What is a church?

The very first thing I remember learning in Sunday School was the little rhyme, complete with folding-finger and hand movements,
Here’s the church, And here’s the steeple;
Turn it inside out, And there are the people!

It is remarkable how things like that stay with you. Perhaps the reason is not so much what is said as what is assumed. In our culture, we may be more likely to think of the church as the building rather than those gathered in it. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with calling the building “the church.” We use such figures of speech all the time, just as we call our house, “our home.”

But I can’t help but wonder how the Apostles would have responded if they had heard people calling the gathering place of believers “the church.” Paul referred to “the church that is in their house” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2).

He understood that the church did not comprise a literal building, but rather that the people of the church themselves were figuratively a building, a temple (1 Corinthians 3:9, 16). This also is Peter’s understanding (1 Peter 2:5), as we know that the early church met primarily in homes, especially after being banned from the Temple.

The basic meaning of the New Testament word we translate “church” is “assembly,” or “gathering,” and so it naturally refers to the people collected. Our English word “chapel” is much closer to the idea of “meeting place,” and parallel to the idea of the original “Quaker Meeting House.” They were places for people to gather, and not the gatherers themselves.

Is this a big deal? Well, it could be, for the differences run deep:

A chapel is something you attend. A church is something to which you belong.
A chapel is where we gather. A church is we who gather.
A chapel is a place for services. A church is an opportunity for service.
A chapel is a house of worship. A church is we who worship.
A chapel is where we go when convenient. A church is who we are all the time.
A chapel is static and material. A church is alive and spiritual.
A chapel is a building. A church is a family.
A chapel is an object. A church is a subject.
A chapel requires maintenance. A church requires love.
A chapel has a chaplain. A church has pastors/elders/deacons.
A chapel is a where we hear someone. A church is where we edify one another.
A chapel can be built by anyone. A church is built only by Christ.
A chapel will crumble in time. A church will live forever.

“And he is head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
Colossians 1:18

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