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Where is church in the bible? March 4, 2011

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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The bible is often referred to as the “instruction manual for life” (and numerous other similar phrases) and today over lunch it occurred to me that the bible should be fairly clear about the one act that is almost definitively Christian – going to church.

Going to church each week seems to be the most common and identifying feature of Christians and something most Christians would consider not only a good thing but a fundamental part of the religion.  I don’t recall reading much about this in the bible so I decided to investigate what the bible had to say about going to church, running a church or anything of that nature.

My method is very simple:  I assumed this question had been asked and subsequently answered on the web so I searched for such answers (google produced many results) and teased out the bible references from the long-winded answers and then analysed these.  While I am no doubt missing many references, presumably the clearest of these are the most commonly referred to and therefore the less obvious ones shouldn’t matter.  As always, I am no expert on the bible so I am sure if I get something wrong I will be corrected 🙂

A great number of biblical references were offered on the various websites that I looked at to support the notion of an organised church.  I noted each down and then went and read them (as well as reading surround passages for context).  I have split the most relevant into categories representing what I think they talk about and listed them below along with comments.

Organised Church

These passages are ones that directly refer to organised churches.

  • Revelations 3:6
  • Matthew 6:5-6
  • Deuteronomy 12:11

The revelations passage says “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the spirit saith unto the churches“.  Now this could be interpreted as an indirect and vague instruction to go to an organised church but alone it is pretty weak.  I am being a bit kind with the Deuteronomy reference including it here but it talks of a place to offer sacrifices where god’s name would dwell.

Ironically the Matthew passage actually is pretty clear about not going to church.

Gatherings

These are passages that talk about gathering with other Christians

  • Colossians 3:16
  • Hebrews 10:23-25
  • I Thessalonians 5:11
  • Leviticus 23

These passages talk about the value of gathering in various contexts to pray or remember.  A modern Christian would probably want to leave Leviticus out of the picture as it also talks about animal sacrifices and really has no resemblance to modern churches at all.

Loyalty and Obeying Authority

These are passages that discuss individual responsibility.  They make sense if the concept of church is already established but add nothing to the church concept in the first place.

  • Hebrews 10:23-25
  • Hebrews 13:17
  • I Peter 5:1-5
  • Romans 13:1

I have no idea

The following were all mentioned but I can find nothing useful in them relating to organised churches.  There is talk about diversity, prayer, generosity, unity, and a bunch of other things of tangential interest but nothing that meets our requirements.

  • Acts 2:42
  • Acts 20:7
  • Colossians 1:23
  • Ephesians 4:2
  • Ephesians 5:19
  • Hebrews 10:29
  • I Corinthians 1:9
  • I Corinthians 10:16
  • I Corinthians 11:25-26
  • I Corinthians 12
  • I Corinthians 16:2
  • I Peter 4:10
  • I Thessalonians 5:24
  • James 2:8
  • James 5:16
  • Luke 4:16
  • Matthew 25
  • Matthew 7:6
  • Matthew 9:24
  • Revelations 2:10
  • Revelations 3:1-5
  • Romans 10:9
  • Romans 12:5
  • Romans 14:13
  • Romans 6:3-4

Conclusion

It seems obvious to me the notion of a Christian church and regular attendance to one are not a big deal for the bible.  I acknowledge that Churches pre-dated Christianity and it could be argued that their existence, running and attendance is “a given” but that seems like a pretty weak argument given the massive prominence it plays in modern daily Christian life.

It seems to me the best that could be said of Churches is that some people decided that the best way to manage prayer and other requirements in the bible was to have an organised church and regular gatherings but unless I have missed a great deal, I don’t see the biblical requirement for churches at all.

Of course churches have their value as community centres for social and community interaction but the purpose of this post was not “are churches useful”, it was “what does the bible say about churches”.  The answer it seems is not much!

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Comments»

1. Dale Campbell - March 4, 2011

Hi Ian,
The term for ‘church’ or ‘assembly’ (ekklesia – the ‘out-called-ones’ literally) has a use both in wider Graeco-Roman society (a body that met to sort city business, etc.) and it shows up in the LXX (Septuagint – OT Scriptures in Greek) to refer to various assemblies. Church always means a group of people, of course. Also, ‘church’ is usually the term referring to the people of God post-Jesus, whereas ‘Israel(ites)’ or similar (Jews) is most used of pre-Jesus.

