Understanding the Biblical Teaching about “Ekklesia” (Church)
The English word “church” has a range of meanings that are different from the basic meaning of the Greek word “ekklesia” from which it is translated. The English word can mean 1. a building, 2. an organization, 3. a specific kind of Sunday event, 4. and all believers everywhere. The core meaning of the Greek word “ekklesia” is “gathering” or “assembly.” In the New Testament usage, it refers to any gathering of God’s people for mutual edification and growth through devotion to the apostles teaching, fellowship, prayer, worship and other activities (Acts 2:42). The early church met primarily in homes, but “ekklesia” refers to any “gathering” for mutual edification and growth, whether large or small.
What we learn from this is that biblical “ekklesia-church” is not a building or an organization, or even a specific large gathering on Sunday, but rather any gathering for mutual edification. Thus, small group gatherings in homes for Bible study, prayer and community are “ekklesia-church” just as are large group gatherings in larger spaces.
What are the key elements of Biblical church?
There is wide agreement that Acts 2:42-47 provides a summary of the key elements, marks and priorities of biblical church. Tim Keller and John Stott summarize them in virtually the same way. Tim’s list is the following.
1. Vibrant Worship
2. Intimate, Exciting, Loving Fellowship and Community
3. Teaching With Theological Depth
4. Effective Communication of the Gospel (Evangelism)
5. Compassionate Social Concern
Some Observations About Large and Small Gatherings
The first three elements listed above are primarily the activities of the in-gathered church for mutual edification. The next two elements have to do with the church’s mission in the world.
1. Worship and Prayer
Many feel that vibrant worship is best done in larger gatherings. Large gatherings permit many voices raised in joyful song, and permit a number of musicians to lead the worship. On the other hand, “worship” is not limited to “singing,” and some aspects of worship can be engaged in easily alone or in small group settings.
There is a growing consensus that genuine community can only be achieved by means of smaller group gatherings. How do you “bear one another’s’ burdens” in large gatherings? How can you practice the many “one another” commands in the New Testament? During a typical large group gathering, there is virtually no interaction between the participants, and many leave as soon as the service is over. A time for coffee and doughnuts and small talk after the worship service simply does not get at the depth of “shared life together” signified by the word “koinonia” and described more fully throughout the New Testament.
3. Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching
Many understand this element from Acts 2:42 to be embodied in a Biblical “sermon” at large group gatherings. But the New Testament concept of “devotion to the apostles’ teaching” includes more than just listening to a sermon, especially in our current age. Since the invention of the printing press, believers have had personal access to the Word of God in a way the earliest believers did not. Devotion to the apostle’s teaching can take the form of reading Scripture, studying it, memorizing it, meditating on it, group discussion of the meaning of Biblical texts, discussion of personal and practical life application of Biblical texts, etc. It is obvious that some of these activities are best accomplished alone, or in a small group setting. The phrase “devotion to the apostles’ teaching” also carries with it the sense of faithfully putting the teaching into practice.