Wednesday, November 02, 2022

What Makes a Church a Church?

Asked in an online forum last week: Is our social media community a church?

Interesting question, and one that almost nobody would have posed with any degree of seriousness prior to COVID. But if you think lurking in a Zoom meeting is “gathering” in anything remotely approximating the biblical sense (and apparently many Christians do), then it’s not unreasonable to ask how far you might take the concept of virtual church.

Naturally, a spate of comments followed.

The Meaning of “Church”

Before we get to these, we had best make sure we are all using “church” the same way. The very first recorded use of the word in scripture is the Lord’s declaration in Matthew that “I will build my church.” One obvious conclusion we may draw from it is that the church did not exist at the time he was speaking.

The word he used is ekklÄ“sia; literally, a “calling out”. This Greek term originally had no specifically religious connotation. Aristotle (384-322 BC) used it in his Politics to refer to men gathered together for the purpose of deliberation (such as a jury, college or parliament), but by the first century its semantic range had evidently broadened considerably. Luke uses it in Acts to refer to men gathered to riot. The town clerk in this account finds it necessary to distinguish between the ad hoc gathering of protesters in front of him and the “regular” or “lawful assembly” (the Aristotelian sense of the word), where he encourages them to settle their disagreement.

Despite using such a generic word in Matthew, it is evident the Lord had something very specific in mind that he was going to build. When we use the word “church” today, we always mean it in this religious sense, whether we are speaking of a spiritual union accomplished by the Holy Spirit across the centuries and all over the world, or of a local, physical gathering of believers. Paul writes:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.”

This baptism in the Spirit to which Paul refers took place at Pentecost. That one-time act of incorporation was the beginning of the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to build his church. Local churches today are visible, physical representations-in-miniature of that great spiritual reality.*

All clear? On to the comments then.

Flailing in the Dark

I can’t link to either the original question or the comments that followed as I would usually do, since the social media site that spawned this discussion (the only one on which I am even slightly active) is behind a paywall and publicly inaccessible, so the best I can do is credit the screen names of the commenters. It is also mostly anonymous (though a few of the “celebrity” commenters use their actual names), has a well-enforced clean speech policy and regular participation from significant numbers of Christians of every possible denomination in countries all over the world.

In any case, the question provoked a barrage of responses attempting to ferret out what makes a church a church, from which I selected a few of the most interesting. (The consensus answer to “Is our social media community a church?” was a firm NO, with which I agree.)

Though you will see some flailing in the dark below, all commenters appeared to understand the distinction between a local church and the church universal. The determiner that precedes “church” in the question is “a”, not “the”, so nobody wasted much time reminding the rest of us that those who believe are members of the Body of Christ; we all agree on that. It should be clear that no forum of any size other than heaven or the New Jerusalem could possibly contain the church universal, since the vast majority of its members have fallen asleep in Christ. So that’s out. But even the term “local church” is inapt. There is clearly nothing “local” about an online forum that hosts participants from every corner of the planet.

Here goes, then:

Cactus Eater: I don’t think so. We aren’t really “gathered in His name” and we don’t do communion.

da Mushrat: Nope! No Sacraments.

qbg: We don’t collectively do communion, so I’ll go with no.

SirHamster adds: And no pastor, deacons, preaching, worship meeting, prayer meeting, fellowship, or accountability. There are people on [name of social media site] you can form a house church with, but in general we are clearly not providing for the basic spiritual needs of a Christian.

That should do it.

Necessary or Optional?

Let’s consider then, which of these elements are truly necessary in a gathering of Christians before we can properly refer to it as “a church”. It should be understood that there are many features or qualities we would ideally like to have in our gathering in order for the church to function properly. But the issue we are considering is whether or not, absent these things, a gathering is or is not a church in the eyes of God.

1/ The “Sacraments”

I had to look these up, as “sacraments” is a Roman Catholic term. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony.

Baptism, as understood by Roman Catholics, refers to the sprinkling of infants, for the forgiveness of sins, adoption as a child of God and membership in the Body of Christ. (First century Christian water baptism was not held to do any of these things; rather, it is a declaration that the baptizee has died and risen again with Christ.) Leaving aside the many differences between the two practices, we do not find infant baptism mentioned much before Tertullian around AD220. All references to water baptism in the Bible are to the volitional immersion of believers old enough to consent to the act. Moreover, biblical baptism did not require church sanction and could even be performed at the side of a road. Since the establishment of local churches throughout the Jewish and Gentile world predates the Roman Catholic practice, performance of it cannot be essential to our definition of “church”.

