Stop Calling It Church

churchWhat do you think of when you hear the word church?

Perhaps you think of a religious building, worship service, denomination, or even all Christians.  However, this is not the correct meaning of the word.  In our church you will often hear the phrase, “The church is a people not a place.”  Where do we get this?  Actually, it is from the definition of the Greek word used for church, “ekklesia” (pronounced “ek-klay-sea’-ah”).  The word means a called-out assembly or congregation.   In older translations, like the Tyndale English Bible, you cannot even find the word “church”.  The word ekklesia is correctly translated as “congregation or assembly”.   Ekklesia is used 115 times in the New Testament and in most modern Bibles it is always translated as “church” except in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41 where it is properly translated as “assembly”.

So, what’s the big deal? Why does it matter?  It matters because a misunderstanding of the “church” has far reaching implications.  For example, there are those who claim that the church is all the saved.  However, if you use “ekklesia” and its correct definition of “called out assembly” what you are saying is that all the saved is an assembly that is called out.  Contextually “ekklesia” in the New Testament is a local and visible assembly of believers who congregate for a specific purpose.  The universal church is neither local nor visible and in order to be an assembly you have to be both.  So, if you want a name for all the saved, call them the family of God as stated in Ephesians 3:15, “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.”  A church must be local, visible, and assembled. Anything else is not a church.

We do see all the saved referred to universally in Revelations 21:9 as the “bride of Christ”.  However, it is interesting to note that at this time the rapture has occurred and all the saved are local, visible, and assembled together.

Another reason it matters is because when people misunderstand the true meaning of the word “church”, they misapply the practices of it.  An example would be “home church”.  While I understand the reason behind this movement it is still built on a cracked foundation.  You can read about that here. Those that “home church” gather the family, read scripture, pray, and sing songs of worship.  In truth, they are doing what God commands the family to do.  He does expect the father to lead his family spiritually.  This practice is what the older generations called a “Family Altar”.  This should be done daily.  But don’t call it “church”.  It is not the assembly.  Every Christian family should worship daily and then, throughout the week, gather with other like-minded believers for corporate worship. “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”  (Heb 10:23-25) 

The practices of the local assembly do not work within a single family
unit.   For example, church discipline as commanded in scripture is impossible in a single family unit.  In a “home”  setting the Pastoral Epistles that Paul wrote become unnecessary.  Church ordinances such as baptism and communion are not individual ordinances and the word “fellowship” assumes a gathering or congregation. In addition, the roles of men and women within the assembly (as found in I Timothy) would not apply either. However, in scripture we do see a family of families assembling together as a local unit.  This is necessary to fulfill the role of the ekklesia.

Words do matter.  The study of words in the Bible is foundational to accurate exegesis.  Let’s be true to the word “ekklesia” and use it correctly.

The Modern Church

 “I don’t like those people!”

“I refuse to go to that church!”

“The people there are hypocrites!”

Have you ever heard statements like these? Many of us have. Sadly, many times people who make these statements simply stay at home and refuse to participate in their church functions. They will not join another church either. Perhaps they feel justified because they have been deeply wounded. Perhaps they are just making excuses. But regardless, for some reason they are “forsaking the assembly” (Hebrews 10:25). This attitude is in every town, within every individual church, and has been around since the beginning.

Something that I have witness of late is the “home church” movement. This group of people is different than the ones described above. Often, they are among the finest and most devoted Christians. They rightly believe that it is the parent’s role to teach and train their children in the ways of the Lord. It is not the government’s role or even the churches’ role to teach their children. These committed parents are faithful in teaching the Bible and living a consistent godly life. They are faithful in protecting their children from the world and the evils in it.

Often these families were once very involved in a local church but something happened to discourage them. The reasoning for withdrawing is usually warranted.

“The church looks and acts just like the world.”

 “I shelter my children six days a week just to have them exposed to something immoral from the other children at church.”

“The church is not following the doctrines laid out in Scripture.”

These are all the comments I hear. And sadly, many modern day churches make it harder and harder for those who are striving to live by biblical principles to be a part of.

Consider these four examples.

