the weblog of Alan Knox

Should we use the word “church”?

Posted by on Sep 11, 2007 in definition | 35 comments

Over at House2House, Dick Scoggins has published an interesting article called “Should Apostles Stop Using the Word ‘Church’?“. In discussing the modern use of the word “church”, Dick says:

Let me make clear that I am absolutely committed to building the Kingdom of God through establishing transforming communities. Jesus commanded us to “make disciples of the nations” and showed us how to do that when he started the first transforming community by calling out 12 disciples and working with them over a period of 3 years. The result was individuals who had been transformed in the context of community and a community of believers that was, itself, transformed. Jesus, at the close of his ministry says “go and do likewise” to paraphrase Mt. 28:18-20. The book of Acts recounts how the disciples went out and discipled the nations by starting such transforming communities. Discipleship was never essentially a individual process since the product of discipleship was loving God and loving ones neighbor.

So, please here me, that I am not at all saying that apostles should change our focus from communities to something else. But rather than using the word “church” actually gets in the way of doing this because of all the connotations that come with the word “church”.

It is true that modern uses of the word “church” differ drastically from the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklesia – usually translated “church”). The question is, what, if anything, should we do about this? As I see it, there are four options:

1) Do nothing. Continue to use the “church” in all of its different connotations. People know the difference between the different usages of the word “church” and will not be confused. They know that the word “church” may refer to a building today, but they also know that in Scripture the word “church” always refers to the gathered people of God.

2) Continue to use the word “church”, but add other words to differentiate our references. Thus, we would say “church building” or “church meeting” or “church organization” and only use the word “church” by itself when we are referring to the gathered people of God.

3) Only use the word “church” to refer to the gathered people of God. For all other modern connotations of the word “church” we should use different words such as “chapel”, “meeting”, “clergy”, “organization”, etc.

4) Stop using the word “church” altogether. There are too many different connotations and people are usually confused or misunderstand when they read “church” in Scripture. Therefore, we should use a different word to refer to the gathered people of God.

In general, I fall somewhere between #2 and #3. What about you? Which option do you use? Do you think there are other options for using the word “church”? Do you think we should continue to use the word “church”? Do you think people are confused by the many modern connotations? Or, is this not a problem at all?


35 Comments

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  1. 9-11-2007

    Alan-
    I think people would really be confused if we never used the word “church”…and it is a perfectly Scriptural word.
    Perhaps we need to be more careful to define the word according to the understanding of our audience, especially to children and unbelievers. I tend to use it as an adjective when talking about the place we meet (church building, church family etc.), but we are the Church. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Kat

  2. 9-11-2007

    Alan-
    I think people would really be confused if we never used the word “church”…and it is a perfectly Scriptural word.
    Perhaps we need to be more careful to define the word according to the understanding of our audience, especially to children and unbelievers. I tend to use it as an adjective when talking about the place we meet (church building, church family etc.), but we are the Church. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Kat

  3. 9-11-2007

    Alan-
    I think people would really be confused if we never used the word “church”…and it is a perfectly Scriptural word.
    Perhaps we need to be more careful to define the word according to the understanding of our audience, especially to children and unbelievers. I tend to use it as an adjective when talking about the place we meet (church building, church family etc.), but we are the Church. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Kat

  4. 9-11-2007

    Alan-
    I think people would really be confused if we never used the word “church”…and it is a perfectly Scriptural word.
    Perhaps we need to be more careful to define the word according to the understanding of our audience, especially to children and unbelievers. I tend to use it as an adjective when talking about the place we meet (church building, church family etc.), but we are the Church. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Kat

  5. 9-11-2007

    Alan-
    I think people would really be confused if we never used the word “church”…and it is a perfectly Scriptural word.
    Perhaps we need to be more careful to define the word according to the understanding of our audience, especially to children and unbelievers. I tend to use it as an adjective when talking about the place we meet (church building, church family etc.), but we are the Church. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Kat

  6. 9-11-2007

    Alan-
    I think people would really be confused if we never used the word “church”…and it is a perfectly Scriptural word.
    Perhaps we need to be more careful to define the word according to the understanding of our audience, especially to children and unbelievers. I tend to use it as an adjective when talking about the place we meet (church building, church family etc.), but we are the Church. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Kat

  7. 9-11-2007

    Alan-
    I think people would really be confused if we never used the word “church”…and it is a perfectly Scriptural word.
    Perhaps we need to be more careful to define the word according to the understanding of our audience, especially to children and unbelievers. I tend to use it as an adjective when talking about the place we meet (church building, church family etc.), but we are the Church. Why reinvent the wheel?
    Kat

  8. 9-11-2007

    I think we should use it the way that the Bible does, not just to refer to people gathered as Christians but for people gathered for whatever cause. We could say “did you see the church of gay people that gathered for the pride parade.” Somehow I feel blasphemous for saying that, but didn’t we add the spiritual connotation to the word? I mean wasn’t it just a word for people who were gathered for any particular reason?

