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The Church, a Community or a Building

Updated on June 14, 2020

The beginning of most Christian Churches start with the congregation of people without a building for worship. There is always the need to quickly build a Church auditorium stressing the necessity of a structure for God. With the advent of the corona virus and the restriction of Church gatherings, there exist an alienation between the people and the Church building. It has always been the case that the people of God are present, but the physical structure is absent. However what we have now is an empty church building without people to fill it. Thus we ask: what is the place of the physical structure, is it just a meeting point or there is much more to it? Can the Christian community without the physical structure sufficiently account for the notion of Church? In examining the Church building and the Church community, can we place one above the other, or do they in their different forms represent the same reality?

ETYMOLOGICAL EXPLANATION

The English word “Church” got its composition from the Germanic word “Kirche/ Kirk”. It is derived from the Greek adjective “kuriakos” meaning ‘belonging to the lord’. This adjective is the shortened form for “kuriakon doma” or “kuriakos domos,” meaning, “the Lord’s house”. So, Church in its first reference would be to the building in which Christians meet for worship; and perhaps that is still the first and dominant reference in original English. Following this background information, the Church can only be seen as the physical structure built solely for the purpose of worship. Most importantly, it is because the Church is the house of the Lord (kuriakon doma) that gives the people the impetus for gathering and for worship. A vivid example is that of the Roman gods. Just as pilgrimages and worship are carried out in the temples and shrines of the gods as their place of dwelling, so also the Church in this meaning refers to God’s throne where His people come to give Him the desired worship. However, Kirche/Kirk was always used in the different versions of the scripture to translate the Greek word "ekklesia".

The Greek ekklesia is derived from the verb “ekkaleo” meaning, “to summon” or “to call out”. Ekklesia can thus be referred to as a summoned gathering. Thus in the use of the word ekklesia, the first reference of this word is not to a building but to an official assembly of people. The closer Latin equivalent to ekklesia is “convocatio” meaning a convocation, a calling together; an assembly. It is the official term for the citizen’s assembly of the Athenian democracy. In the use of ekklesia by the New Testament writers, it presents the Church as a gathering of people for the specific purpose of worship. So, it is not about the physical structure, or a given place, but rather the gathered assembly. The primary reference of ekklesia in the New Testament is the actual assembly meeting for worship in Jerusalem, but from its use it is immediately extended to refer to the community of the faithful in any given place, to the local community. This is so far the most common use of the word in the NT. One could thus define a church as a community of Christians established in a particular locality and accustomed to meet regularly together for worship; something very much like a Jewish synagogue meeting and indeed almost certainly modeled on it.

OLD TESTAMENT FOUNDATION

The two meanings for the Church can be said to be a problem of language and etymology. Is this really the case or is there an explanation for this variation? Which of the two will be the true choice for the meaning of the word Church? This will be quite hard to conclude on a facial level, but it will be important to approach this subject from the ancient foundation for Christianity, which is Judaism. This will lead us to explore the Old Testament and the early Israelites’ conceptions that relate to gathering and worship. The Israelites officially became a people consecrated to God after the Exodus event and the Mount Horeb experience. It is from this time that they were free to gather as a people and worship God. The Hebrew word “qahal” was the word used as the source of this congregation of the Israelites. Qahal means a ‘convoked assembly’. In the strongest sense, the qahal is the assembly of Israel convoked by God (Num 16:3, Deut 23:2-9, 1Chr 28:8, Mic 2:5). This community and assembly of the Lord is primarily God's assembly because it was constituted by God and convoked by Him. Outside this, there is a much more affiliation to God; this is in the case that God lives in this congregation, He is present in this gathering and He continuously abides with them as a gathered people.

A synonymous term is to qahal is “edah” which the Greek Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) usually translates by “sunagoge” known as Synagogue. After the exile, this became the regular and almost technical word primarily for the Sabbath day meeting of Jews for prayer and study of the Torah. With time, it gained a secondarily meaning which is for the building in which the meeting took place. This secondary reference is the only found meaning for Synagogue in the NT, with the exception of the book of Revelation (Rev 3:9). After the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the institution of Christianity, there was the need for Christians to gather as a people outside the Jewish Temple and Synagogue. This left the way open for the first Christian communities to take over qahal/ekklesia to denominate their own meetings or assemblies. And thus in the course of polemical centuries, Church and Synagogue became a classic contrasting pair.

THE CHURCH IS BOTH A COMMUNITY AND A BUILDING

Long before Christians had buildings they called Churches, which they could treat as symbols of their proper identity, their first apostles and teachers had seized on God’s temple in Jerusalem as a fitting image of ekklesia, or more still they see the ekklesia as replacing the temple, as the new house or dwelling place of God, since God's presence had departed from the temple when the veil was torn in two from top to bottom. Indeed this image has its origins in the gospels and in a well-known saying of Jesus about destroying the temple and building another in three days which was to be his body. What it tells us about the Church is not only that it is to be the dwelling place of God, and therefore a holy and innocent community intimately associated with Christ the cornerstone, but also that it may in a sense be identified with Christ since he too is the new temple.

The connection between church as a building and church as a community of worshipers goes a little deeper than simple metonymy or linguistic and etymologically explanation. The early Christians understood the assembled people of God as the body of Christ, because it is a community of believers held fast by Christ who is the incarnate word of God and the head of the Church. The Church building is spontaneously seen as a symbol of the community of believers; and since the Church community is the body of Christ, Churches came to be built deliberately to represent, in a variety of ways, Christ himself. The most obvious way is by their common cruciform ground-plan of Churches.

