Words can change your world. They can revive you or crush your spirit. How you interpret them can drastically change their meaning. The message you intend to pass on, by your words, might not be received how you expect it to be. Communication is hard work.
Whenever we have a message to convey we use the tools we have at hand. An English speaking Canadian might only be expected to have conversations in English—unless she feels led to butcher the minimal French she remembers from elementary school. Sometimes we communicate non-verbally—using our body language, musical gifts, emoticons, or mad skills with a paint brush. Today, however, I am concerned only with words.
There are a variety of ways to get your point across. The obvious approach is to describe the appearance of the subject you are talking about. When you see a florescent pink PT Cruiser driving down the road, you quickly point and say: “That is the straight-up ugliest thing on four wheels I have ever seen.” Another way to explain something about your subject is to talk about where it is in relation to other things. If you want to tell your friend about where your new favourite Indian restaurant is located, you could just list everything that is close by. You have probably done this before: “It’s next to that bakery with the broken sign, there’s a little park with skinny trees across the road, and, oh, that weird looking statue is in the parking lot.” Finally, you can pass on a great definition about your subject by explaining what it does. Imagine you are speaking to a child, “Fire is hot. It is dangerous. It’s also very bright.”
Alright, now that I’ve told you a whole bunch of things you already know, you are probably wondering what this article is actually about. Well, it’s about homonyms. Homonyms are words with multiple meanings, and there are a lot in our language. In fact, there are a bunch of them that cling onto Christians like a bad pair of yoga pants. Word’s like "religion" and “worship" can have a whole world of different meanings (depending on who you talk to). That does not mean those meanings are correct or factual. Our culture often defines religion as some sort of “zealous belief.” However, the Bible says:
"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." - James 1:27 ESV
Can you see how distant these definitions are from each other?
Clearly, we need to be careful communicating what the Bible means by its words. My mother asked me a question about my last blog post, so I’m writing this one to answer her. It’s always good to to listen to your mom. She wondered what I meant by designating the church (lower case “c”) as distinct from the Church (capital “C”). You see “church” is a homonym. It has many meanings found both Biblically and in our Christian traditions. But, when you hear it used in church those distinctions can be left hanging without an explanation.
Church is complicated, so here are two very simple definitions, which will hopefully get you thinking more critically about how you use the word. I use “church” (lower case) to talk about a building, a locality, or an event. This is the meaning that has developed because of our Christian tradition. It is lowercase because it is subject to and in someways encompassed by our other definition of “church." My understanding of the “Church” (CAPS LOCK), is that it is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12: 12-13), His bride (Eph. 5: 25-27), and the very family of faith (Gal. 6: 10).
The meaning of “church" becomes vitally important in the reality of our regular conversations. There are no capital letters in our speech. If I say, “the church is on fire!” You either need to whip out your best “Hallelujah!” or find a fire extinguisher. The real danger is when we use Biblical concepts meant for the greater Church to describe our local congregation. Pastors, friends, and Sunday school teachers need guard how they speak, mumble, and text their thoughts about ecclesiology. Why? Because we want to convey what we mean to communicate, and the Church has a pretty significant message to pass on.
Let me leave you with a few words from J. I. Packer, “Each congregation is a visible outcrop of the one Church universal, called to serve God and men in humility and, perhaps, humiliation while living in prospect of glory. Spirit-filled for worship and witness, active in love and care for insiders and outsiders alike, self-supporting and self-propagating, each congregation is to be a spearhead of divine counterattack for the recapture of a rebel world." (J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ, Page 77.)