Sunday, February 24, 2008

What Does "Church" Mean?

Lately I've seen a number of discussions involving the meaning of the word, "Church." The general tenor is that a) the church is the people, not the building; and b) expressions such as "I'm going to church" reflect a lapse into thinking that it is the building after all, and not the people, a lapse which we should be avoiding.

All of this is far too simplistic. Are we talking about the biblical use of the term, the historical use of the term, the contemporary use of the term, or what we think the contemporary use of the term ought to be? Is there one acceptable use, or many? Should it be qualified by context?

For one thing, such debates ignore what is known as "lexical range." Very few words have only one acceptable meaning. Most of them are technical terms, which are coined and defined precisely so as to exclude any ambiguity. That's why legal and medical terminology uses Latin so much: language in these disciplines needs to be precise. But language as it is used in everyday situations is much broader than that. There is a range of meaning that any word can have, based on context. "I set the chess set on the TV set while I watched a set of tennis." Words don't have just one definition.

So the very question, "Is the church the people or the building?" is quite possibly a false dichotomy. It may easily refer to both, and does so in contemporary usage, whether we may like it or not. It may be better, or more biblical, for us to view the church as the people, more so than the building, but that's not the same thing as asking what the word means.

It's also worth pointing out that the phrase, "I'm going to church," doesn't necessarily reflect a focus on the building rather than the people. As a matter of fact, you'll notice that when we're going to a service, we say, "I'm going to church," but if we need to go to the same place at a time when a service is not taking place, we say, "I'm going to the church." This is not helpful if we're trying to establish that the one legitimate meaning of "church" is people, not place, but it does reflect a distinction that we are making in our minds. Going to the church is not exactly the same thing as going to church.

When people are trying to discuss the "real" meaning of words like that, what they're most often trying to do is to discuss the biblical meaning, with the underlying idea that we ought to be speaking, and therefore thinking, biblically. That's fair enough. The word used in the New Testament for Church is ἐκκλησία, ekklesia, Strong's 1577. While the root of the word may be literally translated "called out," and some have taken that to mean that the church is composed of those people who have been "called out" of the world, the usage of the word is much more mundane than that: in first-century Greek, ἐκκλησία was used for any sort of public gathering. So as believers in Jesus began meeting together, they naturally called one another the ἐκκλησία, the gathering, the assembly. It was not a technical term: the same word is used in the Greek New Testament for a mob in Acts 19:32 and a legal assembly (i.e., a session of court) in Acts 19:39. In time, the word began being used for Christians in general, and later in church history, for the places and finally buildings in which Christians gathered together.

The point I would like to make is that the biblical use of ἐκκλησία does not simply refer to the people of God. It refers to the people of God as they are assembled together. First Corinthians 11:18 makes reference to this explicitly: "When you come together as a church." Even references to the larger church composed of all believers have in view the idea of all these believers considered corporately as a single group, or body. It is for this reason that I, as an individual believer, and therefore a part of the church universal, can still say that I am "going to church"--because it is in the gathering together that individual believers become the church. We simply are not "the church" apart from one another.

Chuck Colson was once asked where his church was, and he replied, "All over the city," with the idea in mind that the church was the people. I understand his point, but I don't think it was quite correct. The church is the church only insofar as it coalesces, comes together as one. As long as we are separate individuals, each pursuing our own lives and our own relationships with Jesus, we are not "the church." It is not true, as I have heard some people say, that "I can have church out alone under a tree just as much as in a church building with a bunch of people." You may be able to have just as intense a worship experience, but that is not the same thing. The church is the church as it comes together. We need one another to be the church. We must be a part of one another to be the church. We must seek unity under the lordship of Christ to be the church. And it is that church against which "the gates of hell will not prevail."


  1. Dear Keith,

    Even if we aren't gather physically, might not, in a different sense, believers be gathered spiritually through the call of the Gospel?

    Christ, in Mathew 16, said He would build His church. No question, the interpretation of this passage has been disputed over the years. But the dispute tends to be around the basis of the one true Church (Peter or Peter's profession), and not if there is one true Church.

    John writes to the Church of Smyrna in Revelations 2 telling them to hang in there baby! No doubt they were in some sense the Church of Smyrna, but could they not also have been part of Christ's church in some sense?

    BTW, I enjoy your blog.

