Would it surprise or shock you if I dared tell you that neither Jesus, nor His apostles ever told anyone to build a church, attend a church, or call others to go to church? Would it offend you if I dared suggest that when Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “Upon this rock I will build My Church…” He never actually used the word church at all (but that this word was added hundreds of years later)? Would it bother you to discover that the word “church” NEVER appears anywhere in the entire New Testament?
As astounding as these claims may sound, they are absolutely true. Some of you, at this point, will be saying, “How can you say that Jesus and His apostles never used the word ‘church’ in the entire New Testament, when anyone can open a Bible and see it present, page after page?” The first response I have to this concern is to remind you that the Bible was not written in English. In fact the first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts were produced in the 1380’s (over 1,200 years after the last apostle had died)!!!! That having been said, it’s important to understand that the word “church”, or at least its derivative, is older than the English language… However, it still was never used by Jesus or His apostles!
In the 4th Century, about 200 years after the apostles had all passed on, there is record of pagans who worshiped Mithra, the sun god, in buildings they referred to as “kuriakê oikia”, which means “lord’s house”. This was not “the Lord” as in Jesus, but a specific reference to their pagan god and its temple of worship.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine (who was a sun worshiper) claimed to have converted to Christianity, he was the first to transfer the use of pagan temples and dedicate them for “Christian” use. Before this time there were no “church buildings” and no such concept existed among the early Believers. The English word “church” actually comes from this Greek word (or words) “kuriakê oikia”, but if you look up the word “church” in your Bible and use a Greek dictionary, you will not find the words “kuriakê oikia” but another word entirely.
- As an interesting side-note, there is at least one time in the KJV version of the Bible where we find a pagan reference to “church”.
Acts 19:37 – For ye have brought hither these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess.
In most modern versions, “churches” is changed to “temples” to avoid confusion or question. I rather think this is more of a Freudian slip, which exposes the actual origin of the concept of “church” as later became adopted by Christians who now think of it, principally, as a religious edifice (i.e. a temple, sanctuary, etc.) rather than understanding that Jesus NEVER described anything we might consider a “church” at any time with respect to following Him. Involvement with “churches” was the practice of idol-worshiping pagans, not Christians in the first century.
The Greek word we find in Scripture that was used by the apostles and Jesus in reference to the Lord’s body (i.e. members of the Family of God) is Ecclesia. This word means “a called out assembly”. It is a component of two words: Ek, meaning “a calling”… and Klesis, meaning “from out of”; hence, “a calling from out of”. This coincides with the Scripture, the words of Peter, who said (1 Peter 2:9-10), “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath CALLED YOU OUT OF darkness into his marvelous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now THE PEOPLE OF GOD: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” Every reference to “the Church” in our English Bibles is actually this word “Ecclesia” (in the Greek), which does not translate to “church” but to “assembly” or “congregation”.
Once the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the new State religion and decreed that all pagan temples be converted to Christian temples, it is easy to see where the blurring of concepts began to transpire. Before Constantine, Christians simply did not have “temples”. None were necessary, because they understood that THEY were the temple of the Holy Spirit and God himself took up residence within them.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 – What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
Acts 7:48-50 (said the apostle Steven to the Jews) – Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things?
Acts 17:22-25 (said Paul to the pagan idol worshipers of Athens) – Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things…
You can see how clearly the New Testament presents a Christianity that has no temples (i.e. no worship houses) and no structure of organized religion. Yet this influence increased with the Greek and Roman invasion of Christianity. Soon the concept of pagan temples began to shift to a concept of Christian worship houses (called “churches”) and the early concept of “assembly”, which once held specific reference to those who have been called out of darkness by Christ into His light (into the Family of God), had become fused together with a concept of “church”, where suddenly meeting places (i.e. religious temples) became more central to Christian experience. This subtle shift in thinking eventually worked its way into how the translators of the Bible engaged their profession… Eventually, we wound up with a word (i.e. “church”) that is not even present in the Gospels, but has been used to substitute for Ecclesia.
This dualistic understanding of Ecclesia is apparent when you talk to many Christians who will readily agree that “the Church” is the body of Christ… but in the same breath will tell you that it is also that building they attend each week. In their minds, one does not exist without the other. Many Christians will also agree (and rightly so) that merely attending church does not guarantee salvation or make one a Christian. Most Christians know that the Body of Christ is a spiritual reality before it is perceived of as anything else (i.e. in the tangible sense of fellowship with other Christians), yet the notion of a necessity to, soon after being saved, plug into a church program is almost always part of the checklist of essentials that exists in most Christians’ thinking. But, again, this directive or example is NOT present anywhere in the New Testament.
