Church, it’s a word that carries with it many thoughts in the minds of many people. The word has been used in crusades and revivals; it’s made men both rich and poor; it’s healed many and hurt some. When Jesus said to Peter in Matthew 16:18 “And upon this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not overcome it,” many people have espoused to know what He meant and this one verse has been the spring board for many a debate. Is church orthodox, catholic, charismatic, holiness, denominational, traditional, contemporary, progressive, stagnant, judgmental, tolerant, home group, stadium, all of the above or none of the above? The answer lies in what you have been taught, what you have experienced and what your perception is. Henceforth, why all are right in their own eyes and why there are so many discussions and disagreements around the subject called church.
In the Hebrew culture there were three words for what we in the Western world or those of us with a Greek/Gentile mindset call church. To the Hebrews church was not a word they used or were familiar with, rather they used the words Temple, Synagogue and Ekklesia. The Temple was the headquarters of all things Israel. The synagogue was the local expression of the community. The Ekklesia was the legislative body in any given city. They had distinctly different words to describe distinctly different expressions of their “religious” life or as we would call it church life. Gentiles do not have the linguistic luxury that Israel had and has because we have lumped all three into one word called church.
Due to the trilingual understanding of the word church in the Bible, the New Testament editors used the words assembly, ekklessia, and temple. They did not stick with one word, church, but we in the 21st Century have one word for all three biblical expressions. Is it possible this is why we are so confused? Why we argue, discuss and seek to change or not change this thing we call church? Denominations are factions of the church. Denominations are the doctrines of men that divide the body into many theological parts not biblical body parts according to 1 Corinthians 12. Biblical body parts as Paul described it are according to spiritual gifts God has given each of us for the benefit of the whole body. Spiritual gifts are not to be divisive but complimentary to one another just as actual body parts are, at least that is what Paul says in Romans 12.
Back to the tri-fold nature of this word church in the New Testament. In Acts 16:13 says, “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer (in Philippi); and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled.” The word assembled in the Greek is sunerchomai and it means to come together, a gathering, to convene, to assemble, go along with, accompany. One who denomination calls themselves the Assemblies of God, they come together as the church to pray and hear the word of God.
A second word in the New Testament is found in Acts 16:4-5 “Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.” The word churches here in Greek is ekklesia which means governmental authority, the ekklesia had expansive authority in determining the affairs of cities and territories; it functioned as a legal ruling assembly of a city (Sima, Ekklesia Series).
The third word used in the New Testament is that of temple. We find this word has been transformed from meaning a building in Jerusalem to people. Listen to how Paul says it in 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Do you not know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person, for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” Jesus said it this way in John 2:19-21 “Jesus answered them and said, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. The Jews then said, It took 46 years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days? But He was speaking of His body.” Temple in both places is the Greek word naos which means to inhabit, to dwell.
Now that we have some building blocks to work with let’s put it all together. Jesus said, upon this rock I will build my church (ekklesia) and the gates of hell will not overpower it (Matthew 16:18). Jesus was speaking of building a legislative ruling body in every city or territory, so the church, the ekklesia could rule the atmosphere of that city or territory. This is in alignment with what Paul said in Ephesians 6, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the powers, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. This was written to the ekklesia in Ephesus.
Not every Christian is a member of the ekklesia, but every Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit, they are all invited to assemble, to gather with other believers. The reason not every Christian is a member of the ekklesia, is because we are not all excercising the same meausre of authority. New believers are not able to exercise the same measure of authority as a seasoned believer. This is not a hierarchal statement, but rather a historical one. The difference between a new believer and a mature believer is history with God. It takes time, it takes obedience, it takes transformation, it takes renewing of the mind and restoring of the soul to mature in Christ. It does not happen overnight, but it does happen over time as we walk with God. I tell my son, who is 13 years old, the only difference between you and I, is that I have lived on earth longer than you. The same is true for believers who assemble or who are the temple of the Holy Spirit but not yet ready to be the ekklesia.
Our desire should be not to compete with each other, divide over doctrinal issues and definitely not seek some form of hierarchal title, name, position, or anything else for Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). The members of the ekklesia are servants of their city and their territories as watchmen on the wall, rulers of the atmosphere and defenders of righteousness in the spirit, so those who are assembling as the temple of the Holy Spirit can experience the presence and power of God. Most have no idea who the ekklesia is in their city, for they are not seeking to be seen by men but by God.
This is by no means an exhaustive discussion on the subject called church, but I hope it opens up another measure of understanding of the different terms and definitions of this powerful word called church.