Many verses in the New Testament speak of the “church,” so it is important to understand what “church” means. The first definition of “church” in modern English dictionaries is something like, “a building for Christian worship,” and it is only the second or third definition that says something like, “a body of Christians,” or “the collective body of Christians.” In the Bible, however, the word “church” never refers to a building, but always to people; specific groups of people.
The origin of God calling out, and working through, a specific group of people started in the Old Testament. By the time Israel left Egypt it was a mighty nation, and God, who had earlier said He would work with the descendants of Abraham, called the nation of Israel out from among the other nations on earth. He chose Israel to be the people through whom He would bring the Messiah, saying:
Exodus 19:5 and 6
(5) Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine,
(6) you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation….
We need to pay special attention to the fact that God said Israel would be a “holy” nation, because “holy” means “set apart,” and God did set Israel apart for Himself out of all the nations on earth. God confirmed again and again that the Israelites were a special and holy people to Him (Deut. 4:37; 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9; etc.).
One of the primary Hebrew words used to designate the people of Israel is qahal (Strong’s number 6951), and it is often translated “assembly.” For example, when God was speaking to Moses about signaling to the Israelites, He said, “To gather the assembly [qahal], blow the trumpets” (Num. 10:7).
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt around 250 B.C., making the version we today call the Septuagint, the Hebrew word qahal was usually translated as ekklsia. The Greek translators of the Septuagint did not coin the word ekklsia, but instead used a word that was in common use. Louw and Nida write in their Greek-English lexicon:
The term evkklhsia [ekklsia] was in common usage for several hundred years before the Christian era and was used to refer to an assembly of persons constituted by well-defined membership. In general Greek usage it was normally a socio-political entity based upon citizenship in a city-state… In many contexts evkklhsi,a may be readily rendered as ‘gathering of believers’ or ‘group of those who trust in Christ.’ 
The term ekklsia occurs over 100 times in the New Testament and, as was pointed out earlier, it always refers to groups of people, never to the building where the people met. The word ekklsia was used of many different groups, not just Christians. In the New Testament these groups include:
- Jews: Acts 7:38 (The Israelites in the wilderness; often translated “assembly,” but translated “church” in the KJV).
- Gentiles: Acts 19:32 (a gathering of Gentiles in Ephesus).
- The universal body of believers made up of Jews, Gentiles, and Christians. Jesus said, “…on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), and in that context Jesus’ “church,” his “assembly” or “congregation,” consists of every person who is saved. Many great people in the Old Testament were not Jews, people such as Ruth the Moabite and Uriah the Hittite, but they are saved and thus are part of Jesus’ “church.” Thus, in John 10:16 Jesus said to the Jews around him, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
- The whole body of Christians: Acts 5:11; 20:28; 1 Corinthians 10:32.
- Christians in a local area or who met in a specific local place; a local assembly: Acts 14:23; Romans 16:1; 1 Corinthians 4:17.
Some Bible translators recognize that translating ekklsia as “church” can confuse new Christians, who would naturally think of the “church” as a building, and so they use “assembly” or “congregation” instead of “church” in their versions. Bible versions that use “assembly” include the translation done by Charles Darby, Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible, and Young’s Literal Translation. Versions that use “congregation” include The Better Version of the New Testament by Chester Estes and The New English Bible.
The impact of realizing that the “church” is people is simple but profound. Biblically, people do not “go to church,” they are the church. The “church” meets wherever they gather. Thus, while we often think in terms of Christians meeting in “churches” (buildings), the biblical reality is that “churches” (assemblies; congregations) exist wherever Christians meet: in “church” buildings, houses, apartments, workplaces, parks, and more. Since the “church” is people, God’s emphasis is not where we meet, but that we meet. The place that the “church” selects to meet should be a purposeful decision, based upon what the meeting is supposed to accomplish.
For personal growth, the small meeting in a house or apartment is often the best because everyone gets to pray, share, and participate. Participation usually means quick growth. Larger meetings are wonderful for general education and accomplishing tasks that small groups cannot easily accomplish, such as sponsoring an outside speaker or a conference, or having a band or choir. Also, just as small groups have more intimacy, large groups often have a level of collective excitement that is not present in smaller meetings.
Another point that we should clarify, especially in today’s, “do it alone” culture, is that one Christian is not a “church.” Today, with Christian radio, TV, Podcasts, YouTube, and much more, it can be easy to get a “good feeling” about God, or learn about Him, without personally meeting together with others. Paul paraphrased Christ’s words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and true Christianity is about giving. Not just giving money, or “things,” but sharing our time and lives with others. Face to face church should be one of the mainstays of our Christian lives.
In closing, it is perhaps valuable to know why the word “church” came to be used in Christian circles if it refers to a building, but the Greek word from which it is translated in the New Testament never means a building. Although the word “church” developed over time from the Middle English, from Old English, from the Germanic, its ancient root is the Greek word kuriakon, meaning “belonging to the Lord” (from the word kurios, “lord”). Historians say that kuriakon was used of places of Christian worship from around the time of Constantine. This would make sense for a couple of reasons.
First, Constantine was the first Christian emperor of Rome, and he started a campaign of building places for worship (“church buildings”), which needed a general name that would set them apart from the other public buildings he, as emperor, was building and also set them apart from the pagan temples in the Empire. Thus, kuriakon, or “belonging to the Lord” would have been a very appropriate general name for these buildings. It is easy to think of Greek speaking people talking of “going to the kuriakon.”
Second, by the time of Constantine much of the original revelation of the Apostle Paul had been lost. For the most part, the Sacred Secret, the use of the manifestations of holy spirit, salvation by faith, the priesthood of the believer, and many such doctrines had been lost. Replacing those were the “clergy” and a much more controlled and specific liturgy, which were available only in the kuriakon buildings. Thus, over the centuries, the institution of the “church” building replaced the biblical concept that the church was people. The Reformation re-established the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer, but from a practical standpoint the general teaching inside Christendom continued to be that people had to “go to church.” It was only in the latter part of the 1900’s that the house church movement really caught on, at which time doctrine taught, and practice confirmed, that people were indeed the “church.”
It can be wonderfully freeing to realize that there does not have to be a “church building” for our prayers, praise, and fellowship together to be somehow validated by God. When Christians, even groups of two or three, get together in Christ’s name to pray, sing, study, help and advise each other, or perform Christian acts of giving and charity, they are the “church,” and Jesus promised he would be among them (Matt. 18:20). From time to time we here at Spirit & Truth Fellowship hear from people who do not get together with other Christians because they say they “cannot find a church” where they fit in. While it is true that in some situations it can be difficult to find a large group of people who meet in a building with whom you can fellowship, it is rarely difficult to find one or two others to fellowship with in Christ’s name. “Church,” i.e., Christians meeting together, is vital if we are to have powerful Christian lives. We are the “church,” the assembly, the congregation, so let’s make sure we are assembling with other Christians.
 Louw, J.P. and Nida, E.A., Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domain (United Bible Society, New York 1988), ekklesia.