Now, if a person is able to agree (based on this careful examination of Scripture and history) that there are no churches in the New Testament and that neither Jesus nor even one of His apostles built or led or attended something we might call a “church building” and if we can agree that neither Jesus nor even one of His apostles instructed anyone else to go and plant churches, build churches, attend churches, or any such imagination, then this creates an enormous problem for the massive fascination people have with church these days doesn’t it? If neither Jesus nor His apostles had a single concern for anything we might call “church”, then it stands to reason that nothing we call “church” today is essential in the least where Christianity is concerned! Likewise it means that if churches are non-essential the so is every facet of professional ministry! That means there are no professional pastors, elders or church leaders of any kind anywhere in the Bible! You can see how radical this understanding is! It tends to invalidate virtually every part of the modern concept of church.
Some will question, “But what about all the references in the New Testament to pastors, elders, prophets and all that? If there is no such thing as church, then how are we to understand these positions?” Excellent question!!! Once a person really begins to understand the total absence of organized religion from the New Testament Christian narrative, they will be forced to challenge their long-held traditional understanding of these terms as well. Suddenly a pastor, if he is not actually a salary-paid official of a church organization, then what must he really be? This is a good challenge, because it is one that encourages us to listen to the Lord rather than impose our traditions into God’s Word. Suddenly terms that we always thought of as being “official” and “ecclesiastical” and “hierarchical” are found to be relational, humble, family-natured, and non-professional. It soon becomes impossible to think of them in the context of what we always considered institutional in paradigm.
The discussion of leadership in the Christian family is a topic for another discussion, and it is an important one. There are other articles on this website that address that issue and I encourage folks to check them out.
My purpose in bringing this detail about church up (again) is to help us shed the plaque of religion that has tainted how we read God’s precious Word. This radical expose of the origin of the word “church” (which this article really only scratches the surface concerning), has the potential to impact so many of us… even many of us who have been out of the church world environment for a long time (or so we thought). I have many friends in the “house church” movement and they are great people who love Jesus and we have much the same understanding about a great many things concerning the true nature of the Family of God; yet, I believe the devil has even infiltrated many of these groups by influencing them to find some kind of application for “church” in their non-institutional Christian experience. Many of these individuals still use the Scriptures to highlight patterns for how to “do church” or how to “plant churches” and they still seek for methods to employ roles of “church leadership”, albeit in a more non-legalistic and apparently organic fashion – but my point is that a number of these groups are still looking for formulas for how to “do church” and they have made “house church” the central focus. I don’t seek to discredit all of their endeavors to seek out and discover how to live as Christ desires, nor is this intended as a blanket judgment on every group. Nor do I suppose that I have everything figured out. In fact, I have learned many things through many of the writings and media of various groups like this that have encouraged, admonished and blessed me. My intent is not to tear down the work of Christ among any group but to encourage us to keep reaching for His truth and to not harden our hearts to embrace it when it revealed to us.
In the last several years, the institutional church has begun to employ much of the same lingo that was once only heard among many of those in the “out of church” crowd. Strangely they have begun to use organic terminology to actually bolster support for a completely non-organic religious system. I see this as a tactic of the enemy to keep people in bondage and blindness. But I see the devil working the same deception among many in the “out of church” community. Though many folks who describe themselves as “outside the walls” of institutional churchianity are not engaged in heavily legalistic groups or patterns, many still often hold to a concept that tends to place “church” in a more central position than Scripture requires. In fact, as I have tried to point out, Scripture does not require it at all! When someone says, “I go to a house church,” I generally understand what they mean – but in a large way, many groups have merely substituted the terminology like Constantine did when he transferred pagan temples to make them so-called “Christian churches”, because though institutions of organized religion are frowned upon in a lot of these groups, yet the concept of “church” has merely been transformed from a “church building” to a person’s house… thus making it a “house church”. Yes, the emphasis may be on the more informal style of gathering, but these folks still seem to seeking to validate their activity of gathering by labeling their house a “church”. The New Testament gives no evidence of such terminology.
