Tag Archives: What is Church?

Is This Church

 

It’s not often that I comment or interact with other blogs, but one I recently read fit so well with a recent post of my own, that it called for interaction.  My lane is exposition of Scripture, particularly that expressed in the form of devotions or meditations.  When I change out of that lane, even with posts on historical theology, it can become a long, drawn out mess.  I’ll do my best, but make no promises, especially with the length of this post (2000+ words!).  Hopefully in the end, the value of the interaction will be evident.

Having said that, a post linked by a popular blog: A la Carte – January 17 was directly related to the post I made on the principles of Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship.  In fact, the post nearly makes my point for me,  but not because we necessarily agree.  If you read that post, recall that the point I attempted to make was to highlight how those two principles should be the lenses through which we determine what a healthy church is, or what a church is at all for that matter.

In the post linked above, Tony Payne, founder of Matthias Media and co-author of the helpful book The Trellis and the Vine, uses an illustration of an elderly relative visiting his church for how our churches may differ and how they have evolved since the New Testament.  At the conclusion of this particular worship service, his relative was asked if she had enjoyed it, to which she declared, “This is not a real church”.  Payne suggests this may have been due to it lacking her traditional preferences for what constitutes a church, which includes, “prayer book service, the fact that we didn’t celebrate Holy Communion on that particular morning, the absence of organ music, or the general want of a quiet, ‘churchy’ atmosphere about the place. ”  This led Payne to consider the following questions concerning his own church’s worship service in comparison to the experiences that his elderly relative might have been more familiar with

“In one sense, it was quite true: many of the elements that a previous generation would have closely associated with ‘real church’ had been stripped away or changed beyond recognition in our congregational gatherings. Had we stripped away too much? Or, to think about it the other way, how much can you strip away and still have a real church? If we were to apply Ockham’s Razor to church, what would be left standing?”

I suppose Payne’s dilemma is not isolated to his own geographical church, or even the expressions of church in the 21st Century.  In fact, I too recently had a similar experience where I would’ve been the “elderly” relative that visited a much more contemporary worship service than the one that I typically attend.  In fact, my own wrestling with what constitutes a church service frothed over in the middle of this service and birthed the Sola Scriptura/RPW post.  It was the product of several years of thought given to this on-going, internal wrestling with what constitutes the gathering of God’s people.

Returning to Payne’s article, the next two paragraphs summarize the heart of what he is suggesting with the philosophical reference to Ockham’s Razor made above.  Ockham’s Razor basically suggests that given two options, the simplest is the most obvious or better choice.  As applied to what he is about to suggest with regards to church, what happens if we simplify it?  Contrary to this philosophical application, I want to suggest, instead of the unbiblical notion of Ockham’s Razor applied to church, what if we applied Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle?

Here is Payne’s thesis:

Let’s try this thought experiment: can we assume that the churches of the New Testament were real Christian churches, lacking nothing essential? If so, what could we ‘lop off’ our current practice of church life and still have a genuine Christian assembly (or ‘church’)?

Let’s mention the obvious ones first: no special religious buildings, no denominations, no territorial bishops, overseers or presbyteries responsible for a group of congregations, no committees, no constitutions, no weekly bulletin sheet, no announcements and no hymnbooks. So far, so easy. I’m not saying that these things are necessarily wrong or bad; they are just clearly not of the essence of what the church really is or what it needs to function well, since the New Testament had a perfectly complete experience of church without (as far as we know) any of them. And thus it would be very possible today to have a full and complete experience of Christian church, in which nothing is lacking, without any of these things.

He presses this idea further in the next two paragraphs, which themselves are worthy of full citation

What else is absent in the New Testament church that we might start to regard as a little more essential? We don’t find evidence of set prayers and orders of liturgy, for a start. There is also no evidence of the word or concept of ‘worship’ being applied to what New Testament Christians did in their gatherings. It is shocking, I know, but there are no worship services in the New Testament. In fact, there weren’t any ‘churches’ either—by which I mean that there wasn’t a special religious or Christian word used to describe Christian gatherings. They were not a new species of religious thing called a ‘church’; they were just ‘gatherings’ or ‘assemblies’, but Christian ones.

