Please define “Church”

19 12 2008

601751a-question-mark-on-stained-glass-postersWe need a clear consensus on the New Testament meaning of the word “Church”.

I’ve learned it’s possible, even common for two church leaders to talk for hours about “church” and be talking about completely different things.  Here’s my take (which is very simple) and please push back if you disagree even in small ways.  This is a very important discussion.

I believe the New Testament uses the word “church” (ekklesia) in three very different ways (and only in these three ways).

1. The Universal Church (Matthew 16, The Bride of Christ in Eph. 5 and Revelation etc.)
2. The City Church (Beginning of Epistles, Revelation 1-3, Throughout Acts)
3. The House Church or Body Church [small community] (End of 4 of the Epistles, Throughout Acts, the small body in 1 Corinthians 12)

Am I missing something?  Please show me places in the New Testament where ekklesia or “body” is used in other ways or if these categories don’t describe the church the way I’m interpreting it.

Clearly there are hundreds of implications you can draw from the above definitions of church.  Five that seem to come up a lot in my conversation are –

1. Every believer should be part of a small interdependent body (1 Cor. 12).
2. The city church is responsible for oversight (elders) and training (releasing the 5-fold ministry)
3. 99% of what people are referring to when they say “church” (such as “where do you go to church”) is an institution or 4th category foreign to the New Testament (kind of a sub-city church).
4. Every disciple must understand and engage in all three forms to grow and mature.
5. The 5-fold ministry (Eph. 4) is the primary agent for equipping and maturing the church and typically equips at the city church level.

All of these implications are my interpretations and are debatable but before you question them, please clarify what you believe “church” means in the New Testament and whether your understanding of church is biblically based and boundaried by New Testament usage or if “church” to you is something we can invent and reinvent in every new context.  It’s just more productive to know that, when we’re discussing something (like the church), we are actually talking about the same thing.



25 responses

19 12 2008
Tim Etherington

Well, “church” sure ain’t a building, huh? 🙂

Re #3: I don’t think that a local church body has to only be in a house to count. Houses were merely the available location at the time in the NT. So the fact that my church meets in a specially built building (or rented space) isn’t at odds with them meeting in my living room. I think to insist that you have to be in a house is the same error as those who think you can’t be a church if you don’t have a building.

19 12 2008

Good point Tim. I’m referring to a smaller gathering that the N.T. usually refers to by saying something like “the church that meets in [insert name] house” but I don’t think the house or building have anything to do with this. It’s a small interdependent community (1 Cor. 12 body). I added a little update to #3.

19 12 2008
Jonathan Brink

The original term meant gathering of people, so the only distinction between your three is the size. Location means essentially nothing.

19 12 2008

Tim – It’s true that the act of meeting in a house is in itself no more “Godly” than meeting in a specially constructed building. And for most people who do have a problem with such buildings (at least for myself), it is not necessarily the physical building that is the problem, but the entire system that is invariably put into place to make them possible… Church buildings are not cheap, and I’ve yet to see a specially-designated “place of worship” that didn’t also have specially designated officiants as well. So then you’re looking at a mortgage, plus utilities, plus a professional staff to pay. Well where is the money going to come from? Why, from the re-instituted act of tithing of course… Nevermind that the tithe’s original intent was to feed the widows and orphans of Israel, and not to pay for religious buildings, or to pay the priesthood. Nevermind that the New Testament church never built buldings, paid professionals (contrary to what many say…) or collected a tithe from the people of God. I suppose if you had a huge building given to you, and you wanted to use it have followers of Jesus gather in, then more power to you! But it’s the means by which we justify, build, and maintain such buildings (99.9% of the time) that is the problem….

I actually agree with Jonathan on the size issue. In reality, there is only one, global church, and actually only one church that covers all of the breadth of human history. In God’s eyes, there is only one. I guess that’s why He can refer to it singularly as His bride. The only distinctions come from our vantage point, as they describe the different levels on which we interact with the Church as whole. As finite beings, we never see the whole picture, as God does, but only pieces, determined by where and when God puts us.

20 12 2008
Mike Edwards

I think there may be a confusion of terms to square away. The word “church” is an english word that more accurately means “the place where God dwells”. While it is still translated this way in our texts, ecclesia really was a term already employed in greek culture that meant a “called out assembly.”

In other words, church/ecclesia is really about identity not necessarily form.