The same is true of Confirmation (instituted as a separate “sacrament” post-AD400), participation in the Eucharist administered by a priest (another post-biblical accretion), and the “sacrament” of Penance, which in its present form is less than 1,000 years old. As later developments of a particular sect, they cannot be essential to our definition.

The Anointing of the Sick by the elders of a church is referred to in the epistle of James; however, the existence of local churches predates the appointment of elders. Neither elders nor their practices, however biblical, are essential to our definition. That also eliminates the “sacrament” of Holy Orders, since churches were churches before they had identifiable leadership of any kind.

Matrimony has never required church sanction. As an institution, it predates the existence of churches by thousands of years. Even Roman Catholics recognize marriage as a “natural right” not reserved exclusively to Catholics or Christians. Thus it too cannot be considered essential to “church-hood”.

2/ Communion

Sharing a common cup and broken bread in remembrance of the Lord is indeed a critical component of local church life. It one of the four things to which the early Christians devoted themselves, right along with the apostles’ teaching, fellowship and prayers. (Might we call these the “first works”?) Does failing to do any one of these things mean a gathering is not a church? I can’t say authoritatively, but if it does, then not only are virtual gatherings not churches, but any so-called church that eliminates communion has also disqualified itself, and those that marginalize or back-burner the breaking of bread are apparently unconcerned about whether their lampstand is still in place.

3/ Pastors, Deacons, Preaching, etc.

Sir Hamster comments to the effect that a social media site lacks a pastor, deacons, preaching, a worship meeting, a prayer meeting, fellowship, or accountability. I would differ slightly. When Christians are engaged in writing back and forth to one another, even if it is not in real time, there is certainly fellowship happening. It has been a marvelous exercise for me to discover how much I have in common with my fellow believers in all sorts of denominations. That commonality is fellowship of a sort. Prayer requests are also a regular feature, and one can easily imagine heads bowed all over the world at the same time as we each read the latest appeal. Again, there is preaching of a sort, in the form of links to articles the various members have written or enjoyed and to videos of some of our fellow commenters preaching.

But are all these things essential to church-hood? A pastor (by which I mean someone biblically qualified to act as a shepherd of the flock) is nice to have, but there is little in scripture to lead us to think all the churches Paul, Barnabas and Silas planted had recognized leadership at the beginning, and strong indications some did not. They were still churches. Same with recognized deacons. The early churches all had people who served in various ways, but formal recognition of these men came later. Distinct worship or prayer meetings are relatively modern conventions. First century churches likely combined all these elements into a single regular gathering, rather than establishing different meeting times for different aspects of church life. And as for accountability, that exists automatically wherever two or three are gathered to the name of Christ, both inside and outside the local church, independently of formal leadership or church status.

4/ Gathered in His Name

As we saw earlier, a church is by definition a “gathering”. That is what the word means. Moreover, the church that Christ is building is a special kind of gathering that cannot possibly be conceived independently of the One who gathered us. Gathering in Christ’s name doesn’t in itself make you a church; that expression is used in connection with the discipline of an erring Jewish brother before the church even existed. What we can say is that a group of believers gathered around any other object or person than Christ is not a church in the biblical sense either. The people so assembled might do some good things, but you wouldn’t call them a church.

The Hamster Speaks

Let me close with a word from Sir Hamster, who turns out to have more than a little furry wisdom to share: “A hamster avatar JPEG is not a substitute for a flesh and blood person who can see how you are doing.” Correct. This, at the core, is why virtual church is not really church. The person behind the avatar may not even be the person you think you are talking to, something that often happens at the office when one employee replies to a message from another’s keyboard without identifying himself first.

A virtual connection between believers may be beneficial. When it is the only thing available, it can be a lifeline. But it is no substitute for flesh-and-blood gathering in the name of Christ. It was never intended to be, an assertion easily demonstrated from the fact that until approximately 1,950 years after the church came into being, none of its members would or could ever have thought of it.

Those of us who find they like “virtual church” better than physically assembling need to ask ourselves why that might be.

* Stephen does make reference to a “church in the wilderness” in Acts 7. Most modern translators correctly infer that he was using ekklÄ“sia in its well-established generic sense, not calling the nation of Israel a “church”. Accordingly, they translate it as either “congregation” or “assembly”. However, certain denominations today conflate the two, using “church” to describe Israel and “Israel” to describe the church, which is both confusing and inaccurate. Happily, that did not become an issue in our online discussion.

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