There’s one phrase that’s really been getting under my skin lately.
I’ve spent most of my life saying it. I think all of us who identify as Christians have.
We’ve mentioned it to our co-workers when they ask about our weekend plans. We’ve said it to our neighbors when they ask where we’re off to so early in the morning. We proclaim it to our children when we drag them out of bed first thing on a Sunday.
“We are going to church.”
According to Merriam-Webster, there’s nothing wrong with the statement. Church is most often defined as: “a building for public and especially Christian worship.” And this is usually what people mean when they say they are going to church; they will show up in a building somewhere with an intent to practice religious rituals and/or worship.
Here’s the thing. This definition of church is not actually biblical. In fact, it’s way off. And I’m afraid that our poor phraseology is negatively impacting our views on and beliefs about church.
Let me explain.
The word that our Bible most often translates as “church” is the Greek ekklésia, which means, literally, “called-out ones.” It was a word borrowed from Greek culture; there were ekklesias long before Jesus and the apostles came around.
In Ancient Greece, the ekklesia was a democratic institution, an assembly of men in a particular city-state who came together in a public space. Any male eighteen or older who was a Greek citizen was able to be a part of the ekklesia, which convened many times a year. According to History.com, the ekklesia met together and “made decisions about war and foreign policy, wrote and revised laws and approved or condemned the conduct of public officials.” They would vote, and majority ruled.
By the time Christ came around and said, “on this rock I will build my ekklesian,” he was drawing from a cultural context that the apostles had heard of, but were not a part of. When Jesus spoke of establishing his ekklesia, he was making a new destiny for the term, but he was not completely redefining it.
Christ’s ekklesia was a collection of people, not a place or a building. It was an assembly of souls (including women, which was revolutionary in that day) that were on an equal playing field, souls that He had “called out.”
The word ekklesia (and its derivations) occurs 114 times in the New Testament. Sometimes, it could be understood as “church” (congregation) and other times as “Church” (all believers). Whether it was a small, regional group or all the Christ-followers as a conglomerate, the word always refers to an assembly of people.
Here are just a few things we can deduce from its natural usage:
Churches met in homes (but were not homes). Romans 16:5a: “Likewise greet the ekklesia that is in their house.”
There were multiple, regional church assemblies. Acts 16:4-5 “Now while [Paul and Timothy] were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. So the ekklesias were being strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.”
The churches had leaders. Acts 20:17: “And from Miletus [Paul] sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the ekklesia.”
The Church is the “body of Christ.” Ephesians 1:22: “And [God] put all things in subjection under [Jesus’s] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the ekklesia, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
Christ is the Head of the Church. Ephesians 5:23: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the ekklesia: and he is the savior of the body.”
Christ cares for his Church. Ephesians 5:29-30: “…no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the ekklesia, because we are members of His body.”
The Church can grow. Acts 9:31 – “So the ekklesia throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
When the Bible speaks of Church, it never refers to a location. So we ought to stop referring to it as such.
The Nuance in our Phraseology
Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Listen, you’re taking this too hard. We all know that the Church is more than just a building.” Perhaps the little Sunday School song has come to mind: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people!” We know that the Church is the body of Christ, yada yada.
But we don’t speak as though that is true.
According to our phraseology, we are either presenting church as a verb or as a destination. Consider this similar phrase: “I’m going to work” can be interpreted as “I’m going to (do) work” — or “I’m going to (the place where I) work”.
When we say, “I’m going to church” we are implying that we are going to do something or go somewhere.
This phrase has nothing to do with the actual reality of what Christ intended church to be: a group of people under His care.
The Implications of our Phraseology
But, one may argue, the phrase “going to church” automatically assumes that it includes the people. Well, If someone said to you, “I’m going to my house,” you’d imagine them stepping into the threshold of the place of residence. Sure, there could be family there, but the point is that they were going to a place.
If someone said to you, “I’m going to family,” you’d raise an eyebrow and deduce that they don’t understand basic language or grammar. You’d smile and correct them, “You’re going to be with your family.”
When we use the phrase, “we are going to church,” we are making a similar mistake and revealing that we don’t truly know the meaning of the word we are using. If we don’t use the word correctly, do we truly understand it?
In my experience, many people do associate “church” with something we do or somewhere we go; it’s a sanctuary, a fellowship hall, a pulpit; singing songs, tossing a check in the offering plate, listening to (or sleeping through) a sermon.
This, I think, is wrong. At the very least, it’s detrimental.
I think that this phraseology is a symptom of modern day Pharisseism: we have placed too much emphasis on what you do as a person of faith instead of who and Whose you are. We talk so much about going to church, of doing devotions, among other things. We don’t talk enough about belonging to Christ, of being a part of a body that can encourage you, hold you accountable, carry your burdens, rejoice with you, be the hands and the feet of Christ in your daily life.
Church, the way God intended it, was about community of like-minded people coming together and demonstrating Christ’s love to each other through the good and the bad, not a thing to cross off of a Spiritual to-do list.
We need to change the way we speak of church so we can change the way we think about church. We need to see it as an assembly of people whom God has called out of darkness into His marvelous light. If we don’t, we are doing ourselves a disservice.
Correcting our Phraseology
We must begin by using the word “church” correctly.
When your children ask where you are going on Sunday morning say, “We are going to go be with the church.”
We can say the same thing when getting together with brothers and sisters in Christ at a friend’s house for dinner, or when we’re heading to a campground to fellowship with believers around a campfire. We could say it in any country of the world, at any time, so long as two or three are gathered in His name.
When we say “we are going to be with the church”, “we are part of the church”, or “we are being the church”, the correct concept can begin to take shape in our mind. We, and our children, will better understand and embrace what Christ had in mind for us as His body.
And I think we will all be better off for it.
I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!
“We are the Church” – Avery and March, 1972