Some will argue that the “house churches” are absolutely present in the New Testament. I would respond by respectfully saying, “No, we simply see the Lord’s people meeting in homes.” To some that sounds like semantics, but I don’t believe so. In my understanding of what I read in Scripture, the meeting place is irrelevant to the meeting. I actually think that most “house churches” would agree with me on this, but it’s important to understand that the Ecclesia is first and primarily a spiritual reality. We are talking about the Lord’s Family. We are talking about an assembly that is not even dependent upon a physical assembly here on earth (i.e. a meeting together). Once a person is joined to Christ, he is immediately part of the Lord’s Ecclesia (His assembly). Even if that person never meets together with another Christian physically, he is still part of the Ecclesia of God! This is important!
As a side point here, I don’t know of a single Bible translation that even uses the term “house church” or “home church” or “cell church” to describe first century gatherings. Church houses are literally not mentioned at all, except in Acts 19:37 (as we already discussed), which was a reference to pagan temples of idol worship. The Ecclesia of God is NOT a building and doesn’t need a meeting to exist. It only needs Christ. All those who are in fellowship with Christ ARE the Ecclesia.
Am I suggesting that Christians meeting together (or “assembling” together) is wrong or unbeneficial – or as similar as paganism? Certainly not. I am simply saying that the act of meeting together is not what constitutes assembly, as far as Scripture is concerned.
John 1:7 – But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, WE HAVE fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.
The fellowship exists because we walk in the light, not because we have “house meetings” with other Christians. In other words, we are able to have fellowship because we are already part of The Fellowship! For this reason, a “house” can NEVER represent the Ecclesia because the Ecclesia is represented already by all those who are part of the Family of God.
This is why the Scripture speaks of the Ecclesia ALWAYS as being people who gather here or there. The emphasis is always on THOSE WHO GATHER, not merely the gatherings and certainly NOT the place of the gathering. Now, look again at the following passages, understanding that the English word “church” is really the word “Ecclesia” and consider what Ecclesia truly is referring to; the People of God.
Romans 16:5 – Likewise greet the church (the Ecclesia) that is in their house. Salute my well-beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ.
Notice, the “church” is NOT their house… The “church” is not even the meeting that is going on in their house. The “church” is physically present in their house. This makes complete sense if we are referring to PEOPLE (and not just any people but specifically members of the Family of God).
1 Corinthians 16:19 – The churches (the Ecclesia – the people of God) of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church (the members of God’s Ecclesia) that is in their house.
“The churches of Asia” is not talking about religious gatherings or meeting places in Asia, but literally God’s people throughout this region. Yes, they often “assembled” together to pray, worship, and fellowship – so we may naturally detect an application of ecclesia as “an assembly” in this regard (it is also easy to draw this assumption in light of the fact that Scripture also records a SECULAR use of the word “ecclesia” that referred to gatherings of any kind, whether secular, pagan or Christian). But it is important to understand how differently the early Christians came to use this term “ecclesia” because it was not merely a generalized reference to their “gatherings together” to worship the Lord, for they understood it unequivocally as their position together as one Body ASSEMBLED in Christ Jesus. Why? Because this is exactly how JESUS, their Lord, used the term!
Matthew 16:18 – “…upon this rock I will build My church (My Ecclesia – SINGULAR), and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.”
So, back to our example, “the churches of Asia” were not merely “assemblies throughout Asia” (and yet they were that too) but this was speaking of the Body of Christ throughout Asia. This is not a statement to suggest there were no assemblies of Christians, but merely that even those assembles regarded themselves as members of ONE ASSEMBLY OF CHRIST. Church zealots use this as an excuse for denominationalism and institutionalism. They use terms like “the local church” and “the Church global”, but Scripture NEVER uses these terms and NEVER uses Ecclesia this way with respect to the Body of Christ.
In the New Testament we don’t find ANY evidence of little local church organizations being planted everywhere. Rather the language indicates one singular reference to the Ecclesia in each city. Indeed the followers of Jesus related to life in Christ as a community of Believers and there were many gatherings. In fact, every Christian home (even if only a husband and wife were present) constituted an assembly of Believers (Matthew 18:20) BUT ALL WERE PART OF THE SAME SINGLE ECCLESIA IN THAT CITY. Not like fragments of a “mother church”, no, but as members of Christ who were simply represented wherever they lived – because they were themselves the Ecclesia representing Christ. This wasn’t a religious club you joined or a meeting you attended or a building you gave a religious label to and walked into each week… It was your very identity in Christ Jesus.
