Monday, April 5, 2010

A Church By Any Other Name

Nearly every person in the world who claims Christian faith at any level went to church yesterday. On that day at least,very few believers went to a park to meet with their believing friends or just hung out with fellow Christians at Starbucks. Whatever they do throughout the year, yesterday they were at church.

I know. I already have some of your hackles up. You’re ticked off at me for equating church attendance with piety.

But if you’re going to be mad at the way I define church, then you ought to at least read far enough to figure out why you disagree with me. After all, you don’t want to disagree with me just to be cool and fit it with everyone else that’s mad about church.

What is “church” anyway?

Say the word “church” and most people will think of a stone building with a steeple.
Others think about the Sunday gathering where they worship.

A few will think of Biblical phrases such as “the body of Christ”, “the communion of saints”, or “the pillar and ground of truth”.

The word “church” calls up all sorts of images and definitions.
Some of this is the result of linguistics.

The English word “church” derives from the German: “kirke.” Evidently, ancient German-speaking pagans heard Christians in worship repeating the word “kyrie,” Greek for “Lord”. Soon, Germans were calling the building where Christians worshipped a “kirke.” In time, most Germanic languages adopted that word to refer both to the mystical body of Christ and the building where Christians worshipped.

Early Christians did not use the same word to mean both their spiritual community and the building where they met. They met wherever they could, often in synagogues, but also in private homes, marketplaces and public gathering places. The Greek word they used to refer to their spiritual community was “ekkesia,” from which the Spanish word “iglesia” derives. The word meant “assembly,” or “people called out.” It was nearly synonymous with the word “synagogue,” which is what Jews called the buildings in which they met to study and pray.

The English word, “church” covers a lot of ground then! It can be a building, a spiritual community, a denomination, or the Christian community of a given area. To specify the meaning we have in mind, it would help to attach modifiers to the word “church.

When we mean the building where we met to worship and study, we could say, “church building.” When we mean a local body of believers, we could say “local church.” When we mean the Body of Christ, we could say, “the church catholic,” or “the universal church.”

Whatever we mean by the word “church,” it has become popular now, even within Christian circles, to mock its usefulness. We have brought some of this on ourselves. Many Christian leaders have not acted very responsibly the last few decades.

But is it possible to love the Lord without honoring His Church? Does the Bible ever insinuate that a believer can have a meaningful spiritual life without the church?

Perhaps another question would help: is the church a name we give to a collection of Christian believers or is it something that God created before there even were any believers? Do believers create churches or do churches create believers?

Consider this quote from G. K. Chesterton:
“When we belong to the Church we belong to something which is outside all of us; which is outside everything you talk about, outside cardinals and popes (and pastors, evangelists and prophets.) They belong to it, but it does not belong to them. If we all fell dead suddenly, the Church would still somehow exist in God”.

That statement is so naughty! I’m not sure it’s even legal to say such a thing nowadays.

We feel free these days to create and recreate churches to meet our felt needs. We change churches like we do supermarkets – the new one carries Zippo Crisps!

On the other hand, the churches compete for market share by setting clowns on fire and filling the air with parachuting dogs carrying American flags. Carnivals that masquerade as churches don’t talk about suffering, sinning or sodomy. They sing happy songs that one can learn in three minutes – and it’s a good thing because the song will not be sung again after a few months airtime – and deliver sermons that make people laugh.

Yeah! Church is sooooo cool!

No crosses – that upsets new people. No scripture memorization, repentance and for God’s sake, no church history.

Church as enterprise counts noses and nickels and has no time for rooting people to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

But what if “church” is not a human invention at all? What if it doesn’t belong to the people? What if it is the Bride of Christ, the pillar and ground of truth, a Royal Priesthood, a Holy Nation, or the Israel of God? Those are all New Testament phrases and seem to indicate a pretty high view of the church. What do we do with that?

If the church belongs to God, then shouldn’t we figure out what he wants? Should we create worship that meets our needs, or should we study to know what God said about worship so we can meet His needs?

We have gradually developed a theology that leaves little room for a believer’s responsibility toward the Church. In our new theology, a believer with a Bible meets other believers with a Bible and then they create a community with their friends.
This begs the question: how did we get the Bible to begin with? By the time the writings for Bible were collected and assembled, the last apostle had been dead for three hundred years. Who did that work? How did they have the authority to do that work? Why did all the other Christians agree with their decision?

If you read the internet articles about such things, you get the theological equivalent of Big Foot, UFO conspiracy theories and garlic enemas that cure cancer: ignorance as piety and catechism.

If you take the time to read the Bible and the writings of the early Christians, you get quite a different picture.

The picture I get is that of Christ the moment after his impetuous, big mouth disciple has just blurted out: “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus smiles and says, “Flesh and blood didn’t tell you that! You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hell with not prevail against it.”

And they haven’t. And they won’t.


Neil Coates said...

A hearty amen.

Jan said...

This is so awesome, Pastor
Dan. I have carefully read your
comments twice and most likely will
return to reread it. Such a
beautiful service yesterday.I wept
through part of it and at the end
I just collapsed in a big hug with
Maurice's mother, telling her how
gloriously grateful I am for
Easter- and that I so beholden to
Jesus for giving His life so
that our wonderful children
Eric & Emmy are alive today!!
And that Becky and I will see them
again. What a glorious day!

Anonymous said...


frfreddy said...

Pastor Dan,

I'm sure you've heard this, from St. Cyprian - "He cannot have God as his Father who has not the Church as his Mother."