And Jesus answered him… ‘you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.’
For the first three centuries of Christianity Jesus’ followers met wherever they could and since it wasn’t permitted for them to worship in public buildings or own real estate they typically gathered in homes. They were large homes that could hold a decent crowd but they were homes nonetheless. Fortunately for them however, they didn’t need a building in order to be the church.
When Jesus made the statement above to do with the church he used the Greek word ‘ekklesia’. Ekklesia was a word in common usage that described any group of people/congregation who met together for a particular purpose. As well as this, ekklesia was the word used of the people of Israel in the Greek version of the Old Testament. An ekklesia is a group of people. Thus when Jesus promises to build his church he is promising that he will build his ekklesia – a called together congregation.
Years late Peter expounds this idea when he writes to an ekklesia:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:4-5
The church is built on Jesus. The church is a group of people not a place.
Church has to do with people, not steeples.
So what happened to the word’s usage that church became associated with a building?
In 313Ad Emperors Constantine and Licinius signed the Edict of Milan which legalised Christianity in the empire. It became possible from this time on for Christians to use public buildings for worship and among the buildings they used were Basilicas. Basilicas were Roman public court buildings usually located near the central market/legal place of a town. The word is Latin and is a derivative of the Greek word Basileus (king). The ‘house/place of the king’ referred not to Jesus but to a government official/judge.
Alongside this Christians had been in the habit of meeting around the grave of martyrs at the anniversary of their death to share communion in their honour. Where possible, people of influence built Basilicas of their own around the grave to commemorate the memory of the fallen faithful.
The Greek equivalent for a Basilica was the word Kyriakon (a derivative of ‘kurios’ – Lord). These buildings then were named ‘houses of the Lord/king’ which although wasn’t originally a reference to Jesus, it soon came to mean that.
Over time the word Kyriakon changed forms. The old German form of it was Kirike which over time became Kirche. The word we translate ‘church’ comes from this German word. What’s interesting about that is the observation that where Ekklesia meant congregation/crowd, kirche referred explicitly to the building the crowd met in.
In 1536 William Tyndale translated a version of the New Testament from its original language. In it he translated the word ekklesia into the equivalent word ‘congregation’. Tyndale saw the beauty and significance of the fact that the ekklesia Jesus is a building is a people and not a building. For his trouble the powers of his day executed him by strangulation and had his dead body burned at the stake. They saw that whereas governments and human authorities can understand and control the kirche, it has no power over the ekklesia.
At Kings we’re committed to being the people of God. We’re gripped by a vision and mission to be the people of God building the community of God, for the glory of God and for the good of society.
This Sunday are you going to Kirche or being part of Ekklesia?
Are you attending a place only to return home after paying your dues or are you partnering with and belonging to a people?