Colossians 4:15 – Please give my greetings to our brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church (the members of the Ecclesia of God) that meets in her house.
Philemon 1:2 – and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church (the people of God) that meets in your house.
These examples continue throughout the New Testament. I hope it is becoming a little clearer.
Acts 8:3 – But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church (the entire Christian community). He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.
Notice how even Saul in his pre-saved state understood how the Christians regarded themselves as ONE body in Christ. He wasn’t trying to destroy houses or house churches, but the men and women who followed Jesus that were present in their own homes. The passage is clear that he dragged men and women out to throw them in prison. Their meeting place was irrelevant! Even Saul knew that “the Ecclesia” was not a church building or a house, but it was those who identified themselves with Christ!
This expose of the fallacy of the term “church” is not meant to discredit the value of gathering with other believers for prayer, worship and fellowship. It is merely meant to highlight the truth that “church” is essentially a man-made concept, foreign to the expression of the New Testament community of Believers! They did not have churches. They did not attend churches. They did not plant or build churches. They did not prescribe church as a necessary component of faith in Christ. They did not have any such notion of “church” the way Christians do today. Church was not part of the Christian vocabulary at any time!!! The concept of church as a building, as an institution, as a program, as a religious assembly only came into existence after Rome fused the concept without any authority of Jesus.
But lest there still be some who worry I may be tampering with Scripture by seeking to flush the word “church” from use, I encourage you to study the history of the English Bible. As you do, you’ll read about men who loved God like William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English and NEVER used the word church in place of Ecclesia except for twice, where the text referenced PAGAN assemblies! Tyndale’s boldness to discard “church” from his translation of the Bible cost him his life! The CHURCH of his day literally burned him alive in the public square!
When King James published his so-called “Authorized Version” of the Bible, the translators were ordered to LEAVE CHURCH ALONE! They used the bulk of Tyndale’s prior work, but put “church” back in the Bible. I know there a lot of folks who love the King James Version of the Bible and I’m actually one of them, but history plainly reveals the fact that “church” was added and that the translators were specifically instructed to leave it alone, regardless of what the original Greek texts indicated!
- Rule #3 of King’s James Instruction to the Translators:
“The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation.”
Other rules were also employed to follow the traditional English version of the Scriptures known as “The Bishop’s Bible” (which was the official version of the Church of England) and to follow it as much as the original texts would allow. The Bishops Bible was NOT loved by many Christians because it employed far more ecclesiastical language (i.e. terminology of or relating to church clergy and religious hierarchy) which was NOT familiar to the early Believers. In recent years, many scholars have comments how inept of a translation it was. Yet it served as a mighty support for institutional religion and therefore was the model for the KJV. While the KJV translators were instructed to use it as a model and make changes where necessary, they were to lean heavily in the direction of avoiding changes to it as much as possible and, as we have already noted, to deliberately leave in the word “church” even though another word such as “congregation” would align more correctly with the original language of Scripture as was penned by the apostles (“congregation” being a clear reference to the people of God rather than to a religious edifice and established clergy system).
The more you read about these things, the more astounding it becomes how much man really has tampered with the truth.
In conclusion, I’m not supposing we will ever see the word disappear from our English Bibles and I’m not really on a mission to erase it. I have no concern to make “church” (that is, the removal of the term or concept) the object of my passion either. Christ is my passion! Therefore I will unashamedly declare the truth I have been given. I will lift up Christ as the one Master of the ONE Family of God. I will encourage others to seek Him and to embrace His family, without concern for the fabrications of religion.
This is why I can pretty much get along with anyone, whether they are in a “church” or out of one, or whether they are part of a “Christian group” or a group of another religion. I don’t have to entertain judgments of them based on their involvement with one organization or another (i.e. one social club or another). Now, I might bump up against some doctrinal issues of contrast. Perhaps some will be significant and we can discuss those… but church involvement is of no concern to me, nor will I anymore be bullied by someone who thinks it’s essential. I know they likely mean well and are presently convinced of the essentiality of church practice, but this simply presents another opportunity to highlight Christ.