Then again, with the influence of St. Paul’s writing, the Church community is also seen to be the temple of God or of the Holy Spirit, here, Paul identifies the whole people as a dwelling of God and of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, he also made it possible for an identification of the individual believer both with Christ and with the church. For Paul tells us that individually we are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:19), as well as the Christian community being God’s temple (1Cor 3:16, 2Cor 6:16, Eph 2:21). So Christian Churches especially the more prestigious cathedrals and basilicas, took on some of the aura of the Israelite temple in Jerusalem. Thus Christian architecture becomes a means not only of sermons in stones, but also increasingly assimilating the religion and Church of the New Testament to the religion and people of the Old Testament.

Christian communities began by being, so to say, little nodes of secularization in an excessively sacral pagan world. The Church’s main aim was the conversion of all people in the world; the salvation of souls. The aim was pursued using the modes of evangelism. The popular modes of teaching, preaching and healing was carried out by the believing community. However, the Church as a building was also a mode of evangelization. Christians with their Churches as so many houses of God encrusted with the richest sacramental symbolism, holy places and shrines of saints and martyrs; they found themselves committed to re-sacralizing the world. Thus the Church even in her mission to save souls can be seen both in the effect of the community and the building; the Church is both the community and the building.

The believing community is both a community and a structure. This is so because the community of Christ’s members are a living stones that form the Church. Just as Christ is the cornerstone which the builders rejected but which was made into the cornerstone of God’s house, so does the members of the Church as living stones here on earth are built into a holy Church which is founded on Christ. So, the Church building symbolizes the members of the Church grafted as one. It is because they are firstly a community of spiritual living stones that enables them to become physical living stones made visible to all as an attestation to the true Church of Christ.

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    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      12 months ago from london

      Amen!!

    • JoshuaDehi profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Dehi 

      12 months ago from Lagos, Nigeria

      Iron sharpens Iron, the saints helps us achieve sainthood, the church inspires us to contemplate the divine...u really do need more than ourselves. I cannot count the various occasions that the communion of God's people have inspired me to pray. There are times I just move around the church without any intention to pray but find myself spending hours before the tabernacle or the grotto...and i always leave much more lighter and fulfilled

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      12 months ago from london

      Yes, I'm happy for you. If you visit Monasteries and Cathedrals, you will find, that for the receptive, many of them have a very sacred feel. This is so, because so many Saints and devotees have prayed and meditated in these buildings, leaving very positive vibrations that linger.

      Collective prayers is like that, the energy of Spirit is increased and help those who are a bit low and would not have been inspired, had they stayed at home sulking. It's a funny, thing, my dear. Somethings we don't feel like praying, but after we do, we feel exalted.

      Runners would know what I mean in the winter. They don't feel like going out, but once they take the plunge, they return home with clarity, good feelings and a much more logical mind. Mixing with like-minded people and doing devotionals, are just like that and more. Praise be!

    • JoshuaDehi profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Dehi 

      12 months ago from Lagos, Nigeria

      I miss the communion of God's people and i miss the sacredness of the Church building...Manatita44 thanks for your perspective...I will surely preach it

    • JoshuaDehi profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Dehi 

      12 months ago from Lagos, Nigeria

      Thanks a lot KC McGee. Ekklesia is Greek, while Ecclesia is Latin. All the New Testament books were written in Greek. Ekklesia which means a summoned gathering of the 'called out' that is, the chosen, was taken up by the New Testament writers to connote the reality of the gathered community of God's people which we know today as the Church. Although the Romans were the dominant power, Latin had not taken over from Greek as the popular written language. In the Vulgate the latin translation of the Greek bible by St Jerome, the Greek Ekklesia became Ecclesia in Latin which is Church in English.

    • JoshuaDehi profile imageAUTHOR

      Joshua Dehi 

      12 months ago from Lagos, Nigeria

      Thanks Eric. Truly we have come to the reality talked about by Jesus, for those who worship God will no longer be on a particular mountain or any certain place, but in truth and in spirit. The church is catholic and universal which means it embraces all...buildings should not be a barrier to that universalism

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      12 months ago from london

      A noble effort. Experience is the greatest teacher. If I do not taste the mango, then how do I know its sweet?

      1. The gathering of people helps us.

      2. The places of worship helps us.

      3. Our own alter at home helps us.

      The early Christian Fathers used to retire to the desert or live between trees and many monasteries developed that way. They found solace in each other as we do today, either in groups or buildings.

      Our spirits' go up and down. We cannot eat great food every day and sometimes we turn to others for a recipe. In the same way, we turn to friends for support when the word don't seem to solve our problems. For that we need the community.

      When we rise a.m, we do better, when we offer gratitude to God before embarking on our daily journey and so the alter at home helps us. Prayer is a multi-dimensional thing. Stories, parables, plays and readings on the internet helps us. So much can help us! Alas! Some believe in self-sufficiency.

      My happiness lies in your happiness and separation is only a destructive thing. Love and oneness is the key.

    • profile image

      KC McGee 

      12 months ago from Where I belong

      It's odd that you state that the Greek word ecclesia means church, when you concider the fact the word ecclesia can be found in Greek text up to 600 years BEFORE the birth of Jesus Chirst. By your logic, the CHURCH existed 600 years BEFORE Christ was even born. So please feel free to explain that. I would love to hear it. It should be noted, ecclesia DOES NOT mean church.

      The called out one's are those who are baptized with the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      12 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I always wonder about a canon suggesting the purpose of a corporate body be conversion. It sounds so non-personal. I like the idea of the difference between Catholic and catholic. I belong to catholic which has no building.

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