“Church” is one of those words that has such a well-worn rut of usage that it may be useless to try to bring correction. But I’ll try.
“Church” is used to translate the Greek word “ekklesia”. A more literal English synonym is “assembly”.
The word is typically used in these ways:
- What church do you go to? (There are multiple churches)
- My church is awesome! (… as distinct from your church)
- How many churches are there in this town? (Again, multiple churches)
- Where’s the First Baptist Church? (Referring to a building)
- Do you go to a Presbyterian church, or a Baptist church? (There are multiple kinds of church)
It’s not too uncommon to hear the right correction that the church is not the building, but the people. But, I don’t know that I’ve heard many others say this: There is only one church. Period.
- There aren’t multiple churches. You don’t go to a church – you gather with a certain part of the church.
- You don’t have a church that is different from some other church. The part of the church you gather with may be awesome. I hope so! But, it’s not some distinct church.
- There aren’t multiple churches in your town. There’s one. There may be multiple groups with different names and leaders and buildings and whatnot, but if the people who go to those places are Christians, then they are all part of the church.
- The building is definitely not the church.
- There aren’t multiple kinds of church. There is one church that may have a variety of expressions – people separating themselves based on preferences or convictions or whatever, but those aren’t different churches.
Is this semantics? Does it matter? Yes, it matters. We cannot function as the church if we think we can legitimately segregate ourselves into different ‘churches’.
But, can there be different gatherings? If so, how do we describe them? Well, if there are gatherings and there is a need to somehow identify them, we can use words like “gathering” or “the part of the church that meets over at First and Main”. Or, go ahead and identify them by a building name, like “North End Chapel”.
It feels a bit curmudgeonly to bring this up, but I have to, partly because I will need to refer to this post to explain my funny language in other posts. I can hardly ever bring myself to say “Such-and-Such Church”, because I’m convinced it’s a) wrong, and b) really unhelpful. In the same way, I can’t bring myself to say “Pastor So-and-So”. But that’s another post.
Jesus has one church. In your city, there is one church. Not one institution, but one church. The church may be fractured and may have broken into a bunch of institutions, but there is still only one church.
At least, that’s how I’m reading the New Testament. Are you seeing something different there? I’d love to hear! Feel free to comment!