Watch Your Language: Part Six

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Flash back in memory to when you were nine years old. It’s Saturday night. Mom tells you and your sister and brother, “Pick out what you will wear tomorrow when we go to church.” Next morning, early, a friend phones and invites you to join their family for a day at the beach. “I can’t,” you say, “because we’ll go to church later this morning. And sure enough, at 9:30 a.m., Dad calls you from your room: “Hurry up! It’s time to go to church.”

A Phrase Enshrined in Tradition

What pictures did those words, “go to church,” etch in your nine-year-old mind? Probably the same ones that come up today if you google on the phrase “going to church” and click on the image icon. Most of the pictures show people either walking toward or sitting inside a church building. “The words “go to church” have become so deep-rooted in our Christian lingo, it may seem absurd for me to add them to this series on watching our language.

“Okay,” some may be thinking, “this guy has lost it completely. I’ve been ‘going to church’ since before I could walk. Going to church is good for us. God expects Christians to go to church.” Yes, I understand. Those words are part of my native language, too. That phrase slips easily off my lips. Christian leaders constantly urge us to “go to church.” In fact, countless articles online press us to do just that. Within a few minutes I found lists of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, and 13 “reasons to go to church.” In spite of all that, one writer insisted, “there is only ONE reason to go to church.”

So please bear with me while I explain why I believe the words “go to church” can blur our vision. The first two words, “go to,” work perfectly in other contexts. Saying, “I’m going to the store,” accurately tells where I’m heading. We rightly talk about going to all sorts of places and events—to theaters, to the mountains, to baseball games, and to piano recitals. Muslims properly speak of “going to mosque,” because the mosque is a place.

New Covenant? Or Old?

But here’s the rub: the Body of Christ, is neither a place nor an event.

Instead, it is people—people who have come to God through faith in Jesus. As someone has said, you cannot go to who you are. If your last name is Smith, you don’t “go to Smith.” Leaving work, you may go to your house for dinner or a nap. But you and the other Smiths who live there are a family. You are neither a place nor an event.

True, in Old Covenant days, God’s people did go to a place to offer their animal sacrifices and their tithes. First the Tabernacle, then the Temple, became the go-to places for the Israelites to maintain their relationship with God. For some of them, going to the Temple in Jerusalem amounted to a trek that took days. The Samaritans thought Mt. Gerizim was the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. So they made that their go-to place for meeting God.

But when Jesus had his long talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, he did away with the idea that getting with God required going to some special place. As he said to her: “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Mt. Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem. . . . Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:21, 23). New Covenant worship, then, is no longer tied to a place.

So how did this go-to-church tradition get started? We read in Matt. 16:18 that Jesus says, “I will build my church.” Except he didn’t actually say that. Instead, he said, “I will build my ekklesia [Greek for assembly].” The word church came to us not from the Greek but later through Anglo-Saxon. It meant “of the Lord” and in time came to mean “house of the Lord,” meaning a building. In William Tyndale’s 1525 translation of the Bible, he refused to translate ekklesia as church. In his version, Matt. 16:18—in now-obsolete English—reads like this: “And I saye also vnto the that thou arte Peter: and apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion.”

Three Reasons to Stop Saying “Go to Church”

  1. It Blocks Our View. Because “going to church” signals heading for a building or event, the words encourage us to see ourselves as an audience. They make it more difficult to view ourselves as a family and as the Body of Christ. So those words distract us from the need to share, encourage, build up, and strengthen one another. Those words work against life together as shared church.
  2. It's Not Used for Other Church Gatherings. How often do you hear someone say they are “going to church” to describe getting together with fellow believers in a home group? I can’t recall ever hearing the words used that way. If teaching, fellowship, eating together, and prayer (Acts 2:42) are happening in a home group, why do we never refer to it as “going to church”? Most likely because the meeting does not take place in a “church building.” (The Anglo-Saxon meaning again.)
  3. It Implies Detachment. The words “go to church” suggest that we are somehow separated from it, so we must drive or walk somewhere to reach where it is. If I can “go to church,” I can also “go from church.” Is there a time when I disconnect from the Body of Christ? In Acts 8:1, we read that “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered.” When scattered, did those Christians cease being the church? Or did they simply begin operating in scattered-church mode—just as your blood gathers in the lungs and scatters to your arms, legs, and feet?

