I have been reflecting recently on the nature of the church. I wrote a blog post a couple weeks ago asking whether a church should be more properly referenced as an “it” or a “them.” I should probably clarify that I am convinced that it’s primarily the latter. While it is not wrong to refer to church as an it, it is dangerous for that to be only, or even primary, way we think of it. The church is more properly a they.
Because the church is not a thing, it is people. It’s not a place, it’s the people in the place. It’s not a building, it’s the people who use the building. We don’t normally call a gathering of people it – we say they. This understanding is indicated in the original language of the New Testament, Greek.
The word we commonly translate as church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia and it refers to a group of people who are “called” (kaleo) “out” (ek). In classical Greek, it was used to describe a group of people, called out from a particular place or places as a distinct body. It was a political term, typically referencing such a body gathering for political purposes.
The New Testament appropriates this term and uses it to refer to the new expression of the people of God. And it’s a perfect fit. Jesus is not building a building, he’s not sanctifying a physical location: he’s building his ekklesia, his called out followers, people who are no longer conforming to the image of the world, but who are being conformed to the image of Christ. They are called out of the world to look like Christ, to demonstrate Christ, to declare Christ. They gather with other believers to declare a new political reality: Jesus is king and one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord! They go out into the world as ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven. The church is a they!
But we miss this understanding so often when we think and speak of “church.” This misunderstanding is partially a result of translation: ekklesia is nearly always translated as church in our English bibles. And that’s fine, so long as we understand it to carry the original mental image intended by the authors. I’m afraid that we don’t more often than not, though. Church is an Englished-up version of the German kirche, which itself seems to have been a transmogrification of the Greek kyriakon. Regardless of precise etymology, the idea is that of “the Lord’s house.” All well and good. The new covenant people of God are called a temple of the Holy Spirit, we are a spiritual building founded on Christ. But the problem is that our minds don’t think spiritual building first and foremost when we hear “the Lord’s house.” We think address. We think carpet. We think bricks and mortar. We become like Israel, thinking of a shining temple on particular mountain in a particular place.
So we end up with church as someplace we go, rather than who we are. We end up with church as somewhere we don’t say certain words, rather than a word that defines how we act at all times. Church, in this sense, leads us to an understanding that is antithetical to the New Testament ideal of ekklesia. Church, in this sense, leads us to an it.
Now, I’m not saying we should scrap all the English translations and start over. But I am saying that we should rethink our understanding of what the church is. We should overhaul the mental image we associate with the term. Let’s start thinking of the church less as a physical place and start thinking of IT as a THEY. Better yet, let’s think of it as a WE. Because, if we profess the name of Christ as Lord, we’re the church. You and me. Disciples called out and gathered together to the glory of God. Replacing an it understanding of the church with a we/they understanding has far-reaching implications: it requires us to retrain our brains and it challenges our assumptions of what the church is for, about, and to do. But it’s worth doing for the sake of Christ and his kingdom!
I will be thinking and writing more about some of those implications here in the coming days. In the meantime, I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts on the matter: shoot me an email. God bless!