Ok, show of hands here. How many of you had the burden of memorizing seemingly useless poetry in Junior High School? Yup, me too. But to this day there are a few of those old classic jewels that still stick in my head. One of those was by Emily Dickinson and it went to the tune of, “A word is dead when it is said some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” Now, in addition to the simple fact that the poem is short, I also remember it because it actually says something. I tend to agree with dear old Emily that words are powerful and have the ability to do good or evil. Just ask any elementary school kid on the playground that gets called names. I’ve had my share of complements and ridicules growing up so I know all about it. But when it comes to real names, I like mine. There have been times that I’ve thought of the Stephen in Acts Chapter 7 who was martyred for the Faith. Stephen was a man of great faith who laid it on the line to the point of death. That makes me proud. Some folks have shortened the name to six letters making it, “Steven”, but I would never submit to such a heresy. In fact, I actually draw encouragement from the man who went before me and gave his life for Christ. Names can do that. They can bring boldness and also they can cause discouragement.
But what kind of thoughts and feelings come to mind when you hear the name “Church”? What does the name really mean anyway? Words can be confusing or even dangerous when we don’t know what they mean. Take the word “Tolerance” for an example. Historically, one of the most widely understood definitions of the word has gone something like, “the capacity for or practice of recognizing and respecting the opinions, practices, or behavior of others.” In other words, it was the idea that says that while I don’t agree with you on a point, I’m not going to kill you over it. But today the idea, especially in some parts of the world, conveys not only a ban on violent behavior, but on any form of disagreement at all. If someone speaks out with an opposing view point on moral, religious, or political issues, they are automatically deemed to be “intolerant” even though they had absolutely no intentions of responding negatively or physically.
So having everyone arrive at the same definition or name is a big thing. When it comes to the Church, most often the name is associated with a building in which religious services take place. People might say “I’m going to church” or “I got offended the last time I was in church.” On the positive side others would speak of being at church every week as a very encouraging experience. By this they associate what goes on at a certain building at 11:00 every Sunday morning with church. Though there is some truth in that understanding, this thought process in itself could not be further from the truth. The CHURCH is so much more than that. Stephen Macchia describes the church as “God’s vehicle for carrying the message of hope to needy people.” (pg. 14) This idea implies ownership and purpose and that the Church belongs to God and it is to convey His message to others. A modern theologian named Everett Furgusson states that “the Church may be defined as the people who come under the reign of God and accept his rule in their lives.” (pg. 26) Making a more complicated definition, (hold on to your seats with this one) an older expert on the early church, Eberhardt Arnold, teaches that the “church is the action of God turned toward humankind, the religious and social manifestation of the Spirit at work on earth.” (pg. 26) However the church is defined, it is quite clear that the New Testament conveys a church which is quite foreign to modern American or Western thought. A major striking point is that people are the building blocks to the church rather than a building or program. Peter easily illustrates this by stating that “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4). In fact, nowhere in the Bible does the word Church refer to a physical building. So let’s look at exactly what the word itself does mean.
When considering the specific term of “Church” there are two defining words in particular to consider. The first is the root of the actual English word Church. The foundation comes from the old English word cirice, the Scottish word Kirk, and the German designation Kirche. All of these terms were ultimately derived from the Greek word Kuriakos which means “the Lord’s.” From this we see the idea of ownership. That whatever the church is, Jesus owns it rather than humans. We on the other hand belong to Him and are at His disposal.
The second and most widely used term is ekklesia. In essence the word means any assembly of people. The term is derived from two other words. The first is ek meaning “out” and the second is kaleo which means “to call”. Thus, the combination of the two terms refers to those who have been called out of something or somewhere. Originally the word carried no spiritual nature. Acts 19 is a good illustration of this in that Demetrius initiated a riot and those involved are referred to as the assembly in verse 32. However, with context and the further use of the word, came to describe the church opposed to other assemblies such as in Ephesians 5:23-25. So from the combination of these two words the true nature of the church can be seen. In essence, the church is a group of people who belong to God and are called out from the world. 1 Peter 2:9-12 illustrates the church as being called out from the world to live in a different nature.
Because the church is “of the Lord” and it has been “called out by the Lord” then the church belongs to the Lord and this then mandates a character that is separate from the world and similar to that of Christ and God. The church is owned by Christ and thus His words are to be taken seriously by those in the church. So we cannot legitimately call ourselves the church if we do not take seriously what Christ has spoken in His written Word. Now that certainly conveys a whole lot more than Sunday morning attendance and pot luck suppers.
Thanks for the exercise in definition and the short history lesson. The topic relevant to world culture we find ourselves in day to day if not to the church itself. I would have to say I tend to lean toward Everett Furgusson’s definition. I will explain more in my upcoming post.