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What does the Word "Church" Mean?

What does the word “church” mean? So often we hear people say, “I went to church,” or refer to a church building, or “I am a church member at a particular church.” Which one is the correct usage for the word “church”? Any of them, or are they all completely wrong? If you want to know what a word means you look it up in the dictionary. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “church” can mean five different things. They are:

1.       A building for public and especially Christian worship

2.       The clergy or the officialdom of a religious body

3.       A body or organization of religious believers

4.       A public divine worship

5.       The clerical profession

I would argue that the first meaning is probably the most prevalent understanding of the word “church” today. It refers to a building where public Christian worship takes place. But is this correct when we compare its usage in the New Testament? What happens so many times is we read our modern meanings and culture into the Bible without asking the question of what the words in the Bible meant to the original readers. We must start with the culture of the First Century and how they used the Greek word ekklesia (εκκλησια), which is translated into English as “church.” When Jesus, Paul, John, and the other Apostles talk about an ekklesia, what did they have in mind?

This Greek word, ekklesia, is used 115 times in the New Testament. When we look this word up in the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG), we are told that this word can mean three things. They are:

1.       A regularly summoned legislative body, usually translated as an assembly

2.       A causal gathering of people, usually translated as gathering

3.       People with a shared belief, usually translated as congregation

With this information in mind, we can now turn to the 115 times this word is used and based upon the context clues, figure out what the writer means. I have listed these references below so that you can do your own research and not just take my word for what the New Testament means when it uses this word. But most of the time, when the New Testament writers use this word, they are referring to a group of people that have a shared belief. This is why Paul, when he is writing his letters will say, to the ekklesia or church in Corinth, or of the Thessalonians, or of Galatia. This is why in the book of Acts, Luke can talk about the ekklesia or church in Jerusalem or Antioch or the churches that meet in people’s homes. This is why the New Testament writers talk about appointing elders and why God gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/teachers to help the church, referring to the group of people with a shared belief. Even when Jesus talks about the ekklesia or church, He is talking about a group of people that have a shared belief. In fact, Jesus is the first one to use this term in the New Testament (Matthew 16:18).

In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus is having a conversation with His disciples. He begins the conversation by asking them, “who do people say that I am?” The disciples respond by listing what the crowds are saying; that Jesus is a prophet and they name specific prophets like Jeremiah, John the Baptist (who is dead at the time of this conversation), and Elijah (who would come and prepare the way for the promised Messiah). But then Jesus asks another question, “who do you (referring to the 12 Apostles) say that I am?” Peter steps forward and says, “You are the Messiah (Christ), the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus says this, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17-18). This is the passage of Scripture that Roman Catholics point to, arguing that Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build His church, and the Pope continues to serve in that same authority today. We know that this is not true, because of the words Jesus uses. He is not building His church on Peter, but on Peter’s confession, which is that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of the living God. The reason why we know this, is because of the word “ekklesia.” Why is this the case? Jesus says I will build my ekklesia or church; I will gather a group of people that believe the same way as you, Peter. Then Jesus goes onto to say that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Traditionally the word “Hades” in this verse is translated as “Hell” and this verse is used so many times in spiritual warfare and how Satan does not have authority over the church, which is not the point Jesus is trying to make. The word “Hades” means death, or the grave (check out this blog post of mine for a more detail explanation: What Jesus means by that last part of the verse is that there will always be a group of people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God on the earth. This belief in Jesus will never die out. As long as people are living on this planet, there will always be a group of people that believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

Again, I will ask, “what does the word “church” mean according to the New Testament? I would define it as a group of people that share a common belief, and that belief is that Jesus is the Promised Messiah, the Savior of the World. It has nothing to do with a building, but it refers to a group of people with a common belief.

All that being said, there is also a gathering aspect with this group of people because we cannot ignore the fact that “ekklesia” means gathering or an assembly. In the Greek Old Testament, which is called the Septuagint, ekklesia is used 76 times. Most of the time when this word is used, it refers to the nation of Israel gathering or assembling. Again, this makes sense because the nation of Israel in the Old Testament was a group of people that shared a belief, that belief was in the Old Testament Law, and they gathered to express that shared belief, just like believers in Jesus did in the New Testament and continue to do so today.