While the NT refers to the church in these ways, do we conclude that it is exhaustive in the forms the church (as an identity) can gather together, be on mission together, grow in the gospel together? These three descriptions you gave are certainly geographical descriptions, but are they prescriptive? Are they “identitive” (did I just invent a word?)?

Anyway, until all of the terminology is agreed upon, it’s very difficult to move forward in these kinds of discussions. You originally asked if you were missing something, and I would say: maybe. It seems that the definition of “church” must include much more than where it meets and/or exists (home, city, world).

20 12 2008
on some interesting conversations at Part of the Story

[…] have posted a comment over at From Eden to Zion. Jeremy Pryor is another guy that will push you to […]

20 12 2008
Mike Aubrey

How do we know that the churches described in the New Testament are supposed to function as models for us today?

22 12 2008

Jonathan, I’m trying to figure out how the New Testament uses the word. When it uses it to refer to a city church (such as Revelation 2-3) location seems to be the main point. Also when it says in Romans 16 “Greet the church that means in [Priscilla and Aquilla’s] house” I assume the fact that they are all gathering at that one house is one of the distinctives of that particular body.

22 12 2008

Daniel you wrote – “I actually agree with Jonathan on the size issue. In reality, there is only one, global church, and actually only one church that covers all of the breadth of human history. In God’s eyes, there is only one.”

So is Jesus confused about God’s “one church” perspective when he refers to the churchES in Revelation 1 and then goes on to talk to different city churches independently of each other?

22 12 2008

Michael, I agree it may mean much more than what we think (in terms of identity) but does it mean much less? If Jesus identified every disciple in one city as part of one city church should one of those church identities be the city itself and all the disciples in it? This has enormous implications on practice.

22 12 2008

Mike, every orthodox Christian teaching I’ve sat under has been hopelessly inconsistent on this point. People pick and choose which N.T. commands they think the church should still follow today.

“Love one another” we’ll take that
“Do not treat prophesy with contempt” we’ll throw that
“Let the elders who rule…” we’ll do elder rule
“when one parts suffer all parts suffer…” nah, let’s just see each other on Sundays

So you tell me which of the 100+ commands in the N.T. are for us today or is the whole book just a historical novelty?

22 12 2008

I suppose I should clarify somewhat on my comment on size, etc… Obviously, Jesus wasn’t confused about God’s perspective when he addressed the individual churches in Rev., and beyond that, we see that individual letters written to individual bodies of believers living in different cities making up much of the New Testament… But as your reponse to Mike emphasizes, the words written to a particular group by Paul or whoever, actually applies to the church as a whole. We cannot pick and choose which commandments to obey (as so many do, falling back on the “that was written for that people, at that time” defense…) There is of course the reality that different groups, interacting closely with each other, have different struggles, different challenges, different strengthes, different cultural quirks, etc… And God doesn’t ignore this reality, as those different letters to the seven churches in Rev. attests. But, in the end, we are all held to the same standard, called to follow the same Lord…

Overall, I’m not trying to argue against the basic premise of what you’re saying (at least I don’t think I am!), in fact I think the three descriptions you outlined are for the most part pretty apt… But, also I think we have to make sure we don’t take it to the level of being dogmatic about it, because there is inevitably a fair amount of “overlap”, between say body and city, and city and universal… The only way to try and maintain clear, definable lines would be to go back to the practice that began with Constantine and the Holy Roman Empire, where the world is divided into regions, and dioceses, and so on…

It seems to me that your main point (or one of them anyway) with all of this is to point out that is at least possible for us to look at our present situation, where you can have a city with dozens or hundreds of individual churches, who have little or no connection with each other, and recognize that this is simply not how we as followers of Christ are intended to regard the Church. We have come to the point where we accept such segregation and schizm as being perfectly normal, when in fact it is a poor representation of the supposed fact that we are all one in our dependence on the sacrefice of Christ on the cross.

What sticks out to me as a little strange in your list of five implications is #2… (that the city-church is responsible for the oversight and training of the smaller home-chruches…) To me, that’s just an argument for hierarchy all over again, only in a reorganized way… In fact, that’s how the Catholic church operates to this day… Remember from history, how this is exactly what happened as certain “Bishops” rose to power in each city and region, and subsequently began bickering over boundary lines, successors, and where the “capitol” of the church should be. We all now how it ended, with Rome as the eventual winner. You see, once you start arguing that there should be a group of individuals who are in charge of “oversight” and “training” for all the disciples within a city or an area, then logically the next step for people to take is to settle on a group, and a location, that is in charge of the “leadership-teams” of the individual cities/regions… And VOILA! You’re right back in the same top-down pyramid structure that has been trying to establish itself over the Kingdom of God for the last 2,000 years… That’s my take anyway….

