It’s funny how words take on different meanings over time. “Bad” used to mean bad but there for awhile at least it somehow meant good. “Cougar” used to mean a large cat. “Gay” used to mean a happy person. “Tight” used to mean snug. We say things like “I love those hamburgers!” and then we tell our spouse and kids that we “love” them too (and I’m guessing they do hope we prefer them over a hamburger). Some of these changes in word meanings have little consequence in the daily lives of most people while other changes are much more serious in nature. One of those more serious changes, in my opinion, is what the word “church” has come to mean.
The word “church” in the bible always refers to people, not buildings. It comes from the Greek word “Ekklesia”. Here is what Fausset’s Bible Dictionary has to say about it:
“Ekklesia in the New Testament never means the building or house of assembly, because church buildings were built long AFTER the apostolic age. It means an organized body, whose unity does not depend on its being met together in one place; not an assemblage of atoms, but members in their several places united to the One Head, Christ, and forming one organic living whole (1 Corinthians 12). The bride of Christ (Ephesians 1:22, 5:25-32), the body of which He is the Head.”
Of course, you don’t have to take a bible dictionary’s word for it. A simple reading of the text makes it clear. Whether it was Jesus or Paul or anyone else using the term, the word “church” always referred to the people who made up the Body of Christ. Consider this illustration. We’re riding in a car together and I drive into a neighborhood, pull up in front of a house and say, “There’s my family. I had it painted last year. I’ve always liked Tudor style families so that’s one thing I really like about it. The roof needs to be replaced before long but other than that it’s in pretty good shape. It’s a split level family and has lots of storage space. So, what do you think about my family?” If I did THAT, the real question is what would you think about me??!
You know that a family is not a house, a family is made up of people—and they are a family whether they are inside a house, outside a house, at the mall, on the street, at a restaurant, etc. The same goes for the church. If you are a Christian and if I am a Christian then we are the church. It makes no difference whether you and I are sitting in a building together or if we are at different places within the same city or if we are a thousand miles apart. We are still the church as is every other Christian worldwide wherever they may be. If you refer to “the church at Nashville” in the biblical sense, you are referring to all the Christians in Nashville wherever and however they may happen to congregate. If we do not look at it this way, if we continue to think of the church as a building, then we may be setting ourselves up for some pretty dire consequences.
If the church is a building then that is the “holy” place and it suddenly becomes more sacred and special than any other place. Therefore, if I really want to get close to God, I have to be there because when I am away I must be further from God. All of a sudden my private devotions and prayer at home are not good enough and somehow a little too far out of reach for God. Not only that, but I forget that as a Christian I am the church and a disconnect occurs between what happens in the church building and what happens everywhere else in my life. When I’m in the building I’m a Christian and I’m spiritual and I’m holy, but when I leave I’m back to being regular, worldly person again—until I go back to the building. If the church is a building then the hustle and bustle of activity in the building must be what the Christian life is all about.
What it all comes down to is this: If I see the church as a building or as a series of activities that occur in a building, then church degenerates into being something I go to occasionally instead of it being who I am. Friends, that is a huge difference and it really does matter. How would you rate the state of Christianity in America today? How would you rate it in your own life? If you see it as lacking, the meaning we pour into the word “church” may very well have a lot to do with it. Remember, a family is not a house and the church is not a building. If you and I are Christians, we are the church.