1. Church one is a rather large church and probably the most severe case. Unfortunately, they are very worldly and known in the community for their divisions. The membership is divided between ministers within the church. One faction follows the leadership of the pastor and another follows the leadership of another minister. This division causes constant envying and strife among the believers. It has gotten so bad that members of the same church have been known to sue one another causing even more division. Recently, one family was torn apart because of sexual immortality between family members. The whole town heard of this. In addition, the church abuses its ordnances. The membership of this church often has trials and many are sick. It is apparent that God is judging this church.

 2. Church two is a wonderful church full of promise and potential. But there are two women in this church that cannot seem to get along. All the good qualities are overlooked in this church because of these women. Others have had to step in and try to resolve the issue. It is so bad the other churches know about this problem, therefore, the church has a bad reputation.

3. Church three has members within the church who teach lies. Entire families are being persuaded and have embraced these false doctrines. There are those in the community who slander and falsely accuse the church. The leadership of this church will have to eventually deal with this issue before it destroys the church.

4. Church four has a young pastor who is very faithful. But, this pastor has to deal with those who refuse to submit to his leadership because of his age. And unfortunately, like church three, this church also has to deal with false teachers. The teachers are known hypocrites who try to influence those who are weak in the faith. It is easy to see how the more mature Christians struggle with this and get discouraged.

These examples are from just a few churches. But if we were to pull back the curtain of hypocrisy and reveal the churches as they truly were, we would find that every modern day church has problems. The doctrines taught seem to be superficial, the worldliness abounds, and unqualified pastors often prey on their congregations for greedy gain. One can see why devoted Christians want to reject it all and worship God in Spirit and Truth in the safe haven of their home. Understandably, they want to be a part of a pure and holy church, somewhat like the first century church, who met in their homes. These early believers were filled with the Spirit. They prayed and fellowshipped together. They had one heart and one soul. They even had all things common (Acts 4:31-37). What a wonderful church to belong to!

However, the grass is not always greener on the other side. Nor, was the church better in the first century. You see, the four examples given were from the first century. Church one was the Corinthian church, Church two was the church at Philippi. Church three was the church at Crete, whose pastor was Titus. And church four was the church at Ephesus. Timothy is the young faithful pastor mentioned above. All of these were founded by none other than Paul himself during the first century.

So, let me ask this question. What would have happened to the church at Ephesus (or any of the others) if all the mature, striving Christians would have left the church? It is likely that Timothy would have been left fighting heresy all alone. The church would have continued down a path of wickedness, never learning the truth. Without the examples of the mature believers and the discipleship they give, the babes in Christ would have never matured. The remaining sheep would have been slaughtered by wolves and the goats would have rule. I see this very thing happening today. In the pursuit of a perfect church, many have given up the fight and turned individual churches over to Satan. Without support, the pastor is left feeling defeated and he too often gives up.

In addition, a family who pulls out from the church also pulls out from under the authority that Christ established within the church. When they forsake the assembly, they remove themselves out from under the authority of the pillar and ground of the truth – the church (I Timothy 3:15). Christ called His church (Matthew 4:18-21), Christ confirms His church (Matt 16:18), Christ loves and died for His church (Ephesians 5:25), and Christ will return for His church (I Thessalonians 4:17). He intended for the church (ekklesia) to be a called out, local assembly of baptized believers who covet together to carry out the Great Commission.

Dear believer, we must not give up on the church that Jesus built. Remember, the church is a family of families. Those that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak. The mature needs to disciple the immature. Those on the meat of the Word need to be teaching those on the milk. Pastors need help from those families who are striving to live by biblical principles. This is what we are called to do. Christ said Himself that the wheat and tares would grow together until the harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). True believers must remain strong and true to the Lord’s church. Otherwise, no one is left to fight false teaching. No one is left to take a stand when it matters. No one is left to confront sin in the church. How Christ must grieve when this happens.

Of course, it should be noted that there are times when one must shake the dust off their feet because the people will not change. But this should be done with much prayer. In some cases it would be foolish to stay at a dying church. But if we have to leave one church it should always be to find another. 

“I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee,” Psalm 22:22.