What is the church?

People, in places where many buildings, including churches, have been closed temporarily or voluntarily due to corona vaccine are wanting their buildings back. The latest, question in the UK, on this day of compiling a blog post from notes (Monday 25th January 2021) is “When will schools open?” My answer to that question is that I believe the current UK governments commitment to education as a priority, and they will be back as soon as NHS hospitals are not being swamped with covid patients. Allowing hospitals to exceed capacity will lead to unnecessary deaths.

Newcastle Cathedral choir stalls, what many think if when they hear the word church

The same question has been asked about churches since the first lockdown in March last year. When will churches be allowed to open? Even a Church of England bishop asked on social media, “Why do churches have to be closed when supermarkets, far more dangerous places than churches have to be closed? The answer is simple, although shops are the most dangerous place-people visit in a pandemic, they really are very dangerous, without shops people will die of starvation, it is not a question of churches being less dangerous than supermarkets, it is a question of unrestricted churches full of people praising God singing with all their might being very dangerous places to be. In this latest lockdown churches can be open for private prayer and for services where the congregation is masked and there is no singing. Even so, following the governments advice to stay at home many churches have voluntarily closed, including my church, Holy Trinity Huddersfield and my father’s church, Christ the King, Battyeford. But despite the buildings being locked, churches are still open, meeting on YouTube, Zoom, Facebook live and other internet platforms.

So what is the church?

Is it a building?
Is if people who gather in a specific place to worship God in a particular way?
Is it something else?

To get to the bottom of this we have to look at the meaning of the word translated church in our Bibles, and that word is ekklesia. (Sometimes transliterated as ecclesia.)

First a simple definition from simple.wilipedia,com: Ekklesia: in Christian theology means both: a particular body of faithful people, and the whole body of the faithful.

Christian Courier goes further:

The Greek term for “church” is ekklesia (found 114 times in the New Testament). In the New Testament context, the word is employed in four senses:

1. It represents the body of Christ worldwide, over which the Lord functions as head (Mt. 16:18; Eph. 1:22; 1 Tim. 3:15).
2. The expression can refer to God’s people in a given region (Acts 9:31, ASV, ESV).
3. Frequently, it depicted a local congregation of Christians (1 Cor. 1:2; Rev. 1:11).
4. It could also signify a group of the Lord’s people assembled for worship (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

That is not good, it seems we are taking what we believe the church to be now, and transferring its meaning back onto the term ekklesia, which had a meaning when the Bible was written that was different to that above. Backwards translation like this should be avoided.

Let’s try a different definition:

 ĭ-klē’zhē-ə, -zē-ə
The collective body of Christian believers regarded as constituting a universal church.
A church or congregation.
The political assembly of citizens of an ancient Greek state.
In ancient Greek states, a political assembly of citizens.
The public legislative assembly of the Athenians.

The word we have for Church is derived from a word for a political gathering.

And another one:

  • an assembly of the people convened at the public place of the council for the purpose of deliberating
  • the assembly of the Israelites
  • any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously

So any political gathering, including riots are called by the name of the word we have for church. But the curch has become different. If we were to call a Black Lives Matter march a church, or the insurrectionist rioters storming the Capitol building earlier this month a church we would be called out immediately. But both are covered by the meaning of ekklesia. What we as Christians have done is create a special meaning of church that is not in the same as the one used by the writers of the New Testament.

But there is something special about the church of God, the church of Jesus, but the importance is not that it is church, that simply means a gathering of people, any people. behind a cause, any cause. What is important and makes the church of God, the church of Jesus, different is that it is of God, of Jesus.

15  [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,

Matthew 16:15-18 ESV UK

Peter believed that Jesus was the Christ and it is on this rock, the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God that his church, his gathering of people are built. It is not the people that are gathered that makes the church special, neither is it beautiful buildings and I say this as a lover of church architecture, the buildings are dispensable, God is not. Without God being central, without Jesus being central, there is no church.

Not being able to use our buildings as we would like due to Covid-19 is a big problem, especially to those who have been brought up in the church and told that they must go to a church building every Sunday. But we are finding that when we meet virtually, no sorry not virtually, that gives the impression that it is not real and meeting online is a real meeting of real people, when we gather, whether physically or connected by the world wide web God is still there, and that is what make us a church, and nothing else. Not a building, not a style of music, not a liturgy but God alone.

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