This is an issue that’s been brewing in the comments to the Turnstile Church post, and it also matters when we start to think about the effectiveness of doing church online.
My basic position is that even though the church is not a building, it is usually found in a building. The fact that Christians function as a church only when they regularly meet in a building makes it a reasonable shorthand for people to refer to that building as the church.
- The universal Church is organized into particular geographical churches. Although Paul’s advice applies universally to all churches, his epistles were addressed to city churches with particular problems and characteristics. We see a similar distinction in the seven churches of Revelation. These were specific churches with their own personalities and faith trajectories.
- Church government requires face-to-face assembly. Paul’s instructions to Timothy about church welfare requires that church leaders have a high degree of familiarity with the people under their care (1 Timothy 5). Elders are told to correct a wayward brother first privately, but then, as a final resort, publicly (Matthew 18:17). The assumption is that the public announcement is about a person that the other members of the church know.
- Christian worship requires physicality only found in a church. In worship we are to sing together. God blesses us through the laying on of hands. The sacraments require physical presence for their proper administration. We extend the right hand of fellowship and greet each other with a kiss. There are other examples that might be worth the attention of a future post.
- Christian worship has a time and space dimension. Although eternal himself, God created a system of worship that was tied to a calendar through holy days, especially the Sabbath. Similarly, although omnipresent himself, God created a system of worship that was contained within at least four walls. Although we can worship God anywhere and at all times, he has clearly shown us that our highest form of worship is within sabbath (time) assemblies (space) of other believers.
Hebrews 10:25 recommends church attendance with these words:
Not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh.
As I once pointed out here, the Greek word translated as assembling is episynagoge. It means that Christians are to physically assemble together in one place. The root is synagogue, which itself means a physical gathering point, usually a building.
Yes, church also can refer to all Christians, living and dead, but it most commonly references distinct gatherings of believers who meet each other face to face for regular, physical worship of God. I assume that is our starting point, against which we’ll later assess efforts to redefine the church in ways that take it out of those chronological and physical constraints.