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What is the right definition of the word “Church”? Our English word “church” is used to describe all kinds of organizations and gatherings, some with vastly different and even contradictory belief systems. Historically, the word “church” translates two Biblical concepts–one, the comprehensive gathering of believers in Jesus Christ, living under the authority of God’s Word in every time and place, and two, a local group of believers committed to Biblical fellowship, mission, and membership with one another, sharing the Biblical doctrines of God and the faith. Typically these two concepts are distinguished by the phrases “universal” church and “local” church. However, in our modern world, this word “church” has been disassociated from its very specific Christian heritage and broadened to include any philosophical or religious organization or community. It might almost be trendy to name your gathering a “church”–either as a means of attaching vague religious importance to a heterodox gathering or to intentionally satirize the traditional meaning of the word, (i.e. if anything can be a “church” than every “church” is simply one more organization. ) One could easily conceive of an “athiest church” for example. Or a “universalist church.” And of course there are a host of “churches” who simply proclaim a kind of positive thinking and personal empowerment, messages far afield from Biblical Christianity, which are still known culturally as “Christian churches.” If you google the word “church”, any one of these “churches”, and countless more, will probably show up in the results. Then there is the recent line I heard on a television show about going to church being a “good thing to do with the family”, certainly a popular way of thinking about “church” in a the Bible belt south: church is a place you go with your family.
My fear is that the word “church” has been cycled through the cultural wash so many times that any distinctive definition has faded, and the raggedy holes in its common meaning are rapidly expanding. At the very least, we now need to clarify that someone could attend or even lead a “church” in our culture and not be a Biblical Christian or represent the Bible accurately at all. This may increasingly be the case. This is not statement of superiority, simply a statement of the real use of the word in our time. If “church” is going to mean something like “any gathering of people holding a certain philosophy or world view in common” than it no longer means, more narrowly, those who submit to the Bible and the Lordship of Christ.
Imagine if a man set up a pizza shop across from my house and put a sign out front which read “Pizza Hut” and advertised in a local paper announcing that “Pizza Hut will offer free pizzas on Fridays.” Well, of course there are laws for that sort of thing. Pizza Hut (the original one) would probably sue my neighbor and they would go to court. Perhaps he would countersue. Perhaps the court case would read “Pizza Hut v. Pizza Hut.” Certainly for the purpose of language clarity they would need some way of distinguishing one from the other. (Old/New, Original/Imposter, Corporate/Individual?) Somehow the two entities would need to be distinguished from each other. The point is this: language that can mean anything ceases to mean anything. If anyone can start anything and call it a church, then the word “church” must be used with much greater caution and clarification within the vocabulary of the people of God. Even the broader non-Christian culture should consider the chaos that eventually ensues when words cease to have any distinctive meaning. What do I mean when I tell you that I’ve decided to become a Pizza Hut (or church?) member? Further clarification is required.
Perhaps using a modifier will help for now, as many have begun to do: “Biblical church” would be a helpfully expanded phrase. A Biblical church is a church where the Bible is believed as God’s Word, where the doctrines of the faith, especially the Lordship of Jesus Christ and salvation exclusively provided by Him is believed and applied. A gathering or organization where these are not believed or confessed wholeheartedly, may call itself whatever it wants, but it is not a Biblical church.
In any case, Christians who do hold to the authority of the Bible, and not to the authority of cultural vocabulary, should look to the Bible and not to culture to find God’s definition of the…Church.
Photo by keeva999