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.