the word “church”

Recently I was asked for my thoughts on Jeremy Pryor’s blog, Please Define “Church”. Here goes.

One thing I have come to find infinitely valuable when discussing anything is to first question the validity of a question/thesis. If the question/thesis proves invalid for any number of reasons, I can focus my discussion on that, or ignore the topic altogether. If the question/thesis proves valid, I can hardly find a reason not to engage. Sometimes, however, the validity of a question/thesis is ambiguous and requires further clarification. That is where I find myself when I hear statements like the one Jeremy leads off with:

We need a clear consensus on the New Testament meaning of the word “Church”.

Perhaps Mike Edwards comment best illustrates my point:

I think there may be a confusion of terms to square away. The word “church” is an english word that more accurately means “the place where God dwells”.

From this perspective we have 2 valid meanings for the word church:

a) The idiomatic meaning (the meaning that is commonly accepted) – the building where a worship service takes place.

b) The actual and literal meaning – the place where God dwells.

I find it a quest of insanity to commit oneself to deconstruct an idiomatic meaning to replace it with the actual meaning. An example of this would be someone hell bent on explaining to a bunch of 12 year-olds that the word “cool” is a temperature reference and not a state of one’s general acceptance among peers. What’s the point? Even if you can convince them, the embeded idiomatic meaning cements it’s usage in their vernacular.

So now I come back to Jeremy’s thesis: We need a clear consensus on the New Testament meaning of the word “Church”.

Now, there is another side of this coin, and that is when an idiomatic meaning trumps or hinders the ability for people to understand the true meaning of the word. Take our example of 12 year olds and the word “cool” again. Does their use of the word in it’s commonly accepted meaning trump or hinder anyone’s ability to understand the original meaning of the word? Of course not. Does our commonly accepted use of the word “church” trump or hinder anyone’s ability to understand it’s orignal meaning?

Ahh, now we are getting somewhere.

So now we are faced with a dilema. We desperately desire for people to know the true meaning of thw word “church,” but are faced with the reality that (IF WE ARE HONEST WITH OURSELVES) attempting to change the idiomatic meaning of the word “church” is a fruitless endeavor.

My solution: allow people to use the word church however they so please, while attempting to build a church that is authentic to the New Testament meaning. Worry less about getting people to use the word right, and focus more on getting them to be the church right. That seems far more condusive to Kingdom building.


3 Responses

  1. Well put. I think we should always push people to think about the meaning of words since they will reinterpret Scripture’s usuage of said terms through their pre-existing grid. However, I think it is enough that they grasp their are dual meanings of those terms than vanquishing the “incorrect” meaning of the word. Cool is a both a state of being and a temperature. Church is a family and a meeting place dedicated to before mentioned family.

  2. Well Said. it would be easier to introduce a new word than to reset what people define a word as. Especially when that word is reinforced on a weekly, daily, even hourly basis for some.

  3. Matt

    Your comparison to the word ‘cool’ was very intelligent and really does help make sense of what often seems a battle to get language changed. Why not use it in multiple ways, while seeking to live out its essential meaning in our lives in a way consistent with that meaning.

    I’m having a similar conversation over at my blog too. Crazy.

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