Ekklesia is a Greek word that means “called out ones.” This word is used to describe/define the Christian Church. Throughout our lives we will get to listen to quite a few different people share their opinions on what Christianity is supposed to be, what the Christian Church is supposed to be, what Christian worship is supposed to be, and so on. The problem with these opinions is that they all have bias attached to them. It’s as though with every experience that we go through in life – success or failure, happy or sad – there are a pair of prescription glasses we’re wearing that are being continuously altered to change the way we look at things. We all have bias. I certainly do too. However, when we let these biases become Christian doctrine, we set ourselves up to look as foolish as Pharisees standing before Christ.
The “Holy Christian Church” and the “Communion of Saints” that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed are ways of saying “all believers past and present who are recognized children of God through faith in their Savior Jesus.”
The word “church” today is so intricately connected with the idea of a building that you can hear in the way people talk that they have no idea what the New Testament is referring to in the concept of “church.” “Our church looks really nice all decorated for Christmas.” “Our church is freezing today. Someone needs to adjust the thermostat.” “We go to church weekly.“ Even we pastors misuse the word church. Ever heard a pastor say something to the effect of “It’s great to be in the House of God today!” ? Or, have you heard parents reasoning with their kids, “We need to behave because we’re in God’s House now.”? Honestly, none of this really has anything to do with New Testament Christianity or the New Testament Church. And it’s not just benign talk either. The reality is that it reflects more the mentality of Judaism and paganism, which ultimately has some damaging consequences.
Old Testament Judaism revolved around 3 basic elements – the Temple (where God’s local presence dwelled), the system of priests as mediators between God and man, and the system of sacrifices to atone for sin and make believers right with God. In short, when Jesus came, he brought an end to each by fulfilling the purpose of each.
In the Roman Empire, paganism had similar elements – temples (specific buildings for worshipping gods), priests (specific individuals you had to go through to worship gods), and sacrifices (specific things you had to do to please the gods). New Testament Christianity didn’t know these things.
In not one place in the New Testament do we find the term church (ekklesia), temple, or house of God used to refer to a building. In fact, the first recorded use of the word “church” to refer to a specific meeting place comes from the church father Clement of Alexandria in 190 AD. He was also the first person credited with using the phrase “go to church.”
Okay, so if church is not a building, what exactly is it you ask? Of the 114 times the Greek word ekklesia appears in the New Testament, it always refers to an assembly of people. In fact, until Emperor Constantine, Christian history and archaeology knows of no Christian buildings except the homes in which the early Christians met for worship.
Jesus is obviously responsible for what Christianity is today. Perhaps more than any other human, however, Constantine is responsible for the way Christianity looks today. What’s so scary about that is that even today scholars debate whether or not Constantine was actually a genuine Christian.
If you’re not familiar with who Emperor Constantine was, here’s the abbreviated version: In 312 AD, Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to become Caesar of the Western Empire. On the eve of that battle, Constantine claimed he saw a cross in the heavens and became a Christian (if that sounds a little fishy, yeah, that’s not typically how Christians are formed). He promised God at that moment that if he won the battle, he’d Christianize the empire. He did…and he did. Christianity went from becoming first officially recognized as a religion in Rome in 311AD under Galerius to becoming the official religion of the state only a few short years later. In 324 AD, Constantine became Caesar of the entire Roman Empire. And then the buildings began.
Over the next several hundred years, church architecture took several interesting turns from the basilica phase to the Byzantine phase to the Romanesque phase to the Gothic phase. However, the design, almost unwaveringly, seemed to continuously point more and more to the transcendence and awe-inspiring nature of God, rather than to God found in the gathering together of his body, the real “church.” And thus God also seemed to go from accessible to inaccessible.
I’m not fully promoting a return to “house churches” today, a concept that has gained tremendous popularity in the past 30 years in our country. What house church leaders don’t seem to fully grasp is that if early New Testament church leaders had the legal freedom to worship as we do, the early church might very well have done things differently. But the point, nonetheless, remains that perhaps God (even by means of working through the oppression of the Roman Empire) was establishing the type of environment that best leads to the healthy assembly of Christians.