What does it mean when we say "church"? The word "church" comes from the Middle English "chiriche" which is a derivative of the Greek word kyriakos which means "the Lord's house." In the scriptures, the word "church" is translated from the original Greek ekklesia which appears 73 times in the New Testament, and 100 times in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament for the Hebrew word qahal. Ekklesia literally means "to be called out" and it is used purposefully instead of the Greek synagogue to distinguish its purpose beyond a simple gathering or assembly. In other words, the church (or ekklesia) is the community of people called out by God.
In yesterday's epistle reading, St. Paul writes to his disciple Timothy about the church: These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:13 - 4:5, Saturday before Theophany). We learn three important things in this short passage:
- There are standards for behavior for members of the Church. Remember, 2,000 years ago Christians were under persecution and therefore did not have public temples of worship. So, church refers to the community of believers, not a building.
- The church is God's house. He is the owner. We belong to Him.
- The church is the foundation of truth. It is where we find and come to know Him who is the truth, Jesus Christ our Lord. To intimately know Him who is the truth is to simultaneously know the truth about ourselves, our strength and our weaknesses, our virtues and our sins.
Looking through the rest of the New Testament, what else can we learn about the Church? Many passages include a greeting to a specific community often at the beginning of a letter/book (i.e. to the Church in Ephesus and seven churches in Revelation). Several passages are devoted to a specific issue like speaking in tongues in Corinth and marriage in Ephesus. In addition, there are numerous general references to different communities. Thus, church can refer to a specific local community or it can also refer the universal community of all believers.
Christ used the term "Church" two times, both in Gospel of Matthew. We learn that Christ will build His church on the rock of Peter's confession of faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:15-19). Christ also says that the church is the most influential body in helping a person face there sin (Matthew 18:15-17). In the Book of Acts we learn that the church is where believers are baptized, learn doctrine, share in fellowship, break bread, pray and worship together, help those in need (Acts 2:40-47), are taught and called Christians (Acts 11:25-26), pray for specific people (Acts 12:5), fast from food to prepare for prophecy and teaching (Acts 13:1-3), elders/presbyters are ordained and serve (Acts 14:23), overseers/bishops are the shepherds/leaders of the people (Acts 20:28).
In the letters of St. Paul we learn that the apostles, and later the bishops/priests are sent to the churches to preach and teach (1 Corinthians 4:17). In addition, God appoints several types of ministers in the church including apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers and administrators (1 Corinthians 12:28). These ministers and all members of the church are to use their spiritual gifts for the edification of one another (1 Corinthians 14:12). St. Paul also teaches us that the church is the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:15-18,24-26) and that she/we are to make known the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:8-13).
In the Book of James we hear the familiar passage: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:14-16).
Thus, the church is the primary vehicle for our healing through prayer, faith, confession, forgiveness and righteousness. As members of the church, we are called out by God but He does not force us. Thus, we must answer that call each and every day. How do we do that? By personally applying the ethical standards of behavior set forth in the teachings and the lives of Jesus Christ and His apostles, fathers and saints. Where are these found? Of course, these are found in the church, which is the body of Christ, Who is our living God, Who is the fullness of truth, Who is Truth Himself. As we live our life regularly and fully in the church, let us have courage to come face-to-face with the Truth so that we can learn the truth about ourselves in order to confess our sins and share our spiritual gifts!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.