The word ‘church’ conveys the idea of an organization managed by a defined hierarchy. It is a clergy and laity system, typically reflected in the architecture of pulpit and pew (though the exact furniture may vary). It has definite boundaries: at any given point it is incorporated within a specific building, is led by a specific set of individuals, and has a specific membership roll. It has property. This definite entity has its own peculiar interest in self-preservation.
This set of characteristics was not true of the first Christian groups. Because the contemporary word ‘church’ is so firmly associated with a system or method not specified or endorsed by the New Testament authors, some who advocate a simpler and less structured gathering have expressed dissatisfaction with the term and either avoid using it, attach qualifiers to it, or use ‘church’ only in a negative context to describe that modern thing not found in Scripture.
To be sure, the term ‘church’ can be found in Scripture, but it is a mistranslation of – or at best, a failure to translate – Greek words that properly have different English equivalents. The Greek word most often rendered ‘church’ is ‘ekklesia,’ which simply has the sense of ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly.’ It is has a benign social context, with a bit of a political bent. A school assembly or at most a town hall meeting adequately fulfills the word. It doesn’t signify politics at a national convention level of intensity, at least not necessarily.
Some people who wish to shed the term ‘church’ use the anglicized ‘ekklesia’ in its stead. To me this substitution falls ironically short of its goal. It replaces one rarefied religious term held over from an older language with another term from an older language. All I can see gained by the switch is a louder claim of distinctiveness and a better perch from which to look down upon the rest, the ignorant and unremarkable ones who go to churches.
If Christians had sought a distinctive term in the beginning, they had one on hand: ‘synagogue’ describes the Jewish religious gathering in the Greek language contemporary to the origins of Christianity. Although doubtless the Jews of the time would not have appreciated it, there is no compelling reason to suppose the Christians couldn’t have taken the term with them when first they split from Judaism. Certainly the term ‘church,’ once established, has been carried by many a departing faction denounced by the Christians they left.
Perhaps the closest modern word to match the ancient ‘ekklesia’ is our ‘meeting,’ generally carrying the sense of business to be done but not strictly limited to such uses. Not coincidentally, a few of the smaller denominations that got started with an eye on the primitive church favor this very word, ‘meeting,’ to describe their convocations. It is not really such a secret that ‘church’ is an artificial splice in the self-conception of Christianity.
But even ‘meeting,’ applied to a gathering with a religious purpose, strikes my ear as contrived and deliberately differentiating. If we are looking for the most ordinary word possible to describe our gathering, and our gathering has some purpose which relates to God, the word to use is ‘church.’ Yes, it has a disgraceful ancestry, but so did Jesus. Words should be chosen for how they will be understood; to do otherwise is to deliberately close the doors to the public and to germinate a mystery only the initiated may comprehend.
There is mystery in the church, but that mystery is Christ, and he has revealed himself and given us charge to proclaim him. Not all who see will comprehend; but let us not be found hanging curtains that Christ tore down.