The Church, a Community or a Building
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?
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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