Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. (1 Timothy 3:14-15)
In a previous blog (see #1 in this series) I pointed out the indispensable nature of the Church to a relationship with God. You should, however, keep in mind that in no sense is the Church is simply an idea or notion without concrete existence.
The word translated “church” in our Bibles is a Greek word for “assembly.” But it was not, in the ancient world, just any assembly. It was specifically the assembly of free voting citizens (always a minority) in a (non-Jewish) city which met to determine the course of that community. Can you imagine then how non-Christians felt when they heard Christians (many of them poor and some even slaves) speak of themselves as the Church? But with their terminology, the Christians were making a not so subtle point: It is God’s people who are the truly free, and as God’s servants, we are the real deciding factors of a community’s future.
Theologians refer to the Church (capital “C”) as the “great church” or the “universal church.” Local churches (congregations) get a small “c” church designation. In this thinking, churches everywhere make up the Great Church. But the Apostle Paul never uses such terminology. The Church is the physical fellowship of God’s people that assembles together in every community. The congregation is the Church.
Individually, the movers and shakers of ancient communities may have been free, land owning, citizens, but they were not seen as “the assembly” until they gathered. In the same way, disciples of Jesus are seen to be the Church when they gather – which is why the local church (congregation or assembly) is so important, and why being a part of one is indispensable to being a part of the Church. You can’t be a part of the Church if you are apart from the church. Or, stated another way, you can’t be a part of the household of God if you are apart from the household of God.