When I was with Fusion I regularly taught a short course called “Church and Mission”. As an introduction I would brainstorm with the students different ways the word “church” is used. Usages such as “go” to church, which could mean a building or a service; would come up, but so would the notion of denominations such as the Anglican Church and how we use the word for congregations themselves as well as for the wider “body of Christ”. Most classes would come up with about 12 different ways in which we use the word “church”. No wonder there is confusion around what the church actually is.
Historically, our English word “church” has come to us via German and Latin from the Greek kyriakon which means, “hat which belongs to the Lord”. Originally it was an adjective, doma or oikia meaning “the Lord’s house”. That’s why we use the word for the building in which we conduct worship. However, sadly, this origin of the word “church” is not from the Bible.
In the New Testament the word we translate “church” is ekklesia, which means a public gathering, assembly or meeting. Never throughout the New Testament does ekklesia refer to a building; it only always refers to people.
It literally means a “called-out people” however there is little of this meaning found in the New Testament. Following on from the Old Testament ekklesia is used to describe the people of God assembled to worship. The ekklesia is not a “sect” that separates itself from the world, but a people of God gathering to and for the Lord in worship and fellowship so as to be formed into Christ and serve the world.
A history of redefinition
Given that the word “church” has both biblical and extra-biblical meanings it is not surprising there is some confusion about what the word means, and, that throughout history there have been various attempts to define what “church” is.
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258), suggested that “where the bishop is, there is the church”. Medieval scholars developed a dualistic notion of both the “visible” and “invisible” church. The Reformers proposed that “where scriptural doctrine is adhered to, there is the church” whereas the Anabaptists said, “where converted believers are gathered, there is the church.” Pietists (a movement within Lutheranism from late 17th to mid 18th century influenced Protestantism, Anabaptism, John Wesley and the Methodist movement and Brethrens) organised “little churches within the church” for Bible study, fellowship and prayer, here the church is a small group of committed followers. We can see elements of all these different perspectives in our different denominations.
To add to the confusion the number of Christian denominations has increased from about 1,000 to 22,000 over the past century.
The “real” church
So who or what is the “real” church? It’s not easy to define, but ultimately the “real” church is the one Christ loved and for which he gave his life. The picture we have in the book of Revelation is of the “bride of Christ” finally perfected and prepared for the final consummation. It is only in this grand finale that the church is final and completed. Until that time it is perpetually in transition experiencing transformation and change.
In other words, from its earliest beginnings until now the church has always been in the process of becoming. It remains incomplete, immature and in the process of being perfected until then. It is always changing. Living in the midst of such continual change is not easy. I believe that change, or perhaps more accurately the fear of change, is one of the greatest impediments to the ongoing development of the church.
We long for the confusion to disappear so that we can rest and retire. But Jesus does not let us. He is preparing his bride.
At Hobart Baptist, where I am in leadership, we have accepted the reality that we need to continue to change to be all God wants us to be. And yet we fear growth, we fear parting with cherished traditions, we fear dominating leaders and losing power. However, the same challenges have faced by God’s people throughout history, and are also pehaps faced by the fellowship where you worship.
Jesus is at work building his Church. It can be very confusing at times, and quite confronting. However, he is always calling us to become more and more like him. It is challenging, but as John Wimber suggested the best way to spell “faith” is “R, I, S, K”.
Stephen L Baxter