The Foundations: What is a Church?

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For some, a “church” is simply a building. If you punch the word “church” into Google images that’s what you get – pictures of beautiful buildings. You’ve probably been asked the question, “Do you go to church?”, as though “church” was a destination to reach, or an address to be found. If it was the middle of the night and you happened to drive by your church building you might  say, “That’s my church!”, even if the lights were off and no one was there. The word “church” can be used to describe a building, but that’s certainly not the full meaning, and the etymology of the word “Church” is actually quite interesting.

I clearly have too many A's in my name.
I clearly have too many A’s in my name.

EKKLESIA – “A Congregation”

The word we normally read in the New Testament as “church” is the Greek word EKKLESIA, which simply meant “a congregation of citizens called out from their homes into a public place” – there wasn’t really a religious connection to the word – it could be any congregation of people for any reason. When Jesus looked at Peter and said in Matthew 16:18, “…on this rock I will build my church…” He was used the word EKKLESIA to refer to His “called-out ones”, or His “congregation” – the special group of people that would be His followers.

Throughout scripture the word “church” is used to describe a congregation of believers, but never to describe a building. In Romans 16:5 Paul says, “Greet also the church in their house.” showing the clear difference between the congregation and the building. A New Testament believer would never have said “I go to church”, they would have said “I’m part of a church”. The church is the people, the house is the building.

HODOS – “The Way”

Another common word used in scripture to describe the followers of Jesus was HODOS, or “The Way”. When Paul was running around persecuting the church he was chasing a group who called themselves “The Way”. Acts 9:1-2,

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

Jesus called Himself “The Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6), a word that simply meant “the path”, or “the road”, but was also used to describe “A way of thinking, feeling or deciding”. Just like today if we said we want to “walk a mile in their shoes”, we don’t their actual shoes, but their way of life.  Followers of Jesus said that they were following The Way of Jesus.

CHRISTIANOS – “Christians”

That’s what they called themselves, but later, as the church grew and spread, the non-believing culture started calling them something else – CHRISTIANOS or “Christians”. Acts 11:26 says,

“For a whole year they met with the church [Notice it doesn’t say “they met at the church”] and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

This wasn’t meant to be complimentary. The ending “–ians” simply means “belonging to the party of” or “follower of”, so it was shorthand for this crazy group of people who kept talking about this back-from-the-dead Jesus fellow who turned random people into brothers and sisters who met together regularly to eat His body and drink His blood (Christians were pretty misunderstood at the beginning – and still are today, I suppose). These “Christians” said that Jesus was the one whom the Jews called Christ, so the culture around them started calling them “Christians” – “followers of Christ”. Amazingly, and in a relatively short period of time after Jesus walked the earth, these believers went from being a small “congregation” to an identifiable group, distinct from Judaism and distinct from the Gentile religions.

“Originally built by the mother of Emperor Constantine in 330 A.D., the Church of the Holy Sepulcher commemorates the hill of crucifixion and the tomb of Christ’s burial.”

KURIAKOS – “Church”

Let’s see what we have so far. We have a Congregation [EKKLESIA] of Christians [CHRIASTIANOS], who call themselves “The Way” [HODOS]. So why do many English translations of the bible use the word “Church”? Where did that come from?

The word “Church” actually comes from a different Greek word – KURIAKOS which simply means “the lord’s” or “belonging to the lord” (KURIOS = “lord”). It is used in scripture a couple of times (1 Cor 11:20, Rev 1:10), and the word could mean any human lord, but it always refers to Jesus in scripture. For Christians there really is only one Lord, so when Christians started to gather into larger groups, designate places of worship, and even build buildings, they would call them KURIAKOS – places that “belong to the Lord”.

This really took off when Emperor Constantine (circa 300AD), the first Christian Emperor of Rome, started building places of worship all over the place and wanted to set them apart from the other public buildings he was erecting and so called them KURIAKOS. The pronunciation of the word changed over the years, but now the buildings that we build which are meant to house a group of believers still have that same name –we call them Churches.

And so, to summarize, on Sunday morning you sit in a “Church”, a KURIAKOS, which is a building dedicated to the Lord. Surrounding you are Christians who make up the EKKLESIA, the Congregation of people who have been called out from the world to become followers of the HODOS, The Way, of Jesus the Christ. Don’t you love word studies‽

KOINONIA

Word studies are so much fun, let’s do one more. We’ve talked about the names of this body of believers, but there’s another great word that describes what happens among the people who are part of this group. It’s a word that is used both to describe and to identify what the church is and does.