23 12 2008
Mike Edwards


Not sure if the post about inconsistency with nt commands was directed at me? If it was, maybe I’m missing the question or wondering what you took from my comments that led to it?

peace and praying for you guys! keep it up!

24 12 2008
Mike Aubrey

So you tell me which of the 100+ commands in the N.T. are for us today or is the whole book just a historical novelty?

Well, for one, this is probably the most delightful false dichotomy I’ve seen this month. Secondly, it misses my point. I was thinking well beyond propositional statements, toward story and narrative – something I intended my question to reflect, but apparently I failed.

But to deal with your specific question, I don’t understand why even saying all of the commands in scripture are not “for us today” results in “the whole book [being] just a historical novelty.” Now, I wouldn’t say that, but the fact is that it could be true and scripture would continue to be completely relevant.

That is to say there is no need for the commands to be for us. The narrative is for us. The historic narrative is for us. We Christians take the historicity of our Messiah’s death and resurrection very seriously. We talk about having a faith grounded in history. But we don’t take the rest of the history seriously – the rest is a big handbook for living. But when we begin with history instead of handbook,there are very, very few commands that are literally for us. There are many commands to Corinthians and Romans and Colossians and only a handful for 21th Century Americans (or in my case, Canadians). There are implications from narratives and implications from lives and commands to others that are for us, but very few commands.

But I’m sure you know this.

So my original question still stands, though perhaps I could rephrase it. I’m not trying to cause trouble or argue, I’m just curious about your perspective of the Text. How did the Text bring you to where you are on the implications of the 1st century church for today? Do you have anything already written to which you could point me?

24 12 2008

Mike – I’m gonna jump in and give my two cents on the whole “narrative” thing…

You wrote: “There are many commands to Corinthians and Romans and Colossians and only a handful for 21th Century Americans (or in my case, Canadians). There are implications from narratives and implications from lives and commands to others that are for us, but very few commands.”

But, if the letters written to those different groups of people, and the commands given to those groups through the writers of the letters, only applied to them, then the whole idea of them being included in our scripture is pointless. We would be guilty of reading other people’s mail… You spoke of history, and history tells us that the recipients of the various letters actually circulated them between the different cities and groups of believers, and so we know that even then those letters were not considered to only apply to specific groups, but rather universally applied to all who claim to follow Jesus.

You also wrote: “But to deal with your specific question, I don’t understand why even saying all of the commands in scripture are not “for us today” results in “the whole book [being] just a historical novelty.” Now, I wouldn’t say that, but the fact is that it could be true and scripture would continue to be completely relevant.”

Here you cling to the idea that the bible is still “relevant”, and somehow valuable to us today, but like anyone else who holds to this “narrative” approach, you have to make a leap from your premise to your conclusion. There is nothing to prevent the entirety of scripture sliding into nothing more than a collection of writings that anyone can pull whatever moral lesson, or ‘implication’ that suits their own perceived needs. Most adherents of the “narrative” approach still resist this conclusion, but they have nothing to say to prevent such a logical outworking of this approach from occuring. And in fact, this is exactly what we see happening at an ever-increasing rate…

In the quest for truth that is “relevant”, you only end up with a “truth” that is relative, and thus no such thing as truth at all…..

24 12 2008
Mike Aubrey

Daniel: By taking my words in such a black & white fashion you’re bound to end up with little truth, but I don’t think in those terms. The world and scripture are much more gray than black and white. Polar opposites are not helpful whether you’re talking about history or scripture. The world is much more complicated than that. And you seem to assume a number of things about my theology simply because I used the word “narrative.” I am not an adherent of Narrative Theology with capital letters. The point of using the word was to acknowledge that the vast majority of scripture is narrative. If you want to put me in a theological box, put me in a box with Kevin Vanhoozer and Carl Henry. But even then I would protest because that box won’t fit either – it’ll just be closer.

I don’t cling to the idea that the Bible is still “relevant.” I know it is relevant. Christ is relevant. He is the Word with a capital “w.” The Messiah, the Word, prevents the entirety of Scripture from sliding into nothing more than a collection of writings. Our faith is grounded in Christ and history and it is relevant because Christ is relevant and because Christ rose and died. Otherwise our hope is in vain. And actually, your entire paragraph there seems to have missed my words, “Now, I wouldn’t say that.”

