Defining Church: A proposal for a re-evaluation of our terminology.


I've spent some time previously discussing a new paradigm for understanding the word "church." I think our terminology has become skewed. The very quick version is that the Biblical use of the word church often refers to the body of believers in a specific city or geographic location and only rarely "card-carrying members of a four-walled church" as we tend to understand it.

Easton's Bible Dictionary says ecclesia (the word we translate as Church) is used in the following ways in the Bible:

1) Gathering or assembly in the traditional sense (Acts 19:32, 39, and 41).
2) The universal Church (all believers) (Ephesians 5:23, 25, 27, and 29; Hebrews 12:23).
3) A few Christians observing the gospel together (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15).
4) All the Christians in one city or geographic location (Matthew 16:18; Acts 8:1, 13:1; 1 Corinthians 1:2,  and 15:9; Galatians 1:13;  Revelation 2:1).

My concern is that we use the word church only in the 3rd sense mentioned above. But you'll note that the usage in such a way is actually a small percentage of the word church in the New Testament. Church is more often used to reference the Church universal or all the Christians in one city.

Therefore my proposal is that the word Church be used to reference all of the Body of Christ (that is Believers) in a city or other geographic location. The meetings that take place on Sundays usually involving teaching and worship, are good, but are not the Church, they merely a gathering thereof. And one of many types of gatherings. The gathering is important, I'm not arguing that it is of no value, simply that these places should be referred to as "places of worship" rather than "churches".

But this is not how we use the word today. Most people use the word church, as just referenced, to refer to their programs or meeting places on Sunday mornings. The colloquial usage of the word seems to be almost entirely limited to that understanding. "Where do you go to church?" Or "What did you do at church this Sunday?" or "How is your church? Do you like the people who go there?" These are all references to an actual program that takes places within specific walls, and not the body of believers in the whole of the city (or the Church universal for that matter). When most people use the word church they are thinking of a program run at a specific time in a specific location. Where you attend this program is significant to them because we've made them think it is what is all that is meant in the Bible by the word Church. But really the Church is much more than your Sunday gatherings, or even all the Sunday gatherings.

But this would be different if Church was used to reference all of the Body of Christ (Believers) in a city or other geographic location. I'm not arguing that there should be no meetings on Sundays. The word "ecclesia" means "a gathering" after all. But what happens between your walls on Sunday could be better referred to as "a place of worship." For where two are gathered you've already got ecclesia, no matter what walls our lack thereof you're standing in.

The Problem with Our Current Terminology

Whether it is stated as such or not, it is frequently implied that, "If you don't serve here, with our gathering, you aren't serving in the church." This means the ministry you do within your gifting at work to your coworkers, praying for them or whatever is not participating in "the church". This is a problem with our current terminology. And one that isn't correct or acceptable.

Recently I saw an article titled something like, "Part time church attendance". But the problem with even worrying about such a thing is that a Believer is in Christ. He is not part time in Christ. His attendance or lack thereof in your local place of worship may be a sign of a bigger issue, but easily might not be. It could be the person just doesn't thrive well in the type of programs you run. To be worried about church attendance is like being worried about school attendance. But a child can learn outside of school walls, he simply doesn't get the grades he needs or the test qualifications he needs to advance in school unless he attends. But the Church is not the same. The qualifications and the tests a believer needs to grow in his faith are not tied to his program attendance. Because the one who qualifies the Believer is Christ, not the pastor. As long as the person is in regular community with believers his Sunday morning attendance is demonstrative of nothing.

Another problem with calling our meeting locations the church is it confuses our understanding of the word pastor. In our current terminology, pastors are leaders of "the church" and therefore in some sense have arrived. But pastors are just preachers or teachers in the Church at large. They may have a specific place to practice those gifts, an audience that listens; but the man who preaches to his friends over a beer or at the Thursday night wings restaurant is also a teacher and sometimes preacher. He's operating in his gifting, he's blessing the Church the same as the man who has podium and speaks before pews. One is not greater than the other. The language we've used has confused that.

There is the issue of the term "para-church" (disclosure: I work for a "para-church" organization, this has certainly shaped some of my thinking). But what is the para-church except the Church operating outside of specific walls or sometimes denominational boundaries? Para-church organizations, as well as just believers in general, are filled with preachers without podiums (but that doesn't make them any less a preacher), evangelists without the title of Missions Pastor (but that doesn't make them any less evangelists), elders without a church board (but their elding is no less significant), and servants without church floors to mop (but their service to the Church is no less important). The programs being run are not what makes the Church the Church. The Church is the Church because of Christ. Sunday morning, Tuesday night, Wednesday at midnight, it doesn't matter the way we've defined it.

Our terminology has led us to believe (whether we say it not), "where two or more are gathered in a building we've called a church, there God is with them." Rather than simply, "where two or more are gathered."

It's led us to believe that Jesus said, "And whenever you eat of this bread and drink of this wine as imparted by an ordained priest (however your denomination should choose to do that) in a church building on Sunday mornings, remember me." Rather than, "whenever you eat of this bread and drink of this wine."

And our terminology has led us to elevate people practicing their gifts (read: God-given roles) within certain walls during certain hours on Sunday mornings, above those who are living out their gifting everywhere else.

Implications of a Change

Should the terminology be changed, and our understanding altered, the implications would be significant

1) We would see other places of worship as part of the Church, not as competing churches.

2) Other pastors would be percieved as other shepherd teachers rather than competing church leaders.

3) An elder with the gifts of an elder in speaking with authority in to people's lives could be living out his gifting at one place of worship most of the time, but occasionally be a big blessing to other places of worship.

4) Authority for elders and pastors would come from the Lord rather than be ascribed to them by the people in his place of worship because of his seminary degrees or history climbing a hierarchical ladder. People need to respect their pastors and elders, but they do not give them the authority to pastor and eld. That authority comes form the Lord alone.

5) Traveling preachers fit a role as preachers that happen to travel, not as sheepless shepherds.

6) The para-church is simply another part of the church that either lacks places of worship or tends to do worship at non-traditional times.

7) Finally the church planter is no longer the awesomest guy around. He is simply someone who organizes one of many places of worship. Not an up and coming 'leader' of the church.

The Church only has one Head and that is Christ. I think our terminology has caused many of us to merely keep that as a good sounding theory, when really we believe our pastors to be the head.

We need a change of terminology because the Church is an institution founded by God; it is the body of Christ. But right now when we say 'church' we mean the programs and institutions founded and run by man between four walls on a Sunday morning.

These are not the same thing.

The word church can refer to a small gathering of believers. But it is not the exclusive meaning of the word as we have used it. I propose this change not because it is a massive shift in our thinking (in my opinion it's not particularly radical), but because it would help us understand the word Church is used (and even primarily so) in other ways in the New Testament than we usually use it.

Carefully guarding our understanding of the Church is fundamental to our functioning as the Church.

p.s. This is something I've been chewing on for some time and have just now finally nailed down concretely enough to write out. I'm very curious about feedback. If you respond to this in a post, or just have some thoughts you would like to share via email please email me.