We also find no example or imperative for Sunday being the ‘right’ day on which we should meet, or any other day, for that matter. We know they met regularly, but in what configuration and frequency we aren’t sure. In fact, we struggle to find any distinction between a regular large gathering of the congregation (what we would call the Sunday Service) and any smaller gatherings that may or may not have taken place (what we would call ‘home Bible study groups’). We find no formal system of church membership, nor any set procedure or system for the structuring of leadership and governance within the congregation. (Certainly, New Testament Christians belonged to or were ‘members of’ particular congregations, and these congregations were led and governed; I am simply saying that we know next to nothing about the structures, procedures and practices of membership and leadership. So a particular model of membership or leadership—whether it be the Anglican, Presbyterian or Baptist models—is not of the essence of church.)

The reason why I’ve quoted him so extensively is because I want to clearly present the argument he is making.  Payne is saying let’s strip away everything we’ve come to know and expect from our traditional “worship services” down to what the New Testament describes and see if what we have left could in any real way be called a “church”.  The principle that is driving this, for him, is Ockham’s Razor, i.e. simpler is better.  In my previous post and in others, I am suggesting the exact same thing as Payne, only my driving principle is Sola Scriptura and its derivative The Regulative Principle of Worship.

Let’s see what Payne concludes.

Before proceeding, he adds the following caveat, “Let me make sure I am not misunderstood: I am not for a minute suggesting that we attempt to recreate a complete, working model of a New Testament church”.   This caveat seems important.  Payne is suggesting that we examine our current practices in light of what the New Testament describes, but then says we should not attempt to use that as a model.  He suggests that doing so is a return to “primitivism”.  Instead, he is saying that this exercise is just a thought experiment to see  how many “extra-biblical details, structures, and practices” have been added to our concept of church.  I’m a little troubled by the “primitivism” comment, because it comes off a little too “evolved” for my tastes, as though the New Testament church was either ignorant or undeveloped on what a real church should look like.  My questions for Payne would be, “Has God commanded how He is to be worshiped?  If so, who gave us permission or liberty to add the ‘extra-biblical details, structures, and practices’?  Does the New Testament provide a model for a church?  And if so, is this model sufficient for us? ”

I’m proposing that given their proximity to Christ, their relationship with the Apostolic ministry, and what is recorded for us in God’s Word about their practices, they are not “primitive”, but instead are exemplary.  Though we are suggesting the same “thought-experiment”, Payne and I are driven from different motivations and certainly arrive at different conclusions.

Here are his concluding statements

Well, here’s what Ockham’s Razor has reduced us to: we could have a group of Christian people (of any size), with a qualified elder or overseer (or more than one, appointed or elected, we care not how), meeting in the name and presence of Christ in any location, at any time of day, on any day of the week, with any frequency (so long as it was regular and often), at which time they spoke and heard God’s word together (through Bible reading, preaching/teaching, prophetic encouragement, etc.), and responded in prayer and thanksgiving, with the result that God is glorified in Christ and the people edified.

Again, let me be clear.  I am suggesting the exact same thought-experiment as Payne, strip down all of the traditions and pragmatic layers that have crept in and clouded our notions of what a church should be, down to the foundation of the New Testament church and then see what we have.  This bare-bones foundation is what he summarizes in the paragraph above.

The difference in our theses is that Payne sees this stripped down model as the product of philosophy, Ockham’s Razor, and has no desire to pursue what he’s found.  I am suggesting that this stripped down model is the product of Scriptural Authority, namely Sola Scriptura and specifically how it applies to our worship as defined by The Regulative Principal of Worship, which as a reminder states that whatever is not commanded by God, or given as an example, in worship, is strictly prohibited.  If this stripped down model is what God has either commanded or given as an example, then who are we to add or subtract from it in the name of preference.  With a little more nuance (as perhaps defined by 1 Corinthians 11-14), I would agree with the assessment that Payne has made on what the New Testament church “basically” looked like .

His concluding paragraph highlights both our agreements and our differences

You might want to describe this ‘cut down’ New Testament church a little differently, or add extra things. But here’s the point: what things do you currently regard as of the absolute essence of church—things without which you could not imagine church being ‘real church’—things that, in fact, are accidental, traditional or cultural details that could be otherwise? And could any of these things be changed if the times, seasons, purposes and circumstances of your fellowship suggested that they should be?

Payne is asking the right questions, but the basis for how one answers, according to his reasoning above, would circle the church-wagon back to big three: preference, pragmatism, or tradition.  Following this out logically, we would arrive at exactly the same conclusion that his elderly relative did, “This is not a real church” for anything different than what we were used to.

Where Payne fails in his thesis is his failure to address and apply the authority of Scripture, though perhaps this error is made unwittingly, I do not want to judge him in this matter.  I’m sure if he were asked if he holds to Sola Scriptura, he would answer in the affirmative, as so many professing evangelicals would.  The difficulty is when you actually have to put that into practice, particularly when it goes against the big three.  We far too easily fall off of the path that Scripture has provided and take our own paths of preference or tradition.

