It is an increasingly church-less age.
According to some estimates, as few as twenty-percent of Americans attend church weekly (see Ridgaway). About sixty-percent of the remaining population do not identify with any church at all, with the remaining twenty-percent only casually making efforts to attend church on occasion.
Of course, where polls go, a grain of salt should always follow. But if true, those are alarming numbers.
Regardless, there has certainly been a decline in church attendance in recent years. A variety of factors may be responsible for this shift. By and large, however, our neighbors’ hearts and minds have lost sight of the significance of the church to the soul, and most have never known exactly what the Lord’s church is.
When you read your New Testament, you will find the word, church, or, churches, one hundred and seventeen times, a fact which, by itself, demonstrates that the church was not just some afterthought or mere triviality to first-century Christianity. Rather, it was a topic of frequent interest.
To put it another way: there are only two-hundred and sixty chapters in the New Testament, which means that the church on average consumed the topic of conversation at least once in nearly every other New Testament chapter. And that number does not include the scores of other references to the church, using other descriptive terms. Clearly, then, God wanted us to know something about it!
Since Jesus is the builder and head of the church of the New Testament (cf. Mt. 16.18; Eph. 5.23), we must look to him to discover what he intended his church to be.
In this article, we first examine the grammatical and spiritual meaning behind the term church itself, a term which Jesus deliberately chose to describe this New Testament institution.
Many suppose that the church is simply a physical edifice — a building made of brick, wood, or stone. In fact, Webster’s dictionary provides one definition of the English word, church, as meaning: “a building for public worship, especially Christian.”
In reality, the term, church, has nothing to do with the physical. The English term was derived ultimately from the Latin, curia, and the Greek, kuriakon, each meaning: “The lord’s house” or, “belonging to the lord.” This is certainly a suitable definition of the church, Biblically speaking, for the Lord, through Paul, described “the church of the living God” as “the house of God” (1 Tim. 3.15).
Hence, the church is a family, not a physical building; and if the church is a family, then God is its parent — it is his house!
But even though that is the origin of the English word, that is not the source of the word church in the New Testament. Instead, the New Testament employs the term, ekklesia, to designate the church. It literally denotes: “the called-out.” Thayer defines the term as
“a gathering of citizens called out of their homes to a public place; assembly” (195-196; emp. added).
Thus, rather than referring to a physical building, the New Testament term alludes to the people who, leaving their everyday private lives, have assembled in a public meeting place. In truth,
“in the New Testament a church is never a building or meeting place” (Strong, 1606; emp. added).
On rare occasions, ekklesia, in the New Testament, carried a secular sense. For instance, in Acts 7.38, Stephen applies the term to national Israel, as they had assembled “in the wilderness” at the base of Mount Sinai.
Furthermore, at Ephesus, a motley assortment of angry citizens, enraged by Paul’s doctrine, were described as an “assembly” (ekklesia — Acts 19.39-41).
The remaining uses of the word, however, refer to that spiritual assembly of called-out people, known in the New Testament as, “the churches of Christ” (Rm. 16.16). This “called-out assembly” is employed in four senses:
(1) the church universal, of which there is only “one” (Mt. 16.18; Eph. 4.4; cf. 1.22-23);
(2) the church located in a specific region — consisting of multiple congregations (Gal. 6.2);
(3) the church located locally — an individual congregation (1 Cor. 1.2); and
(4) the church assembled — the local church in its gathered-together form (1 Cor. 14.28).
Hence, at the very least, when a person today “goes to church,” he is not going to a physical building; rather, he is going to an assembly of people who have been called-out of their private lives to participate in a public meeting.
Yet, as we shall see, there is more to it than that. Consider the spiritual meaning of the term, ekklesia (called-out), as discussed by our Lord in his last will and testament.
Since the term, church, in the New Testament, means, “the called out,” we must naturally ask a number of questions: Called by whom? Called by what means? Who is being called?
Further still, called out of what? And, called into what? The New Testament addresses each of these questions.
The notion of being called implies three things:
First, someone is calling. According to the word of God, that “someone” is God. In 1 Thessalonians 2.12, inspiration urges us to “walk worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” 2 Timothy 1.8-9 reads:
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling…”
Second, God is calling through means. How does God call us?
Some suppose he whispers into their ears. Others think “the feeling in the heart” must be God calling to them.
Neither is the case. God certainly calls by speaking (cf. Heb. 1.1-2); but, today, he speaks to us through the New Testament, the word of his son, Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 1.11-12; Rm. 2.16; Eph. 3.3-5; Heb. 7.22; 8.6-13), also known as “the gospel” (Rm. 1.1-2). As Paul told the Thessalonian church:
“…God…called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2.13-15).
