Church buildings are closing and denominations crumbling, but small groups of believers who meet to study the Word of God and to pray are multiplying. What does this mean?
A number of people have contacted me recently who have been having problems in their local church, and they feel they can no longer attend.
Of course, in our highly mobile age people are constantly on the move and they change churches. But what seems to be happening is something different, with people leaving a church where they’ve been in membership for many years. They feel they no longer fit or that they are not being fed.
I’ve been looking at the reasons why some people leave their church. A variety of reasons are given, such as unhappiness at the introduction of different styles of worship. Others involve personalities or change of leadership. But by far the most quoted reason is unhappiness with the teaching being given, or with unbiblical practices being introduced.
Many of those leaving their churches are mature Bible-believing Christians who express unhappiness either with the lack of sound biblical teaching or that the Gospel is never applied to current issues in the world.
This is, by far, the most worrying factor in what is happening in the Church today. It is the lack of a prophetic sense of mission. When the church loses its prophetic mission of declaring the Word of God for our times it loses vision and dynamic, and slumps into a routine form of religion.
Every day the news is filled with dramatic events – growing tension between the USA and Russia; Iran massing weapons on the border with Israel; war, famine and disease; millions of refugees on the move; at home our freedom to preach the Gospel and pass on the faith to our children is slowly being eroded – but the silence of the Church is deafening!
Have the churches lost their relevance? Is this the reason why so many Christians are meeting together in small groups for prayer, Bible study, discussion and fellowship?
I was recently discussing this with my wife, who has for many years studied church history. She related an incident of which I was not aware. When King James I became King of England (formerly James VI of Scotland) he wanted to make the Bible available in English to all his subjects.
Most Bibles were in Latin which many people, even the clergy, could not read. He called together a group of Protestant scholars; some were Church of England clergy, others were Dissenters (Nonconformist ministers).
They allocated different parts of the Bible to individual scholars and collectively began translating the Bible into what became known as the ‘Authorised’ or the ‘King James’ version.
The group of scholars worked well together but there was one word they could not agree about, so they came to consult the King. It was the word ‘ecclesia’, which in the original Greek means ‘a gathering’ – or ‘congregation’.
The Dissenters wanted to translate ‘ecclesia’ as ‘congregation’, whereas the Church of England clergy wanted to translate it ‘church’ as in the Roman Catholic Bible.
The King agreed with the C of E clergy and the word ‘church’ came into the Authorised Version and has been used in most English translations since then. So the word ‘ecclesia’ was changed from meaning ‘a group of people’ to ‘an organisation’.
What a difference it would have made if the word ‘ecclesia’ had been correctly translated! We would not have had our current mess where the word ‘church’ can mean a building, or a
denomination, or a global organisation like a big business corporation.
There is no biblical justification for the word ‘church’ in Christianity. It does not appear anywhere in the Bible!
The word ‘ecclesia’ occurs 115 times in the New Testament, but they all refer to ‘a gathering of people’, or ‘an assembly’, or ‘a community of believers in Jesus’. Most English translations of the Bible have got it wrong by translating ‘ecclesia’ as ‘church’.
There is just one place in our New Testaments where ‘ecclesia’ is correctly translated as ‘assembly’. It is describing the riot in Ephesus when the whole town came together as ‘an assembly’ shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”.
Since the English Bible translators managed to put the word ‘ecclesia’ as ‘assembly’ twice when describing the riot – in Acts 19:32 and 39 – why didn’t they translate it correctly in all the other references?
The reason is that James I, like his father Charles I, had strong Catholic sympathies and he wanted the Church of England to be as close as possible to the Church of Rome.
In New Testament times the word ‘church’ was unknown. The Christians had no buildings and no man-made organisation – they were simply gatherings of believers meeting in one another’s homes.
Luke described the church in Jerusalem as: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). This is how they continued until the Emperor Constantine chose Christianity as the religion of the Empire and Rome took control.
Constantine hated the Jews and did not invite a single Jewish church leader to the Council of Ephesus in AD 325. All his life he had been a sun worshipper, so he abandoned the biblical Sabbath and instituted ‘Sun-day’.
He even dropped the biblical feasts and changed the calendar, so Passover became Easter which was based on ‘Ishtar’ (also known as Astarte), the Middle Eastern goddess of both fertility and war.
And so Christianity changed from being ‘congregations of believers’ to an ‘organisation’ with its great buildings and its hierarchy and governing councils in the same way as the nations of the world.
Today we see church buildings closing and denominations crumbling, but the small groups of believers who meet to study the Word of God and to pray are multiplying. Could this be the herald of a new Reformation? Are we seeing the faithful remnant emerging into a purified ‘community of believers’ who will bring a new dynamic into Christian living?
As the world becomes more violent and the Western nations more hostile to the Gospel, could the small groups of committed believers be a sign that God is preparing his people to live under persecution?
And are we already seeing the beginnings of a new Reformation through which God may release the transforming power of the Holy Spirit into the nations?