Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Word Study on Church

A few years ago I heard a man announce that we have worked through the worship wars and that the next war would be in the area of ecclesiology, our doctrine of the church. As I was personally enmeshed in worship wars, I wondered why he thought we had passed through the hymn vs. chorus, organ vs drum debate. I don’t think that debate has been settled, at least for churches committed to cross-generational ministries.

But his comment about ecclesiology intrigued me. What exactly is the church? How do you define it? What is the difference between a Bible study, a para-church organization, a church, and the church.

I remember the first time I was involved in the discussion as to whether seminary students in chapel could take communion. The debate was much more intense than I expected. “Absolutely not,” one set of professors decreed. We are not the church, and communion can only be served in the church. I was flabbergasted. Here were seminary professors asserting something without biblical warrant (my opinion).

When asked what the church is, they responded with the traditional reformed answer. The church is where the gospel is taught rightly, the sacraments served properly, and church discipline exercise. Of course, this definition has virtually nothing to do with the biblical text and more to do with the reformers attempt to distinguish themselves from the Roman Catholic church.

So I went to my favorite word study book, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary (i.e., shameless plug), and am reminded that etymologically (and its etymology is still valid) the ekklesia is the community of believers who have been “called out” of the world to belong to King Jesus. It is never identified with a building but always with the people. The church may meet in a building, but it is not the building, the home; the church is the people (e.g., Phlm 2; Col 4:15). The true church is the visible expression of the expanding Kingdom of God.

I just finished reading Snyder’s book, The Community of the King (review to come shortly on Overall I think it is an excellent book. His central thesis is that the church is not an institution but a community of true followers of Jesus Christ. He goes to great pains to distinguish the church from any form of hierarchy or structure or institutionalism. I think he goes too far (e.g., there is some structure provided by elders and deacons; these are offices and not just gifts or calling), but the basic thesis is right. There is only one church, the church universal, and in various places at various times there are local expressions of the church. The church is never to be equated with buildings or institutions or denominations.

So what prompted this blog? A good friend has been deeply wounded by the traditional church. (By “traditional” I mean the brick and mortar monstrosity that claims to be the “church” but is often nothing more than a spiritual shopping mall.) Rejection. Gossip (the native tongue of the traditional church). Persecution that extended to her entire family. It has taken almost two years to work through.

Last semester she enrolled in a well-known Christian college. She is not willing to attend any of the local spiritual shopping malls at this time, and this with her parents’ approval. She is healing, and doesn’t need to be exposed to more of that foolishness right now. But one of the (shall we say) “authorities” of this college is insisting that she “go to church.” “This will help you work through your pain.”

What an absolutely horrible thing to say (at least in this girl’s situation). What a horrible ecclesiology. Yes, she needs the body of Christ. Yes, she needs Christian companionship. Yes, she needs the comfort of the true church. But this “authority’s” ecclesiology is as wrong as wrong can be. What happens Sunday morning is not necessarily the church and should never be equated with the church. The church is the community of believers who meet together, regularly and irregularly, to love one another, care for one another, carry one another’s burdens, stir up one another to love and good works, confess their sins to one another. When was the last time any of this happened in a large room with well-dressed people and the organ or drums blaring? If an institution is not carrying out the requirements Scripture places on the church, is it the church?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that we need one another. That we are to gather together on a regular basis (which I believe makes us a local expression of the true church). I’ve given many years of my life to encouraging others within the context of the traditional church. But we must never forget that what happens Sunday morning is not necessarily the church.

The church is the community of the king that gathers together on a regular basis to preach the gospel and fulfill the one anothers in Scripture. That community of “called out ones” is part of the answer to our loneliness and pain. But spiritual shopping malls rarely do anything more than confuse the people they supposedly serve.


Thank you for saying this!

Dr. Bill - Loving the Greek lectures. And the blog posts are very helpful. From some of these, like the above, I'm sensing some deep hurt from local church conflicts. I'm a veteran of some of those myself, with 40 years of experience as an adult. I've also seen many variants on church polity. Can "Greek come to the rescue" here? Specifically, is there warrant for a pastor/elder distinction in the NT? The last church I was in before we moved cross-country claimed these roles were indistinguishable, and went so far as to require elders to be ordained. While it solved the elder-pastor power struggle problem, it created others. Thoughts?

great insight on this! thank you for sharing!

You just said "etymologically (and its etymology is still valid) the ekklesia is the community of believers who have been “called out” of the world to belong to King Jesus." Gordon Fee and Even Don Carson and plenty of others are aghast right now... Would you mind explaining how this is not the root word fallacy to say this is the called out ones? Thanks.