Other Words Serve Us Better

The Anglo-Saxon word church entered our English language centuries ago. Virtually all our Bibles today use the term. So that ship has sailed. We can’t communicate clearly without the word church.  But we don’t have to say “go to church.” Plenty of other words convey the right idea clearly enough.  Instead, why not say we’re going to meet—or gather or get together or assemble—with other Christians?

That said, I still may slip up and say I'm “going to church.” If I do, please call me out!

Why Do We Gather as Christians? (Part One)

True or false: “The New Testament reason for meeting with other Christians is to worship God.”

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If you said true, your answer lines up with what most of us have been taught. One website, which suggests how to speak to children about church, begins with: “People go to church to worship God.” We call our main congregational meetings “worship services.” In those meetings we sing “worship songs,” led by “worship leaders” in charge of “worship teams.” Sometimes we call church buildings “worship centers.”

I know it is not RC (religiously correct) to question the nearly universal idea that gathering with other believers is all about worship. So please grant me a little grace as I ask you to examine the evidence for this rarely questioned conviction.

Right off, I’ll reveal my assumed starting-point. I believe Scripture is our only rule for faith and practice. Faith involves what we believe—truths such as the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and so on. Practice involves what we do, including how we meet with other Christians. I am assuming the New Testament, not church traditions, should have the last word on why we assemble.

Check It Out

What is “worship”? In the New Testament, the Greek words for worship of God all reflect attitudes and actions directed toward him. Duties carried out toward God. Esteem and reverence directed toward him. Obedience and service oriented toward God. Bowing down toward God. In short, in worship, we aim our attention in a God-ward direction. Think of a single arrow pointing upward from us to God.

If you have a complete concordance, trace the uses of “worship/worshiped/worshiping” in the New Testament. You’ll find that, together, those English words appear about 70 times (NIV version). Yet you will not find those words used in contexts that speak about what we Christians do in our regular gatherings.

Yes, in Acts 13:2, while fasting and praying, a group of prophets and teachers were “worshiping.” Not so much a church gathering as a prayer meeting among church leaders. And in I Cor. 14:25, Paul says an unbeliever, after hearing gathered Christians prophesy, might be led to “worship” God. Here, an unbeliever—not believers—is worshiping. Neither text describes what typically goes on in church meetings. But this is about as close as the New Testament comes in connecting the word “worship” with Christian assemblies.

By contrast, a great many verses describe worship as taking place not in church gatherings but by individuals in other settings. The Magi, upon seeing baby Jesus, worshiped (Matt. 2:11-12). Anna, presumably by herself in the Temple, worshiped (Lk. 2:37). The disciples worshiped Jesus in a boat (Matt. 14:33). As they hurried away from his empty tomb, the two Marys worshiped Jesus (Matt. 28:>9). The man born blind worshiped Jesus (Jn. 9:38). And so on. These are not what we call “corporate worship” occasions.

Others Agree

After a study of all the Greek words translated as “worship” in the New Testament, the late I. Howard Marshall (well-respected as a New Testament scholar) says: “It is a mistake to regard the main or indeed the only purpose of Christian meetings as being the worship of God.” (See "How Far Did the Early Christians Worship God?")

And in Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert Banks writes, “One of the most puzzling features of Paul’s understanding of ekklesia [assembled church] for his contemporaries, whether Jews or Gentiles, must have been his failure to say that a person went to church primarily to ‘worship.’ Not once in all his writings does he suggest that this is the case.”

Then Why Should Christians Gather?

The New Testament leaves no question that we believers should meet. But why? If not to worship, what should be our main purpose for getting together? Think of it this way: you and I are to worship anywhere and everywhere—all alone, with our families, in our workplaces, and in our church gatherings. In other words, worship can rise to God even when no one else is around.  

But time after time the New Testament calls us to do something we simply cannot do by ourselves: one-anothering. In his new commandment, Jesus calls us to “love one another” in the way he has loved us (Jn. 13:34). These words became the seed from which the dozens upon dozens of New Testament one-another/each-other instructions grew.

For example, the two one-anothers in Hebrews 10:24-25 explain why we should never stop meeting together: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Getting together lets us see and hear each other. This  creates the setting in which we may spur on and encourage each other.

This focus on one-anothering when we meet, although in different words, shows up in I Cor. 14:26: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” Each of us has been given one or more gifts to use in building each other up. The New Testament term “fellowship” is a one-anothering word. The church is a body made up of mutually-supportive members. It is a family whose members huddle to help each other. This is shared church.

(Part Two will explore why the single-arrow model does not reflect the gathered-church picture seen in the New Testament. It will also ask, “Why Does Our Purpose for Gathering Matter?”)