Here is the Church and Here is the Steeple…

Little Lies We Learn as Children

There is a little children’s rhyme that we all learned as children. It uses hands to creatively teach about the church:

Here is the Church
And Here is the Steeple
Open the Doors
And see all the People!

The childhood rhyme is Biblically incorrect! While we often call the physical building and place of worship for the people of God, a Church, that is a misnomer. I go so far to call it a little lie. Little lies like this have been taught to us as children, and they have done great damage. Subtly and powerfully, they shape our vocabulary and thus our thinking and values as the people of God. The Church is NOT a physical building with a steeple and doors. Yet, we persist in using the word with that reference and meaning.

The institutional church itself has reinforced the vocabulary. A couple of years ago, the Bishop corrected me when I referred to St. Peter’s worship space as “the Sanctuary”. He said, “Properly, the sanctuary is the space behind the altar rails and building should be referred to as ‘the church’.” From a technical architectural vocabulary perspective, he was not wrong.

The reforming instinct in me cannot accept his correction. I have worked hard to never refer to a physical building as “The Church” because of the misaligned priorities on buildings, programs and institutions.

Empty Tombs

In the New Testament parlance, the Church is the gathered worshiping People of God. Rather than the building, the Church would be what you see when you open the doors and look inside the physical building. Monday through Saturday, the Church has left the building! Without the resurrected People of God gathered, the building stands vacant like an empty tomb!

As the angel who told the women looking for Jesus inside the rock-hewn tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen!” Yes, there are many beautiful “church” buildings built around the world, with wonderful architectural features and gorgeous stain glass windows. They are built to the Glory of God! However, without a vibrant Holy Spirit filled, worshiping body of Christ, they are empty albeit beautiful sepulchers.

Whenever the New Testament uses the term “church”, it is always referring to the redeemed and holy people of God. It does describe church in terms of building and structure but always as a building made with living stones on the divinely appointed cornerstone.

The church building is alive!

Biblically, we should not say we go to church as so many of us are apt to say, but rather we should say we are the church! The church is a community of people whose lives are completely centered on Jesus, living stones built into the precious cornerstone.

Paul used this same imagery in his letter to the Ephesians. He says,

“You are being built into a holy temple, one stone placed upon another, incorporated with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone. In him, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a Holy Temple in the Lord. In him, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

So does that mean that we should not build physical buildings for the church? Not at all! Yet, the institutional tools and structures that we have created with human hands out of wood, metal, bricks and mortar are merely tools and institutional supports for the spiritual living Church, the body of Christ. This is an incredibly important distinction for us. Why? Our primary focus is properly on the living organic Temple of the Lord.

The resurrected life is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and the community and people that have been incorporated into the New Temple that is his Body. As in times of the Old Testament, the People of God find themselves serving worldly physical and institutional structures, rather than the physical and institutional structures supporting the people of God.

This was the corruption of the political, religious and economic systems which Jesus confronted in his day when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the old Temple.

The challenge in our day is to renew our emphasis on the True Church, the Living Stones, the New Spiritual Temple, The Body of Christ. The people of this world value the physical stones, but the Lord values the living stones. As the Apostle Peter writes, they are chosen by God and “precious to him.”

Question for thought and discussion: Do you agree that the people of this world place more value on worldly structures and institutions than people? Do you see this happening even with the Church? How do we get back to the right emphases?

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7 thoughts on “Here is the Church and Here is the Steeple…

  1. Since I grew up in the Catholic Church, we did not say “We are going to Church” but instead said “we are going to Mass”. When I started attending the UMC, I changed my phrasing to say “I am going to Services”. It can be very confusing to new believers especially and perhpas old ones. Church with the capital “C” to me has always meant the body of believers while church with the small case “c” refers to structure. Fine line of distinction but it keeps it clear in my mind. Remember the earyl Acts 2 Church meet in homes not a formerly constructed building.

    • Therese,
      Good reminder of Acts 2:42. Buildings dedicated to worship came later! The Church was established with Jesus. Here is the verse:

      Acts 2:42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

  2. So, we get too caught up in the words. We have been calling the building the church all these years and that will be difficult to change. I think the focus we need is to have an impact when the “Church”, the body of Christ, leaves the building(the church) and goes out to minister to the rest of society.

    “While it is not technically wrong to use these terms to refer to places
    and buildings, the entire message of the New Testament is that dwelling
    place of God is now his people.”

    • “I think the focus we need is to have an impact when the “Church”, the body of Christ, leaves the building(the church) and goes out to minister to the rest of society.”

      A great comment!!!

  3. From Martha Hoeber: Technically I think the fault is one of translation from Greek to Latin to English. In Greek, the word for the congregation was “the out-called ones” (“ek” meaning “out or from” and another Greek word meaning “to call”) from which we get our English word “ecclesiastical.” The “ekklesia” were the “out-called ones.”

    In pagan Greco-Roman times, when officials wanted meetings to be held, they sent an announcer accompanied by a boy with a drum or trumpet, to the agora or forum, and shouted out the news of the upcoming meeting and who it was who was expected to attend — these were the “out-called ones.” . But in Christianity, the “out-called ones” as a phrase is particularly appropriate, since the faithful come to services because of personal conviction and commitment, having been “out-called” by the Holy Spirit.

    The word for “church,” however, comes from a different Greek word, “kyriakon,” meaning “of God.” This word originally referred to a place of worship, not to a congregation, but this place could be, and was, just about anywhere– a house, a cave, a catacomb. In late Latin, the hard “k” was softened to “ch” and ultimately became “church” in English. But in Scottish dialect, and in German, the hard “k” is still to be found in the words “kirk” and “Kirche.”

    Later on, ornate church buildings became the norm, and assumed an importance far beyond what they ought to have. The expression “the Church” came to mean the entire hierarchical organization from the pope down, but did not really include the “laity” whose only job was to obey and to support the clergy, with no voice in how the organization was run. This was a dramatic departure from what Christ obviously intended. Bricks and mortar are never more important than the people who use them. The metaphoric “building” of Paul is just that– a metaphor that people could understand– that they are integral parts of a human edifice designed to last through the ages, unlike bricks and stone that decay and collapse, are burned or destroyed in war, or are bought and sold. So “church” when it means only the hierarchy, or only the building, is a misnomer and is clearly not at all what Christ intended. The “out-called ones” are very literally “the church.” Without them, a building is meaningless. Without insisting on the intrinsic worth of each individual congregant, Christianity has lost its bearings.

    • Martha,

      Right on!

      Knowing the etymology of the words is really quite instructive. I too am fond of the Greek word “ekklesia”, or called out ones. The people of God are called out and gathered together. The other interesting thing is that the Greek word “synagogue” literally breaks down into a communal “learning together”. (from the Greek συν syn, “together”, and αγωγή agogé, “learning” or “training”). However, the term is also used with the referent of a place or a building.

      While it is not technically wrong to use these terms to refer to places and buildings, the entire message of the New Testament is that dwelling place of God is now his people.