Here is my own concluding statement.  I’m suggesting that the New Testament provides exactly what a real church should look like.  If this is true, then it is incumbent upon us to move from a “thought-experiment” to putting what we have found into practice.  The problem is, are we faithful enough to evaluate our current practices in the light of Scripture; obedient enough to put what we find into practice; and courageous enough to stand firm in the face of criticisms, even when they come from other professing Christians?

The Meaning of Church

 

In this series on the study of church, we began with a look at some questions regarding the common understanding/misunderstanding for the usage of the word church.  Then we looked at some modern conceptions of church, or what has come to be some traditional definitions of church.  Here, we will add another layer to that by asking if our societal usage of church corresponds with it’s meaning.  Next time we’ll explore the relationship between church and it’s original Greek counterpart, ekklesia.

Recall that in our previous post, we summarized some of the more common societal uses of church as follows:

  • A religious building
  • A religious organization (may or may not be truly Christian)
  • A religious meeting
  • A religious people
  • A religious institution
  • A recurring religious event
  • A particular religious denomination
  • A tax-exempt religious business

We turn now to the origin and meaning of church.

The origin of our English word church is difficult to pin down.  Some state it is a derivative of the Greek word kurios, which we often find translated as Lord.  Following this theory, the specific derivation of this word, kuriakon in Revelation1:10, is of particular interest (see also 1 Corinthians 11:20).  Here we see John was in the Spirit on the “Lord’s Day”, kuriakon hemera, or the day that belongs to the Lord. As most words do, kuriakon underwent some changes when it was imported (transliterated – alphabetic equivalence) into other languages, first being shortened to kuriak.  Then depending on the dialect differences became kurk and eventually kirk (Scottish origin).  Once in English, kirk became church.  So, in summary kuriakon eventually became “church” and generally means belonging to the Lord.

Similarly, another theory is the relationship between church and kuriakos, a compound word of kurios (lord) and oikos (house) and came to mean the “house of the Lord”.  One can see that this meaning could have a dual application, both spiritually as a people comprising the house of the Lord and architecturally, i.e. a building, as in similarity to the temple of God in the Old Testament.  Logically, this is why some church buildings have a “sanctuary”.

However, others have disagreed with these etymologies stating instead that the origin of church is not rooted in Greek, but is Celtic and is derived from the word “cyrch”, or circle, and that this is how we arrived at kirk upon which church is derived following the pattern in the previous two theories.

Along this same line of thought, in the German world, the origin of church is sometimes traced through such words as kirche and kerk, derived from the Latin circa, circumcicare, circulus, even circus!  (Has your experience with church been a circus?!?)  It should be pointed out that Martin Luther disliked the word kirche, using it sparingly in his translation of the Scriptures, in reference to pagan shrines in the Old Testament and the dedication feast at the temple in John 10:22.  He preferred “the congregation of the saints as the people or company of God.” (TDNT, Kittle, pg. 534)   In the revised Lutheran Bible and its related concordance, the word kirche (church), is not found at all.

Regardless of the exact origin, it’s clear that church generally means belonging to the Lord, either as a reference to His people or a particular place of worship.  Clearly, church carries with it a religious connotation, as noted in its meaning and confirmed in our societal uses listed above.

So far so good, right?

It’s easy to see the relationship of society’s usage of church to its meaning.  Perhaps some expansion of the meaning has led to some misapplication of the word, as in applying it to a people/building that do not belong to the Lord in a salvific sense, but this is not entirely unusual.  In other words, societies usage and understanding of the word church corresponds with its accepted meaning, generally speaking.

The question that needs to be asked next is whether this word church, as properly defined, is an appropriate translation of the Greek word ekklesia.

 

What is Church?

 

What is Church? (notice I’ve left out the article “the” commonly placed in front, The church)

Since 2014, this is a question that I have been wrestling with, wading through the slough of opinions and the trappings of tradition to look at what Scripture has to say.  Some have considered this to be an inappropriate question to even consider, yet it is the same question asked by James Bannerman in his magnum opus The Church of Christ and it is the same question asked by Edmund Clowney in his own study of the Doctrine of the Church.  Pick up any systematic theology, turn to the chapter on church, and they’ll begin with the same question-any proper study of the Church must begin with this question.  In fact, on a more basic, practical level, every believer must ask and further define this question based on Scripture to know what it is they are to participate in and how.

