Some years ago, while in my first pastorate, I made a statement to Mary Jo that I thought was highly intelligent and clever, but was quickly made to realize that it was very shortsighted and minimizing. I said, “Being a pastor isn’t what I do, it’s who I am.” Her immediate response showed me the shortsightedness and the minimizing effect of the statement. She said, “Where in that does you being a husband and a father fit?
She spoke very wise words to me that day. I was limiting my identity to just one aspect, making being a pastor the whole of my identity and everything else just something added on if I chose to add it on.
I bring up this personal experience for this reason: the same thing has happened to the assembly of Jesus. What is the word the vast majority of people use as the name and identity of the assembly, whether global or local? Church.
Did you realize that the word “church” never appears in the New Testament? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the origin of “church” is found in the Greek word kurikon which is from the Greek word kuriakon which means “a house of a lord.” Both of these words are not found in any of the writings in the New Testament. The word used is ekklesia which means, “the called-forth ones.”
Now, if you have any knowledge of the different images in the New Testament used to describe the assembly of the followers of Jesus, you might just be saying, “Wait a minute. The assembly is pictured as a building or a temple in the New Testament. So having the assembly be known as church is accurate.”
But here is where my personal experience from above comes into play. The assembly pictured as a building/temple is only one picture. There are other pictures such as a body and a community. And just like I was wrong to make my identity hang on one aspect, I also believe it wrong to use one picture of the assembly to be the name of identification for it.
Now, you might be saying, “What’s the big deal?” Well, here’s the big deal. I believe that the use of the building image as the identifying name of the assembly has caused damage and confusion to the true identity of the assembly. As a building, the assembly is rigid, immovable, and inflexible. If that becomes the identity, what is the result? The assembly becomes rigid, immovable, and inflexible in inappropriate ways.
Just like God never intended to have a physical temple built for Him (that was King David’s idea. God was good with a mobile tent) so that people had to come to Him instead of Him moving with and being with the people, God never intended for His assembly to be something to which people had to come. How many this past week made this statement: “I’m going to church on Sunday?” Because of the building analogy becoming the identity as well as the permanence of the building analogy being misapplied, people now have in their minds that the assembly of believers is something to which they go and from which they depart. If you can go to something, you also are able to leave that same thing. This has caused a compartmentalization in the minds of many, wrongly so.
Because many see the assembly through this image, the permanence of a building has caused assemblies to lag behind what is happening in the culture. It’s why assemblies struggle with connecting the gospel with a changing world. They are stuck in ways and things that were effective in a world that no longer exists, refusing to change, adjust, and seek innovative and different ways of and for doing things. It doesn’t mean that those ways of doing things back then were wrong for, if they worked, they were right. What it does mean is that they are not necessarily right for today. This is why so many in the world today level the charge of irrelevance against the assembly, and they would be accurate. All because of making the view of the assembly as building or church its identity.
What is the battle cry of so many assemblies? “We’ve never done it that way before.” Welcome to the effect of having “church” as the identity of the assembly. It has turned into something that I don’t believe God ever intended.
I could go on about this, but I won’t. What I will do is give you the link to my sermon series titled “Images of the Gathering” which speaks to all of this.
I will end with this: we are assembly for we are the “called-forth” ones in the world today, and that is so so much more than just “church.” And when we call ourselves “church,” we do ourselves and God a great disservice.