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That Confusing Thing We Call Ourselves

The word that we generally use to describe a gathering of Christians comes from kuriakē oikia—in Greek, “house of the Lord.” The first word of the phrase, kuriakē, through a series of linguistic evolutions whose intermediate you can spot in the Scottish “kirk”, eventually became the English “church”.

It’s not the term the Bible uses for the church: the New Testament term is ekklēsia, a called assembly. This word doesn’t have a cognate in English but it is the root word in the romance languages—Iglesia in Spanish, église in French, chiesa in Italian.

It isn’t the word’s origins that should concern us but the confusing ways we use it. In ordinary conversation “church” can mean:

1.       A congregation: “Our church has 225 members.”

2.       A worship service: “I couldn’t stay awake in church today.”

3.       A building in which we hold religious services: “We’re painting and recarpeting the church.”

4.       The church universal: “The church is growing in China among many denominations.”

5.       A Christian denomination: “I’m a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”

Ekklēsia, the New Testament word for church, is closest to the first meaning—a local assembly. Peter may be drawing on the etymology of ekklēsia—‘ek’ meaning ‘out’ and ‘kaleo’ meaning to ‘call’when he says we’re a group specially called into the light by God (1 Peter 2:9). But in fact it’s not, even in scripture, a specifically religious word: when the Ephesian silversmiths got angry with Paul for saying that their shrines to Artemis were worthless, they talk about calling an ekklēsia (Acts 19:32,39)—a town meeting.

That Paul (who uses ekklēsia most often) adopted a fairly common word of the polis for Christian gatherings might tell us something about the character of a church. First, it’s local. It’s possible to call out for a meeting people from all over the world, but it’s not what we do every week. The people in the kinds of congregations Paul speaks about know one another—confirmed by Paul’s frequent admonitions for church member to care personally for one another (e.g., Galatians 6:2).

Second, it’s a gathering, not a privileged rite. We should see in it some of the egalitarian character of town meetings, where anyone can, within reason, participate. Specifically, it would seem to confute the Roman Catholic view of church as an event whose value derives from holy spaces, vessels, bread and wine, works of art, and men, kept separate from mostly passive congregants. Depending on how democratic you want to be, it may even call into question the necessity of a professional clergy: remember Jesus’ approval of any two or three gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20), ordained or not.

It’s easy to see how the second and third meanings grew out of the first. If the church is an assembly for the purpose of worship, then we’re doing church when we assemble. And the place we assemble is, of course, our building—the kuriakē oikia.

This latter should at least be examined, for there’s no indication of church buildings in the New Testament. Christians appeared to worship in houses (1 Corinthians 16:19) or outdoors (Acts 16:14). A purpose-built religious building is characteristic of what came before—temples and synagogues—and what came after—the colossal show-off structures of the Roman church—but not of the apostolic Christian church.

Is there any significance to our English word “church” deriving from kuriakē oikia, the house of God, when the apostles were careful to dismiss the notion that God has a dwelling (Acts 7:48)? Probably not, though buildings have become excessively important to congregations, such that some congregations put more of their investment in bricks than in people. I enjoy beautiful church buildings, but I also think it’s a good sign that there’s a growing house church movement in our denomination and elsewhere that is trying to establish congregations without purpose-built buildings.

The New Testament appears to acknowledge a sort of universal church or invisible church, a church that isn’t, for want of a better word, organized. But that’s not the ekklēsia. The only ekklēsia in the New Testament is a local gathering of believers. Paul’s metaphor for all Christians in the world is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), or the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33) and the church at this level is Christ’s domain. What we are to do with that—beyond realizing that we aren’t the only Christians, should we think we are—isn’t clear, except that I don’t see in these metaphors any expectation that everyone be brought under one centralized church government in Rome or Silver Spring.

The last use of “church” is perhaps the least accurate, mostly because the concept of a Christian denomination can only be traced back to the Protestant Reformation. There were parties in the early church (Paul didn’t like them—1 Corinthians 1:12), but nothing corresponding to modern denominations, groups that keep a membership roster and exclude others from their communion (which Ephesians 4:5 seems to discourage altogether). For the next 15 centuries the main body of Christianity was the bloated, often corrupt Christian church with its headquarters in Rome. Furthermore the kind of organization we associate with denominationalism today—charters, by-laws, conferences—really came into its own in the American democracy. Today we still use the language of American democracy in running our denomination. Why, for example, are our leaders presidents instead of the Biblical episkopos?

It’s interesting to me that most Protestant groups organized themselves in similar ways to the church they left. Still, we Adventists have outdone the rest of the Protestant world in centralization and structure, probably because of something we share with our traditional archenemy the Roman Catholic church: a need for a high level of organizational control.

As for the word “church,” for each of the five uses I gave above, there’s a more accurate word. The local church group should properly be the congregation. The service it holds is worship. The church building may have the best historical claim on the English word “church,” but “sanctuary” would be less confusing. The Body of Christ can be the church universal (we Adventists shun small-c “catholic”, even though it means the same thing) or simply Christianity.

It seems to me denominations should be most cautious about referring to themselves as “church”, for a denomination is more of a political entity than a spiritual one. Adopting the word for our group might then suggest that no Christian group other than ours is legitimate in God’s eyes, or that we recognize no one as part of the body of Christ except us—an idea for which it would be nearly impossible to make a Biblical case.

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