The Church

Views of the Church
"Church" is another one of those words which means different things to different people. Two Greek words are translated into the English word "church". They are kyriakos (or kyrios), which means "belonging to the Lord", and ekklesia which means "called out ones". Thus, Biblically speaking, the church is the collection of all those who have been "called out of the world to belong to the Lord". This is usually what is called the "church universal", today - it is everyone who is a Christian, has been a Christian, or ever will be a Christian.

Of course, there have been different views over the centuries, often having nothing to do with the Biblical description.

Institutional: The Roman Catholic "church", as well as some modern groups (like the Mormons), consider the church to be an institution, or organization. If you are a member of the organization then you are a member of the church. Some denominations may have also take this approach. Being cast out of the organization is called being "excommunicated".

Doctrinal: This idea is that the church is a collection of those who hold to certain doctrines.

Liturgical: This idea is that the church is based on formal ritualized structure. The forms these rituals take varies and may include the use of one or more of the following: special vestments for the priest/pastor, incense, religious symbols, communal recitations, lectionaries, and sacraments. Those who take part in such rituals are part of the church.

Building: This is the predominant view of people in the west today: the idea that a church is a building. It used to be understood that a "church building" was the building where the church met - it wasn't the church itself. The term "church building" got abbreviated to "church" and then that got confused with the actual church, which are Christians.

Mixed: Some combination of the foregoing. For instance, the church is those who belong to an organization, hold to certain doctrines, and are faithful in following its ritualistic requirements.

As mentioned, the Biblical usage of the term translated "church" doesn't match any of those descriptions. Basically, "church" is equivalent to "believers". For instance, several references are made to "the church that meets at ____", meaning the believers that regularly meet at a house or in an area, such as Asia.1

That brings up another issue. The early church was an organic "grass roots" group without edifices or extensive hierarchies. It was often a matter of extended families that had all come to the faith. The modern idea of a church building that is part of a denominational organization is completely foreign to the understanding of the church in the first century. The modern manifestation of the church grew over time in the west (and was exported to other parts of the world). To the best of my knowledge, the earliest "church building" dates to the year 241. Thus for the first 200 years of the church, there were no buildings specifically for the church, although Christians did meet at the temple in Jerusalem at the beginning. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with church buildings - especially if they are used as a means of outreach to the community. But I think that, sometimes, the expenses related to the building and maintenance of church buildings locks up a lot of resources that could better be used for outreach.

Then there is the matter of church hierarchies. The early church model was that an evangelist, such as Paul, would start a church in an area and then appoint leaders (Greek word translated as "Pastor" or "overseer") to manage the local church, while Paul maintained ultimate authority over those churches. But he didn't have authority over churches started by other evangelists. The closest thing to a higher authority than Paul were the leaders at the church in Jerusalem (such as James and Peter). The apostles set some doctrinal and behavioral standards, but seemed to leave the details to others. But Paul didn't answer to them, although they were on good terms. So, at most, the authority structure was two or three levels: the apostles at Jerusalem, then the evangelist church planters, then the pastors. The modern model tends toward a much deeper structure. However, independent churches more closely match the early church model. References to "elders", "deacons", and so forth indicated names given to people performing a role in the church, but not necessarily part of an authority structure. However, over the centuries, these terms were often used to indicate exactly that.

So where did these large ecclesiastical organizations come from? They grew over time, driven by the human desire for power. The first, and largest, of these organizations is the Catholic church. It claims that the first pope was Peter and that Peter's successors at Rome were the subsequent popes. However, these early believers - leaders among the local church though they may have been - did not wield the kind of power and authority that the popes do today. Even when the Catholic church grew in power, there were many believers that were not Catholic.

The Catholic Church
The sheer number of problems caused by the Catholic church is beyond what I can cover in this article. I highly doubt those they claim as early "popes" even considered themselves in terms remotely resembling the modern popes. I'd have to guess that the Catholic church, as an entity, didn't even start to exist until the mid 200s. In other words, the Catholic church does not date back to Peter; it gradually grew out of human desires for power over others, greed, and a general degradation of the beliefs of the early church as expressed in the Bible. That is not to say that there haven't been, or aren't today, true believers who are Catholics. But you cannot assume that just because someone is a Catholic that they are a Christian. But then, you can't assume that just because someone is a Protestant that they are a Christian either.

I have entire books on church history in my library, so an exhaustive review of it is far beyond the scope of this article. But let me very quickly go over the history of institutional churches. The Catholic church was the first institution. It split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054 when the pope excommunicated the head of the Eastern Orthodox branch of the church. This was the result of various disagreements - the most important being the interpretation of the nature of the Holy Spirit.

