I feel this is a post in which I will stray and wander, both while I write it and while I try to apply it in my own life. Please forgive me for both.
This is a subject that has been covered by many, but it has not been covered by me. Given my insatiable need for clear and precise language, I thought it best to explain the possible meanings of the word “church” when I use it.
“Church” can mean 4 different things in my vocabulary:
- The Universal Body. Unalterable, immutable, clothed in white, stretching through history. It started in Acts 2 and will end at Christ’s second coming. The mixed collection of Gentiles and Jews who stand on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets.
- The Local Body. For me, currently, it’s Tallowood Baptist Church. The group that gathers locally. It should be a microcosm of the universal church.
- The Building. The physical structure in which a local body meets.
- The Cultural Conglomeration. A compilation of all the groups that call themselves “churches.” Usually when I say something bad about “the church” nowadays, this is what I’m talking about.
Skye Jethani’s Definitions
Skye Jethani [a slightly-more-liberal-than-I-like pastor and author I know of only because I listen to the Phil Vischer Podcast (shout out to David Kahn for introducing me to it) and occasionally read his blog] laid out another good list of various English definitions of “church.”
“In the English language we use the word church in four different ways:
1) A Building: First, we use it when referring to a building used for Christian worship. “Did you see the new church being built over on Main Street?”
2) An Event: Second, we use church when referring to a Christian worship event. “Are you going to church on Sunday?” Meaning, “Are you going to worship?”
3) An Institution: Third, we use the word church when talking about an institution with officers, employees, programs, and resources pursuing Christian goals. “I made a donation to the church.” That means I gave money to a 501c3 nonprofit organization to fund its buildings, programs, staff, etc.
4) A Community: Finally, church can mean a community of women, men, and children who belong to Christ and live under his reign—as in, “Bill is part of my church.” He’s part of the local assembly of Christians.”
One big distinction I would make between Skye’s list and my list is that I prefer not to think of the church in any kind of business terms. Where Skye leaves out what I think is the most important definition (the universal/historical body) he puts in “an institution” and specifically describes that institution in business terms (officers, employees, 501c3 nonpropfit, etc). Remember, he and I are describing two different things. He is describing how the general English-speaking population uses the word “church” and I am describing how I use the word “church.” I try never to refer to the church like it’s a business, and I think once a church (local body) becomes a business, it usually stops being a church, or it moves much more prominently into definition number four on my list.
The Universal Church
I might consider using the word “institution.” Though, when I think of the church as an institution, I think of the historical institution that stretches back 2,000 years that began at Pentecost in Acts 2. It’s an institution with such prestigious members as Peter, James, John, Paul and the other apostles. Great men and women like Apollos, Lydia, Mary Magdalene, and Luke. Magnificent martyrs like Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, and Justin. In those days, the institution called “the church” didn’t take donations as 501c3 nonprofits, or have building funds or staff. That institution is just a group of people who have one commonly held belief: we are sinners saved by Jesus of Nazareth. Back then, they were imitators of his ways, willing to die for what they believed about Him because they knew that they would share in His resurrection after death. (I hope it’s the same today.) That organization that soldiers on and fights through heresy and corruption. That thin sliver of orthodoxy that can be traced through the generations. Athanasius against the world, Augustine against pelagianism, Origen instructing Alexandria. Men and women who truly understand the depths of their depravity and know that only one perfect, holy, and loving God-man’s sacrifice can atone for their sins. The reformers of the 16th century who rediscovered the importance of the scriptures and rediscovered the gospel that we are saved only by grace through faith, not by works. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Zwnigli, Wycliffe, Hus, Tyndale, and the like. Men and women who realize that dying for the truth is a small price to pay, now that Christ has made a way for resurrection: this is the universal Church, and a marvelous thing it is.
Okay, I’ll stop waxing poetically. I know it annoys some.
The Local Body
This is the hardest definition to be clear about. When I talk about the local body, there are two nuances that may be in play and they can be distinguished by this question: Does the local body consist only of true believers (as the universal church clearly does) or does it consist of no believers as well?
I think there are times when we must admit that there are wolves among the sheep. There are people who attend the meetings of a local church body on a regular basis who have not believed in Jesus for salvation, and who may not ever believe and will not be saved. However, ideally a local body consists only of those who have begun believing in Jesus, and who continue to believe, and will one day be saved.
How do we make the distinction? Answer: we can’t. There’s no way of knowing for sure who in the local church is also part of the universal church, and my experience is that when you start trying to guess based on “evidence” (works) you start excluding everyone but yourself. Instead, we must operate based on what people claim, and let God sort out the weeds from the grain. If they say they’re a Christian, assume that they are.
Therefore, when I talk about the local church I am assuming that everyone in question is a believing Christian, all the while realizing that this is almost assuredly not the case. With that in mind, I turn back to the idea of church as a business, but this time on the local level.
I think the word “church” (particularly when applied to a local body) should not have a use that could be misconstrued as a business venture. I think it’s deplorable that some say, “Like it or not, we have to admit that the church is a business and work within those confines.” We most certainly do not have to admit that! We most certainly should not affirm that! We most certainly should not work within those confines!
