Having heard the gospel and taken the first two steps of obedience in response to it, it is vital for each new believer to follow the example set by the first Christians. The first step of obedience to the gospel is to believe it and the second is to be baptized. Those who ‘gladly received [Peter’s] word were baptized’ and were ‘added to the church’ by the Lord Himself, Acts 2. 47. What is the ‘church?’ In its everyday use, the word ‘church’ in English refers either to a building - ‘Go down the hill and turn left at the church’ – or to a denomination – the Anglican Church, for instance. But is that the right use of the word ‘church’? Christians should be more interested in how God in the Bible sees and describes the ‘church’.
It is the Lord Jesus who first mentioned the word ‘church’ in the New Testament when He said, ‘I will build my church’, Matt.16.18.He is referring here to the universal church. Two chapters later He again refers to the church, this time local, when, speaking about Christians who have fallen out with one another, He says, ‘If he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be to thee as an heathen man’, Matt. 18. 17. Here the Lord clearly implies that the ‘church’ can hear (He says, ‘tell it to the church’) and that it can speak (‘if he neglect to hear the church’). The same thing is implied in Acts 11. 22 where we read, ‘Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem’. In Acts 12. 5 the church prayed, for ‘Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him’. The church can be hospitable (in Acts 15. 4 Paul and his delegation ‘were received of the church’), and it can be greeted (in Romans 16. 5 Paul instructed his readers to ‘salute (greet) the church in Rome’, as he had greeted the church in Jerusalem in Acts 18. 22). It can be persecuted (Acts 8. 1, Gal. 1. 13), it can be instructed or edified, (1 Cor. 14. 12) and it meets together (1 Cor. 14. 23). Now none of these things can be true of a building. No building can hear, pray, receive others, be greeted, edified, persecuted or meet together. Evidently, therefore, the ‘church’, as far as the Bible is concerned, is not a building but something else – something alive, something capable of doing things. This conclusion is confirmed when we read of the church in Antioch that they (the church) sent forth Barnabas and Saul, Acts 13. 1-3. We have arrived at this conclusion merely by looking at our English translation. Were we to look a little deeper into the original Greek in which the New Testament was first written, we would find the use of the Greek word for ‘church’ confirms this. Looking up each of the references we have used above in Strong’s Concordance, following the numbers he gives, and using a Greek Lexicon/Dictionary coded to these numbers, we find that the word translated ‘church’ in English is the word ekklesia in Greek.
There are many other places in the New Testament where the Greek word ekklesia is used. One that should draw our attention at this stage in our study is found in Acts chapter 19 and verses 29-41. A crowd of people in Ephesus were angry at something the apostle Paul was teaching. They arrested Paul and his companions and rushed to a public building, the theatre. This large group of hostile people here is called an ekklesia in Greek. The town-clerk eventually intervened, attempting to restore order and disperse the crowd.‘If ye inquire anything concerning other matters,’ he said,’ it shall be determined in a lawful assembly (ekklesia). For we are in danger to be called in question for this day’s uproar … and when he had thus spoken he dismissed the assembly (ekklesia)’, Acts 19. 29-41. It is clear from this passage that an ekklesia is a group, a gathering, or an assembly of people. It need not be a religious gathering, for this riot in Ephesus was anything but. It is disappointing that the translators of our English Bibles were inconsistent in their translation of this word, and instead of translating ekklesia with the word ‘assembly’ every time, as they did in Acts 19, the same word ekklesia is usually translated ‘church’. Geoffrey Bromiley’s abridgement of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament tells us, ‘General dictionaries define ekklesia as 1. ‘assembly’ and 2. ‘church’. Since the [New Testament] uses a single term, translators should try to do so, but this raises the question whether ‘church’ or ‘congregation’ is always suitable … ‘assembly’ … is perhaps the best single term‘. It is important to remember this – the ‘church’, the ekklesia, is the assembly or group of people who meet in God’s name, not the building in which they meet. In New Testament times, of course, the ‘church’ did not have dedicated buildings in which to meet, as we do, but met in other peoples’ houses, Rom. 16. 5.
Looking up the word ekklesia in W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words we discover it means ‘a calling out of’. The ekklesia is an assembly of people ‘called out of’ somewhere for a particular purpose. When the word ekklesia is linked with God, we understand the church is an assembly of people called out by God. Because God calls out local assemblies of Christians, they are referred to as belonging to Him. In Acts 20. 28, the apostle Paul refers to ‘the assembly (ekklesia/church) of God which he hath purchased with his own blood’; so also we read of ‘the ekklesia/assembly of God which is at Corinth’, 1 Cor. 1. 2. The assembly is also referred to as Christ’s assembly, for He said, ‘I will build my church’ (ekklesia) and in Romans 16. 16. ‘the assemblies of Christ salute you’. The local assembly of Christians to which you or I belong (some people use the phrase ‘where we are in fellowship’) is not our assembly. It is God’s assembly. The people in that assembly have been called out, or gathered by God and by Christ to meet together in His name. Though it may be the one in which we are in fellowship, it does not belong to us; instead we belong to it. It is God’s assembly to do with as He sees fit, not ours. God’s principles must govern it, as must God’s purposes. If you are saved and baptized, but not yet in ‘membership/ fellowship’ in a local assembly of Christians you should be! Search out your brothers and sisters in the Lord and meet with them, and God will bless you.