"But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." ~ 1 Peter 3:15-16

Definition of Church

One morning, you overheard a private conversation between Mike, a businessman, and his christian friend Stephen. Mike talking to Stephen.

"Hey Stephen, you know, business has been real bad for me all thanks to the global crisis. It seems that it actually affected my marriage as well! I can’t seem to get along well with my wife recently and we disagree over a couple of major decisions for the family. My two children, Grace and Andrew also seem to show me less respect at home after my business starts to slip down the slope. Why are these things happening to me? Am I getting into depression? Is there any hope for me?"

"Mike, I have been through this during the last financial crisis and I understand your situation and how you feel exactly. And you know what I am thinking? Maybe you should go to church with me this sunday." Stephen replied with empathy while giving Mike a pat on his shoulder.

Daily, we hear people speaking about going to church. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear of people speaking about going to that church, attending your church, coming to my church etc. But have we paused and asked ourselves, just what does the Scripture says about the word 'church’? Or are we merely or blindly using the term in accordance to the social and cultural usage or norm around us?

So just what is the biblical definition of the word 'church'? A 13 days poll has been taken on Facebook and a total of 10 votes were voted for the following choices. The vote closed on the same day as the 2008 US Election with a landslide. Surprisingly, all 10 votes unanimously voted (b).

(a) A building for regular public worship of God or a religious service.
(b) The body of believers, both local and universal.
(c) A christian institution or ecclesiastical organization.
(d) All of the above.
(e) Only (a) and (b).
(f) Only (a) and (c).
(g) Only (b) and (c).
(h) Not sure.
(i) Does it matter?

It is true that whenever the Scripture mentions 'church', it always refer to the believers and not some inanimate material, place or building. Church always refers to God’s people! Also see this recent blog post on the book titled "The Simple/House Church Revolution" at House Church Blog. So did you see the obvious problem, if you agree that 'church' refers solely to believers? With all intellectual honesty, how could we then affirm that 'church' refers to believers while at the same time use phrases such as "going to church"? You can't attend believers if you get what I mean. You can't go to here, there or wherever when church is about who.

But you say, come on, it's just a convenient term of reference. There's nothing in the Scripture that says we can't use extra-biblical term. And so I concur with you wholeheartedly that there's nothing wrong in using extra-biblical terms PROVIDED that no extra-biblical meaning is assigned to the terms employed. Whenever a clear meaning of important term is obscured or diluted, confusion and ignorance follows. And it is important to be clear on the definition of the word 'church' since she has an important part to play in God's eternal purpose. Think about the cross and judge if it's a matter close to God's heart.

One very practical implication of thinking 'church' in terms of where is that we will all suffer spiritual amnesia on the who of the 'church'. Being the church is the key here. But we often seems to have this strange notion that if we don't "go to church" this sunday, God will not be pleased. Honesty, anyone? Where does this sense of guilt come from, if not for the extra-biblical meaning assigned to it? How come we don't feel even more guilty for not being the 'church'? Have we misunderstood the true meaning of the word 'church'?

Moreover, what's the different between the christian faith and all other religions if all have their holy place of worship and professionals… I mean priests? To give the non-believers the impression that temple got monks, 'church' got pastors is certainly not the ideal. It seems that man has a tendency of creating holy and sacred space or object, when God consecrated and ordained the ordinary. Did we forget that the Creator of heaven and earth does not dwell in building built by hands. Instead, He chose to live in us by pouring out the Spirit on those who believe in Him, and so we are the mobile and breathing temples of the living God! May this spiritual reality be continuously impressed upon us, and deeply.

This is a sincere appeal to stop abusing the word 'church'. Let us return to the Scripture and defines her as who she is. And perhaps we might be able to see that the Church is Christ and Christ is Church. The two cannot be separated. Now it makes more sense that using phrases like "your church”, "their church", "my church" and "our church" is actually dividing Christ. Are we even more daring than the soldiers who divided His garments. Yet He cannot be divided, and so the Church will forever be one. We will do well to maintain the spirit of unity.

For those who are interested in the relationship between the individual house church and the whole church in a city, Steve Atkerson has recently published a two-parts article titled “The City Church”. The summary beautifully summarizes the whole issue and the attitude we should adopt.

