
BDAG has three basic definitions, and then many subpoints under the third one.
(1) “A regularly summoned legislative body, assembly” (Acts 19:39); (so it has a political dimension in the Greek world).
(2) A casual gathering of people, assemblage, gathering” (Acts 19:32, 40); (so it can be an informal gathering of people in the Greek world).
(3) “people with a shared belief, community, congregation”; (a gathering that lasts must have common beliefs, to be united). BDAG then cites the example of the Israelite assembly, congregation, to hear the law (Deut. 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; see Acts 7:38);
Under this third definition BDAG has many subpoints, as follows, which I reorganize with my own lettering (the editors use Greek letters).
a.. Christians can assemble in a specific place or area: “The term [ekklēsia] apparently became popular among Christians in Greek-speaking areas for chiefly two reasons: to affirm community with Israel through the use of a term found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and to allay any suspicion, especially in political circles, that Christians were a disorderly group).”
b.. Then the BDAG editors say an ekklēsia concerns a “specific Christian group, assembly, gathering ordinarily involving worship and discussion of concern to the community” (Matt. 18:17) …. “When they came together as an assembly” (1 Cor. 11:18; see also 14:4f, 12, 19, 28, 35).
c.. Next, one can confess one’s sins in an assembly (3 John 6).
d.. Further, “in Acts 15:22, the ‘apostles and elders’ function in the manner of the … council, the committee of the whole that was responsible in a Greco-Roman polis [city-state] for proposing legislation to the assembly of citizens—Of Christians gathering in the home of a patron, house-assembly (‘house-church’)” (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Plm. 3 1 Cor. 14:33; Rom. 16:4; 1 Tim. 5:16).
e.. By far the most Scriptures where ekklēsia appears comes under this definition: “congregation or church as the totality of Christian living and meeting in a particular locality or large geographical area, but not necessarily limited to one meeting place” (Acts 5:11; 8:3; 9:31; 11:26; 12:5; 15:3; 18:22; 20:17; see also 12:1; 1 Cor. 4:7; Phil. 4:15; 1 Tim. 5:16; Jas. 5:14; 3 John 9). “More definitely of the Christians in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1; 11:22; see also 2:47) in Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1); in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1); Laodicea (Col. 4:16; Rev. 3:14); in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1); Colossae (Plm. 1, subscript). Plural churches (Acts 15:41; 16:5; Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 7:17; 2 Cor. 8:18, 23; 11:8, 28; 12:13; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13; 22; 22:16); the Christian community in Judea (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14); in Galatia (Gal. 1:2; 1 Cor. 16:1); in Asia (1 Cor. 16:19; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20); in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1);
f.. “in each individual congregation or assembly” (Acts 14:23) (various gatherings in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch).
g.. To continue, ekklēsia refers to “the global community of Christians (universal) church”; (the church has gone global, way beyond Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria; see Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:20; Luke 24:47). BDAG then lists these references: Acts 9:31; 1 Cor. 6:4; 12:28; Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23, 27, 29, 32; Col. 1:18, 24; Phil. 3:6.
h.. Finally, “the local assembly or congregation as well as the universal church is more specifically called [ekklēsia of God or of Christ]. This is essentially Pauline usage, and it serves to give the current Greek term its Christian coloring and thereby its special meaning” (church of God: 1 Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 11:16, 22; 15:19; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:5, 15; Acts 20:28; church of Christ: Rom. 16:16; both: 1 Thess. 1:1).
Since American Christianity is undergoing discussion on the sizes of churches, let me add: the earliest Christian community met either in houses (Acts 2:46) or in Solomon’s Colonnade in Jerusalem (Acts 3:11; 5:12), which could hold a large gathering—call it a mega-church—and presumably in mid-sized gatherings. Size does not matter, since it varies so widely.
Further, I’m not a church planter (or planner), but one thing that impresses me about all those above references, is that the apostles, as they planted churches, were guided by the Spirit—always—and they were also deliberate about setting them up and establishing them. Planning is Scriptural. So wisdom says: listen to the Spirit and plan. Listen as you plan and be ready to drop your plans at a moment notice, when the Spirit says so. God will grow the church as we proclaim the good news.
1.. Where were some local churches in the New Testament?
Churches sprang up in various towns in the New Testament, and they developed their own characteristics, like the Bereans, who studied Scripture carefully, while the Thessalonians were not as thorough. More study is needed in each community (see the fifth point), but here are some of the other churches:
Jerusalem (Acts 1-9)
Towns in Samaria and Judea (Acts 8)
Damascus (Acts 9)
Syrian Antioch (Acts 13)
Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13)
Iconium (Acts 14)
Lystra (Acts 14)
Derbe (Acts 14)
Philippi (Acts 16)
Berea (Acts 17)
Athens (Acts 17)
Corinth (Acts 18)
Caesarea (Israel’s coast) (Acts 18)
Ephesus (Acts 19, 20)
Troas (Acts 20)
Cenchreae, near Corinth (Rom. 16:1)
Laodicea (Col. 4:16)
Thessalonica (Acts 17; 1 Thess. 1:1)
Several in Galatia (Gal. 1:2)
Seven in Asia Minor (Gal. 1:2)
Rome (Rom. 1-16; Acts 28)
Those are samples. No doubt Christians went out to preach the gospel in small villages, though their efforts went unrecorded.