There is, to my knowledge, NO requirement for “going to church” (or ‘meeting with other Christians’ – with or without a building, of course) at any particular interval (weekly, monthly, daily, etc.). Hebrews 10:25 is evidence that at least some had taken the ‘gatherings’ so casually as to warrant the author of Hebrews (unknown – Paul? Apollos? Acquilla?) to remind them “not to forsake the gathering of yourselves together”.

The reason for weekly gatherings would have been that the initial believers in Jesus were Jewish, so would have oontinued – by habit rather than obligation – their Sabbath pattern. It didn’t take long for Christians to begin to meet instead on Sundays (“The Lord’s Day”) to commemorate (weekly) Jesus’ resurrection. So that’s how it got started and why “going to church” is usually an ‘every Sunday’ thing.

So my understanding (including how I instruct/advise/guide others as a pastor) is that it’s not a ‘legalistic’ or ‘must’ kind of thing, but more a good practice to stay connected to the community and both give and receive encouragement (to ‘stir up love and good deeds’ as the author of the letter to Hebrews puts it).

Hope this helps. If you’re keen to dive into some hefty stuff, I’d recommend the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) entry on ‘ekklesia’, which should be uber-thorough!

2. Ian - March 5, 2011

Thanks Dale, it’s great to have confirmation of the bible side of things 🙂 I am curious of your opinion about the significance of church in the eyes of regular Christian’s views on Christianity – I suspect a great many attribute much higher significance than perhaps should be the case? We’ve all heard of the “I go to church therefore I’m a good Christian” type people.

3. Dale Campbell - March 5, 2011

Sounds like you’re answering your own question? You may have heard the Christian-ese adage: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.”

But in another sense, I must say I think many “Mod-West-ern” Christians don’t value “church” (defined as the meaningful sharing of all of life – joys and pains, possessions and needs; in a word: ‘fellowship’ or koinonia in Gk) nearly enough. It becomes an event which is attended and thus ‘enjoyed’ or not, then compared with whatever other options are available, etc.

4. Ian - March 16, 2011

Oops, I missed this comment, sorry Dale!

My train of thought has probably shifted since my previous comment but I guess at the heart of it is really the fundamental question of why have a church at all? I get the value of like-minded people gathering in social groups but churches “sell” themselves as much more fundamental to the religion than that, to the point where I am quite sure that for many people church equals religion.

I agree with your point about the “event” and I think American evangelical churches have taken that to the extreme.

5. Dale Campbell - March 18, 2011

As far as NT theology is concerned, a central part of the ‘job’ of the Church – in all its [necessarily] diverse expressions – is to serve (pun intended) as a signpost of what life looks like when God reigns (or ‘to bring heaven to earth’ – or to be agents of ‘the kingdom [reign] of God’); i.e. sinners are forgiven, outsiders are welcomed, lonely find community, everyone eats, etc, etc. A Church should not ‘sell’ itself, but rather preach and live out Jesus and his Way (of life).

Do churches do this in real life?

I love Mark Strom’s answer: always yes & always no.

6. Ian - March 18, 2011

Out of curiosity what does NT theology say about Matthew 6:5-6 with respect to that? If that’s a complex/tedious question I don’t mind letting it drop 🙂

7. Dale Campbell - March 18, 2011

Treatment of a specific verse will always be a matter of exegesis first, before it is ever (if ever) relevant to NT theology. That passage (teaching on praying in private, and non-showing alms-giving) would, however, well-express the character of the kingdom. Showmanship (as opposed to the genuine, honest and reciprocal sharing of gifts, talents, abilities) is destructive to community.

8. Ian - March 19, 2011

Cool thanks. Are you aware of any good theological discussions about the purpose of churches that would be accessible to someone of my limited experience in these things? This whole topic bothers me for some reason I can’t put my finger on lol.

9. Dale Campbell - March 19, 2011

I’d think you’d be able to grasp the thrust of most anything you could find via google? 🙂 Having said that, however, there is a lot of junk out there (as with any topic). I found these very quickly:

helpful chart on this page:
http://www.bible.ca/ntx-what-is-the-church.htm

And (from a quick scan) a sound thorough (though not overly technical) treatment here by Mark D. Roberts.
http://www.markdroberts.com/htmfiles/resources/whatisachurch.htm


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