Along with such colloquial gems as What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) and Let Go and Let God, there has emerged over the past few years a new feel-good theological axiom:
Don’t Just Go to Church, Be the Church.
Here’s why you can’t be the Church.
This phrase is undoubtedly the offspring of the less refined, The Church is not a Building and its variations. Unlike WWJD, the be the church mantra has taken longer to make its way into the mainstream. Likely because DJGTCBTC doesn’t fit as well on kitschy merchandise.
So what’s up with the be the church phrase? Is it rediscovered hidden wisdom or a new movement to reclaim Christianity from its organized religious chains? Is it hackneyed bumper sticker theology with all the pitfalls thereof? Or, is it just Christian virtue-signaling? Regardless of whoever coined the phrase and the intentions behind how people use it, on its face, I believe the best descriptor of it is specious.
Specious (spēˈshəs) adj. Having the ring of truth or plausibility but actually fallacious: a specious argument. (New Heritage Dictionary)
Ring of Truth
Let’s begin by what people usually mean when they say, “Don’t just go to church, be the church.”
Going to church
When most people say, “I’m going to church” they almost always mean they are going to worship, Bible study, or some other event at the church building. To be sure, the “Church” is the body of believers who gather around the Word and Sacraments across time and space, but people have called the building or place where the congregation meets “the church” for a very long time.
The Bible uses the term “Church”(ἐκκλησία) almost exclusively to refer to the people called by God to faith in Jesus Christ. The writers use it narrowly to refer to the people of a particular congregation and broadly to refer to all people called by God to faith. St. Paul used the word in the narrow sense and hints at the broad sense in this example from his letter to the Corinthians:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours… (1 Corinthians 1:2)
Paul is not writing to a building, of course, but to people!
So are we to abandon our fast and loose use of the term “church” to refer to anything other than exactly how the Bible uses it? No. That’s not how language works.
A Grammar Lesson: Synecdoche
You see, it’s a bit cumbersome to say “I’m going to the building where the church of God meets.” Even to say, “I’m going to the congregation meeting-house” becomes a mouthful. Over time, as with many other terms and phrases in English, simplification has occurred. We want our language to be efficient and “church” is an example of that.
Linguists would call our modern use of the term “church” to refer to the building where the church meets as a synecdoche. A synecdoche is when you use part of a whole to refer to the whole. For instance you might say, “nice wheels!” when you mean “nice car.” The wheels are only part of the car, but the hearer understands that you’re not complimenting only their tires and rims. Another example of synecdoche is when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We ask, “give us this day our daily bread,” but we are using “bread” as a part of all of what God has promised. As Luther notes in the Small Catechism, “Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body…”
There are other church terms that have become a synecdoche. The most obvious is “sanctuary.” As any liturgical pastor can tell you, this technically refers only to the area around the altar. The place where the people sit is the Nave. But ask anyone what they call the worship space and most of them will tell you, “the sanctuary.” There’s not much we can do about it now.
So, there is nothing inherently wrong with using the term “church” to refer to the church building. It has simply become one of the definitions of the word.
So what is the axiom “be the church” trying to say?
I want you to imagine a continuum. On the far left end of this continuum is the idea that being a Christian is about showing up to church, participating in a worship service, and then going home to live out the rest of the week no differently than anyone else. This is antinomianism, among other things. On the far right of this continuum is the idea that being a Christian is about striving to be perfect in all that you do to please God and earn salvation. This is pietism and syncretism, among other things. The Church is always being pulled toward these heresies and errors. Many of the differences between denominations, synods, and traditions are because a particular church body has moved closer to one of these extremes.
In the Middle Ages, the church was closer to the far right. Luther’s reforms pushed us back away from the heresy that we must work our way into heaven and back into the truth of the Gospel. Today, however, many church bodies and Christians are moving to the far left. They either confess or simply behave in such a way which teaches faith should be compartmentalized from everything else in our lives.
The goal of Don’t Just go to Church, Be the Church could be designed to combat this equally disastrous error. That is, don’t just go to church and go through the motions, but instead take to heart the message, amend your life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and help others according to their needs.
Pretty good message, right?
I should note briefly that there are two versions of this phrase. They both end with “be the Church,” but one begins “Don’t just go to church” and the alternate drops the modifier “just.” It turns out that single word makes a world of difference in meaning. The former suggests that there is more to the Christian life than just going to church. The latter suggests that going to church is optional or even harmful and one should just be the Church instead.
When Lutherans use this axiom, regardless of which version they say, I would contend that most believe going to church is part of being the Church.
If indeed the goal of the phrase is as I explained above, that’s a pretty good message. We most certainly should strive to grow in faith toward God and love toward one another. But the phrase is specious and even a little dangerous because when one is urged to “be the Church” instead of “going to church” what is lost is the communal nature and ethos of the community God has designed us to live in. The koinonia of church is replaced by some individualistic notion that a person can go out into the world and “be the Church” on one’s own.
Church is more than a building and more than people
The church is, in fact, greater than the brick and mortar that make up the building where the congregation meets. Equally so, the church is the people of God who gather around the Word and Sacraments and have in common the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.
And yet, I propose that the Church is greater than the sum of its parts. When Jesus says, “and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18),” there is a sense that Jesus is using the term neither narrowly nor broadly, but according to a third, ethereal sense.
A person cannot be the Church. The Church is a community. It is an intimate participation in the body and blood of Christ within that community. The Church is God’s ingathering of His people into mutual spiritual communion and support. One cannot simply say “I’m going to be the Church today.” Instead, the Church is God’s gift to His people as we strive to live and grow in this broken world.
Along with the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” and Jesus > Religion folks, comes this post-modern temptation to think about our faith in a “me and Jesus” kind of way. To take the community and the cloud of witnesses out of the Church and boil it down to being an active Christian has the potential to improperly catechize future generations as to what it means to be in the Church.
One could hope that the phrase has a short life, but WWJD is still alive and well even despite Lutheran efforts to reform it into WHJD: What Has Jesus Done?
So shall I dare coin a phrase to replace the now ubiquitous Be the Church? No. I get what people are trying to say. They want to say that we should live out our faith in active lives of love and service to one another. It’s a great and important message, but it’s hard to simmer down into a catch phrase. Simply put, good theology doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. Just as good theology can’t be expressed in 140 characters on Twitter.
The same people who decry the using term “church” to refer to where the church meets are inadvertently trying to impose a new definition on “Church” to mean “do good works.” The Church certainly does good works, but it’s so much more than that.
Oh, and by the way, go to church.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19-25)