  9. 9-12-2007

    Kat,

    You said, “[church] is a perfectly Scriptural word”. Actually, “church” is a translation of a scriptural word. The point of this post is to consider whether or not the English word “church” has changed meanings enough to warrant us using a different translation of the scriptural word ekklesia. This happens all the time in English. However, your point is valid. Perhaps we can continue to use the word “church” if we use it correctly. It sounds like you are somewhere around option #2 in my post.

    Dan,

    I don’t think the English word “church” has ever meant “a gathering of people”. It is true that the Greek word “ekklesia” generally meant “a gathering of people”. So, it would be incorrect to say “a church of gay people gathered for the parade”, but it would have been perfectly acceptable to say “an ekklesia of gay people gathered for the parade” – assuming the remainder of the sentence was translated into Greek as well.

    But, which option for the use of the word “church” do you prefer?

    -Alan

  10. 9-12-2007

    “The point of this post is to consider whether or not the English word “church” has changed meanings enough to warrant us using a different translation of the scriptural word ekklesia.”

    In my opinion, we need something. There are certainly a lot of connotations with the word “church” that have little or nothing to do with “ekklesia”…or even “kuriakon!” It may only need a great emphasis on returning to its intended, Scriptural meaning, but that may be too big a task. Of course, so would finding a better, consistent translation of “ekklesia.”

  11. 9-12-2007

    Alan,

    Depending on to whom I’m speaking, or writing, as a general rule I have tried to avoid the word “church”, and use the word “assembly” or “congregation”.

    The word “church” seems to be submerged in confusion in our country. Regular members of a congregation know what it means to them.

    The word is used to describe other associations of people as well; for instance an Australian/New Zealand scientific group describes itself as “a ‘broad church’ of geographers, town planners, economists, public policy professionals and other social scientists…”

    Our Prime Minister describes the Liberal Party to which he belongs as a “broad church”.

    At a libraries conference in Melbourne one speaker said,”….. that not unlike other professions we are a ‘broad church’, inclusive of librarians and library technicians, practitioners, educators and consultants.”

    I could go on.

  12. 9-12-2007

    Alan,
    I was thinking about this also after my post about church last week. There is so much confusion in a conversation because of differences in understanding of the word church.

    One person may be using the word as an organization, while another is defining it relationally, while yet another is using it in the catholic sense.

    At that point, everything then has to first be prefaced and explained according to how church is defined or understood.

    I have to admit that I still use the word loosely. Sometimes I add a phrase explaining my use, and sometimes I allow the context of the sentence to define how I am using it. Nevertheless, it can still lead to confusion.

    I appreciate the thoughts of this article. I believe that in using the word church, we have attempted to create communities that are more static and permanent than the transforming communities of the NT.

    While now we emphasize community as a form of commitment and accountability (which are important), I believe the early church was more focused on multiplication and transformation. This necessitated a more fluid view of community in order to facilitate ongoing sending activity.

    In my own mind, I tend to use the word church as a label of identity, meaning the church is the people of God, both gathered and scattered. I don’t really see it as a description of an organization or of a gathering. I suppose my answer would fall somewhere between #3 or 4.

  13. 9-12-2007

    Alan,
    After knowing you for awhile, I began to be much more conscious of my use of the word “church”. I would find myself saying “I went to church today, I mean I gathered with the church today.” The really awkward moment came when I wanted to ask a professor during a Q&A “where do you go to church?”, but I knew I had to come up with a different phrasing. I thought “with which local body of believers do you gather?”, or “what is the name of the body of believers you gather with on a regular basis?” Augh! Trying to be more C.C. (christian correct) about things can be difficult! (that’s a joke).

    I would say that I think we should go for somewhere between 2 and 3. If nothing else, it stimulates others to think about why I choose to qualify my use of the word church or use a different word. I think dropping the word entirely loses the opportunity of engaging others in thoughtful conversation.

  14. 9-12-2007

    Hi Alan,

    I think I am also between #2 and 3. I try to not use the word church when I am not referring to the body of believers, but I definitely don’t use it in connotation with a building or denomination.