2.. However, wasn’t the church called to go global or universal?
In Matt. 16:18 Jesus says that on this rock of Peter’s confession Jesus will build his church, and never does he put boundaries around it in that passage.
In 1 Cor. 10:32, Paul places the church next to two big classes of people: Gentiles, Jews, and the church. Since the first two categories covered Paul’s known world—the whole world, as afar as he was concerned—the church was also worldwide.
Eph. 5:25 says that husbands are to love their wives, as Christ loves the church—no limits or boundaries on the church assumed in this passage.
Col. 1:18 says Christ is the head of the body, the church, without stating or implying geographic boundaries placed on it, in the verse.
3.. What are images or titles applied to the church?
The metaphors are the following:
God’s building (1 Cor. 3:9)
God’s field (1 Cor. 3:9)
The temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:9)
The church or assembly of God (2 Cor. 1:1)
A pure virgin (2 Cor. 11:2)
The Jerusalem from above (Gal. 4:26)
The Israel of God (Gal. 6:16)
The body of Christ (Eph. 5:25-28)
A holy temple (Eph. 2:21)
The bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25-28; Rev. 21:9)
The chosen people (1 Pet. 2:9)
A royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Exod. 19:6)
A holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Exod. 19:6)
God’s special possession (1 Pet. 2:9); the Greek here for “special” is God’s manifestation of his excellence and divine power. “Possession” is God acquiring, obtaining, or gaining you. You are his acquisition and now his property. Together, those two words mean that he did a good job to acquire you. He showed off his power in doing so.
The flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2)
The wife of the Lamb (Rev. 21:9-1)
4.. Did Christians meet in homes or mid-sized or big meetings?
All of the above.
The house church was very important in the early Christian communities that were spread around their known world (Acts 2:2; 5:42; 8:3 [!]; 16:40; 20:20; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15). The church could not afford to build large buildings or even a synagogue-size one, and they were too weak politically to take over pagan temples, as some communities did in late antiquity.
Yet, Christians met in mid-sized and large gatherings too.
In 1 Cor. 11:18-20, Paul assumes that during the Lord’s Supper, an agape feast, the whole church came together at Corinth. Acts 18:10 teaches that the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision and proclaimed that he had “many” people in the city. So apparently sometimes the Corinthian Christians gathered in large meetings, all together. In Acts 1:15 and 2:1-4, one hundred and twenty were able to cram into one large house. Maybe this and the Corinthian gathering were mid-sized churches.
John and Peter went to the temple to pray, at 3:00 p.m. (15:00). The temple was their meeting place. Acts 2:41 says 3000 people were being added to the new Messianic community, and then Acts 4:4 says that 5000 more were added. Acts 5:12 says the church met in Solomon’s Portico (or Porch or Colonnade). Call it an outdoor or semi-outdoor mega-church.
Therefore, don’t accept the deficient teaching nowadays that says house churches or small churches are the only Scriptural church. Big, mid-sized, and small churches are just fine and acceptable to God.
5.. What was the early church like?
A.. It is bought with the blood of God.
Acts 20:28 teaches that Paul was saying farewell to the Ephesian elders, and he reminded them to shepherd the church of God, “which he bought with his blood.” This is a key verse for the doctrine of the Trinity or Triunity, because it equates Jesus, who actually shed his blood, with God.
Eph. 5:25 says that Christ gave himself for the church, and the highest way he gave himself is through his death on the cross.
B.. Christians publicly shared in the ordinance of baptism.
Acts 18:7-8 says that a God-worshipper Titius Justus and Crispus, the synagogue leaders, and his entire household believed in the Lord, along with many Corinthians, and they were all baptized.
C.. Christians publicly broke bread together.
Acts 2:42 says that after the Spirit was poured out on the 120, thousands were added to the church, and they had fellowship together and ate together.
Acts 20:7 says that Paul and his team were at Troas and met with the disciples the first day of the week and broke bread, and Paul spoke to them.
In 1 Cor. 11:23-33 Paul describes a remarkable scene. The Corinthians came together, as noted, but they did not conduct themselves properly and were in danger of judgment. But the point here is that they shared the agape feast regularly.
D.. Christians were to be united.
Rom. 12:5 teaches us that the Christians were many, yet they formed one body, and each member belonged to another.
Eph. 4:13 appears in the context of church structure and leaders, who are called to equip the members for service, until they all reach unity in the faith.
E.. The church is one flock with one shepherd.
In John 10:16 Jesus predicted that he has other sheep who are not here, but they will be brought forward later, and they too will hear his voice. Then he says clearly: “There shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
F.. Christians enjoyed fellowship together.
As noted, Acts 2:4 says that the earliest church had close communion or shared togetherness or community.
1 John 1:7 says that as our fellowship grows closer to the God and we walk in the light, then we can have fellowship with each other.
