Many of us learned as children to lace our fingers and say the rhyme: “Here is the church / here is the steeple / open it up / and see all the people.” A funny thing then happened when we grew up: we heard that church in the New Testament never refers to the place in which the people meet but refers always to the people themselves. Meanwhile, we find ourselves inevitably using the word church in three ways. We speak of it as a place—“The youth group will leave at 9:00 a.m. from the church.” We speak of it as the meeting itself—“We’ll have a lunch after church in the fellowship hall.” And we speak of it as a people—“We cannot thank the church enough for your prayers and support.”

This can lead us to wonder, Are we often misusing the word church? The answer has a bit of a story to it. And that story explains why we tend to use the word church in these several ways.

We begin in the first gospel. When Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), the Greek word for “church” is ekklēsia. In all 114 instances that the New Testament uses this word, it designates a people, or an assembly of people, responding to the call of God in Christ. It sometimes refers to the whole people of God and other times to a local congregation (Eph. 5:27; 1 Thess. 1:1). From ekklēsia we call the doctrine of the church “ecclesiology” and speak of the courts of sessions, presbyteries, and synods or assemblies as “ecclesiastical courts.”

In the New Testament, ekklēsia always designates a people, never the place where they meet. The family of Romance languages (such as French and Spanish, each descending from Latin) named the church directly from its New Testament word, ekklēsia. That is why the French speak of l’eglise and the Spanish of la iglesia, each derived from the Latin ecclesia.

It’s more complicated for us English speakers, however, because our word church is from another source. Together with German (Kirche) and Dutch (kerk), the English word church comes not from ekklēsia but from another Greek word, kyriakon, meaning “of a lord” or “belonging to a lord.” Whereas ekklēsia appears 114 times in the New Testament, kyriakon appears twice—once in 1 Corinthians 11:20, where it specifies “the Lord’s supper,” and once in Revelation 1:10, where it designates “the Lord’s day.” But nowhere does the New Testament use kyriakon to refer to the Lord’s people.

Over time, however, Christians began to refer to the meeting place where they would assemble—on the Lord’s Day, often to celebrate the Lord’s Supper—as the kyriakon (abbreviated version of “the Lord’s house”). This means that our word church does technically refer, at least originally, to the physical building and location where Christians would meet to worship. In terms of etymology of the English word church, the children’s rhyme is technically correct: “This is the church / this is the steeple / open it up / and see all the people.”

This created something of a problem for William Tyndale when he was translating the Bible. Tyndale, translating the Greek New Testament into English in 1536, wanted to make clear that ekklēsia in the New Testament refers to the people, not to a place or building. So, he translated ekklēsia as “congregation,” not “church,” rendering Matthew 16:18 as “I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it.”1 But later English translations of the New Testament, most determinatively the King James Version, translated ekklēsia as “church,” and so an English word that originally referred to the meeting place of God’s people has, for the last four hundred years, been doing “double duty,” referring also to God’s people themselves. And thus we find ourselves using it in both ways too.

Various biblical metaphors for the church—the family, the body, the temple, the flock, and the nation—all serve to connect our understanding of “the church” to God’s people.

That’s OK, so long as we understand that every time we encounter “church” in the New Testament, it designates the people (ekklēsia), not a building. Edmund Clowney writes, “According to the Bible, the church is the people of God, the assembly and body of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”2 Various biblical metaphors for the church—the family, the body, the temple, the flock (“congregation” originally meant “gathered flock”), and the nation—all serve to connect our understanding of “the church” to God’s people.

And what is our essential nature as the church, God’s people? It is that we are called of God, and on account of the renewing work of the Spirit in us, we are by ongoing faith and repentance responsive to that divine call. Paul prays for the saints in Ephesus that God would be glorified “in the church [ekklēsia] and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations” (Eph. 3:21). A few verses later, he urges the church “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling [klēseōs] to which you have been called [eklēthēte]. . . . There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called [eklēthēte) to the one hope that belongs to your call [klēseōs] (Eph. 4:4–5).” The connection between the church’s name (ekklēsia) and divine calling (klēseōs) is clear.

Since the church originates with the divine call, the church’s first and foremost obligation (both at its inception and in its continuation) is to hear. All of the church’s worship, teaching, fellowship, and service flow from its fundamental capacity to hear the voice of its one Lord: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Accordingly, in each of Jesus’ messages to the seven churches of Revelation, our Lord concludes: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 19; 3:8, 13, 22).

In the Reformed tradition, we distinguish between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” The difference isn’t between the church building you can see and the church people you sometimes can’t see. Rather, it’s between the larger circle of people who you can identify because they’re members of the church—“consist[ing] of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2)—and the smaller circle of people to whom God, in His predestinating grace and regenerating power, has given ears to hear—“consist[ing] of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof” (WCF 25.1). While ministers, elders, and deacons are called to lead and serve “the visible church,” their ministries should always press every member to make sure that he or she is responding to the divine call and thus belongs to the “invisible church,” hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him. Only when Jesus returns, separating the sheep from the goats, will the invisible church and the visible church be entirely one and the same—from then to all eternity (Matt. 7:21–23; 25:31–46).

Let us take care in our language and thought to recover and maintain, as best we are able, the biblical emphasis on the church as the people of God who respond to the call of God, to the voice of the Shepherd. Making our own feeble attempt at that, we have a twist on the children’s rhyme in our home. Instead of saying, “Here is the church / here is the steeple / open it up / and see all the people,” we reverse the sequence of the hand motions and say: “Here is the church / a saved-by-grace people / sometimes they gather / under a steeple.”

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on April 17, 2020.

  1. Martin Luther attempted to make the same distinction in his translation of the New Testament into German. Instead of translating ekklēsia as Kirche, he used the word Gemeinde, which means “community.” ↩︎
  2. Edmund Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 28. ↩︎

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