In the ESV Bible, the English word “church” is always used for the Greek noun ekklesia. It means “called out ones” and was used in Greek culture to refer to a town assembly. In classical Greek, it is functionally connected to another word, kerux, the messenger/herald (preacher) who would call the assembly together and declare the government’s message.
“In Class. Gr., a public servant of supreme power both in peace and in war, one who summoned the ekklesía, the town gathering. This word, ekklesía, later was used for the Church. A kerux, messenger, was the public crier and reader of state messages such as the conveyor of a declaration of war.” (Zodhiates)
In the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the Septuagint, ekklesia referred to God’s people Israel in distinction from all other nations. In the New Testament, the term is used in two primary and important ways, the Church Universal, without reference to time or place, and the church in its local expression in a particular place and time.
“The term ekklesía denotes the NT community of the redeemed in its twofold aspect. First, all who were called by and to Christ in the fellowship of His salvation, the church worldwide of all times, and only secondarily to an individual church.” (Zodhiates)
Here is how Jesus used the term ekklesia.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18, ESV)
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17, ESV)
It is important to note that in Jesus’ use of ekklesia, the idea of Universal Church is clearly seen in Matt 16 and the idea of a local church is indicated in Matt 18 with Matt 16 referring to the totality of the Church that Jesus himself will build and Matt 18 assuming that there is some local expression of this Church that is available and authoritative to arbitrate conflict.
“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22–23, ESV)
The totality of Jesus’ authority, “all things under his feet”, finds practical expression through his relationship of headship “to the church”. The phrase “which is his body” refers directly and overtly to “the church”. Likewise, “…the fullness of him who fills all in all” also refers back to the word “church”. The church is his body and the church is his fullness. The church is his strategy for filling all things.
Of course no single congregation of believers can function as his body, his fullness. These uses of “church” refer to the entire communion of believers in all times and places. But the idea of a Universal Church finds practical expression in the regular gatherings of believers in a locality. In the New Testament we find that these gatherings have a variety of expressions.
The church in a house.
“Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.” (Romans 16:5, ESV)
“The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 16:19, ESV)
“Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” (Colossians 4:15, ESV)
“and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:” (Philemon 2, ESV)
The church in a city.
“And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1, ESV)
“The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.” (Acts 11:22, ESV)
“and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” (Acts 11:26, ESV)
“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” (Acts 13:1, ESV)
“and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” (Acts 14:26–27, ESV)
“When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.” (Acts 15:4, ESV)
“When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch.” (Acts 18:22, ESV)
“Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” (Acts 20:17, ESV)
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,” (Romans 16:1, ESV)
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:” (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV)
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.” (1 Thessalonians 1:1, ESV)
We should also note that in Revelation 2 & 3, Jesus has John take dictation for 7 letters to 7 local churches in 7 specific cities.
The church, or the churches in a region.
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (Acts 9:31, ESV)
“But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:19–23, ESV)
“And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” (Acts 15:41, ESV)
“and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:” (Galatians 1:2, ESV)
What Stands Out.
As we study the use of the word church and the activities of those who are included in these local expressions of church, several things stand out. The church was identifiable, for it could be gathered. The church was structured and governed, for there were apostles, and elders. The church was a specific communion, for individuals were “in good standing” or, when needed, were removed from fellowship. The church was a place of worship, of the Sacraments (Eucharist and Water Baptism), of teaching, of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, of fellowship, of mutual service, of discipline (when needed) and of mission.
Are you part of such a congregation? If not, you need to be. It’s not about size. I attend a very large church of 20,000 people attending each weekend. In the past, I’ve been part of much smaller churches. But each congregation I’ve connected to would match the criteria of a New Testament church. Such connection and fellowship is an essential part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.