The Nature of the Church

I wanted to begin a new series around the topic of church, one that might continue for a good while. When I first started The Prodigal Thought back this past summer, I wrote a few articles with some thoughts concerning church. But I think this series will address some more Biblical and theological ideas. Anyways, let’s jump in…

Systematic theology is the study of specific themes or topics as laid out across the whole of Scripture. This is somewhat different from Biblical theology, which is done by studying the Bible book-by-book, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse.

Within systematic theology, ecclesiology is the branch concerned with the study of the nature of the church. And before I jump into looking at some basic concepts in regards to church, I thought I would list some definitions from known theologians:

The Reformed conception is that Christ, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, unites men with Himself, endows them with true faith, and thus constitutes the Church as His body, the communio fidelium [communion of the faithful] or sanctorum [saints]. (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p553)

The church is the community of all true believers for all time. (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p853)

According to the Bible, the church is the people of God, the assembly and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. (Edmund Clowney, The Church, p28)

So, what do you think? Are they sufficient or are they lacking? Do you agree or don’t you agree? Well, let’s move on into Scripture.

First Two Occurrences of The Word ‘Church’

The word church shows up 106 times in the New Testament. There is a theological principle known as the principle of first mention. This states that, if you want to learn about a particular topic in Scripture, it is always good to begin where it is first mentioned.

Thus, the first two occurrences of the word ‘church’ are found in the Gospel of Matthew:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 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. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

With the passage in Matthew 16, there is much discussion and debate on what Jesus is actually communicating in regards to this statement in vs18: ‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.’

Not only that, but there has also been much discussion around a similar statement found in both passages: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matthew 16:19; 18:18).

Thus, while these passages will give us insight into our study of the nature of the church, these are probably not the two best passages with which we should begin. Yet, we shall return to them in the near future.

The New Testament Greek Word

The word ‘church’ is the English translation of the Greek New Testament word ekklesia. In its most simple form, the word ekklesia means ‘called out ones’. This comes from the word kaleo, meaning ‘to call’, and ek, meaning ‘out’. Thus, we have the called out ones.

But, now, the question arises: For what were we called out?

When thinking of the simplified definition of ekkleisa, ‘called out ones’, one might be reminded of this Scripture:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Specifically, the phrase, ‘him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light,’ might ring in our minds. But, while it might sound nice and spiritual to connect the wording in 1 Peter 2 with the definition of ekklesia, such a specific correlation is probably too much.

Let’s take a look at how the word ekklesia is used elsewhere.

Ekklesia Used In Regular Life

It is interesting to note that the word ekklesia was not only used for religious gatherings, but also in regular life. You can read Acts 19:21-41 at your own leisure, specifically looking at vs32, 39, and 41.

The context shows that the people of Ephesus were in an uproar over Paul and his companions because they were turning away many from Artemis worship. Thus, we see a convened, legal assembly (or ekklesia) had formed to discuss the matters. They had assembled, or gathered together, for a purpose, although it was to harm Paul and those with him.

Ekkelsia Used To Describe Old Testament Israel

Prior to Stephen’s martyr death, he summarised the history of the people of Israel in Acts 7. Interestingly enough, he used the word ekklesia to describe the gathering of the Israelites in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership, with most of our English versions translating the word as congregation:

This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. (Acts 7:38)

Though we will take time to look at the roots of the Hebrew Old Testament word a bit later, it is interesting to note that the Greek word, ekklesia, was used to describe the gathering of Israel. And, no doubt, they, too, were gathered for a purpose – headed to the promised land!

Summary of Ekklesia

Therefore, our study of the word ekklesia, also considering how it was used in regular life and with describing Old Testament Israel, shows us that the basic definition of the word is:

  • Called out ones
  • A gathered people
  • A people assembled for a purpose

And, at this point, we can attempt to somewhat answer the question, For what were we called out?

To be called out refers to being called together by God. The church is a called out gathering of God’s people. And this gathering, this ekklesia, of God’s people has a purpose.

It might seem rather dry to dive into the linguistic background of the word, but it will prove helpful in developing a proper understanding of the nature of the church. Therefore, we are starting to get a little glimpse into the word ekklesia and what it really means. We are beginning to actually see what, or who, church is.

In the next article, my plan is to look at the Old Testament Hebrew word for assembly or gathering, looking at it’s specific connection with ekklesia. Then, we will also look briefly at the development of our English word ‘church’. Stay tuned…

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