It’s the word KOINONIA. The Church of Jesus Christ is meant to practice, experience and be defined by their expression of KOINONIA. It’s used 20 times in the Bible and is such a wonderfully expressive word that it takes many English words to fully capture it’s meaning.

KOINONIA = Commitment

It’s first occurrence is in Acts 2:42, right at the birth of the church, shortly after the Apostle Peter has given his first sermon and 3000 are converted to Christianity. It says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship [KOINONIA], to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It describes the group of people who had come together under the banner of Christ. They committed themselves to one another. They became a community, a group, a united front built upon faith in and love for single leader, Jesus Christ.

KOINONIA = Spiritual Unity

aul uses it in Philippians 2:1-2 as he is teaching believers about pursuing Christ like humility and how to treat other believers. He says,

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation [KOINONIA] in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

This is the spiritual aspect to KOINONIA. It’s not just about being united in our minds, wills, and decisions, but also describes how Christians are drawn together by the Holy Spirit to care for one another and worship God. It describes a group of people who are not only seeking agreement and united in their purpose, but serving God, one another, and serving alongside one another with love and joy.

KOINONIA: From Jesus to Church

This love for one another does not come from inside ourselves, but is built upon and flows from our relationship with Jesus. KOINONIA is also used to describe our relationship with Jesus. Listen to 1 John 1:6-7,

“If we say we have fellowship [KOINONIA] with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship [KOINONIA] with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

If we are in KOINONIA (loving fellowship, agreement, service, intimate communion) with Jesus, then we will have KOINONIA (loving fellowship, agreement, service, intimate communion) with the people of the church. It’s a powerful truth that the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we will feel to His people, and the further we are from Jesus, the further away we will feel from His church.

We cannot say that we are loving, serving, enjoying, and participating with Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, passionately pursuing the mission God has for us, while at the same time being distant from His people, arguing with another believer, avoiding another Christian, or sinning against a brother or sister in Christ. They work together. We express our love for God by loving His people. We express our service to our Lord Jesus by serving His people. When we are listening to the Holy Spirit, He will point us towards His people. Our KOINONIA with God flows directly into our KOINONIA with His church.

Therefore if you feel stuck in your spiritual life, if you feel a distance from God, if you are feeling dispassionate in your relationship with Jesus, if you don’t regularly see the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, one sure way to reclaim that is to pursue KOINONIA with His people.

KOINONIA = Sacrifice

Consider that another way this word is used is to describe a sacrificial gift given from one believer to another (or group of believers) who is in need. In the same section of scripture where Paul is talking about being a cheerful giver and teaching that God supplies our needs generously so we can give generously (2 Corinthians 9:6-15), he uses the word KOINONIA to describe “generously sharing” with other believers who are in need.

In other words, when you are meeting the needs of another believer, whether in friendship, or service, or through a financial or practical gift, you are exercising KOINONIA and are not only growing closer to that person, but closer to God.

KOINONIA = Communion

Allow me one final use of KOINONIA in scripture. Listen to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17,

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation [KOINONIA] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation [KOINONIA] in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

When we have Communion, the Lord’s Supper, we are participating in an exercise of KOINONIA. We are expressing our KOINONIA with Jesus, and our KOINONIA with His church. I read a section from a passage in 1 Corinthians 11 every month during the Communion Service, but let’s read context:

“17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!”

So what’s Paul’s problem with the church here? The KOINONIA, the intimacy, fellowship, joy of service, unity in spirit, is broken. The church gets together to eat, to worship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but they aren’t serving one another, they are divided, they are abusing each other, disregarding each other’s needs, not helping those who need it, letting those who need food go hungry, some eating and drinking it all before the rest can even get there!

Like many churches, they are doing their religious thing, putting in their time, going through the motions, but the KOINONIA isn’t there. They should be loving one another, serving each other, seeking unity, taking care of the ones who have needs, blessing each other, encouraging the weaker among them… but instead they come to church and pretend that it exists for them, and that their relationship with God has nothing to do with the Christians around them. They do their religious duty thinking only of themselves.

Paul looks at this church and says, “You’re not eating the Lord’s Supper, you’re just having a worldly party. Because you have lost your KOINONIA, you are no longer a church.”

He continues in verse 23,

“23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Now read to the next part carefully:

“27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

Communion is a time for us to examine ourselves, but some ministers (myself included) may be negligent in reminding us what we are to be examining ourselves for. Consider the context, what is Paul really concerned about? KOINONIA!

