24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The Meaning of “Ecclesia”
The word “church” is derived from the Greek adjective “kyrialos” which means “the Lord’s house” (i.e. Christian place of worship). In the New Testament, however, “church” is translated from the Greek word “ecclesia,” which mostly refers to a local congregation of Christians.
The Background of “Ecclesia”
“Ecclesia” was actually used among the Jews in the Old Testament for the “congregation” of Israel. An ecclesia was a meeting or assembly. Its most common use was for the public assembly of citizens duly summoned.1
In his writings, Paul uses the word ecclesia in context of the O.T., referring to Israel as the people of God. Implicit in the word is the claim that the church stands in direct continuity with the O.T. people of God. The origin of Paul’s image of the church has been derived from the O.T. idea that as each part receives its function from the whole, so the whole is weakened when any part fails.
Ecclesia is never used in reference to a building, but rather as the assembling of the saints for worship. As such, ecclesia can designate:
- The believers who gather in a particular home as a house church.2
- The totality of believers in one place.3
- The universal or Catholic Church. It is clearly used in reference to the body of all believers twice in Colossians4 and nine times in Ephesians.5
The demonstrated usage of ecclesia is suggestive of Paul’s concept of the church. The local congregation is the church; the totality of all believers is the church. Thus we conclude that the church is not conceived numerically but organically, which means:
- That the whole power of Christ is available to every local congregation.
- That each congregation functions in its community as the universal church functions in the world as a whole.
- That the local congregation is no isolated group but stands in a state of solidarity with the church as a whole.
The Continuity of “Ecclesia”
Matthew 9:35 says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”
Jesus did not see a disconnect between historical Judaism and the N.T. churches, per se. He and His disciples did not form a separate synagogue nor start a separate movement. His disciples formed an open fellowship within Israel whose only external distinguishing mark was their discipleship to Jesus.
The promise given to Israel6 to be fulfilled at the day of the Lord has now been fulfilled, not to the nation, but to a group of people who believed in the kingship of Jesus. The first Christians did not break away from Jewish practices,7 their Christian faith was simply added to their old Jewish religion. We must not think of the Church as a new institution but a refurbishing of a godly principle, specifically the importance of the congregating of the people of God. Unity of the people of God is declared through its members. The idea that the unity of the church found expression in some kind of external organization or ecclesiastical structure finds no support in the New Testament.
The Importance of Unity and Diversity
The importance of the church is often misunderstood because ecclesia is often viewed as merely a human fellowship, bound together by a common religious belief and experience. While this is true, our understanding must be more robust: The church is a creation of God through the Holy Spirit. This makes the importance of unity and assembly very significant. In fact, the oneness of the ecclesia is the theological meaning of the several extensions of the Pentecost in Acts. The Spirit came first to the Jewish believers, then to the Samaritans believers, then to Gentiles, and finally to a little group of disciples of John the Baptist. These four comings of the Spirit mark the four strategic steps in the extension of the ecclesia and teach that there is one ecclesia where all converts are baptized or identified by the same Spirit.
Believers simply make an earthly demonstration of a heavenly reality. In both Colossians and Ephesians, Paul generalizes his use of “church” to indicate the spiritual and heavenly significance of each and every local “body” which has Christ as its “head,” and by which God demonstrates His manifold wisdom through the creation of “one new man” out of all races and classes. In God’s purpose, there is only one church gathered under the headship of Christ. But on earth, it is pluriform, seen wherever two or three gather in his name. Like the believer, the church is both local and “in heaven.”8
The early Christians understood that they were bound together because they were together bound to Christ. In a sense, their fellowship was a foretaste of the fellowship of the now present and also coming Kingdom. Considering this, it was inconceivable that a believer should be such in isolation. To be a believer meant to share with other believers the life of the coming king, while living in the midst of and presenting the gospel to the world.
The unity of ecclesia is one of spirit and life, of faith and fellowship. It is a unity that is realized in considerable diversity. It is a unity that should exclude schism in the local congregation,9 which expresses itself in appropriate self-assessment10 and in mutual love and affection,11 which means the end of racial distinctions,12 and which should exclude doctrinal and religious aberrations.13
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-13
- 1 Corinthians 12:25-27
- Romans 12:5
How Was “Ecclesia” Carried Out?
Acts 2:42-47 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
For the first three centuries A.D, the meeting place of Christians was private homes, not distinctive church buildings. The pattern was of many smaller “house churches” – separate congregations, analogous to Jewish synagogues. This was also the pattern of the Pauline churches.14 Their distinctive practices included:
- Baptism in the name of Jesus (Goal of identifying/initiating new members).
- The presiding of the Lord’s Supper (Goal of fellowship and memorial).
- Regular attendance at instruction given by the apostles (Goal of teaching and fellowship).
- Fellowship on a household basis, which Luke described as being ‘the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Goal of Fellowship).
There were fixed patterns of ethical instruction in regard to social and political obligation. It is unknown who regularly administered baptism or presided at the Lord’s Supper, though both ordinances are mentioned. How frequently or on what days the church assembled is also unknown. The most evidence we have for what took place at a church assembly is found in 1 Corinthians 11-14. There was no organizational link between Paul’s churches, though there were natural affinities between churches in the same province.15
Why Should I Be Involved in a Local Church?
It is puzzling to hear a believer say they desire to follow and grow in Christ yet they do not attend church. You might have heard someone say, “Church is a not a building, it’s people, therefore I do not have to conform to man’s tradition.” Although the verses below discuss the importance of fellowship, we should not allow our basis behind the importance of the local church fall on just these two isolated texts.
The reason why we resort to these texts is partly because there is no particular verse that says, “You should attend church.” Already discussed above, the Bible seems to teach that the most convincing argument is founded in some of the major themes of the Bible, principally the mandates of community and love.
- Hebrews 10:25
- Philemon 6
Is Our Attitude Aligned With the Biblical Principle?
Many are guilty of disparaging the idea of attending the local church. Usually the reason is because we do not want to perform out of tradition or get caught up in the game of religiosity. Instead, we desire to have authentic worship. At a glance, these comments can seem very pious, but upon dissection, they do not seem to hold up against the desires of Christ.
- Mark 10:1
- Luke 1:8-9
- Luke 4:16
- Acts 17:2
This is not a maneuver to declare that traditions have an inherent significance. Indeed, there are many traditions that are man-centered. But it is obvious that Jesus, Paul and devout first-century believers took seriously their customs, embracing them not because of tradition but because of God’s principle.
The mandate of the church was birthed through the Spirit and has the continuity and principle infrastructure of the temple and synagogue. Jesus entered into and desired fellowship because of God’s mandates pertaining to growth, unity, love, and fellowship. For us to examine Jesus’ ways and then not follow his example should cause us to assess our attitude about today’s church and hopefully realign them with God’s mandates.
- What is your attitude toward the church?
- What have you learned about the church?
- How does what you have learned affect your attitude toward the church?
- Do you give all of yourself to the body, or do you hold something back?
- What are two ways you can help foster unity in your local church?
1 Corinthians 12:12-13
1 Corinthians 12:25-27
How does this study reinforce your belief in the gospel?
- Acts 19:39
- Romans 16:5
- Romans 16:1; Colossians 4:16
- Colossians 1:18, 24
- Ephesians 1:22, 3:10
- Acts 2:16
- Acts 2:47, 5:13
- Hebrews 12:23
- 1 Corinthians 1:13
- Romans 12:3
- 1 Corinthians 12:25-26
- Ephesians 2:16
- Colossians 2:18-19
- Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15
- Colossians 4:15-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:10