As you may know, the Greek term translated church throughout the New Testament is ekklesia. What you may not know is that it was not a religious term. It could refer to citizens called to gather for civic purposes. It was used to refer to soldiers called out to gather for military purposes. An ekklesia was simply a gathering or an assembly of people called out for a specific purpose. Ekklesia never referred to a specific place, only a specific gathering.
Jesus’ audience may have been familiar with this term from another context as well. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, describes the ancient Israelites as an ekklesia. Interestingly, when the Hebrew people were scattered around the world, they were still known collectively as an ekklesia, an “assembly, gathering, community, congregation.” While dispersed, the people of Israel gathered in close-knit communities and established synagogues. Each community of God’s people called its synagogue — the local gathering of God’s people — an ekklesia, understanding it to be a local, literal gathering of people who were also members of the broad, spiritual gathering known as Israel. In both secular and sacred literature, ekklesia always referred to a gathering of people united by a common identity and purpose.
So, when Jesus used the term, his disciples understood him to say, “I am going to build my own assembly of people and the foundation for this new assembly will be ME!”
Now, if you are following all of this — and I realize I’m getting a bit technical — there are a couple of questions you should be asking yourself now. No, not, “How long is this chapter anyway?” The questions you should be asking is, “If the Greek word means gathering, why don’t our English Bibles just say ‘gathering’? Where did the word church come from?”
I’m glad you asked. The answers to those questions are more important than I could ever emphasize. The answers explain, in part, why the movement sparked by Jesus’ resurrection became institutionalized and, eventually, culturally marginalized. They explain why most people think of church as a building or a location. But to answer them, we will need to exit the biblical narrative and jump ahead about two hundred and fifty years.
Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: Creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.