In those early days, before the New Testament was completed, God “called” the church through the apostles’ oral pronouncements, revealed in bits and pieces (cf. Acts 2.42). In time, however, the completed written message became God’s method of calling (cf. 1 Cor. 13.8ff).
Hence, God no longer speaks to individuals personally, for he has spoken already to all in written form (2 Tim. 3.16). What the apostles and prophets of Christ wrote was, according to God, to be the church’s final creed, written “once for all” — i.e., to be perpetually valid (Jude 3; cf. 1 Cor. 4.6; Gal. 1.6-9; etc.). For this reason, it is called the “everlasting gospel” (Rev. 14.6).
Third, God calls someone. Whom does God call?
According to Christ, God is calling “all who labor and are heavy laden” (Mt. 11.28), which, in a spiritual context, applies to “all the world” (Rm. 3.19), for all have been burdened by the brunt of sin (cf. Ps. 38.3ff; 2 Tim. 3.6). The calling of God may be answered by “whosoever is willing” (Rev. 22.17; cf. Mt. 23.37; Jn. 5.40; 7.17).
In short, God, by means of the New Testament, calls everyone, but not everyone is willing to answer the call. Indeed, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt. 22.14).
Why is that the case? Permit me to advance a few possibilities:
(1) Some have no respect for the caller — i.e., God himself.
Many today feel about God in much the same way as Pharaoh did: “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” (Ex. 5.2). Some simply do not know God (cf. Jn. 17.3); others may know of God, but, due to a warped view of him, esteem him as a sort of doting-grandfather-in-the-sky pushover, who lets mankind cavort with impunity (cf. Gal. 6.7-8); still others take the opposite view, supposing God, who is severe with sin (Rm. 11.22), is also unjust and harsh in his judgments; on this misguided basis they refuse to honor him (cf. Mt. 25.24f; Rm. 2.2-11).
(2) Some have no respect for the means — i.e., the New Testament message.
Many mock the notion that a two-thousand year old message could still have pertinence to the modern age. Yet, God transcends both time and culture (Heb. 13.8). What he has to say to his creation remains perpetually relevant. Indeed, his “law of liberty” is “perfect,” requiring no changes and needing no updates (Jms. 1.25).
Others take issue with specific Bible doctrines, and reject the entire message on this basis alone. For example, when Paul taught the Athenians about the resurrection, some of them “mocked” the notion, and rejected the faith as a result (Acts 17.32). Paul later remarked that the “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1.18).
By rejecting the means of God’s calling — the word of God — they have “judged themselves unworthy of everlasting life” (Acts 13.46).
(3) Some have no respect for themselves.
Some may not feel worthy enough to be called by God. But God does not share their outlook (Jn. 3.16). Others simply don’t feel they are in need of salvation. Accordingly, they refuse to apply God’s calling to themselves, since they have everything they desire. The opposite is true (Rev. 3.17-22).
Consequently, the church consists of those who have been called — 1) by God; 2) by means of the gospel; 3) who are willing to accept the call. But the church is not just the called; it is the called out.
First, we are called out of: 1) the kingdom of darkness (Col. 1.13; 1 Pet. 2.9); 2) the world and its lusts (1 Jn. 2.15-17); and 3) idolatry (2 Cor. 6.14-18).
Second, we are called into: 1) liberty from sin and its eternal ills (Gal. 5.13); 2) glory and virtue (2 Pt. 1.3); 3) the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1.13); and 4) faithful service (Eph. 4.1; 2 Pt. 1.10).
The Lord’s church does not consist of brick and mortar. It rather consists of God’s people, who have heeded his calling, who follow the New Testament message, and who dedicate themselves regularly both to serving God in their everyday lives, as well as to assembling publicly with those “of like precious faith” (2 Pt. 1.1).
Only by belonging to this New Testament institution — built and ruled by Christ — can a person be called out of the enemy’s camp and into the Lord’s (Acts 2.47). His church is absolutely critical to his plan for saving our race (cf. Eph. 3.10-11).
This is a series of articles, with the following parts:
The Lord's Church (1): Its Meaning
Ridgaway, Toni. “Statistics Don’t Tell the Whole Story When It Comes to Church Attendance.” Churchleaders.com. Access date: February 14, 2017. http://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/170739-statistics-don-t-tell-the-whole-story-when-it-comes-to-church-attendance.html Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001. Thayer, J. H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. T. & T. Clark, 1958.