The Church: Holy, Hip, or Harlot?

The word “church” is a pretty loaded word.

For some, it evokes memories of love and community. For others – the reminiscence isn’t nearly as pleasant.  Few words, ideas, or constructs have been as polarizing as “church.”

No matter how you look at it, the story of the Christian church is stunning. What started as a handful of motley pupils following a peculiar Galilean carpenter named Jesus has become a global phenomenon of billions of people.

But what happened between then and now? What transpired from the time of Jesus to today? How did the word “church” come to be what it means to so many in 2014?

Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked.

In the New Testament, the Greek terms translated “church” is the word “ekklesia” –  a word that simply means, “a gathering or assembly of people called out for a specific purpose.” In the ancient Near East, it commonly referred to citizens called to gather for civic purposes, or soldiers called out for military purposes.

Surprisingly – ekklesia never referred to specific place or building. It wasn’t even originally a religious term at all.

In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) the Bible describes ancient Israel as an ekklesia. Remarkably, even when the Hebrew people were scattered far across the planet, they were still known cooperatively as an ekklesia.

In both secular and sacred literature – ekklesia always referred to a gathering of people united by a common identity and purpose.

So, if the word ekklesia means “gathering” – why don’t our Bible just use the word “gathering?” Where does the word “church” come from?

Another great inquiry, imaginary reader. The answer is more important than I could possibly emphasize.

So hop into my DeLorean and fast-forward a couple of centuries to the year AD 313.

It is then that a man named Constantine, the soon to be emperor of Rome, legalized Christianity – along with the other major religions of the time – in an agreement known as, “The Edict of Milan.”

Prior to this decree, it was downright lethal to even be associated with this insurgent named Jesus and his followers. Christians were not only persecuted, but executed – regularly. Sometimes even spiked and set on fire to light dinner parties. An appetizing ambience, yes?

Even during times of amnesty – Christians were frequently barred from positions of authority, excluded by communities, unjustly charged with crimes, and stripped of land and possessions.

And at first – no one really paid attention to this edict. Until, that is, the emperor actually “joined the cult” and became a Christian himself. Suddenly it became quit fashionable to be a Christian. Skinny jeans and dark-rimmed glasses for everyone, he declared!

Once this happened, things started to change. What began as grassroots gatherings slowly became institutionalized. In the first centuries of the early church, worship included shared meals called “love feasts” (a term I wholeheartedly vote we replace “potlucks” with), Scripture reading, hymn singing, and the Lord’s Supper. After Constantine’s conversion, however – Christian worship began to incorporate elements of imperial protocol as more and more powerful people brought their own notions of worship with them.

Church became proper and overly stratified – downgrading the congregation to mere spectators.

In Germanic and Gothic cultures, which were also influenced by the spread of Christianity, the word “kirika” (which later became “kirche” in modern German) was used to refer to any ritual gathering place, Christian or otherwise. The word meant, “house of the Lord,” and became the one used most often to refer to the ekklesia of Jesus. It is from this word we get the English word “church”.

In under a decade – ekklesia ceased to be a movement and had been almost entirely synonymous with a location. But here’s the truth:

“You can bolt the doors of a kirche but never the ekklesia of Jesus Christ.”

Now – here’s what I want you to know. I love the church. I love the church both local and universal. I love the church visible and invisible. I love the beautiful community of people I’m blessed to pastor.  I love it – scars and all. And believe me – the scars are plenty.

As Dorothy Day once said (often attributed, I believe incorrectly, to St. Augustine):

“As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.”

Whether or not you agree with this particularly perspective – it’s not difficult to convince most people that the church has had it’s fair share of difficulty. Pastor and author Andy Stanley puts it this way:

“What began as a movement, dedicated to carrying the truth of Jesus Christ to every corner of the world, had become an insider-focused, hierarchical, ritualized institution that bore little resemblance to its origins. This shift led to an era of church history that can only be described as horrific. The atrocities carried out in the name of the church would be considered terrorism by modern standards. Cruelty wore a cross around its neck. Hypocrisy draped itself in priestly robes. Torture and murder were justified as rites of purification. The church grew rich and powerful. Kings were beholden. The people lived in fear of excommunication. While it’s amazing that the church survived the persecution of the first century, it may be more amazing that it survived the institutionalism and corruption of the centuries that followed. But it did survive. Jesus promised it would.” – Andy Stanley

And, as it should, it all comes back to Jesus.

To love Jesus means to love the things Jesus loves – and he loves the church. He established the church (Mt 16:18). He the Chief Shepherd and Senior Pastor of the church (1 Pet 5:4) He is the leader and head of the church (Eph 1:22). He is present with the church (Mt 28:20). We are branches, not vines – and apart from him there simply is no life.

But here’s what I’ve found.

Jesus is fairly popular. A lot of people really, really like Jesus. But if we’re honest – most of us don’t want to actually become like him.

We admire his humility, but who really wants to be that humble? We esteem the rabbi who washes his disciples feet – but I’m not all that interested in washing feet myself.

For many – Jesus is a great savior but not necessarily a great role model.

And I think, that if Jesus was and is meant to be followed and not just merely taught – that should dramatically effect the way that many of us think about this thing called church.

Fellowship, teaching, and singing – while all beautiful and necessary components of ekklesia – become the preparation for the mission –not the mission itself.  As we often say at Poplar Creek, “Sunday mornings become the push, not the point.” The time gathered is to prepare us to be scattered – to be conduits of the Good News wherever we go.

Because news is only good if it occupies bad territory

For those who are Christ-followers, I believe this leaves us with an uncomfortable but important question,

“Do you want to be safe, or do you want to be brave?”

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” – John 20:21

(To be continued… in another post…maybe)


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