When we think of church we often form a mental image of an expensive, elaborate building, or we may associate it with some kind of organization or institution. Would you be surprised to learn it is neither of these?
The Greek word that is translated as church is "ekklesia" (ek-klay-see’-ah, Strong's G1577) and it was used in the first century to refer to a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place for the purpose of deliberating. The word is primarily used in the New Testament to describe "the assembly" of God's people. When you see the word church, generally speaking, you could substitute it with the words "a group of people" and not change the meaning of the passage as long as we understand that this "group of people" refers to God's people. This "group of people" could be referring to all Christians everywhere, or to the disciples in a particular area. In the Bible church always refers to people and never to a building or an organization.
The "church" is a collective composed of individuals
The local church is nothing more than a group of Christians who are in partnership with one another working together toward common objectives. When the word church is used in the Bible, the emphasis is always on the people; upon a group of individual Christians. Consider just a few passages to underscore this thought.
- So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. (Acts 5:11)
- ...At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered… (Acts 8:1)
- As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. (Acts 8:3)
- Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. (Acts 11:22)
In Acts 5:11, was an organization afraid or were people afraid? Can an institution feel fear? Notice in Acts 8:1, that when persecution rose against the church, they (people, individuals) were scattered, it was not a "thing" that was scattered, but people. Paul didn't harass a building in Acts 8:3, rather he entered into peoples houses and carried off men and women and placed them in prison. Finally, in Acts 11:22, they (people) sent Barnabas on a mission. The text does not say it (an organization) sent him.
Aren’t Christians members of local churches?
Yes, but the Bible’s idea of church membership isn’t the same concept many of us have today. There is a prevalent attitude that when we join a church, we are joining an organization. We subconsciously think of it like a gym or a country club membership. The Bible does use the term member to refer to Christians, but not in this way.
Paul compared the church to a human body to illustrate that the members of that body (hand, foot, eye, etc.) all had different functions and abilities (1 Corinthians 12) within each local group of God’s people. Paul used the word member to refer to human body parts as an illustration. He wasn’t communicating anything about membership in an institution.
Church is family
The Bible uses all kinds of family terms to describe our relationship to God and to each other. Here is just one example:
12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Rom 8:12-17 NIV)
If by "member" or "belong" we are thinking in terms of family members, or belonging to a family then we are on the right track. The idea that the church is a building or institution stems from a basic misunderstanding of what the church is. If the word "ekklesia" was consistently translated as "congregation" or "assembly" in our English Bibles much of the confusion would disappear. It is easy to lose sight of this concept of church as family. Even people who have been Christians for decades and know better easily slip into an institutional mentality when it comes to the church.
The church in not an institution nor a building. The church is a community of individual believers who work together. When Christians in a particular area join with one another (as opposed to joining an organization) they make up the local church in that place.
The church is not an it, but a they! God designed the church to exist and function as a community of disciples. The church is, in reality, a family.