G.. Christians helped each other.
Acts 4:32-35 says that God’s grace worked so powerfully among the earliest Christians that the Haves shared with the Have-Nots. They helped the poorer Christians.
In 2 Cor 8, Paul writes about the poorer believers in Judea, and the Corinthians eagerly helped them.
H.. Christians evangelized others.
In Rom. 1:8 Paul said he was thankful that the reports of the Romans’ faith was known around the world—the world he knew.
In 1 Thess. 1:7-8 Paul was clearly thrilled that the faith of the Thessalonians “rang out” to the provinces of Macedonia and Achaea and everywhere else.
I.. The church grew numerically.
Acts 6:7 says: “And the Word of God was increasing, and the number of disciples was growing strongly in Jerusalem, and a large group of priests obeyed the faith” (my translation).
Comments: This verse ends the first of the so-called six “panels” of Acts, each one lasting about five years. Here they are:
1:1 to 6:7
6:8 to 9:31
9:32 to 12:24
12:25 to 16:5
16:6 to 19:20
19:21 to 28:31
But Acts 6:7 and the other terminal panel verses are not to be thrown away as a mere summary or transition. The number of disciples and the Word of God really were growing.
J.. The church was organized.
Some Christians, particularly Renewalists (Pentecostals, Charismatics, Neo-Charismatics), believe that “haphazard organization” is more Spirit-led. Wrong.
Sample verses that show that structure and leadership are important:
In Acts 14:3 says that Paul and Silas appointed elders in each church as they returned to Syrian Antioch.
Phil. 1:1 says Paul and Timothy addressed all of God’s holy people at Philippi, as well as the overseers and deacons.
In 1 Tim. 3:1-13 Paul describes the characteristics of an overseer, implying that this was a practice they did throughout the churches they established.
In Tit. 1:5-9 Paul also informed his protégé Titus of qualities of a church leader or overseer.
Eph. 4:10-11 lists the leaders: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers;
1 Cor. 12:28 says that God gave apostles, prophets, and teachers.
K.. Christians had problems that needed correction.
In 1 Cor. 1:11-12 Paul rebukes the Corinthians for favoring one teacher as the super-star over the others. “I follow Paul”; “I follow Apollos”; “I follow Cephas” (Peter). Paul said they were still like children. Christ is not divided.
Paul writes that the Corinthians were not taking the Lord’s Supper in the right spirit and attitude and were bringing God’s judgment on themselves (1 Cor. 11:17-22).
Gal. 3:1-5 teaches us that the Galatians were going astray by drifting from faith in Christ alone and adding circumcision and kosher food laws for salvation (2:11-14 ff.).
In Matt. 18:15-20 Jesus foresaw conflict in the later church when he sent his Spirit. If a brother falls in sin or offense, talk to him about it, and if he refuses to listen, take one or two others, so that restoration can happen.
1 Cor. 5:1-5 says that sexual immorality arose among the Corinthians, and Paul said that if the man refused to repent, then they would have to disassociate from him, which amounted to turning him over to Satan, so his spirit would be saved on the day of the Lord, though his body would die. Wow. Fortunately, he probably repented (2 Cor. 7).
In 2 Thess. 3:11-15, Paul heard that some were idle and disruptive; they needed to find a job.
Titus was encouraged to warn a divisive person once, and then twice, and if he doesn’t change, they were to have nothing to do with him. He was self-condemned (3:10-11).
L.. Christians experienced persecution.
Here are sample verses describing persecution:
In Acts 8:1-3, right after Stephen’s martyrdom, a great persecution arose against the Messianic Jews, and they scattered.
In Acts 17:5-9, certain Thessalonians, particularly Jews, were jealous of Paul and Silas and the large of number of converts, both Jews and Greeks. One of them, Jason, was dragged out of his house and hauled before the city officials. Their accusers claimed they were defying Caesar’s decrees.
In Thess. 2:14-16 Paul recounts the troubles that they Thessalonian converts experienced with their fellow-citizens, particularly the Jews. Paul says the wrath of God has come upon them at last. Tough words, but Paul believed that the law brings wrath (Rom. 4:15), and if Jews were to continue to live under the law, wrath would come.
How does this post help me grow closer to Jesus?
Yes, certain Christians offended you at church. No, you did not get your one prayer answered. Now you are bitter. It is time to lay that aside. You are only hurting yourself. His church rolls on.
Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus has never abandoned his church, even though many have done so today. It is wrongheaded to say “I love Jesus” (the head of the body) but “I do not love his body” (his church). It is still important to attend regularly. You need help and a refuge when the world, the flesh, and the devil attack. Who will bury you? Who will visit you and pray for you in the hospital? Members of the church. Please return to it. You can be taught and uplifted when you are down.
Most importantly, you can contribute to the church, as an “air-conditioner” that gives off refreshing ministry, rather than a “vacuum cleaner” (or “hoover”) that sucks up everything. Give more than you take, in other words. Use your gifts for one another (1 Cor. 12:7; 1 Pet. 4:10). Then you won’t have time to be offended or hold on to your grudge.