It’s been trendy in Christian circles to say things like, “You don’t go to church, you are the church”. A great number of books have been written to show how we should live as the “church” in our non-Christian communities. With this emphasis on “being the church” in your “community”, you might even start feeling bad about gathering in a dedicated building on a Sunday. Home churches seem all the rage.
While I’m overstating the case here to be controversial, what I do hope to show is that we can indeed go to church on Sunday and that we are not “the church” as we live as scattered Christians in our non-Christian communities1. Before you accuse me of heresy please read further.
The church in the Old Testament
Most Christians would assume that the church was established at Pentecost in Acts 2. They would be wrong. The Greek word in the New Testament translated as “church” is the word “ekklesia”. Therefore the doctrine of the church is called “ecclesiology”. This word “ekklesia” was already used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint).
These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly (church) at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me. (Deuteronomy 5:22)
And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them were all the words that the Lord had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly (church). (Deuteronomy 9:10)
Moses referred to the assembly or gathering of God’s people at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19ff) to meet with and to hear from God as “the day of the church”. The important thing to note here is that God’s people were gathered together.
The church in the New Testament
When the New Testament writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were looking for a word to describe the gathering of Christians, they chose this word “ekklesia”. Most English Bibles translate “ekklesia” as “church”. In the Greco-Roman world of the 1st Century this word was not a particularly religious word. In Acts 19 the word “ekklesia” is used to describe a riot – the gathering of people with the common cause of protest. This word came to be used to describe the Christian gathering. I emphasis again the thought of a gathering.
Often when Paul addressed his letters he wrote to the “ekklesia/church(es)” in a particular place. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:2 says, “To the church of God that is in Corinth”. Paul assumed that the people of God will gather to hear his letter read out. Cf. Galatians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:1 etc.
Jesus and the church
Jesus famously said in Matthew 16:18,
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
I think the best way to understand this verse is to see Jesus as the rock and compare Jesus’ church that prevails to the church at Mount Sinai that died in the wilderness (cf. Acts 7:38). Jesus says that the church he gathers will not die like the church at Mount Sinai. First and foremost we must make sure that we are numbered among those in Jesus’ gathering. That means we have repented from sin and trusted Jesus to save us from God’s wrath. Where is Jesus gathering the church? Hebrews 12:18-24 makes it clear that we have not come to a burning mountain (Sinai), but to a heavenly assembly,
“city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.”
Our gathering is primarily in heaven. This is precisely why Paul in Ephesians can say that when we were saved we were “seated with Christ in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6).
What about our local, earthly gatherings? Our local gathering then become earthy, geographical expressions of that heavenly gatherings. Our local churches, as small representations of the heavenly church, display the wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10).
The controversial bits
What is interesting to observe is that when the Bible speaks of “ekklesia/church” it primarily has a gathering in mind. When you leave the gathering you are not the gathering any more, that is, when you leave the gathering you are not the church. I agree that the “church” does not refer to the building, yet the church is the assembly God’s people to meet with God and to hear from God.
The gathering by implication is for Christians not non-Christians. We meet to corporately worship God and to hear his Word, and then leave the gathering to live as the people of God who are “sojourners and exiles” in the fallen world (1 Peter 2:9-12) and “lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:2), being salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).
The New Testament knows of no such thing as a Christian who is not part of the local gathering of Christians. The apostle Paul, when addressing his letters assumes that Christians will be part of the local assembled church. While preaching on this subject recently, Bishop Des Inglesby made the good point that if you were part of Christ’s gathered, heavenly church and were therefore going to spend eternity with Christ and his people, would you not want to gather with them now? And if not, why not? In the New Testament a churchless Christian is an anomaly and oxymoron. Broughton Knox wrote,
“We are called into membership of this one [heavenly] church by the preaching of the gospel. As a consequence of membership of Christ’s church there is a duty on Christians to assemble in local gatherings. This duty was not so obvious to the early Christians that they did not need to be exhorted not to forsake the assembling of themselves together (Hebrews 10:25).”2
The 39 Articles of Religion understand the church in this way. Article 19 says,
“The visible Church of Christ is a gathering of believing people in the which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments are ministered with due order and discipline as ordained by Christ.”
If you are a Christian make sure you are a member of a local church. If there is no local church, seek to establish one through the preaching of the gospel.
It would not be wrong for you to say to your friends on Saturday night, “I am going to church tomorrow.”
1. Thanks to Mervyn Eloff and Des Inglesby for their research, reading and talks on this subject. All correct insights are theirs, all incorrect mine. D. Brought Knox’s article, “’The Church” and ‘The Denominations’” has also been invaluable.
2. “’The Church’ and ‘The Denominations’” in “Sent by Jesus: Some Aspects of Christian Ministry Today” by D.B. Knox (banner of Truth)