An Unworthy Manner

What does it mean to “eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner [and] sin against the body and blood of the Lord”? We often assume it means just searching our hearts for sins that no one knows about, that we haven’t confessed yet, bitterness or jealousy or lust we have in our hearts… and that is only part of the meaning. We should certainly do that. But remember the context.

We “sin against the body and blood” when we participate in the Lord’s Supper and are not in KOINONIA with Jesus and the brothers and sisters around us. This is why the Lord’s Supper is reserved for believers alone. Only those who have given their lives to Jesus can have KOINONIA with Jesus, and with the Church. This is why many churches only allow members to take Communion, in an attempt to not bring judgement upon their church for allowing people who are not in KOINONIA to participate in the Lord’s Supper.

Eating & Drinking Judgement

Look at verse 29 again to see how serious this is, “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” What does it “recognizing the body of the Lord” mean?

It means two things:

First, we have to recognize the actual body of Jesus Christ, which was give up for us at the Great Exchange, made the Propitiation for our sins, and which was hung on the cross in our place. We must have that at the forefront of our minds as we partake in the bread, which symbolizes Jesus body, given for us, and the cup, which reminds us of His blood which was shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

Second, we must also recognize the other way the “body of the Lord” is used in scripture. Over and over and over in scripture the Church is called the “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:27, Eph 4:12…”). Jesus is the head, we are the body. We are His hands and feet in this world, the body by which He manifests His will and through whom He works the most.

When we take communion without being in KOINONIA with the brothers and sisters around us, we eat and drink judgement on ourselves. How serious is this? Verse 30 says that in the Corinthian church God’s judgement came down “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

One of my commentaries says this,

“To not come to the table in unity and acceptance of fellow believers revealed arrogance and ungratefulness for what Christ had done. To take the Lord’s Supper – to eat the bread and drink the wine – as though it were no more than a regular meal to assuage hunger is to miss the sanctity of this spiritual rite. Those who did so were eating and drinking God’s judgment against themselves. This ‘judgement’ was severe, one of the most severe in the New Testament. The judgement was disciplinary in nature; that is, it did not refer to eternal judgment, but it was sever enough to cause many of the believers to be weak and ill, while some had even died. That some of the people had died may have been a supernatural judgement on the Corinthian church. This type of disciplinary judgement highlights the seriousness of the Communion service. The Lord’s Supper is not to be take lightly; this new covenant cost Jesus His life. It is not a meaningless ritual, but a sacrament given by Christ to help strengthen believers’ faith.” (Life Application Bible Commentary – Pg 165-166)

What’s In A Name?

There’s something beautiful about the simplicity of the word “church”, and the complexity of how it came about. The story of how we came to call this place, and these people, a “church” gives us a glimpse into the complexity of the organization and the simplicity of what is meant to do. What happens here, among us, each day, each week, while we are in service together and while we are caring for one another during the week, is unique to the Christian church. We are the only group that can experience KOINONIA with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, and with Each other.

We are the only group who has the HODOS, The Way, because we know the One who truly is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are the EKKLESIA, the called-out ones, who were once part of the world, but are no longer. We are now CHRISTIANOS, those belonging to Christ, His people. And we come here, to this KURIAKOS, this place that belongs to the Lord, this place of worship, fellowship, discipleship, service, love, joy, commitment, praise, power, unity… so that we can be KURIAKOS a people who belongs to the Lord.

Through my years as a Christian, and as a pastor, as I have learned to love Jesus, I have learned to love His church and His people too, and it is my prayer that you would do the same.

 

Study Notes:

Sermon Reflection Questions: 

  • What do you think of when you hear the word “Church”? What positive and negative connotations does the word
  • What does it mean to be part of an EKKLESIA – “A Congregation”
  • What does it mean to be part of  HODOS – “The Way”?
  • In what ways has the meaning of the word Christian changed for you?
  • What is KOINONIA?
  • How serious does Jesus take The Lord’s Supper? How has today’s lesson changed your view of Communion / The Lord’s Supper?

Small Group Study:

Icebreaker: What are three things you would most like to accomplish in the next year?

Read & Discuss: 1 John 1:6-7

Vs 6:

  • Why would some say they have “fellowship with Him”, but not really mean it? What benefits are there in giving lip-service to the faith?
  • What does it mean to “walk in darkness”?

Vs 7:

  • What does it mean to “walk in the light”? How can we “walk in the light as He [Jesus] is in the light?”
  • Look at how the verse builds. “IF we walk in the light…[THEN] we have fellowship with one another AND the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” How does all that work together? What is the connection to having “fellowship with one another” and being “cleansed from all sin”?

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