3. The New Testament Church

The first two articles showed that the Greek word ekklesia, translated as “church” in most Bibles, means “assembly”, and is a political word that people applied to the assemblies of citizens that ruled Greek city states. The Greek translation of the Old Testament also used it to refer to times when the whole nation of Israel, or its leaders, gathered together for governmental purposes. We saw that Jesus used the word in connection with his proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

Jerusalem

Throughout the early chapters of Acts the word ekklesia is used in the singular, implying that the Christian community was seen as one assembly, even though its members were spread throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria. Acts 6 v 2 reports an occasion when the apostles gathered all the disciples together to appoint people to look after the distribution of food.  Although this passage doesn’t use the word  “church”, it shows the assembly of believers in operation.


The apostles do not impose their proposal on the gathered disciples but allow the people to register approval or otherwise (v5). They provide guidelines as to what kind of people are needed for the role but leave the choice entirely to the assembly. The gathered assembly approves the proposal and chooses the people to carry it out.

Antioch

In Acts 11 a new departure takes place with a separate assembly being established at Antioch. From this point onwards the word ekklesia is used flexibly, on the one hand for the complete company of Jesus’ disciples throughout time and space, and on the other hand for individual gatherings of believers who organise themselves separately. Paul and Barnabas, during their missionary journey, establish several more churches in towns in Asia Minor (see Acts 14 verse 23)

In the rest of the New Testament, separate churches appear which relate to towns (for example Corinth and Phillip) or regions (for example Galatia). Romans chapter 16, written to the Christians in a large city, reveals a situation where there are a number of related but separate churches in different parts of the city.

Corinth

Most of Paul’s letters are written, not to individuals, but to churches. Usually the word “you” is in the plural, implying a gathered group rather than separate individuals. It is such an assembly that Paul describes as “Christ’s body” in 1 Corinthians 12.  He’s not saying the ekklesia is like a body but that it is Christ’s body. Jesus meets the world through the assembly of his disciples.

Paul gives us clues in 1 Corinthians that reveal some of what went on when an ekklesia gathered. Both sexes are present, though Paul encourages married women to ask their husbands to speak on their behalf (1 Corinthians 14 v 33-35). The disciples eat food together and in that context remember the Lord’s death (1 Corinthians 10 and 11). They sing together (14 v 15), speak in tongues, pray, praise, prophesy and experience all the gifts of the Holy Spirit (chapters 12 and 14). Discussion takes place too and decisions are made (chapter 5 v 1–5 and 14 v 34–35). They raise money for the relief of poverty (chapter 16). Unbelievers may be expected to turn up unannounced, or perhaps invited as guests by members of the church (14 v 23, 24).
 

Implications

  •  The church is essentially local.
  •  A church can relate to a town, a district or a neighbourhood.
  • •Churches today tended to isolate into separate meetings what the early church kept together in one meeting. As a result we  make false distinctions, for example between individual and corporate action and between sacred (worship) and secular (business).

The photograph above shows the ancient city of Ephesus, The semicircular tiers of the theatre can be seen in the background. Here Paul was dragged before an ad hoc meting of the city’s ekklesia, or assembly of citizens (see Acts 19 v 23 following).

Photo © copyright Jack G, accessed from www.flickr.com under a Creative Commons Licence.