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What Is a Church? The What.

Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of and, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.

As I have studied Scripture, I have found that one of the core elements of church comes from the word itself.

We can understand this crucial element by noting that the Greek word for “church” in the original Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is the word ekklesia. The word was widely used for several centuries in Greek culture before Christianity appeared on the scene. It referred to a socio-political gathering of citizens, who were called together to attend to the concerns of their city.[1] They were “the called-out people,” “the assembly,” or “the congregation.”[2]

The widely respected early church historian Everett Ferguson gives us a good summary definition of this Greek word:

The Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia. Its basic meaning was “assembly.”…The emphasis was on the concrete act of assembly.[3] 

Another respected scholar, Robert Banks, adds further nuance:

It’s [ekklesia’s] chief importance lies in stress on the centrality of meeting for community life; it is through gathering that the community comes into being and is continually re-created.[4] 

“Ekklesia’s chief importance lies in stress on the centrality of meeting for community life.” —Robert Banks

The biggest section of Scripture describing church as an assembly is 1 Corinthians 11:2-14:40. In these chapters, we find two verses that are particularly helpful in helping us to define a church and how it functions:

The first verse, toward the beginning of these four chapters describing the meeting of the church, is 1 Corinthians 11:18. It states, “In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.” There are two Greek words in this verse that are very helpful in understanding what a church is:

“When you come together (synerchomai) as a church (ekklesia)…” (1 Cor. 11:18a)[5] 

Church, as described in this verse, is the coming together of Christians to be an assembly (i.e., a gathering).

A second verse, toward the end of these four chapters is also helpful for our understanding. 1 Corinthians 14:23 brings us back to the basic nature of church as an intentional gathering. Paul writes, by way of summary:

“So, if the whole church comes together…” (1 Cor. 14:23a)

Again, notice the two same words in Greek and how they are used.

“So, if the whole church (ekklesia) comes together (synerchomai) in the same place…” (1 Cor. 14:23a)

Again, these verses point to the fact that church is an assembly at which everyone from the local body of believers (the “whole church”) has gathered in the same place.

“Church is an assembly at which everyone from the local body of believers (the “whole church”) has gathered in the same place.”

The concept of the “whole church” coming together implies intentionality (everyone must have been invited for everyone to come together as an assembly). So, based on the Greek word for church, “assembly” and how the word is used in these verses (and others), let me suggest a crucial element for understanding church, involving the “what” of church:

A church is an intentional assembly or gathering of Christians.

Whenever we think about church today, this facet of church as an intentional gathering should inform our definition. When we hear “church,” we ought to envision a purposeful gathering of Christians.

Please note also that these verses point to the concept of the “whole church” gathering. The inference, made plain in other passages, is that there are additional “assemblies” and “gatherings” which are subsets of the larger assembly. Acts 2:46 describes how this worked for the church in Jerusalem:

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” (Acts 2:46)

These descriptions of a church as an intentional assembly indicates that, to be part of a church, you regularly gather in their assemblies (unless, of course, there are extenuating circumstances that prevent you from doing so).

So, does this description of church as an intentional assembly mean that any intentional gathering of Christians means that it’s a church? No there are other elements that make up a church. Actually, the “what” of a church as an intentional gathering is only one core facet of what makes a church. When we put all the core facets together, we’ll see that, for example, an intentional gathering to praise God in songs as a family or a planned meeting of friends for prayer are good things—but they aren’t, in themselves, a church.

“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”

When people gather to be a church according to passages like 1 Corinthians 11-14 and others, there are some core practices to be upheld, like the following:

  • The purposeful gathering to be the assembly, the church in a location.
  • The study of God’s Word.
  • The participation in the Lord’s Supper (Communion).
  • Guidance by the leadership of the assembly.
  • Mutual ministry to each other based on each person’s gifts.
  • Singing, exhortation, and words of encouragement.

In other words, a church is more than just an intentional, regular gathering. But let’s not miss that neither is a church less than an intentional, regular gathering.

[1] Here is another good definition of the Greek usage: “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly

  1. an assembly of the people convened at the public place of the council for the purpose of deliberating
  2. the assembly of the Israelites
  3. any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously”

See “Ekklesia,” Bible Study Tools,

[2] L. Coenen, “Church,” in The New International Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1975), 1: 291–307.

[3] Everett Ferguson. The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Kindle Locations 1735-1736). William B. Eerdmans. 1996.Kindle Edition.

[4] Robert J. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (p. 41). Baker Publishing Group. 2020. Kindle Edition.

[5] All Bible quotations in this document are from the NIV.

From Bobby Harrington, What Is Church? And How Important Is It? (, 2023).