'Ah Church. It's bigger
Church—it’s a common enough word. Everyone knows what we mean when we say church, right? Perhaps, but I think the way we use the word often takes away from it’s meaning and hides what the word church really says about us as Christians.
Often when the word church is used, it refers to a building. “That’s a pretty church” is clearly a statement about a building. Church can also mean a non-profit organization, as in “We just switched our membership to a different church.”
The Bible uses the word church differently and a church is limited to neither a building, nor a given organization in a specific place.
In the Ancient Greek, in which the New Testament was written, the word for church is ekklesia. The very literal meaning of the word is “called out” and it was used to describe any sort of public assembly. Of the more than 100 uses in the New Testament of the word ekklesia, most refer specifically to a community of Christians in a given place or a group of Christians gathered for worship.
The word ekklesia never refers to a building in the Bible as buildings dedicated to worship (such as the Temple in Jerusalem) were rare and were non-existent for Christian worship. The ekklesia, or church, was a group of people called out from the world around them and gathered together to worship God. They might gather in someone’s home, but it was the people rather than the house that was seen as being the church.
A church is a group of people. The church is not a building. The church building is the place where a church meets.
This was brought home for me by a recent cover story in a denominational magazine. On the cover was a photo of a roofless church. The headline read “Church destroyed by tornado.” The article inside told of how the people gathered at the church with the storm still in the distance to save what they could from the building. They arranged to meet elsewhere for worship and soon after the storm; they were working quite industriously toward rebuilding the building.
It read like the tornado had destroyed a building and brought a church together in the process. Even if the building had been a total loss, the church would have still proved storm-proof. The church is the people, not the building.
Taking a broader view of the word church, it does not just refer to one little community separate from all other Christians. Each individual congregation is part of the whole church. As we worship one Lord, each church is connected in a more essential way than we are separate. This is why the church is sometimes described as catholic. Catholic with a little “C” does not refer to one denomination. The word “catholic” means universal. The Roman Catholic Church is a denomination, but the catholic church is the universal church, the whole Body of Christ.
Paul’s writings about the Body of Christ are important on this point. Just as in a congregation you need persons with different gifts for the body to be whole, so the worldwide church may need differences to be whole. The emphases of different churches may well balance one another out.
I am a catholic enough Christian (meaning I like what different denominations have to offer) that I wish we could benefit more from each other. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be Baptist long enough to come forward at an altar call and get saved. Methodist long enough to sing hymns at a camp meeting. African Methodist Episcopal long enough to hear some really fired up preaching. Episcopal long enough to really struggle with the questions of faith. Lutheran or Presbyterian long enough to take doctrine seriously. Roman Catholic long enough to get a zeal for social justice issues. Pentecostal long enough to put spirit in worship. And the list could go on and on.
What I have written about denominations above is a series of caricatures and each denomination offers much more than those things for which I have given them credit. The point is that all our separate enclaves of Sunday worship are part of a whole that is greater than any of the parts. And it is that whole Christian Church that the Book of Revelation refers to as the Bride of Christ.
So the church is the people, not a building. And while church may refer to one congregation, it is also a much bigger idea. The word church additionally refers to the universal church, that entity that is thankfully bigger than any of us alone.
Because the church is made up of us regular old, sinful humans, the church can cause some hurts and leave emotional scars. Yet, in the ways in which the people of God who make up that church live out the love God has shown for us, that church is the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Even though I love my denomination, I wouldn’t waste ten minutes of my time on growing the Episcopal Church. But I will give my life to advance the Kingdom of God and that means giving my life for Christ’s church.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526