    God be with you,

  2. Great post. A consistent emphasis throughout the NT, from Jesus to Paul and John, is the necessity for the "called out ones" to love one another. How can we love those we don't spend time with? In addition, throughout scripture worship is a corporate activity. It happens where "two or three" (or more) are gathered together. Those who say "I can have church alone" are desperately missing the point. The corporate aspect of "church" should not be neglected. The church must gather together, or it is not truly the church.

  3. Hi Dan. Welcome!

    Thank you for reading, and thank you for commenting.

    Yes, certainly, ἐκκλησία is sometimes used to refer to all believers, and I made reference to that fact, calling it "the larger church composed of all believers" and "the church universal." Nonetheless, I believe that these references involve the people of God considered, not as individuals, but as a corporate body.

    Since we're fellow Arminians, I might mention that this is also my view of election: that God has predestined to salvation not Dan and Keith and Bob as individuals, but all those who respond in faith to God's grace through the message of the gospel. When Paul says that "we" have been predestined in Ephesians 1, for example, he means "the group who have responded in faith." Some of our theological problems have been created by reading too much individualism into the scriptural text. We need to think of ourselves, and act, as one body.

    Once again, thanks for stopping by.

  4. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for clarifying about the "universal church". I missed that important point...

    As for "corporate election", I have a question. Do you mean the formula: those who believe will be saved (as opposed to those who work or those who are Jews or those who say blue three times a day...) or do you mean all individuals who at some point in time have or will believe, or do you mean something else?

    God be with you,

  5. Keith, according to my two Mormon friends who dropped in again today, the only church is LDS. And the proof that they have that the Book of Mormon is true is because their church is now global. I asked if that were the criteria by which they judged the Truth, then every Baptist, and Protestant denomination could claim the same thing. Only thing different about us, is we don't recognize the Book of Mormon at all.

    I'm sure glad I have a "church" to attend in the physical form so I can fellowship with the church-folk which makes up the Bride of Christ, aren't you?

  6. Keith, and that we recognize Jesus as the ONLY Way, Truth, and Life. I told them that, too. forgot to add that to my comment. selahV

  7. Hi, Dan,

    I mean the former: those who believe will be saved (as opposed to those who work or those who are Jews or those who say blue three times a day...). There are election passages in which we as individuals are also in view; that part would depend on God's foreknowledge.

    Hi SelahV,

    Yes, the privilege of gathering together is one we take far too much for granted. And praise God for your opportunities with the LDS folks. I commented on that on your blog.

  8. Very well done. We are called to community. We are as His family called to reflect Him (His character rooted in love) and that is best done through community. "They will they are mine by the way they love one another". When Jesus made the statement in Matthew 16, I believe, He was stating that "His called out ones" the people who's surname is rooted in the Father, would be built upon the reality that He was the only begotten Son and the savior of the world. Hell will not be able to prevail over the work of the cross. As such,much of the discussion going on, still nearly 3 years after this posting, is a necessary dialogue considering the place in history we now live; a post christian, post modern era. Particularly here in the west, where we have so many creature comforts and can evaluate "church success" based on the building, the numbers of people, the quality of programs etc. If The Church is to be what it is called to be, we need to be committed to being a "called out people". The expression of which must be rooted first and foremost in love. So, in that line of thinking the church is not about the building and to some degree perhaps not about the people, but about how the building functions as a gathering place for the people to mature in love, how the building functions in a place known for it's love in the larger public community and how the individual members love and honor each other and how that overflows out of the walls of the church.

    This, I think is what many are wrestling with and asking questions about regarding "what is the church? what does it mean? And these are very important questions to be asking. We are His children, so we should be different. I don;t mean that in some religious fashion. I mean we should really be different in how we engage people. Are we going after them with patience, kindness,gentleness, love and with passion. Are we making room for them to encounter the Lord on their terms or do we subtly communicate "you must change if you are going to fit in here". Do we expect them to come in our doors and other than an occasional evangelistic outreach we wait to welcome them on a Sunday or during some other special church service. Or do we go out in 2s and 3s and invest into relationship with those outside the physical and spiritual walls of the church? I think this issue is at the heart of the "Church" question. At the end of the day it is not an "either or" question to resolve is the church the people or the building. It is perhaps a "both and" answer. The church is the people and it is the place they call home too, but only if they people and the place reveal the love of the Father, that has been revealed through the Son, in real and tangible ways to the world around them. If not, than perhaps neither can be called church.

    I really enjoyed your posts. Peace to you.

  9. Very, very excellent summary, Phill! I love it. I think you're dead on, and I appreciate you coming to visit and caring enough to respond in such an in-depth way. Thanks!