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What is a Church?

The word church appears over a hundred times in the Bible. The Greek word translated church is ecclesia, which meant a called-out assembly or body of people. In the cities of Ancient Greece, the ecclesia was all the men between the ages 18 and 60; they were the final ruling body of the city. The word ecclesia is a reference to bodies of self-governed Christians. It never refers to an institution or association of which Christians are members. Christians are not members of churches, they are the churches! Even this though misses the point. The word church is derived from kuriakon, meaning Lord’s or Lord’s property. Now there is a sense in which we belong to the Lord but that’s not what these hundred or so verses are telling us. These groups of believers were not churches; they were ecclesias, the called-out ones, called to come out from under the governments of this world, not just to worship, but to live as self-governed assemblies that recognize Christ as their only King and lawgiver. They were called to form the Kingdom of God on earth.

This kingdom is the great stone that Daniel wrote about: that “shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (Dan 2:44-45). The Christians we find in the book of The Acts were not merely groups of believers that exchanged one religion for another. It was their whole way of life, including their allegiance to the civil order that changed. An entirely new dynamic, a powerful world-changing force was unleashed; they were the stone that would break up and consume the nations of the existing pagan world. Consider the complaint raised against Paul’s teaching at Thessalonica:

These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;  7 Whom Jason hath received:  and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus. (Acts 17:6-7)

The complaint wasn’t religious; it was civil, Christ was being presented as “another king” with another law, a law that was “contrary to the decrees of Caesar.” Paul and Silas weren’t just founding new churches; they were building the Kingdom of God by forming, self-governing Christian enclaves within the Roman Empire. We see one aspect of this in Corinth, where Paul encourages the believers to establish their own law courts:

1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?  2 Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?  and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?  3 Know ye not that we shall judge angels?  how much more things that pertain to this life? (1 Cor. 6:1-8)

The early Christians responded to this message; they instituted their own orphanages, hospitals and welfare agencies as well as courts that judged by God’s law; these courts eventually displaced the Roman courts. They were a nation within a nation. Where Caesar’s law agreed with God’s law, they appeared to obey Caesar but that was not the case; they obeyed the Lord Christ and none other. This was what provoked the wrath of Rome and led to persecution, but ultimately to victory over that Pagan world.

How the ecclesias were reduced to merely religious assemblies and sadly came to be called churches is a long and drawn out history but it is clearly a major corruption of Scripture. The apostles gave birth to what Christ came to initiate, not just the religion of God but the “Kingdom of God.” Christianity began as a total, world-changing and world-encompassing order but was later reduced to a religion, one among many. We have disobeyed God and surrendered the world to the Devil. Is it any wonder we have come to the present deplorable condition we find ourselves in? We need to repent of our sinful deeds, ask God’s forgiveness for our disobedience, and convert our wayward churches into the ecclesias that constitute the Kingdom of God. How to go about doing this will be the subject of future articles, written hopefully by many of God’s faithful servants.