I hope this brings clarity to what the Bible means when it uses the word “church.” It does not refer to a building, or even an event that takes place on Sunday mornings. But it refers to a group of people that share in the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the Savior of the World. And when that group gathers publicly in a building, or in a house, or under a tree, or in a stadium, wherever it may be, that group is publicly declaring their belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Savior of the world.



Just don’t take my word, do your own research. Listed below are the 115 references for “ekklesia” in the New Testament and the 76 references in the Old Testament.

  • New Testament verses – used 115 times

    • Matthew (used 2 times)

      • 16:18; 18:17

    • Acts (used 24 times)

      • 2:47; 5:11; 7:38; 8:1; 8:3; 9:31; 11:22; 11:26; 12:1; 12:5; 13:1; 14:23; 14:27; 15:3; 15:4; 15:22; 15:41; 16:5; 18:22; 19:32; 19:39; 19:41; 20:17; 20:28

    • Romans (used 5 times)

      • 16:1; 16:4; 16:5; 16:16; 16:23

    • 1 Corinthians (used 22 times)

      • 1:2; 4:17; 6:4; 7:17; 10:32; 11:16; 11:18; 11:22; 12:28; 14:4; 14:5; 14:12; 14:19; 14:23; 14:28; 14:33; 14:34; 14:35; 15:9; 16:1; 16:19 (2’xs)

    • 2 Corinthians (used 9 times)

      • 1:1; 8:1; 8:18; 8:19; 8:23; 8:24; 11:8; 11:28; 12:13

    • Galatians (used 3 times)

      • 1:2; 1:13; 1:22

    • Ephesians (used 9 times)

      • 1:22; 3:10; 3:21; 5:23; 5:24; 5:25; 5:27; 5:29; 5:32

    • Philippians (used 2 times)

      • 3:6; 4:15

    • Colossians (used 4 times)

      • 1:18; 1:24; 4:15; 4:16

    • 1 Thessalonians (used 2 times)

      • 1:1; 2:14

    • 2 Thessalonians (used 2 times)

      • 1:1; 1:4

    • 1 Timothy (used 3 times)

      • 3:5; 3:15; 5:16

    • Philemon (used 1 time)

      • Verse 2

    • Hebrews (used 2 times)

      • 2:12; 12:23

    • James (used 1 time)

      • 5:14

    • 3 John (used 3 times)

      • Verse 6

      • Verse 9

      • Verse 10

    • Revelation (used 20 times)

      • 1:4; 1:11; 1:20 (2x’s); 2:1; 2:7; 2:8; 2:11; 2:12; 2:17; 2:18; 2:23; 2:29; 3:1; 3:6; 3:7; 3:13; 3:14; 3:22; 22:16

  • Old Testament verses – used 76 times

    • Deuteronomy (used 7 times)

      • 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:1; 23:2; 23:3; 31:30

    • Judges (used 2 times)

      • 20:2; 21:5

    • 1 Samuel (used 2 times)

      • 17:47; 19:20

    • 1 Kings (used 5 times)

      • 8:14; 8:22; 8:55; 8:56; 12:3

    • 1 Chronicles (used 8 times)

      • 13:2; 13:4; 28:2; 28:8; 29:1; 29:10; 29:20 (2x’s)

    • 2 Chronicles (used 24 times)

      • 1:3; 1:5; 6:3 (2x’s); 6:12; 6:13; 7:8; 10:3; 20:5; 20:14; 23:3; 28:14; 29:23; 29:28; 29:31; 29:32; 30:2; 30:4; 30:13; 30:17; 30:23; 30:24; 30:25 (2x’s)

    • Ezra (used 5 times)

      • 2:64; 10:1; 10:8; 10:12; 10:14

    • Nehemiah (used 6 times)

      • 5:7; 5:13; 7:66; 8:2; 8:17; 13:1

    • Job (used 1 time)

      • 30:28

    • Psalm (used 10 times)

      • 21:23; 21:26; 25:5; 25:12; 34:18; 39:10; 67:27; 88:6; 106:32; 149:1

    • Proverbs (used 1 time)

      • 5:14

    • Lamentations (used 1 time)

      • 1:10

    • Ezekiel (used 2 times)

      • 32:3; 32:23

    • Joel (used 1 time)

      • 2:16

    • Micah (used 1 time)

      • 2:5

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