Wednesday, September 12, 2012

An honest plea for open discussion about dropping the word "church".

I remember some years back some people visited the city we were living in at the time, which was Novosibirsk. They were traveling from church to church, proclaiming that denominations are not in God's will. This particular premise has a lot of validity. However, I found their methods wanting. There was one man in their group who was from an indigenous Siberian people, so we were keen to get know him a little more. As this man, and another from his group sat in our living room, we spoke of the the Body of Christ and true fellowship. But we were disappointed to find they did not have time to hang around for long and pray with us, because they had to hurry off to another church meeting and tell people why they were wrong. I remember back to this time, and how badly they shared their message and how so few listened to them. They did not have the spirit of fellowship in them. I really don't want to be like this as I try to convey the message that is on my heart.

I am hoping to again bring up discussion surrounding the use of the word "church". There are a few prominent bloggers and authors who have taken the time to explain or defend their use of the word church. What I write here is not meant to be an attack, rather a plea that this become a topic for discussion. I would like to approach this topic from my professional background as a linguist, taking into account issues of semantics and translation.

My argument goes deeper here though, I want to see believers dropping the use of the word church. I think the word itself is a sacred cow to so many of us, and we are afraid to stop using it.

So many modern protestants would prefer that the word "church" would mean a gathering of God's people, or the Body of Christ, or other metaphors that scripture uses. But sadly, every time the word is used for that definition, a qualification needs to be added, "Church isn't really the building, it's the people you know." But even as modern Christians, we so often speak of "going to church", "the church roof needs repairing", "the altar is at the front of the church" or similar phrases. We betray the desired definition by the constant use of the other definition.

Neil Cole mentioned that he considered the word church to have been corrupted and abused. This is not actually the case. A look at the history of the word will show otherwise. The word "church" comes from the Greek word Kyriakon. It is the same word that is also translated Kirche in German or Tserkov in Russian. In the time of Constantine, believers were moved from the home into the temple. Constantine built basilicas, and banned people gathering in their homes to worship God. They were to gather in these public buildings to worship God. These buildings were named after apostles. As the Roman Empire institutionalised Christianity people began to call these basilicas Kyriakon doma, or the "house of the Lord." Sound familiar? Later on the phrase was shortened to simply be Kyriakon, the possessive "Lord's". The concept of this basilica and Kyriakon became synonymous. But this was never even a concept or a word that appeared in scripture. So the word in scripture has not been abused, but sure enough God's people have been. [1]

Over the centuries the word itself dictated definition to God's people. To be God's people they must meet in the Lord's house. It was not possible to truly worship God other than in this context. It began to shape people's understanding of what it meant to be the people of God. The Institution took over in people's understanding. The real fluid, organic nature of God's people was lost. There were always underground movements through out history, be they monks in the desert fleeing institution or Waldensians in Italy getting killed for their "heretical" faith in the 12th and 13th centuries. [2]

William Tyndale was a famous reformer, who tackled this controversial issue head on. Tyndale translated the New Testament into English after being inspired by Martin Luther who had been translating the Bible into German. When Tyndale came to translate, he was not reading the word Kyriakon in the Bible, he was reading the word Ekklesia. He accurately decided that the word was best translated "congregation." Tyndale came up with other controversial translations such as "elder" instead of "priest", "repent" instead of "do penance", "love" instead of "charity." These translations got Tyndale in a lot of trouble, ultimately getting him burned at the stake for his efforts. [3] 

Tyndale saw fit to translate Ekklesia faithfully. The established church however had been using a word based on the Greek Kyriakon. Tyndale's translation was an affront to the institution. To stop using the word church today in some ways carries similar risks, but likely not resulting in execution.

Can the word "church" really have two definitions? Some would like to say it means "a gathering of God's people", but in reality any survey of the English speaking population would show that it actually means "a religious building." Words influence how we behave. This word has had a massive effect on how we behave as believers, dragging us away from an honest expression of the priesthood of all believers into a religious temple form of worship. An attempt to redefine the word will not yield results, because the majority of the English speaking world will continue to use the word "church" the way it always has been.

I wonder just how the Spirit of God would lead us if we were no longer bound by a label, such as "church"? I am not even proposing we come up with a new word. I say let's just drop the word, be the Body of Christ and see where the Holy Spirit leads us. This is kind of like walking a tight rope with no net beneath us, but if we fall, we just might fly.


Neil Cole took the time to answer my initial comments on his blog on August 17th, when he had blogged on the topic of "Is Bigger Really Better, the Statistics actually say No!"  You can read my comments and his responses there.
Alan Knox wrote a post, "How others use the word Church, according to Google." He also took the time to answer my initial comments.
I would like to continue this discussion, but have chosen to not put a string of comments on their blogs, but open it up to wider discussion (if anybody ever bothers to read my blog. :)  )

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