Being the Church

“Go Be the Church”

I saw that on Instagram on a friend’s shirt. Before I start, let me give the quick caveat that I know what they mean and what they’re going for. And for the most part, I dig it. So kudos to my friend and his church for wanting to live out the realities of the redeemed life as a real thing and stop treating church like a place.

Having said that…

I wonder if this “being” language just adds a layer of confusion to a term that’s already pretty jacked up.

The word translated in most New Testament versions as “church” is the Greek word ekklesia. Now some who know more about Greek might want to try and parse the word ekklesia into its components: ek– as “out” and –klesia as a derivative of “called ones”, leading to the say that the church is the “called out ones”. In the first place, breaking a word into its component parts just doesn’t always work: just try it with “butterfly” …

But secondly, this approach ignores the way the word is used in New Testament times. When we look at first century usage broadly and the core usage of the term ekklesia in the NT, ekklesia generally just means assembly or gathering. There are usages that show how the apostles took the term and began to use it as a way to refer to all those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, regardless of whether they can actually physically gather or not. But even then, I think the term points forward to the future reality of the whole church gathered before the throne and crying out, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!” Regardless, the most common usage for ekklesia is the gathering.

Which is to say that “church” is an ordinary word for people who get together for a purpose.

We, as individuals, are part of that church. We’re either part of the church which Christ “loved…and gave himself up for her (it)” (Eph 5:25) or we’re part of the church that meets somewhere, like at Priscilla and Aquila’s house (Rom 16:4-5) or at Nympha’s house (Col 4:15) or Apphia and Archippus’ house (Philemon 2). In the first case, you’re part of the church if Jesus died for you. To say it differently, if you believe in Jesus, you’re part of the church (universal, if you prefer) whether you really know it or want it or whatever. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it or what you do: you are part of the church because Jesus bought you by his blood. In the second case, you’re part of the church if you do what the church, by definition, does: you gather with them (the local church, in some traditions).

In either case, I don’t think that’s what “go be the church” was intended when it was printed on a t-shirt. And yes, I know this is largely a game of semantics—and I really despise the whole semantics game. But what concerns me is that in calling a building a “church” and saying things like “it’s time to go to church”, we’ve completely killed the NT usage of the word. But in an effort to recover the term and make better use of it, we make it mean something else which also isn’t what the NT meant and still end up killing the term. How can you “be” an assembly of people?

Either way, we’re missing the what the apostles meant when they used the word ekklesia (or “church”). We keep warping the word so that when we go back to read our source documents in the Scriptures, we still keep reading the term and making it into something else entirely. In the larger sense of the word, you are part of the church because Jesus has you and no one can snatch you from his hand. In the narrower sense, you’re part of the church through gathering.

Where this long line of reasoning leads me to is a conclusion I really never thought I’d come to since abandoning the institutionalized, Americanized, popularized church: gathering is of vital importance. And at the core, it’s what bothers me about this “go be the church” business. Because I presume the meaning there is that we should go out and be lights to the community, that we should show the love of Jesus everywhere, that we should find avenues of fellowship outside of scheduled gathering times. And all of these things are so true—we should be compelled by the love of Christ to do these things.

But they are not remotely the same thing as “being” the church. If we want to “be” the church, we have to gather. Because church = gathering. Being active in our neighborhoods and circles, serving others and being a light is just being a disciple. Being a church requires gathering together.

The implications of this are more than just “go to church every week” (though there’s a whole list of implications of that phrase, too!) nor does it have anything to do with (corporate) worship. I’m really trying to get at how modern usage of “church” is something we read backwards into the New Testament all the time. And our modern translations don’t help much either. The church is not a building or a state of being, but actual souls redeemed and joined together by the blood of Jesus. The church is a community, a family, that exists in unity through Jesus. And there is a vital, physical connection that can’t be ignored.