If your church (local body) operates as a business and either does not see or does not care about the problems inherent in making that church a business, there is a serious problem! You, as the church members, are responsible to make them aware. Affect change. BE the church.
And now we’ve entered dangerous territory. I’m starting to unconsciously draw lines between a church and its members. How can “you” (local church body members) make “them” (the church) aware of anything? Well that’s kind of my point. “The church” can’t be separated from its members. There is no “you” and “them.” There’s “you” and “you all.” Its members ARE the body. There shouldn’t be those lines. If you are part of a local church body that has a collective mentality that “the church” can do things that don’t involve its members, then you’re not actually part of a church. If you think of “the church” (local body) as a business that you support instead of a microcosm of an historic institution in which you take part, you’re not thinking right. If all your fellow members share that same thought you are not in a church, you’re in a corporation. You are in a church according to the fourth definition I offered, and that’s a bad one to be in.
To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with corporations. They can be fine and dandy and even necessary things, they simply aren’t churches. You as Christians should be part of a church (local) that’s part of the church (universal), not a corporation that only gets called a church (cultural conglomeration).
A Bit of a Tangent…
However, a necessary line does exist between church leadership and church members. I hesitate to use those terms because they carry connotations I do not intend. In reality, the leaders ARE members (more on this later.) I do not intend to draw a distinction in value, or importance between leadership and membership, only a distinction in function. I would truly prefer to add more categories than just the two, and use terms like pastors, teachers, preachers, givers, workers, prayers, believers, encouragers, evangelists, etc. To use a biblical metaphor I’d prefer to use terms like eyes, ears, noses, mouths, arms, feet, hands, legs, torsos, toes, fingers, hearts, lungs, hairs, kidneys, and belly-buttons. Remember, every “member” or “leader” of a church (local body) is really a member of the church (universal/historical institution). Each church (local body) is just a microcosm of the church (universal) and every member has a part to play in fulfilling the great commission. Every member of the local church should fulfill a certain function based on their skills, talents, and gifts. You might be required to lead more often, as the apostles were in Acts 6. You might be required to follow leadership more often, like the deacons were in Acts 6. You might have to evangelize more often, or lift heavy things more often, or decorate things more often, or teach more often, or give more often, or pray more often, or do some other function more often than your fellow church members all because of what member you are.
The word member is helpful here. “Member” actually has two definitions. One relates to sociology and the other to biology. In Biology a “member” is a piece of your body. It is inseparably linked by a joint. To be “dismembered” means to loose appendages you weren’t meant to loose in rather nasty and unsavory ways. This is the meaning Paul employs when talking about being “members” of Christ’s “body.” The other definition of “member” is sociological. A “member” in this sense is a person who associates with a certain club and joins by signing a piece of paper and showing up for events now and again. It’s much less serious to be dismembered in this sense… you’re simply loosing approval instead of loosing a limb.
We must recover the ancient use of this word when talking about church membership. It’s not some club that you can leave without there being a serious cost. When a “member” of a local “body” leaves unceremoniously or for bad reasons its more akin to medieval torture than anything else.
The local body is a unit and each “member” plays a part, Christ being the head. Yes, the biblical analogy is the best. If you are a mouth, then speak. If you are a foot, then run. If you are an arm, then lift. If you are a hand, then give. Do what you are designed to do, and your membership will be much more pleasurable, fulfilling, and helpful.
If you don’t know what you are designed to do, then try stuff out and you’ll learn soon enough. Hands can only be walked on for so long before it becomes clear that they don’t fill that role well. Trial and error is not a bad method in this endeavor.
I believe this definition is pretty self-explanatory. You’ve all seen church buildings, right? We could get into arguments about design, and stained glass vs Plexi, or grand vs plain, but this post is long enough already. Moving along.
The Cultural Conglomeration
This is where I dump most of what’s wrong in “the church” today. This is where the people who call themselves Christians but probably aren’t actually Christians show up. True believers are in here too. This includes every local body as a whole along with every corporation calling itself a church. It’s the church in culture, or how the world sees “the church.” This is where businesses start incorporating, and “pastors” start making millions in the offering plate. This is where the consumer mentality of America enters in. This is where the wackos, the wandering, and the wishful thinkers reside. This is also where Godly people try to affect change and largely fail. The head of this group is the human sin nature, not Christ. We, the cultural conglomeration, have taken a guillotine to Christ and jammed good feelings, bad philosophy, cultural relativism, and sinful desire into the bloody stump. This is the church whose “members” will be judged most harshly for allowing it to exist. This is the church that I weep over, and fight to change with every breath, because I am, unfortunately, stuck being a part of it, as are all Christians living today. This is the church that will come to an end, not with praises and crowns being cast at the feet of Jesus, but with either a glorious sigh of relief that it’s over, or a horrendous cry of agony from the judgment being distributed. When I criticize “the church” this is the church I’m talking about. May God reform us, may God remake us; and when we resist and sin against Him, may he be merciful toward us.