In 1517, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther posted a notice (the "95 theses") which eventually led to his excommunication in 1521. This essentially made Luther the first "protestant" (in that he protested certain practices/beliefs of the Catholic church). Luther was distressed by many practices of the church, but I think the main issue he had was with the idea of salvation through works. After studying the book of Galatians, Luther came to realize that salvation was through faith, not works. Understand, Luther did not intend to start a movement or denomination - his intent was to reform the Catholic church and bring it more in line with the actual teachings of the Bible. His excommunication ended that effort. The Lutheran church grew out of that, as other disillusioned Catholics joined, helped by Luther's translation of the Bible into German. The Catholic church had long used the Latin (Vulgate) translation, which only the educated people could read at that point. This left the masses subject to the unchallenged (mis)interpretations of the Bible by their priests. The Lutherans were, unsurprisingly, persecuted by the Catholics. They weren't the first group who was persecuted by the Catholic church (which had civil power in many countries), but they were the largest. The Catholics especially didn't like people translating the scriptures into the language of the common man. In fact, they burned William Tyndale at the stake in 1536 for translating the Bible into English. Luther wasn't the first person to protest some of the Catholic practices, nor was he the last. But starting with Luther, the Protestant church crystallized and endured. This period is called the "Reformation".

In the early 1500s, another Catholic reformer, Huldrych Zwingli developed what we now called "Reformed" theology. This was embraced by many others, of which the most famous are John Calvin (who also broke from the Catholic church) and John Knox. The essentials of "Reformed Theology" consist of the "five solas", and Bible interpretations based on them. The five solas, in English, could be stated as "salvation through grace alone, given by faith alone in Christ alone, as revealed in scripture alone, to the glory of God alone." This is the basis of most modern Protestant churches.

Origins and Trends of Denominations
Some people ask why there are so many denominations. What they are really asking, it seems to me, is "How can you trust the Bible when so many churches interpret it differently?" There are several problems with this question. First, differences of opinion are not a bad thing, inherently. There isn't a single philosophy, political viewpoint, social viewpoint (or anything else), in which there are not differences of opinion. Additionally, humans are known for perverting meanings to suit their personal tastes and some believers (or those who claim to be believers) do the same with scripture. People who persist in twisting the clear meaning of scripture tend to form their own groups. It doesn't mean that the Bible is at fault - only that some people go off on tangents. In fact, St. Paul mentions the inevitability of there being separations between those who were serious about their faith and those who were not.2 Further, to assume that people who are new to the faith wouldn't have an incomplete understanding of the Bible's teaching is unreasonable. Problems have happened (especially in parts of Africa) because these new converts don't have good teachers and/or a lack of Bibles in their language. Finally, not all denominations are the result of differences of doctrine or Bible interpretation. As I mentioned earlier, most Protestant churches are fairly uniform in their essential beliefs.

I'm most familiar with the Presbyterian and Covenant denominations, so allow me to draw some illustrations from their histories. Most denominations are not the result of factions or splits within denominations, although the Catholic church is famous for this. As previously mentioned, they split with what became the Orthodox church. Later they excommunicated Luther (and others), leading to the Protestant movement. They were quite active in excommunicating or killing people that challenged their practices. As I said, there are some serious issues with the Catholic church. However, most denominations had their start as movements in various countries as the consequence of evangelistic campaigns. For instance, the Presbyterians in Scotland, and the Covenant church in Sweden. In these cases, the churches tended to have the language and culture of the parent country, even when members of their congregations emigrated to other countries. In the case of the Church of England, it developed out of missionary efforts by various groups, including pre- and post-Catholics. For a long time it acknowledge the authority of the pope, however in 1534 it was separated from the Catholics by King Henry VIII when he broke from the Catholic church. The King of England is still the titular head of that denomination. And church leaders must swear allegiance to the King. After the American revolution, having people swear allegiance to a foreign ruler was problematic. As a consequence, that denomination became the Episcopal church in America - which was essentially the Church of England without the allegiance. As other member countries of the British empire became independent, the same issue arose. As a result, the CoE in those countries became the Anglican church. The Episcopal church is considered a member of the "Anglican Communion". So, essentially they are all the same denomination.

As people immigrated into the United States, they brought along their "denominations" from their home countries, which is why there are probably more denominations here than in any other country in the world. Thus, the origins of most denominations have to do with individual missionary efforts in different parts of the world throughout history - not because of splintering over doctrinal differences. Over time, national organizations (the denominations) grew out of these different "traditions".

That is not to say that there have never been splits within denominations, though that is unusual. Slavery was one issue that divided some denominations (such as the Presbyterians and Methodists). The southern Presbyterians supported slavery while the northern did not. They split over the issue during the civil war era, but eventually joined back into a single denomination in 1983. There have been other splits over other issues (such as bad behavior of church leaders), but these tend to affect a single congregation rather than an entire denomination.