Why is it important?  Understanding this question and answering it according to Scripture determines whether you are Roman Catholic or Protestant or other for that matter.  It determines whether you include as God’s people: all of the elect of God, or simply those post-Pentecost, i.e. whether there are Two Peoples or One People of God.  It determines what denomination you identify with and whether you believe in credo-baptism vs. paedo-baptism.  It answers whether the church is the Kingdom.  If you are a Millennial and have “left the church”, properly answering this question lets you know your actions are an impossibility.  It brings resolution to many of the dichotomies that exist in matters of religion, particularly those who identify with or at least outwardly profess Christ.

On a practical level, a dear friend of mine recently left Christianity for the Roman Catholic Church (<–see that?) because she thought the church out of Rome was more biblical because it was older, historic, and built upon the apostles (no, no, and no).  Further, the “Bible Answer Man” recently left Christianity for the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church (<–see that again?) because he too came to view the answer to “What is church?” as being in-line with the EOCC.  In just these examples, the creep of tradition is evident.

Asking this question matters.  Answering it biblically matters more.

We may be easily tempted to shrug off a question like this or to simply assume that church is what it has always been.  But notice how that assumption played out in the examples above.

What if our modern conception of church, i.e. what we see and have experienced, is not what Scripture has defined?  Then what?  What if over the centuries we have, perhaps even unknowingly, allowed the layers of tradition to creep in and obscure what church really is or supposed to be?  I would suggest that largely our individual understanding of church has most often been influenced by our experience, followed closely by society, with Scripture well down the line behind family and preference.

Case in point, consider how you would answer the following questions:

  • Is church primarily a location? (architectural)
  • Is church primarily an event? (institutional)
  • Is church primarily an identity? (congregational)
  • Or is it a combination of all three?

The source for answering these questions should be Scripture, as the final authority in matters of faith and practice (Sola Scriptura) and where we should turn principally.  But what happens if we do that and find something different than what we are used to seeing?  Are we willing to change what we think and do to be more inline with what God has revealed?  If we find this to be the case, it would require a certain amount of swimming upstream, against the popular tide and we know the purpose of salmon swimming upstream.

Consider now how we use the word church particularly in the West.  What church do you go to?  Did you go to church on  Sunday?  How was church this morning?  We are just getting out of church.  Would you like to go to church with me?  There’s Purpose-Driven Church,  The Emerging Church, the aforementioned Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, the Mormon (LDS) Church, The Church of England, the Southern Baptist Church, the Ecumenical Church. We build churches, plant churches, reform and revitalize churches.  We have un-churched, de-churched, and churched.  As I look out my window at work I see 5 “churches”.  If I were to ask someone to walk down the block to the next church, they would stop at a building.  Relatedly, we have terms like church staff, church secretary, church membership, someone who cleans the church, church maintenance, church budget, church mortgage, and increasingly popular is the notion that an individual can be the church….and on we go.  The variety and meaning with which we use the word church is broad.  Just simply look at the dictionary definition used in the post header.

Perhaps we have let our use of the word church determine its meaning, not all to uncommon these days where we can make words mean what we want. Contrary to this thought, words do have defined meaning and origin.  This is true across the board, but most certainly with biblical words, sometimes those found in our translations, but more importantly those found in the original biblical languages.  A wise man once told my my interpretation is only as good as my translation.  A thought to ponder for another day.

Before we take time to examine the etymology of church and more importantly how it is defined in Scripture, simply consider whether this question is an important one to raise.  Is it important for us to know what (or who) church is?  Is it important for us to biblically define what many of us have been apart of for most of our lives?

An additional reason for why this question matters is that it effects how one addresses these points on the form and function of church:

  • The mission of church
  • The governance of church
  • The people of church
  • The “marks” of church
  • The order or operation of church

Each of these depends on properly answering the question, what is church?

In summary, can we come up with a loose understanding of what church is based on some of the scattered thoughts above about how church is used in our modern vernacular?  It may look something like below:

Church is _______________

  • A religious building
  • A religious organization (may or may not be truly Christian)
  • A religious meeting
  • A religious people
  • A religious institution
  • A recurring religious event
  • A particular religious denomination
  • A tax-exempt religious business

*Note: I’ve simply used the word “religious” to highlight that church is never used in a generic sense (or at least rarely), but that it carries a certain religious connotation.  This isn’t a post about Jesus being anti-religion or that Christianity is about a relationship and not a religion.*

In the next post, we’ll look at the origin of the word church and whether or not its usage corresponds with the Greek word ekklesia, translated as as church in the English bibles.