As to the letters, we are reading other people’s mail. Even the most basic introductory hermeneutics textbooks recognize that. They are occasional letters – that is written for a specific occasion.That’s not a debated point. And the question of how they were circulated is also highly complex; well beyond the simple “the various letters … circulated them between the different cities and groups of believers.” I’d point your to Paul and First-Century Letter Writing Secretaries, Composition and Collection by E. Randolph Richards. The most likely scenario (and historically plausible for a number of reasons) is that Paul kept copies of all his letters as he wrote them and that is how they were both originally together and why the codex form was so popular so quickly with Christians. Its the only thing that makes sense of the fact that we have 1 & 2 Corinthians – who in that church would want to share letters that so powerfully rebuked them – especially in the honor/shame culture that was the Greco-Roman world. It makes no sense otherwise – especially considering that at least Paul’s first letter (1 Cor) failed and the majority of scholars believe that his 2 Cor did too on the basis that the Corinthian church doesn’t last in the archaeological remains or texts of the church fathers. The same thing goes for the incredibly polemic Galatians. The only letters of Paul we know confidently to have been circulated separately were Ephesians and Colossians (and perhaps Philemon, which was carried with Colossians) because Paul directly told them to circulate those letters.

So then what do we do with the letters? That’s the question, yes? Two points:

1) We recognize that Paul’s commands were commands to his original audience and we build upon relevancy of Paul’s theology. Yeah, yeah, I know the details are always debated, but the larger picture is quite clear and there is plenty of consensus on it. Ephesians 4’s discussion of the gifts for ministry here on this blog is a perfect example of finding relevance in theology rather than commands (though the grammatical details are and will continue to be debated). These are the kinds of relevant universals we should be looking for.

2) We recognize that there is greater relevancy for these occasional letters when we have a parallel occasion in our churches today. That means that 1 Corinthians is most appropriately read to the congregation that is abusing the gifts of the Spirit. It means that Ephesians is most appropriate when dealing with significant disunity in the church community. It means that 2 John is most appropriate when dealing with a “church boss” who wants control in the church.

eden2zion: I apologize. I neither intended nor expected that my question would cause such a stir.

27 12 2008
Craig Bertrand

Just a thought but a good idea may be to use the word “ekklesia” or “congregation, assembly, or something of that nature” since
1) the word “Church” is a mistranslation
2) the word “Church” has a lot of baggage that comes with it.

The word ekklesia basically means a governmental assembly called out for a certain purpose. It is the word used to describe the governmental assembly in Ephesus in Act 19 three times translated (rightly) as assembly.

So the Ekklesia is the assembly of those called into the Kingdom of God and out of the kingdom of this world. –Simply put an assembly of disciples.

I do believe that the 3 expressions of this are the Universal, City, and the Body expressions.

Now as far as Daniel’s concern (#2) about this leading to yet another hierarchy that will misuse its power I will say this.

This is a valid concern if we do this in an institution that needs to be funded. For example anything that would require us to register with the local government. This is only necessary if you want to take donations for tax benefits (gee how generous of us to give for our own financial benefit). If you remove the system of buildings, clergy, and taxes/tithes. It would really be hard to take advantage of those who you serve. Then we would be forced to give to individuals not institutions! It would remove the overhead cost and allow the assembly to “hold all things in common.”

I am NOT saying we should go out and start counter-churches but rather to go and serve the ekklesia of our cities in a non-institutional way. Not condescendingly but in humility as brothers who love them. Just disciple them. He will build His Ekklesia!


Praying for a resurgence of discipleship,

29 12 2008

If this is confusing for Christians, it is even more so for others. When Christians use the term “church” in conversation, our listeners may assume that we are talking about something entirely different than what we are really discussing. They may assume we are talking about:
-A local Christian congregation
-All people who identify themselves as Christians
-True followers/disciples of Jesus
-A religious group that is quasi-Christian
-A religious group that is part of some religion other than Christianity
-A building
-A group of people with a certain political viewpoint who support or oppose certain political parties, politicians or issues
-A historical group or viewpoint

The term has been applied to so many groups, buildings and concepts that it has become virtually meaningless to many people in our culture, or stands for something along the lines of “the radicals who support or oppose this or that politician or issue”.

