Tag Archives: What is Church?

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.

 

 

 

Thinking about Church

 

Since 2014, I’ve had ebbs and flows in my thoughts regarding the church.  When I lay aside these studies, they inevitably come back seeking further clarity and resolution until I grow weary and lay them down again.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

In that year, I was taking a seminary course called the Doctrine of the Church where we looked at every single use of “church” in the Scriptures.  Note that I didn’t simply say use of church in the New Testament.  That’s because the Greek word, ekklesia, translated church in our English Bibles (a poor translation by the way), is also in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) quite frequently.  It is a common translation of the Hebrew word qahal, which our English Bibles translate as assembly or congregation (hold on to that).

So the concept of ekklesia, or what we read translated as church, is not an entirely New Testament idea.  We must also allow the Old Testament to inform our understanding of how we define church.  Want a practical implication of this?—How often have you been taught that the church was formed at Pentecost?  Really?  Then we need to explain how the church was in the wilderness with Moses, as described by Stephen in Acts 7:38 as well as the more than 100 times ekklesia appears in the Greek Septuagint.  There is both continuity and discontinuity from Old to New Testaments regarding ekklesia.

I’ll hope to unpack all this in the future, but for now I simply want to lay out some thoughts or better, questions, much like I did in the post “Who or What determines how you worship?”  As there, so also here, the Scriptures must be our final authority.

  1. What is an ekklesia?
  2. What is the church? A building, event, identity, or other (denomination)?
  3. Does church require a building?
  4. Can we leave the church?
  5. Can you become a member of a church?
  6. Who runs the church?
  7. Is the church a 501c organization?
  8. Is the church universal?
  9. Is the church invisible?
  10. Is the church an institution?
  11. Is church history monolithic?
  12. Is Christ building His church eschatological?
  13. What does Christ intend to communicate to Peter (and us) by the statement, “Feed my sheep”?
  14. Is there a biblical distinction or hierarchy between clergy and laity?
  15. Are “pastors” the only preachers?
  16. What is preaching?
  17. What is teaching?
  18. Is pastoring a profession/vocation?
  19. Is a formal seminary education required to “pastor” or preach?
  20. Is church a worship service?
  21. Is church participatory or non-participatory?
  22. What are the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 on our churches?
  23. Where did our modern expression of church come from, Scripture or tradition?
  24. Can we build a church?
  25. Can we plant a church?

What about you?  What are you thoughts on church?  Have you thought about it with Scripture as your guide?  Have you wrestled with what you see versus what Scripture describes?  Have you ever stopped to ask, wait…now why are we doing this?

My goal is not to ask why as an end to itself.  My goal is to more conform my life to the Word of Almighty God and participate in His ekklesia as He has directed.