Though there are some benefits from numerous congregations joining together (which is what a denomination is), there are also some dangers to it. For instance, many (if not most) denominations require the individual congregations to pay a "tax" to the national organization based on the number of official members of the congregation. They also have their own rules for who is ordained as ministers, and how. And they often try to impose their own doctrinal stances upon the individual congregations. This has become a problem over the last 40 years with many denomination's national councils abandoning clear Biblical teaching to compromise with societal mores. This has led to many congregations leaving their denominations to become independent. More than one has found that although the congregation paid for the church building, the building is legally owned by the denomination - requiring them to purchase the property back from the denomination. Thus, they paid for the church property twice. But some consider this a small price to remain true to the Bible. Of course, some congregations go along with their national organizations, so though the denominations in America have shrunk in size, none of them seems in danger of disappearing completely.

However, the size of denominations has dwindled more than is attributable to congregations abandoning them. Some of this is due to the percentage of "churched" Americans shrinking due to a trend of Americans leaving the faith, or being far less serious about it. But some of it is entirely due to the teaching that people are getting in some churches these days. There are only two ways to go if you aren't going to stick to what the Bible teaches: one can adopt fringe cultish views, or one can adopt the general culture. In either case, the Bible may serve as a general philosophical treatise: "God is love" and "we should love one another", etc, but these are twisted to serve the cult or the culture. Most people shy away from cults, so it is not surprising that "churches" that go that way tend to be few and far between. In the case of compromising with the culture, studies have shown that churches that hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible have maintained membership (or have grown in size), while those churches which do not have been hemorrhaging members. It strikes me as strange that anyone should find it odd that churches which abandon Biblical teaching would lose members. Think about it. What draw does a church have that presents and pushes a woke philosophy? People can get their fill of that from social media, mass media, and their friends and co-workers. Why would any of them get up early on a Sunday and sit for two or three hours in a building to hear a sermon preach what they get an earful of 24x7 already? Their songs are insipid and the rituals are anachronistic. Even the traditional purpose of serving as a place for social or community gatherings has little appeal to the modern American, with so many other ways to socialize. Ritual, devoid of any deeper meaning, may appeal to those who have fond childhood memories of those rituals. This probably explains why people, who don't normally attend church services, tend to flock to churches on Christmas and Easter. The only other reason to attend a church where the Bible isn't taught is that some people think that attending a church - any church - will bestow salvation, or God's favor, upon the attendee. Such people are sadly deceived because we are only saved by faith in Jesus - not by attending church.

There are really only two types of churches (as in "congregations") - those who follow the teaching of the Bible, and those which do not. In the case of the former, the fact that there are so many different traditions is actually a good thing. It allows each believer to choose a congregation where they feel comfortable. That may be based on observation (or not) of rituals, the style of music, the availability of children and adult programs, and so on. So long as the Bible is honored and Jesus is preached (which go together), choose the church you enjoy.

Aren't there "churches" that insist that you can't be saved unless you belong to that group? Yes there are some congregations and organizations that insist that they are the "only way". In my experience, they are a small minority and should be ignored. In fact, if your pastor or priest insists that the only way to salvation is their group, organization, or them(!) flee them as fast as you can. Of course, the opposite extreme also exists: there are those who insist that there are many ways to God. The clear Biblical teaching is neither - it is what Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life"3 and there is no other way to salvation.4

Those who look for excuses to not follow Jesus will find plenty. If all churches were in lock-step without any difference of opinion on anything, these people would (rightly) call them cultish. But when there are differences of opinion, they consider it some sort of evidence of the Bible having an inconsistent or imperceptible message. So, either way they feel that they have an excuse to dismiss the Bible. When you throw in the way "Biblical" churches are represented by Hollywood, which focuses on extreme examples - true or invented - the viewpoint of the general (ignorant) public is rather twisted in regard to churches.

To summarize, the "church" is actually the whole of all believers in Jesus. This was the original meaning and is still true today - despite the word having been redefined to mean other things. It can also mean a given group of believers (i.e. a congregation). The Catholic "church" has done violence (sometimes literally) to the concept of the original meaning of "church". As I said, there are believers in the Catholic church that I am happy to embrace as brothers in the faith, but the organization itself (like some Protestant denominations) has little to recommend it. There may be some legitimate cause for pride in the heritage of a denomination - much as I personally take pride in my Irish heritage. But, as I do not use my Irish background as a reason to look down on people with other ethnic backgrounds, so people belonging to one tradition of Christianity should not look down on people holding to others. In point of fact, it has been exceedingly rare that I have had personal experience of that. Finally, the idea that most churches are fractious and there is no clear message from the Bible is ignorant at best, and intentionally misleading at worst.

1 Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, etc.
2 1 Corinthians 11:19
3 John 14:6
4 Acts 4:12