I find it is often very confusing to use the term with both Christians and non Christians, and try not to use it. Instead, I define what I am talking about and try to avoid the term most of the time. I need not tell people my race. They can answer that issue by looking at me. How about using a similar approach to being the church? Instead of saying we “go to church” or “are the church” or are “part of the church”, we just be the church as envisioned in the New Testament. Then people can look at us and know what the church is (the people of God).

29 12 2008

Mike – Sorry if you felt like I was jumping on your back. I think you may be right, in that I saw the word narrative and the little red flag went up in my head, and I made some assumptions. Sorry about that. I think we’re probably more in agreement then I realized…

Craig – Yes, it’s absolutely a matter of deciding not to become an institution that needs to be funded. I suppose that’s why at this point I’m still curious as to how the concept of a centralized discipleship center (as I’ve taken it to mean as spelled out in Jeremy’s two chapters) would be implemented without falling into that familiar paradigm… Maybe I’m just hearing a certain word and having a knee-jerk reaction to it (I do that sometimes…) but to me, central insinuates something that is publicly accessible, has some kind of special buildling, or facility, which would of course require the proper status in order to aquire such a building, and funding, and so on… If we are just talking about discipling people in private homes, then great, but I don’t see how that is any kind of new concept, which as I read, with the emphasis being put on the leaders who operate on a “city-wide” level, it seems that what is being proposed is something beyond, or different from, what it being described by someone like say Viola. Anyways, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly is being proposed, and what isn’t….

1 01 2009
Craig Bertrand

Yeah I completely understand what you are saying! The problem is that when we use these terms our minds just jump to what they have already seen so as to get a frame of reference. And in this case we really don’t have very many good examples out there. However they are emerging. ( Just thought I would through in another buzz word to keep you on your toes 🙂 )

I think the point is not to have a “center” as in location. But to put discipleship in the central place of our ministries and to be accessible to all who want to come and be trained. (ie. not just to our own group)

Another thing is you can be organized without an organization and you can be intentional without institutions. But we must realize that people are drawn to Christ if He be lifted up. And people will go and sell all they have and buy the field for the treasure in it if they first see the treasure! If we show people the value of Christ and the value of discipleship then and only then will they become bond-slaves!

I am really excited to see how God does all that He has promised and I pray that we just do what we know and not only try to get it right in theory before we move out. Pray for us and keep asking questions and shaking our foundations until all that can be shaken is. We want to live truth not copyright a method!

Pray for us always!

5 01 2009

“Live truth, not copyright a method”…

That is awesome, sums it all up!

13 01 2009
the word “church” « matt and ryan’s blog

[…] on January 13, 2009 by matt Recently I was asked for my thoughts on Jeremy Pryor’s blog, Please Define “Church”. Here […]

25 03 2009

The Church has lost its meaning over the years. The only place in the Bible that defines the purpose of the Church is the last chapter of Exodus where the children of Israel spent a year constructing the Tabernacle. The actual outline of the tabernacle was only know by Moses and when the construction began the parts were assigned to each of the tribes for the purpose of making a part. NO KNEW WHAT THIS TABERNACLE WAS TO LOOK LIKE EXCEPT MOSES. Point: We are building a tabernacle to today which will house all the family of God in the form of believers in the Church. Now the church is related and identified with the Garden of Eden, Ark of Noah and none know what it was to be till it was finished. When this tabernacle is finished it will be called the Bride of Christ. We are in the process of construction and every Church has a part and only as we build do we contact with our Moses called the Holy Spirit to see if we are correct and we built it as God demanded. Remember even Moses could not very the construction any way. When the Church is done it will be called out by the Bridegroom in the Air and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will occur. That means our business is to invite the guest and when the roll is full the Church will be finished and that is know only to God. The sounding of the Trumpet is the signal that it is finished. Are you ready and are you about the business of inviting people to be a part?

28 06 2012
Wisdom Hoddey

i want some short definition of church

7 09 2013

How many lost soul did you bring to Jesus today? Oh I get guys are busy deliberating, discussing what is a church right? While hundreds upon thousands dont know about Jesus..CHURCH is not a building, a house, gymnasiums, prison cell or what have you.. its the BELIEVER that makes the does not matter where they will meet even in a market place or on the corner of a street.. Believers were not called to build anything but to win soul and make disciples. Again its not us, but our willingness to do His work with His strength.. Honor God and make disciple anytime..anywhere.

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