What the Word ‘Church’ Really Means and How It Should Shape the Way Christians See Themselves

Over the past decade or two, the debate about the role of the internet in church ministry has been a major focal point of many Christians’ conception of what church is

For years, many pastors and church leaders have contended that online services simply “don’t count.” Watching a livestream is better than nothing, but it doesn’t count toward your Sunday morning attendance. Based on this belief, theologians have developed entire doctrinal positions around being in the pews on Sunday, drawing on biblical commands to not give up meeting together and allusions to the physical presence of God among us in the incarnation of Jesus.

Then came a global pandemic

Starting in March of 2020, just about every church in America became an online church. For the first time, many pastors and ministry teams were researching and purchasing video and audio equipment, learning about how to livestream, and exploring what it could look like to engage with their congregants in real time in an online setting. 

Almost two years later, most churches in America have returned to in-person gatherings in one form or another. Nevertheless, even as they do so, many of them continue their ministry with a greatly expanded online footprint relative to February 2020. And they aren’t going back. 

All this has led to an acceleration of the debate over what kind of church “counts.”

The events of the pandemic have shown many that online community should play an important role in a congregation’s ministry, especially given the technological advancements of the past few years, which have made it more affordable to deliver a high quality, interactive experience. 

On the other hand, some have doubled down on the purported theological superiority of analog. One example is that of Christian professor and author Jared C. Wilson on Twitter this week. His four word tweet sparked a heated debate across hundreds of responses. 

“Virtual church isn’t church.” But that begs the question: what is church? 

Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word used to describe the body of believers is ekklesia. This word is often translated as “church” in our English bibles and means “assembly” or “gathering.”  

Defining “Ekklesia”

Many of the arguments against online expressions of the church revolve around the word ekklesia. After all, if the body of believers is described by a word that literally means “to gather,” then the theological case for the supremacy of in-person expressions of Church is an open and shut case.

While I agree that face-to-face interaction with other human beings is vital not only for the church but for the human experience in general, a more critical look at the actual meaning and usage of the word ekklesia in the first century reveals that we have been focusing on the wrong questions. 

Christian ethicist and theologian Trey Medley has summarized it best: 

The term [ekklesia] does not mean “gathering.” Rather, it is a somewhat formal and VERY political term that was established in the use closer to “Assembly.”

The use in religious contexts seems to have first occurred in the LXX (Septuagint). Here, though, it also seems to have clearly meant a formal legal/political Assembly. Its most frequent use, and likely why it was adopted by the NT authors, has this political connection.

The term refers to a ruling assembly of citizens such as one would find in Athens. By calling the Church that, the NT authors were clearly drawing the connection that 1) We are citizens of a new Kingdom and 2) We reign/rule with Christ in that Kingdom (which is all over the NT).

So, the term that we translate [as] Church should focus more on the active ruling/enacting/governing of the Kingdom of God on earth. That should include the gathering together on Sunday, but that is not the primary goal.

In this understanding, which seems to fit the early church’s use of the term, ekklesia refers less to the church as a gathered group of individuals and more as a representative political body for the Kingdom of Heaven. 

After all, Jesus came as the Messiah (which means anointed king), and he told us that his kingdom is not of this world. Thus, the church isn’t so much a place where we gather—or even the idea of gathering. Fundamentally, the church is a unit that serves as a foreign political entity that exists within whatever society where its representatives live. 

Nevertheless, we need to be clear about what we mean when we say the church is a political entity. Being “political” and being “partisan” are not one in the same.

The Church as a Political Entity

Common to all political entities is that they exist to serve their agreed upon public agenda—and to advance that agenda. And as citizens who represent the Kingdom, the agenda of the political entity that is the church is defined by the King. 

That agenda was set by Jesus before his ascension, when he instructed his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). This involves both evangelism and discipleship, with the end goal being that we would “all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). 

As the church grows in unity and maturity as a group, we will begin to recover the parts of our humanity that were lost at the fall in Genesis 3. And this will inevitably lead to benefits for the common good (that is, public and community life). 

All of this is inexorably political, if we are defining political as relating to the “public affairs” of a community, region, or nation. Further, this doesn’t mean that the church is meant to stay away from public matters that could be construed as partisan politics. As a political entity, we are obligated to interact with the other political entities that surround us or that we may even be a part of (just as a secondary identity to our identity in Christ). 

As the church grows in and maturity as a group, we will begin to recover the parts of our humanity that were lost at the fall in Genesis 3. Click To Tweet

It’s important to note that political entities often must cooperate with other political entities in order to reach a common goal. For example, when the US Congress is working at its best, Republican and Democratic representatives cooperate across party lines to pass important legislation. Similarly, national governments often cooperate with one another to reach agreements on trade deals and international laws. 

Nevertheless, while these separate political entities can come together for the purposes of a shared goal, they always remain distinct. Otherwise, they would conglomerate into one “big tent” assembly with a shared identity. 

This is the way it should be for the assembly of believers who act as a representative body for the agenda of the Kingdom of God. We can partner with other political entities to further the causes of our Kingdom agenda, whether sanctity of life, justice, or care for the poor. However, we must always be defined by our primary agenda and not the agenda of the political entities with which we are partnering. 

This will inevitably make it difficult to define the church in terms of a voting bloc (something that has been exploited to great effect among American evangelicals for quite some time.)

The church must always be defined by our primary agenda of the Kingdom and not the agenda of the political entities with which we are partnering. Click To Tweet

The Place of Sunday Gatherings

Circling back to the question at hand—if the church is primarily not about a gathering but about an identity as a representative body for the Kingdom of Heaven in our respective communities, what does that mean for our Sunday gatherings? 

Well, in the same way that a political entity like the Congress cannot fulfill its function apart from gathering to discuss important issues, build relationships, and decide on important shared goals, the Church cannot serve its function as the representative body for the Kingdom of God apart from its continued connectedness. 

However, this also means that gathering on Sunday morning is not the sum total of what it means to be the church. Sunday worship is a part of what the church does, and even a central part, but the one hour spent together on Sunday does not constitute the purpose of the church. It is a means to an end. 

Too often, we have placed such an emphasis on growing the size and grandeur of our Sunday gatherings that we have completely forgotten what it means to actually be the church. 

None of this is to say that the church shouldn’t gather, or that we shouldn’t primarily seek to physically gather in person. We can’t further the Kingdom agenda if we aren’t first learning what that agenda is through the study of the Scriptures, and second, thinking strategically together about how to advance that agenda in our own hearts and then into the community. All of that is mediated through our regularly meeting together. 

Too often, we have placed such an emphasis on growing the size and grandeur of our Sunday gatherings that we have completely forgotten what it means to actually be the church. Click To Tweet

And anyone who has spent four straight hours in video conference calls for work, only to attend a two hour church small group meeting via Zoom, will tell you that there are times when in-person is preferable. If we never left our houses or physically touched the other members of our spiritual communities again, we would be missing out on something fundamental to the human experience. 

That’s obvious. But it’s also not what we’re talking about in this discussion. Fixating on that point often takes the focus away from what the church is to what the church does

Until believers begin to see themselves not as people who go to church but people whose primary identity is to be the church, where and when we meet matters little. It can be online, in person, on a Sunday, or a random Thursday afternoon. It won’t amount to the kind of cultural transformation that Jesus wills to work through us. 

But the good news is that if we do begin seeing the church as something not outside ourselves but a shared, fundamental identity, there is no limit to the Spirit-filled transformation that Jesus can and will cause in us and among us.

Until believers begin to see themselves not as people who go to church but people whose primary identity is to be the church, where and when we meet matters little. Click To Tweet

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