"The city church is, at most, an abstract subset of the universal church. The proper expression of the organized local church is the house church, not the city church. City church is an attitude more than an entity. A philosophical belief in the city church should result in an attitude of cooperation with other churches in evangelism, benevolence, prayer, worship and training, of love for all the brethren, of interest in believers outside of our own fellowship. City church thinking helps us to overcome divisions and to create oneness with other believers in our town."

What then happens to all the buildings, organizations and institutions, if there is a sudden and mass realization of what 'church' really is? What should we do with them? I think the options are fairly simple, either closes them all down and use the money for other works or convert them for some other charitable activities. In fact, this is what the Uniting Church in Australia did (see When The Church Sells Its Building). The closure or conversion can of course be done with a transition period, to dampen the drastic effect of change.

On a personal note, I was at a public meeting last monday evening for a special talk held in an institutional church. During the singing of praises, I suddenly felt uncomfortable and the atmosphere around me actually became oppressive. When I saw the people singing praises to the Lord with such fullness of joy, all I could see was the limited freedom and expression of the functioning priesthood allowed during the singing of praises. It was as if I could feel the oppressive power of the institutional system which shortchanges the priesthood of all believers. Or perhaps I was just having some psychological disorders? That feeling was unbearable, either way.

Yet in the next instance, my spirit was revived and the weight lifted. And I sensed the Lord telling me that I should pray for His people, that they too shall see Christ as He reveals Himself to them. And if it was not from the Lord, then I don’t know where I have gotten this idea of visiting ALL the local institutional churches and praying for the people who gather there, in order that Christ may be all in all. I figure when we encounter the living Christ, we will know what to do with the building and the traditions of men. In fact, going back to the worship services of the institutional churches, is the last thing of my mind. But since the Lord has enlarged my heart in this aspect, I am certain that He is up to something. May He continue to enlarge our hearts to know Him deeper.


Fiona said...

Hi Elf,
some insights indeed! thanks for inviting me to your blog.

But hey, don't quite understand your last 2 para. What do u mean by
"shortchanging the priesthood of all believers" Is there a difference between priesthood and belivers?

Pardon my ignorance!


Elvin said...

Hi Fiona,

Glad to see you here.

In the Scripture, followers of Jesus Christ are called "kings and priests" and a "royal priesthood" as a reflection of their privileged status as heirs to the kingdom of God. And this priesthood is given to all who understand the implication of sins and the Gospel, and personally trust Jesus for their salvation. Everyone who trusts in God is positionally equal before God.

So when I said shortchanging the priesthood of all believers, I meant wrongly creating a caste system of clergy vs laity or a higher vs lower priest, when in fact Jesus came to free us from all religiosity. The christian faith does not center on a dead religion but a living Christ! Remember He resurrected? We would all be in trouble, if He didn’t.

It also means that believers as priests are called to serve God by offering up spiritual sacrifices in any form, like in our talks and good deeds. Offering sacrifices is not so much of trying to earn or merit our tickets to heaven, but a response after having tasted the greatest gift of love, grace and mercy - Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross on our behalf.

The Church then as whole, which is made up of a kingdom of priests, would be the vessel to express the glorious Christ by knowing Christ and leaning on Him daily, on both personal and corporate basis.

yipeng said...

Mark Driscoll has a new book out called "Vintage Church".

I came across his definition of 'Church' online and thought it provides food for thought. =)

"The local church is a community of regenerated believers who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. In obedience to Scripture they organize under qualified leadership, gather regularly for preaching and worship, observe the biblical sacraments of baptism and communion, are unified by the Spirit, are disciplined for holiness, and scatter to fulfill the great commandment and the great commission as missionaries to the world for God's glory and their joy." - Vintage Church, Chpt 2

Elvin said...

Hi Yi Peng,

Thanks for the information, and I would love to see you blog something on ekklesia. :)

It appears that Mark also agrees that church (always) refer to people, or God's people to be specific. Except for some issues regarding institutionalism, leadership as hierarchy, preaching as focal point of meeting, practices of baptism and communion as sacraments, I would agree with his definition. But that's a whole chunk of exceptions that require further clarifications, I figure. :P

Anonymous said...

Nice blog!
I think you might appreciate mine too!
Been relational housechurching and planting for 30 years now. My blog is about Jesus, church and life in general.

Christopher "Captain " Kirk

Elvin said...

Hi Kirk,

Thanks for dropping by and sharing your blog.