Here is another place where the process of word study presents a surprise. In all the Gospels, the word “church” – ekklesia – occurs only three times: once in Matthew’s account of Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity (16:18), and twice in Jesus’ instructions for reconciliation among brethren (Mt.18:17). It is plentiful in the later writings, appearing 112 times, but to our usual question, “What did Jesus say?”, we must answer, “not much,” although I think that many of his references to his Kingdom (see W.S.#19, 20,21) apply equally to the church.
Ekklesia was not uncommon in classical usage. As early as Homer, it referred to any assembly legally summoned for a particular purpose: legal, civil, or military. It is even used this way three times in the account of the riot in Ephesus (Ac.19:32,39,41), of both the angry mob and the legal jurisdiction to which the town clerk referred them. The concept was taken over into the Latin comitia, from which our ubiquitous “committee” is derived, and the LXX translators used it of the Jewish congregation. L/S notes that “in the New Testament, it refers to the church as a body of Christians. The word was not applied to a building until the Codex Justinianus,” dated from the 4th to the 6th century AD – well after Constantine had re-structured the “church” as a civil institution.
But we are concerned with the faithful, New Testament pattern. Very likely, the lack of Gospel references is due to the more common use of sunago and its related words (note the English cognate, “synagogue”) which was the usual gathering-place of the Jewish faithful. If this is the case, then Jesus’ deliberate choice to use a different word takes on sharp significance. When he says “I will build my church” (Mt.16:18), he is clearly about to “do a new thing”, as Isaiah had prophesied long ago (43:18-21). Please notice that Jesus says that HE intends to do the building! Later, (Ac.2:47), Luke notes that as the group of believers grew, “THE LORD added to their number.” In recent years, it has become “in vogue” for individuals – mere people – to set out to “build” or “plant” churches. With all due respect to these folks, some of whom, I’m sure, are quite sincere, THAT IS NOT OUR JOB!!! Peter casts it properly in the passive voice (I Pet.2:5), “You yourselves, also, as living stones, be continually built into a spiritual household…” We need to be available, as building materials – but leave the building to the Master Builder! He knows what he is doing!
There’s plenty of work that is assigned to us. It is “through the church” that “rulers and authorities”, whether in heaven or earth, are to see a demonstration of the “many-faceted wisdom of God” (Eph.3:10)! For this purpose, Jesus has been provided to us as “head over everything with respect to the church, which is his Body” (Eph.1:22, Col.1:18). Paul has furnished us with an “instruction manual” (I Cor.12) for learning to function as members of that Body – each actively contributing to the interdependent unit. See a more detailed discussion of this matter in Chapter 7 of Citizens of the Kingdom – “Discerning the Body”.
The closest we come to a “recipe” in the New Testament for a gathering of the church is found in I Cor.14:23-25. I have never seen a group try that, have you? It would be a truly wonderful meeting! Although, admittedly, it would probably be upsetting to anyone who has a need to be in control. The description in Ac.2:42-47 is similarly attractive, and just as rare. This is also discussed in Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 7.
Being composed of very human people, of course, “the church” was not all glorious sweetness and light. Jesus himself (Mt.18:17) had given instructions for dealing with conflict, with the help of the church. An excellent practical example is described in the conference at Jerusalem (Ac.15, and Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 8 ) concerning the inclusion of Gentiles. Paul emphasizes in I Cor.6:4 that the church, and not civil courts, should be called upon when mediation is needed.
So, what is “the work of the church”?
The church at Antioch sent out and supported Paul, Barnabas, and Silas (and possibly others) to carry the message into unreached areas. Other congregations also supported their work (Phil.4:15, II Cor.11:8, 12-13), and a sizable group cooperated to send relief to needy brethren (II Cor.8).
“The church” was also charged with the care of widows who had no family – which would have been a serious concern in groups under persecution.
The section in Ac 2:42-47 lists some of their activities.
Most of the church groups seem to have met in people’s homes. Ac2:46 speaks of “breaking bread from house to house”, and Paul mentions groups meeting in the homes of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor.16 and Rom.16), and Titus Justus (Ac.18:7) in Corinth; Nympha (Col.4:15) and Philemon (Phm.2) in Colossae; Lydia (Ac.16) in Philippi; John Mark’s mother in Jerusalem (Ac.12:12); and probably Gaius (Rom.16) wherever Romans was written from. Occasionally, as in Ephesus (Ac.19:9) at the beginning, a rented hall was used – perhaps to accommodate a larger group, or before a host was available. It was natural, then, for Paul to refer to the church (I Tim.3:15) as “the household of God.” About half of the references are plural, which probably indicates more than one congregation in a location. In any event, real estate does not seem to have been a concern.
Neither is there any reference to the church as “a place to go on Sunday” to sit and listen to a learned lecture (or less-learned diatribe) and professionally performed music or other entertainment. There is no prescribed agenda or “liturgy.”
It is important to note that, except for his instructions to Timothy and Titus, who seem to have been serving as his “deputies”, Paul addresses his letters to “all God’s people [the “saints”] at ….” [a location], and not to officials of any kind. In Phil.1:1, leaders are included in the address, but are not primary. This makes one wonder about the addressing of the “mail” in Rev.2 and 3 to “the messenger” (aggelos)— traditionally rendered “angel” (see discussion in chapter 13 of Citizens of the Kingdom. ) Might this person have been some sort of corresponding secretary? But even in this case, everyone is called upon to heed “what the Spirit says to the churches.”
So what is this New Creation called “the church”?
I like the suggestion of a student years ago, “a combination of a colony of the Kingdom and a support group!”
These are people gathered, as in Ac.2:42-47, to celebrate and share the resurrection life of their King.
As in Ac.11:26, they gather to learn his ways, in order to represent him faithfully to those outside, and
as in Ac.12:15, for mutual support and prayer in the face of persecution.
They deliberately avoid (Heb.10:25) neglecting to get together, since they need to keep coaching and encouraging one another,
(I Cor.14:12) each seeking to excel in what will edify the church, as they
(Heb.10:24) concentrate on prodding each other with love and good deeds.
They serve as a “demonstration project” of the wisdom and glory of God (Eph.3:10)
being “built together into a permanent dwelling place for God, in the Spirit.”(Eph.2:22).
Quite enough to keep us all busy!