What do you think of when you hear the word church? A white clap-board building? Stained-glass windows? Mahogany pews?
If you do, you’re like most people. But surprisingly enough, the biblical meaning of the word church has nothing to do with these things.
The word for church in the original Greek language was ekklesia. The word was lifted from the Palestinian culture of the time, where it meant a public assembly of citizens. The word literally means “those who are called out.” It referred to times when the citizens were “called out” of the city to vote.
Transported into the biblical context, the word means those who are called out to be the people of God.
The early Christians understood this very well. A church is not a building; it is a gathering of people.
One of my favorite pictures of the church is from a story told by the late Dick Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Dick used to be pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in the Washington, D.C., area.
He pastored there for several years, however, before he really understood the biblical teaching on the church.
It hit him one evening as he was flying home from a trip, veering in toward Washington at dusk. Dick knew the flight would pass directly over Fourth Presbyterian Church, so he pressed his face against the window to catch a glimpse of the building down below. But the sun was setting just then, and Dick wasn’t able to pick out the church from the evening shadows.
Eventually he gave up and looked straight ahead instead—across to the Washington skyline. In the distance he saw the office buildings lining the Potomac River. Further on he saw the lights of the White House, the Labor Department, and even the distant glow of the Capitol dome.
Staring out the window, Dick began mentally ticking off the names of congregational members who worked in those office buildings and government bureaus—many of them disciples of his, people he had equipped to live out their faith.
And suddenly it hit him.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, startling the passenger sitting next to him. “There it is! There’s Fourth Presbyterian Church!”
The church doesn’t consist of a building marked by a steeple, Dick realized. It consists of the people who live and work in the homes and offices spread out below him.
People who shine like bright stars in a dark world, as Philippians puts it.
This is an important truth for all of us to learn. We need to stop thinking of the church as a building. The church is the people of God—trained to be disciples, spread throughout every arena of life, living their faith 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
That’s something I learned when I wrote my book The Body. In this series I’ve presented some of the themes of that book, in which I teach what we have to do in order to live out the biblical vision of the church in our modern society.