    What I also try to do is make people think when they use it incorrectly: I would jokingly ask/tell that the building is not church, have a short discussion on it (they usually agree!) and leave it there. (I usually also use the opportunity to comment on the fact that the singing at the church meeting is not “worship” either, etc.)

    I just try to plant a seed whenever the opportunity arises.

  15. 9-12-2007

    oh my… there are now at least 3 Alan/Allan’s on this blog. I’m getting confused.

    Alan (with one L, who’s not me),

    I agree. Whatever we choose to do about this (except option #1), will be a huge task. In my perspective, the effort will be worth it.

    Aussie John,

    It looks like some people in Australia/New Zealand are using the word “church” with the range of meaning of the Greek word ekklesia. (This is also what Dan was suggesting above.) As far as I can tell, “church” has never had the connotation of “a group of people”, although the Greek term “ekklesia” did have that connotation. How do you feel about this new meaning for the word “church”?

    Grace,

    I think the word “church” often causes confusion because people are using it differently. For example, you said, “The church is the people of God, both gathered and scattered.” This is a great illustration of my point in this post. The Greek term “ekklesia” could not be used to replace the word “church” in your statement, because “ekklesia” always referred to people gathered. This shows the difficulty of translation and reverse-translation. Thus, a “church” can be gathered or scattered, but an “ekklesia” is only gathered.

    Please don’t think this means that I think the people of God should only be gathered. That’s not my point at all. I believe that the people of God should both gather and also go (scatter) into the world.

    Leah,

    You don’t know how glad I am to hear that you are thinking about this subject and the way that you use the word “church”. As I said, I think I am somewhere between #2 and #3 also.

    Allan (with two L’s)

    Sometimes I think people are tired of me making them think about “church”. But, as Leah says above, at least some people are recognizing that the distinctions are important.

    -Alan (with one L, who is me)

  16. 9-12-2007

    I’m trying to follow #3 – but the unbiblical usage of the word “Church” is deeply ingrained in me. As Leah said, I also find it awkward to find new ways of saying common things. I go through the effort however because I do not think this is academic. The way we use words either reveals what we really believe or it helps mold what we come to believe.

    For example, we can say that we know the word church refers to the people who follow Jesus, and that the people are the temple of the Holy Spirit. But when we call our human organization “Church” and we call our building the “House of God” and we say “I go to Pastor Bob’s church” is it any wonder that
    our actions reflect our words and not what we profess to truly believe? Is it any wonder we feel we need to go to the house of God in order to meet with God? Is it any wonder we feel we need to convince non-Christian friends to “come to church” with us instead of being the church for them and allowing Christ to minister to them through us – people that they alread know and trust? Is it any wonder that a pastor may act like he owns the church when we say it is his? When we equate the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of God with the physical reality of our temperal organizations is it any wonder we confuse the two and that the spiritual reality that we cannot see is drowned out of our consciousness by the physical trappings that we can see?

  17. 9-12-2007

    Hey Alan,

    I think I fall somewhere between #2 and #3 as well… but boy would I love to be in #4. I just do not think it is practical. If I completely stop using the word “church” it would probably cause more confusion than anything. It’d be like the one guy at the ice cream social who never uses the words “ice cream.”

    So I do not think it is necessarily wrong to say church building, if you are talking about the building that the church owns… or even replacing that altogether with chapel/meeting house/etc.

    God’s Glory,
    Lew

  18. 9-12-2007

    Lew said: “So I do not think it is necessarily wrong to say church building, if you are talking about the building that the church owns…”

    Maybe that is called the “Church’S building” :-)

    (Problem is that it is quite often the building that owns the Church!)

  19. 9-12-2007

    I fall somewhere between #2,#3,& #4
    Depending on who I am talking to.
    I think that when we are talking with people who have really been been hurt by the “church” The word church carries so many negative connotations that maybe we should drop it all together.

    Aaron G.

  20. 9-12-2007

    I’m actually about at a 1.8.

    If we’re really making disciples, then we have the opportunity to teach people what it actually means. But that’s much more a matter of what we do, not what we call it.

    I mean, yeah, it sounds cooler to say, “I’m going to the gathering” than “I’m going to church.” But if the gathering is as clubby as a church, we’ve done nothing good. It’s just like when my company started calling me an “associate” instead of a “clerk.”

