I love the Church. Unfortunately, the word ‘Church’ drives me crazy. Now, before you start throwing stuff at me and screaming about how I must not care about what the Bible says because the Bible uses the word ‘Church’ all throughout it, let me explain myself.
The New Testament does not use the word ‘Church’ at all. English translations of the New Testament use that word. The original Greek though, uses the word ‘Ekklesia.’ So why does this matter? Am I just splitting hairs? Do I just want to be pretentious by focusing on the Greek word?
Not at all. I believe there are real issues with the English word ‘Church’ that need to be understood and addressed.
This isn’t a theoretical discussion. It’s an immensely practical one.
So, here are three reasons I don’t like the word ‘Church.’
#1 – The Word ‘Church’ Hides Continuity with the Old Testament
We normally think of the word ‘Church’ as being a peculiarly New Testament word. And we’d be right if we were to examine the average English Bible. But what many people don’t realize is that the Greek word which we translate ‘Church’ is used extensively in the Old Testament Septuagint (the Greek form of the Old Testament). When Paul or Peter (or any early Jews) heard the word ‘Ekklesia‘, they would not have thought of something novel. Their minds would almost certainly have gone to the Old Testament.
Throughout the Greek Old Testament, the people of Israel are called the ‘Ekklesia.’ Sometimes the phrase ‘Ekklesia of the Lord’ is used. Other times ‘Ekklesia of Israel.’ And at least one time, ‘Ekklesia of the people of God.’ In other words, ‘Ekklesia‘ was neither the word for a building or a denominational title. At its most basic, it was simply a word for an assembly of people. Though the Old Testament usually used it to refer to the gathered people of God.
Since the word ‘Church’ doesn’t appear in our English Old Testaments, when we read it in Paul’s letters (or elsewhere) we assume that it’s an altogether new thing rather than something that has grown from roots laid down deep in the Old Testament. In other words, when Paul wrote to the “church of God that is in Corinth”, he wasn’t addressing his letter to a building that had ‘Church of God in Corinth’ on its sign. He was using a phrase, borrowed from the Old Testament, to address God’s gathered people in the city of Corinth. That’s it.
Many modern Christians pit the ‘Church’ versus ‘Israel’ – as if they’re at odds. But the early Christians would have understood both of these terms as largely referring to the same idea. Both words refer to God’s people. Though you’d never know it if you only read English Bibles because the word ‘Church’ hides the continuity between the Old and New Testaments on this issue.
#2 -Its Multiple Meanings Lead to Confusion
Probably the most confusing thing about the word ‘Church’ is that it’s used in three different and distinct ways.
First, it’s used to refer to the entire body of Christ – all who have pledged allegiance to God’s son and who are now part of his Kingdom. We see this clearly, for example, when Paul writes that Christ “is the head of the body, the church…” (Colossians 1:18). This is, what has sometimes been called, the invisible Church. And it includes genuine believers whether they attend Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, or any other congregations. When we use ‘Church’ in this way, we acknowledge that there’s only one. Christ only has one body. And there’s only one invisible Church.
This leads us to the second way people use the word ‘Church’: as referring to a particular congregation. In this sense, there’s my church and your church. There’s the Baptist Church and the Methodist Church. There are thousands and thousands of these kind of churches. A much better word to use when referring to a particular church is ‘congregation.’
Finally, people also use ‘Church’ to refer to a kind of building where Christians gather and worship God. I’ve sometimes heard people say, “You can’t go to church. You have to be the Church.” I understand the sentiment but that’s just not true. We can go to church. Because the word ‘church’ can mean a particular kind of building. Same word – different meanings. But the fact that we use the same word to refer to three distinct things does create confusion.
So to summarize, the Church has individual churches which meet in churches. Do you see why this is confusing?
#3 – It Lacks the Internal Meaning its Greek Counterpart Has
One of the truly beautiful things about the Greek word ‘Ekklesia’ is its inherent, internal meaning. Its a compound word made up of the words ‘Called’ and ‘Out Of.’ So the Ekklesia could be defined by its component parts as ‘the Called Out Ones.’ And that is what the Body of Christ is – a group of people who have been called and sanctified by God. The very word evokes a sense of separateness from the world’s culture and values.
This isn’t as important as the two issues above but it’s one of the reasons I personally am not a fan of the word ‘Church.’
So some people might ask, ‘Can we change a word we’ve been using for hundreds of years? And does it really matter that much, anyway?’
I would argue, ‘Yes.’ The confusion created by the word ‘Church’ has had a negative impact on many people’s beliefs about the Church. Words matter.
So what would I propose? Well, I believe one of the easiest things we can do, is to differentiate between the three definitions of ‘Church’ by using three separate terms. I do my best to only use the word ‘Church’ to refer to the Body of Christ – the Church Universal. I use the word ‘Congregation’ to refer to individual churches. And I’ve been thinking about introducing the term ‘Meeting House’ as an appropriate replacement for ‘church’ as a building. I believe if we could start changing the terminology, some of the confusion would clear up on its own. And then the sentence ‘the Church has individual churches which meet in churches’ would make more sense because it would read ‘the Church has individual congregations which meet in meeting houses.’ Doesn’t that sound better?
In addition, we need to be aware of the fact that ‘the Church’ is not a New Testament invention. When we’re reading the Old Testament and we come across phrases like ‘Assembly of the Lord’ or ‘Assembly of Israel’ or ‘Assembly of the People of God’, we should remember that this is the same word Paul uses when he writes to the ‘Church of God.’ Simply being aware of this fact will go a long way to seeing the continuity between God’s people in the Old and New Testaments.