Vol. 2 Issue 22

June 3, 2008

The Weekly Newsletter of True Potential Publishing

Is “Church” a Dirty Word? Part III

I may have opened a can of worms by bringing up the definition of “church.” At this point in Christian history we’ve been so ingrained with our concept of what “church” is, it can be a real shock to our systems to find out what the Bible says it is.

I got a phone call from my buddy Roger this morning. He’s a pastor; he reads the Purpose Letter each week and either encourages me or sets me straight. Sometimes both. He’s been reading the last few weeks and wanted to give me a few tips about treading on thin ice.

After we discussed “church” for a few minutes – about what it was and wasn’t and was supposed to be – I asked him, “Roger, is God’s work done on earth through the church or in spite of it?”

He answered, “God’s work is done through His church and in spite of ours.” Touché.


Last week we examined Webster’s definition #1 of “church” being “a building for public and especially Christian worship.” We also figured out that when Jesus first brought up the idea He didn’t use the word “church” and He wasn’t talking about a building … at least not one made from bricks and mortar.

Which brings us to Webster’s definition #2: “church” is “the clergy or officialdom of a religious body.” These are the folks who run things. Their offices are in Webster’s #1 – “church”- the building. They’re what’s known as “the clergy.” We (us in the pews) are what’s known as “the laity.” I’m one of “the laity.” Roger is one of “the clergy.” That’s how he knows so much about thin ice.

Just so you know, “clergy” means, “ordained Christian ministers collectively.” “Laity” means “people who are not priests or clerics collectively.” That’s pretty simple. According to Webster’s #2 the clergy is the church.

What’s the laity? Chopped liver?

I’m not being fair. Webster’s definition #3: “church” is “a body or organization of religious believers.” That includes the laity doesn’t it? Darned right it does. Thank Webster’s we’re still included in the “church.” But to be completely fair, Webster’s definition #5: “church” – “the clerical profession” does exclusively mean the clergy. Clergy two – Laity one … but at least we’re mentioned, even if it’s “professional church” versus “amateur church.”

I’d better stop here and toss out a disclaimer.

I’m not throwing down on pastors, priests, bishops, deacons, prophets, apostles, reverends, or anyone else with a title who makes his (or her) living off an organization called “the church.” If it wasn’t for these folks there wouldn’t be any organization in the organization and all of us laity would be left to our own devices on Sunday morning. It’d be a mess.

My objective in all of this is to point out what Webster’s says “church” is (and definition-wise Webster’s speaks for all of us, clergy and laity alike. I mean, we bought the dictionary, didn’t we?) as opposed to what the Word says “church” is.

So let’s see if Webster’s holds water – biblically speaking.

The words “clergy” and “laity” don’t appear in the Bible. To be fair, “priest” and “priests” appear in the Bible lots and lots. “Layman,” “lay person,” and “lay people” appear too – always described as opposed to the priests. So there is a biblical precedent for the separation of “priests” and “lay people” … in the Old Testament.

The New Testament mentions “priest” and “priests” a lot too. And it seems to make a distinction, but not between priests and lay people (no mention of laity in the NT); the distinction is between “priests” and a “priest.” First there’s the “priests”; these were the “clergy” or “officialdom” of the Jewish religious world in Jesus’ time. They were also the guys always at odds with Jesus.

Probably a little jealousy and competition there.

These priests were the mediators between God and the Jewish community. They were in charge and they liked it that way. Then along comes this scruffy prophet from Nazareth (like anything good could ever come out of Nazareth) with a ragtag gaggle of disciples. Jesus dared to challenge these priests publicly, calling them hypocrites. He broke the Sabbath laws and when they called him on it, he told them that he was the “Lord of the Sabbath.” Blasphemy! He was constantly saying seditious things against these priests, the Temple and their religious system in general. There was no love lost between these priests and Jesus.

Jesus wasn’t laity, but he wasn’t one of the “priests” either. He was a priest; more accurately, the Priest. A “priest in the order of Melchizadek.” What does that mean? According to the writer of Hebrews it meant that this Priest was the last Priest, the only Priest men will ever need again.

“Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” (Hebrews 7:23 -28)

So much for the “clergy or officialdom” of Jesus’ day.


So if the “church” isn’t a building and it’s not the “clergy” what is it? Before you fire your pastor or convert your church building into condo’s let’s dig a little deeper.

The first record of any sort of “officialdom” in the New Testament Church (only it wasn’t “church”; it was “ekklesia” – “assembly of called out ones”) appears in Act’s 6 when the Greek “called out ones” launched a complaint against the Hebrew “called out ones” for skipping over the Greek widows at food distribution time. The disciples (they were in charge by default) didn’t want to spend their days policing the food line, so they asked the “ekklesia” to choose seven spiritually and managerially qualified men to wait tables.

The “church” of the New Testament didn’t include a “priest” class. Individual members of the “ekklesia” were given gifts by the Holy Spirit in order that through each member’s gifts the “ekklesia” could function as a whole. Paul used the analogy of a body. Which is really what the “ekklesia” is – a body.

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many.” (I Corinthians 12: 12 – 14a)

If we back up just a little, Paul tells us why he’s going over all of this with the body at Corinth. Any time you get a bunch of humans together (Christians fall into this class too) they have a tendency to muck things up. Individual interests start to bubble to the surface and my individual interests are pretty much always guaranteed to be different from your individual interests. The same thing was happening at the church/ekklesia/body in Corinth.

Paul, who was the guy who brought the gospel to the people of Corinth, was also the guy responsible for straightening them out when they drifted off the path. Which was what was happening in Corinth, which was why Paul had to write them a couple of letters. It seems that the church/ekklesia/body in Corinth was made up of individuals. And these individuals were adept at expressing their individualism by fulfilling their individual interests. Everybody did his own thing and those who had the power to put their individual interests above another’s did.

Paul’s job was to wrangle all these bodies into one Body.

“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!” (I Corinthians 11:17-22)

Paul has to explain to them that this new group, what Jesus called His “ekklesia” isn’t a bunch of individuals but a single body. And in this body the individuals may have unique gifts or tasks, but the idea of one individual in this new body having a higher ranking than another because of his gift or task was about as ridiculous as a person’s ear having a higher ranking than his foot.

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” (I Corinthians 12:4-6)

Then Paul names some of gifts or areas of responsibility that are necessary to the function of this new body (and this is where history takes over). These gifts, having names, over time, became titles. Titles, having some perceived status became offices. Offices became ranks and ranks became a hierarchy. And, Voila! A new priest class was born!

But that’s not the way it was meant to be. Let’s listen to Paul as he explained it the first time.

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.” (I Corinthians 12:27-31)

Some scholars say that the last sentence can also be translated, “But you are eagerly desiring the greater gifts.” Which sounds like something the folks in Corinth might have done. Which may be why Paul went on to “show [them] the most excellent way”; telling them just how important these church offices were, in light of eternity.

“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:8-10, 13)


Well, I’ve beaten this horse enough. How ‘bout I wrap up this letter by making my point?

The “church” isn’t a building. It’s not an “officialdom of clergy.” It’s not divided into classes – “priests” and “laity.” According to Scripture, it’s not even a “church”; it an “ekklesia.”

There are some of the “called out ones” who have been given gifts and assignments for special tasks within the body of “called out ones.” Some of these tasks involve being in-charge of certain body functions. Some of us (us: the body, not us: me) make their living at it. But, making a living from your task in the body doesn’t give you any more status in the body than making your living as a plumber. In this body, there’s no such thing as a professional, and there’s no such thing as an amateur. There sure aren’t any spectators. We’re all full members and we all have a job … even if it’s just being a toe.

Next week we’ll talk about what “church” … sorry, “ekklesia” is … or at least what it was meant to be. You’ll find out why I thought it was important enough to spend all this time telling you what “church” isn’t … for some of you, maybe even eternally important.

In Him,

Steve Spillman