In The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever and Paul Alexander examine the wisdom of “a multiple service format for the Sunday morning gathering.” (87) They are reluctant to use this model for Capitol Hill Baptist Church. Their justification is quite interesting:
The main reason is that the church is just that — a gathering. The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, which in the New Testament also refers to a single gathering of people who are not the people of God. By definition and by use, an ekklesia is a corporate singularity — one group of people who are all in the same place at the same time. (87)
The authors then discuss several Scripture passages that indicate that the “church” met together – as a corporate singularity: Acts 2:44, 46; 5:12; 15:22; 1 Cor 14:23.
My desire to discuss this issue is not related to the question of multiple services. Instead, I believe this issue is important in determining the nature of the church itself.
I agree with Dever and Alexander that a larger gathering is frequently called a “church” (ekklesia) in Scripture. However, there are also smaller gatherings that are called a “church” (ekklesia). Specifically, when Peter is imprisoned by Herod, the “church” is praying for him (Acts 12:5). Is this the same group that is praying for Peter in Acts 12:12: “He came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.” If so, then this is a smaller group that is called “church” – not the entire group of believers in Jerusalem. Also, the group that meets in the home of Prisca and Aquila is still considered a “church” (Rom 16:3-5); but, based on the context of this passage, this was not a gathering of all of the believers in Rome (i.e. Paul instructs his readers, who are believers in Rome, to greet this group).
So, where does this leave us? Is it correct to call an assembly a “church” when the entire group is gathered together – a corporate singularity? Certainly. Is it correct to call a smaller assembly a “church” even if the entire group is not gathered? This appears correct as well.
So, when is a group a “church”?