What Is The Church? (Part 1)

Since this blog and my podcast focus on matters pertaining to the church, I figured it would be a good idea to clarify: what exactly is the church? This first post focuses on a biblical and theological understanding of the church. Next week we will look at the human, institutional aspects of church.

The word “church” doesn’t actually appear in the original biblical manuscripts. The word later translated “church” was the Greek word ekklēsia, which means gathering or assembly. Ekklēsia first appears in Matthew 16:18, when Jesus foretold his establishment of the church through Peter. By late New Testament times, ekklēsia had four primary meanings:

  • All Christians in one location, such as when Paul writes to '“the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).

  • All Christians on earth, as when Paul speaks simply of “the church” or “the church of God,” without geographical marker (1 Cor. 10:32).

  • A small group of Christians who regularly meet together in a home (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Phlm. 2).

  • A specific Christian gathering, similar to what we might now call a ‘church service’ (1 Cor. 11:20a, 14:2).

Based on Paul’s writings, Christian theologians have generally adopted a two-fold understanding of the nature of the church: that of a worldwide or universal community (often written as “Church” with a capital ‘c’ and sometimes referred to as ‘big-C Church’, and that of a local gathering or fellowship “church” with a lower-case ‘c’). For example: My calling is to serve the (universal) Church through my writing and teaching, but I have placed myself in community and under authority at a (local) church.

Some theologians hold that the universal Church also includes Christians who have died and been reunited with Christ; in other words, the fellowship of saints. This understanding concurs with Paul’s teaching that Christians are ultimately citizens of heaven, yet these citizens gather in a physical, earthly representation of heavenly community (Phil. 3:20; 1 Cor. 12:28, 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6; Acts 8:3).

Colloquially, the term “church” often conjures an image of a material structure at a physical address. But biblically, it is clear that the church is considered a gathering of God’s people, not merely the gathering place for those people. A local church is a part of a larger collection of believers, around the world and even in heaven. Simply put, the church—both universal and local—is a community of God’s people.

Angie Ward