  21. 9-12-2007

    Alan,

    You asked, “How do you feel about this new meaning for the word “church”?”
    I’m neither pro or con regarding the secular use of the word “church”. I have long been of the opinion that it is not a word which is essential for Christians to use, seldom using the word when preaching and referring to God’s people.
    Apart from the many Biblical reasons expounded in your posts, for me, the use of “congregation” sounds quite correct for several reasons, amongst which are:
    1.”church” is generally identified with a wide range of partisan religious groups/denominations.
    2.In this part of the world, and I suspect in yours, “church” is more and more, especially in the media, being identified with a group that is at pains to maintain its claim of being the only legitimate “church”.
    Almost without exception the spokesmen chosen to speak in the media on behalf of the “church” are from that denomination.
    3.A change in designation is helpful for new Christians to understand they are not just a part of some confusing mish-mash of religious sects and cults.
    Resistance to change is our major hurdle. We are lazy in our use of language also, not wanting to use longer terms. How hard is it to say,”Our local Congregation of Christ”, or, “Our local Family of God’s People”?
    Maybe those terms specifically mark us out and identifies us too clearly for some?

  22. 9-12-2007

    This discussion has been excellent. I hope you continue to expand this discussion and dialog with one another. I’ll be glad to continue as well.

    Brent,

    Yes, I think the way we use the word “church” eventually affects what we believe about the church. Everett Ferguson (I think) once said, “We not only use words. Words use us.”

    Lew,

    I agree that if we stop using the word “church” altogether, then it will be difficult to carry on a conversation in some contexts. Perhaps, we should use the word carefully (#2 or #3), and explain how we are using the word “church” when we think there may be confusion. However, I’m with you, in that I think it would be great to use a different word. I noticed that William Tyndale used the word “congregation” when he translated the Greek work “ekklesia”. I’m not sure if that word is better or not.

    Allan,

    You said: “Problem is that it is quite often the building that owns the Church!” I think this is true in many cases. Or, if the building does not “own” the church, then at least the church defines themself and their responsibilities based on the building in which they normally meet.

    Aaron,

    You bring up a good point. Many people have been hurt by fellow believers and by church organizations. For them, the word “church” carries many negative connotations. Until they grow to understand that it is not the church that hurt them, perhaps it will be beneficial to use other terms. This would be similar to someone who has been hurt by their father. The concept of God as father may not be appealing, until they are able to learn that father is not equal to hurt and abuse.

    David,

    I agree that one way through this mess is discipleship. For the most part, I do not teach about using the word “church”. Instead, I teach by word and example what the church is. Many people – Leah is an example (above) – catch on to what I am saying both by what I teach and also by how I use the word.

    And, you are absolutely right about changing the name of the “thing”. Calling something a “gathering” instead of “church” does not make it right or acceptable or pleasing to God.

    Aussie John,

    Thanks for answering my question. I’m glad that you mentioned the word “congregation”. I mentioned to Lew that Tyndale chose the word “congregation” when translating the Greek word “ekklesia”. It seems that you agree with Tyndale that this is a better term.

    -Alan

  23. 9-13-2007

    Alan,

    The word “congregation” might still have too much theological baggage. How about “group”?

    Lew

  24. 9-13-2007

    Lew,

    I agree that the word “congregation” has baggage as well. I was wondering if anyone was going to point that out. I often use the terms “group”, “assembly”, “meeting”, and even “gathering”.

    -Alan

  25. 9-6-2011

    So…here’s another “Leah” putting in my two-cents worth. I still use the word “church” but only when I’m referring to anything related to the organized, institutional church. When I use it, there is more negative than positive connotation attached to it (at least in my mind). For me, it has to do with the “system” and the “traditions” of human beings. I don’t use it to refer to the people in the institutional church, or to those with whom I share “body life”, or to believers in general. I prefer to call believers my “brothers and sisters”, “God’s people”, “believers”, etc. When I think in terms of coming together around Christ to “partake” of Him and participate with Him as the “body” (and for “one-anothering”), THEN I use ekklesia. :-)

  26. 10-27-2011

    I would be between #2 and #3, but lean mostly with #2. I think we can “redeem” the real meaning of the word. It will not be easy though. I often ask my children, “what is a church?” They reply in unison, “The people of God.” I love that.

    Here in Quebec, teaching the true meaning of church is very important. It helps that we rent a school to meet in, so with us, it is more obvious. People in the community have often asked me how we can call ourselves a church when we do not own one. I simply reply by explaining what a church according to Scripture. They are not trying to be mean or rude. They are asking a real question from their definition of the world church (in English and French).

