The Word “Church” in 1 Corinthians: The Church and the Churches


The purpose for the writing of some of the New Testament books is stated specifically, as when John wrote his Gospel for sinners to promote faith in Christ (20:31), or when he wrote his first epistle to saints to give them the assurance of salvation (5:13). In other cases, while the major theme is not specified, the subject is clear from the reading. There are two books in the New Testament in which the Church features prominently but with a different emphasis in each. The Epistle to the Ephesians focuses on the “Body of Christ” aspect of the Church. It is the book that explains that God’s intention to create a new spiritual entity had been in His holy heart from eternal days; it had “from the beginning of the world … been hid in God” (3:9).1 Thus, the Church does not feature in the Old Testament nor is there any hint of it there. It is “one new man” (2:15), comprised of converted Jews and converted Gentiles, and that is the “mystery” that Paul unfolds in the epistle, stating “that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body” (3:1-6). This is the Church which incorporates every believer in Christ, membership of which depends on having our names written in heaven, the “church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven” (Heb 12:23). It is of this aspect of the Church that the Lord Jesus promised, “I will build my church” (Mat 16:18), and daily, across the world, living stones are being added to this spiritual edifice.

As far as that aspect of the Church is concerned, it is a single organism – “there is one body” (Eph 4:4). By contrast, 1 Corinthians focuses on the local aspect of the Church, “the church of God” (1:2), and the fact that he refers to “the churches of God” in the plural (11:16) shows that there are many such congregations scattered throughout the world. First Corinthians was written to adjust some irregularities at Corinth; in a strange way, misbehavior at Corinth has worked out to our benefit! We now have an inspired account of some aspects of assembly life that we might never have known about otherwise. Sometimes the epistle has been referred to as “The Charter of the Church.” This series of articles will focus on the usage of the word “church” throughout the letter and highlight lessons for assembly life today.

The word is employed in around 20 different verses throughout the 16 chapters, but first of all it might be helpful to explain the meaning of this Greek word ekklesia, translated “church” in the KJV. In his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, under the word “church,” W.E. Vine simply says, “For CHURCH see ASSEMBLY and CONGREGATION.” Referencing the word “assembly,” Mr. Vine explains that ekklesia is a combination of two Greek words which have to do with being called out. So, an ekklesia is a called-out company of people. It is used in a secular sense of a riotous mob and of the official local council at Ephesus (Act 19:32,39,41). Stephen used it to describe the generation of Israelites that had been called out of Egypt (7:38). But over 100 times it is employed in the New Testament to designate those whom God has called out of the world to be linked with Himself. Because of the religious confusion connected with the word “church,” we will go along with Mr. Vine’s suggestion that it would be better to translate this word “assembly” or “congregation”; in the Scriptures it always relates to people. Many of you are familiar with the term “assembly” when describing your local church.

Not a Building

The use of the word “church” in 1 Corinthians helps us to understand what the church is not. Contrary to the common usage of the word, the church is not a literal building. Most professing Christians refer to the place where they congregate as their church, and people speak about “going to church” as if the venue is the church. Aquila and Priscilla joined Paul in sending greetings to the assembly at Corinth, as did “the church that is in their house” (1Co 16:19). Their house was a building, and the assembly was accommodated in that building; so, clearly the church was not the building. The fact that the church greeted the Corinthian saints is another indication that the word relates to persons and not a structure. When I was young, I heard a preacher say, “The church is not a steeple, but a people!”

Other Scriptures corroborate this truth. The Lord Jesus said, “Tell it unto the church” (Mat 18:17). You don’t speak to buildings! The church has ears (Act 11:22); the church has emotions, including fear (5:11); the church prays (12:5). These and other references combine to demonstrate that New Testament churches are comprised of people and not of wood, brick or stone. That being the case, it is inappropriate to describe the building in which we meet as our “church”; in fact, it is unscriptural to do so.

Not a Countrywide Religious Organization

Another prevalent misconception of the word “church” is the notion that it is a countrywide organization regarded as the “national church.” Establishments such as the Church of England feature in many lands in the English-speaking world. Once more, 1 Corinthians demonstrates there is no such thing as a national ecclesiastical organization. Chapter 16:1 refers to “the churches of Galatia.” Verse 19 speaks of “the churches of Asia.” Unlike Corinth, Galatia and Asia were areas rather than cities, and whenever the Bible speaks of the church in connection with a district, the word is always in the plural. Thus, it is never “The Church of Galatia” or “The Church of Asia” or “The Church of Macedonia” or “The Church of Judaea,” but always “the churches” in these various locations. In New Testament times, there was no equivalent of a national religious institution, but rather, scattered throughout these regions there were autonomous companies of saints gathered to the Lord’s Name.

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.