When I was a “church man” I sought to defend my way of doing church. When I would encounter someone who was a member of a cult group (for example), I was always trying to convince them that I was part of the right Church. In fact, one thing that often makes it hard to dialogue with cult members is that the one thing most Christians have in common with them is that both groups (whether Christian or not) are familiar with churchianity of some kind (generally speaking). For example, both Baptists and Mormons go to church. Both are familiar with a Sunday-go-to-meeting type experience, complete with liturgy. Both are used to concepts of church leadership, church service, church edifice, church terminology, etc. Both groups, though doctrinally opposed, have BOTH embraced the error of churchianity! BOTH are wrong in this regard! BOTH need to repent and follow Christ! This gives me, as an individual follower of Christ, the opportunity to appeal to each of them with a testimony based on Scripture and my relationship with Jesus – NOT CHURCH! If both are in error on this point, then the argument is not “my church is better and more right than your church”… but that “Jesus is better and more correct the BOTH of your churches… Come out of churchianity and follow Him.” I don’t have to badmouth either side. I may simply appeal to their soul to embrace Jesus and His Word and leave religion behind completely. If both are in error about church, then both have likely succumbed to false teachings about Christ because of the influence of churchianity. An appeal to come to Christ requires both to set HIM in direct focus, not what each “church” teaches. I believe Christ can set them free!!!
Now (in my conversations with either type of person) I can freely admit to them that, even while I proclaimed to be a person who attended church, I was wrong there too. They don’t really even need to know what “church” I attended. They can wonder if I meant the Mormon Church or the Baptist Church or the Lutheran Church or the Satanic Church for that matter… The point is, I was once a church man and I was wrong! Church has nothing to do with following Christ. That puts me on an even playing field with most folks because if church truly has nothing to do with Christ, then trying to convince me to join one church or another isn’t going to work (and neither am I going to be pulled into that argument of trying to convince them to join mine, ‘cause I don’t have one).
That pretty much breaks everything right down to what Jesus actually required of those who would follow Him. I don’t need to fight with ANYONE on the basis of their church involvement or their church’s doctrine because that’s a non-issue where following Christ is concerned. As a follower of Jesus I am only to be concerned with HIS doctrine. And that brings us back to “what is the Gospel? What are my requirements in response to that Gospel?” and so on. I can love someone even though they are stuck in the mud of religion and I have hope because I WAS TOO and God freed me! I don’t have to condescend to anyone, I can appeal to them as a fellow sinner who needed and still needs Christ… and if we make ourselves true disciples of HIM and forget about how this church or that church tells us everything is to be done, how can we fail if we submit to the Master? I actually believe God is big enough to lead His children… AND He loves us enough to lead us also into fellowship with others who are on the right Path. To me, churches are a BIG part of the problem. They get in the way of Christ all the time. So I just don’t have ANY regard for them anymore. If I ever do sit in a pew these days, my discernment is fully engaged. Even the best churches can embrace false teachings. Some may seem less significant but sometimes the more subtle the error, the more likely is it to grow – like a little yeast in the dough. Sometimes there are a lot of great folks who are sincerely trying to follow the Lord, yet the church mindset exists like a parasite in the gut. They often don’t realize the damage being done, however subtle, but their hearts may in the right place and God is merciful and generous in spite of their errors.
I don’t want to be anyone’s judge and I certainly don’t want to have a condescending attitude. I’ve made so many mistakes in my Christian life. I’ve been hard line about things I was so convicted of, only to find that I allowed some errors to harden me from a willingness to embrace change when God opened my understanding. Thankfully, God knows those who are His and He knows how to soften those areas and teach us through them until we finally yield completely. I have every hope that my family in Jesus who are still caught up in churchianity are loved just as lavishly by God as I know I am. I have every confidence in God’s ability to bring freedom! Sometimes I need reassuring of that confidence because I get frustrated with the fruit of religion. But that just lets me know that I’m still a work in progress too. God is so good.
My prayer is that the “church” will continue to vanish in your sight as well and that Christ and His body will become all the more visible.
If this topic interests you, there are some other brothers and sisters in Christ that have written on this topic and some are far more thorough and eloquent than I in explaining the history of this word “church” and how it has been misunderstood and abused among Christians. While I cannot necessarily endorse all the content on the following websites (because I have not reviewed all of it) and there may be some minor disagreements with aspect of opinion related to these matters, these links should prove helpful in your own study of this topic.