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What is a Church?

What was the original Church like?

Last week I gave the story of the first church, the church of Peter, Paul, James and the other friends of Jesus, as described in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Of course, what started on that Day of Shavuot (Pentecost), with that first and greatest divine outpouring, was one church, The Church, one body of believers, exploding from a handful of disciples to a 3,000+ throng of converts in a single day. That Church, within the lifetime of those first apostles, became a network of churches, from Jerusalem to Rome and all points in-between.

What image does that conjure up? If we are honest, the first impression is of a network of buildings, perhaps not the great gothic cathedrals of a later generation, but at least of small, sparse halls, tucked away down some alleyway, identified by, perhaps, a fish symbol on their doorpost. We think buildings, because that's how we're conditioned to think, ever since the edicts of Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD, when Christianity sold out and became the official State religion.

The actual word, "Church" (and the Scottish derivation, "kirk"), is a curious one, as the Greek word it comes from, kyriakon, only appears twice in the New Testament, with the meaning, "belonging to the Lord" (the Lord's) :

When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, (1 Corinthians 11:20)

On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, (Revelation 1:10)

This is strange, as in neither case does the word "Church" as we understand it, seem to make sense as a translation. So how has this word been hijacked and why do we find it all over the New Testament translations? We demand an answer!

The Greek word that becomes "Church" throughout these translations is ekklesia. There is obviously no etymological (words deriving from other words) connection, as in the Greek word "Christos" becoming Christ in English. This suggests that something unusual is going on here, something very human and, perhaps, political. The usual use of ekklesia in the Greek world at that time was as an assembly and the actual meaning of the word is "called out". This does give a good sense of how God sees His people.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Yet we are not called into "ekkleses" but into churches. There seems to be a mystery attached to this usage and I will return to this a little later.

So this first church, that of the first apostles, was a "called out" assembly, meeting in private homes, not religious buildings. The Jerusalem church, in its formative years, comprised the early apostles and assorted disciples, male and female, probably meeting in a couple of rooms in the house of (the Gospel writer) Mark's mother.

When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. (Acts 12:12)

When numbers got too large they undoubtedly spread out into other homes.

Similarly, the early church in Damascus was probably in the family home of a man called Judas (Acts 9:11), the Thessalonian church could have been birthed in Jason's living room (Acts 17:5) and similarly in Corinth, they could have first met in a spare room at Titius Justus's house (Acts 18:7). We do know that a church met in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (probably in Ephesus).

The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house. (1 Corinthians 16:19)

Again, it's not the usual way we think about such things. We are at the tail end of a history that depicts churches as great old buildings, richly adorned with stained glass windows, rather than the folk who meet therein. These days fewer and fewer people meet in these buildings, apart from those that have become carpet warehouses and nightclubs. And more and more Christian folk are returning to those lost origins, meeting in more familiar, friendly surroundings, which is a most welcome process. So, what does the church do when it meets up? What did the original Church of the apostles do?

As I have already noted, the home was the main meeting place for the church, where they ate together, prayed and worshipped together, met each other's needs, shared bread and wine and testimonies and built each other up as a spiritual family. This theme of family is often emphasised in the New Testament accounts of the early Church, though we often miss it through over-familiarity (is there a subtle pun there, not sure?). Note how often the following terms are used, all elements present in family life of the day: brother, sister, father, child, steward, slave, servant.

It was in this environment that these early believers recharged their batteries, performed maintenance tasks and corrected any faults. Straining further at the metaphor, they did all this to ensure a smooth performance and a good report in an outside world that was becoming increasingly challenging and hostile.

Steve Maltz

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book To Life!)

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