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.
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