  27. 12-29-2011

    30+ Years ago I was part of a new congregation that was mostly folks from the Jesus movement and mostly under 30. When we began the lines of delineation were kept bold and clear.

    The church was God’s People gathered. The places we met were buildings, the times we met were meetings. You can’t go to church any more than the Smith family can go to Smith.

    As we grew from 100-300-500 it all turned on it’s head and the fight did not seem worth it there was so much to do and a few years later the fight for the proper uses of the word was forgotten and soon after so was the reasons for the fight.

    I say all of this to say that the only unacceptable option is to allow people you love (beggining with ourselves) to press on in an error that will negatively effect our future behavior in and understanding of the congregation ( I like that word ) Our understanding of church effects our understanding of God and visa versa and therefore an important element of our faith and life.

  28. 12-29-2011

    I vote for number 1, in general. Clarifications like in number 2 can be helpful at appropriate times. Christian doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone either, but we don’t stop using it altogether.

  29. 10-25-2012

    Fellowship is a good term that I use, meet for fellowship or fellowship w/one another, i feel is a good replacement for using church…due to past corruptions within, there can be negativity in association w/saying church, ppl too quick to peg/pass judgement…i try only to use Church in reference to Body of Believers.

  30. 10-25-2012

    Alan,
    didn’t I write to you a couple months ago on this very topic, yet you tried to shut me down? I am surprised you have tweeted it again, even more surprised that you were thinking about these things years ago, yet when I tried to bring it up you criticised me heavily.
    I, for one think the word “church” is entirely unscriptural and dangerous in that it supports the wrong theology of Constantinian Temple Religion.
    Anyway, God Bless you Alan. I hope we can have more open and honest discussions in the future.

  31. 10-25-2012

    CS,

    Thanks. We often use the term “fellowship” also.

    Paul,

    Perhaps I misunderstood, but I don’t consider disagreement to be “shutting you down.” I understand that many people cannot use the term “church” without associating it with building, organizations, etc. If that’s the case, then it’s better for that person to use another term.

    -Alan

  32. 2-26-2013

    We could debate what term to use and each term will have its positives and downsides. I think of “fellowship”, how many meanings can you get there, and some of the churches (used as the body of believers) truly are not honoring the word “fellowship”. I asked the church,(sorry Congregation) what they felt was the purpose of the “church”. Their answer, “to go reach the lost, teach the word, and encourage the believers”. And the walls talked… We need to get over the polictical correct issue… I truly believe Christ would be sadden that we spend so much time making sure that we are polictically correct, as if we must obey the Law… surely we should not break any laws… it would be wrong… we should be like Christ and follow the Law… He didn’t heal on the sabbath… he had his everyone wash their hands before meals, he never was caught speaking to a sameritan woman. I do believe that some have miss used the work church but as pastors if we teach them to live like Christ… they will be the church. Like the High School teacher told the mayor here yesterday, Calvary Baptist Church is coming to help with the playground. The teacher knew the building was coming it was the people that were coming. It was confussing to her at all and she is a not a Christian (yet). Just a thought

  33. 2-26-2013

    Reginald,

    The funny thing is, apart from a few posts on this blog, I rarely debate what term we should use. Instead, my concern is more about what people mean when they use those terms, and how people are sharing their lives with one another as the people of God.

    -Alan

  34. 6-26-2013

    We use words to tease out meanings but I do not think the word “Church” adequately describes a people gathered in THE NAME ( Life-style) of Jesus. A group tagged as ” gathered in Jesus’ name” is a group(THE BODY) working together to demonstrate the material and eternal benefits of the Christ-Life to all men; this summarizes the term “Christians”. The “Church” , like the “temple”, is basically the non-living building( the true temple being OUR BODIES) in which Christians( as already defined) , meet up to ORALLY express their thanks and continued belief in THE LIFE-STYLE OF JESUS as the only way back to God. This they do through singing , Bible reading , preaching and other forms of emphasis ON THE CHRIST LIFE-STYLE.
    The church , I believe , is not THE BODY OF CHRIST……those who trutjfully and sincerely believe in and hence live the holy and righteous life-style of the Son of God….form HIS TRUE BODY…..ahem….I guess ONLY Jesus knows His Own Body.
    Should we change the word “church”, no , it should be re-defined.

  35. 6-27-2013

    Franklin,

    Many people have decided not to use the term “church.” Whatever term you use – even “body” – you will need to define and describe to people. I’ve decided to continue to use the word “church” when I can define it. Otherwise, I use “assembly”, “gathering”, or something like that.

    -Alan