Some Thoughts On “Church” Semantics

By Robert F. Turner

A sign in my study reads: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” It is a reminder that our words can become so tangled they become nonsense or proclaim a message we had no intention of declaring. “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” Clarity of understanding must precede clear expression, and sometimes garbled sentences indicate the writer has not thought through what he would say. But we also must reckon with local or provincial dialects which say one thing to people from my part of the country, and a different thing to people elsewhere. We must realize that a word we use in its standard dictionary sense may have a special connotation to the reader and send his mind down a path we did not intend to travel. Semantics, the science of meaning, should be especially considered by all who would express God’s word to others.

Most of us are familiar with doctrinal conflicts which seem to be little more than different uses of terms. It is sad indeed when brethren are separated by semantics – often compounded by pride that insists on one’s own way of saying things, and by refusal to put the better interpretation on a brother’s words (1 Cor. 13:4-6). But a teacher also has an obligation to his intended hearer and reader, to consider the possible interpretations and be as unambiguous as possible. Our way of saying things is related to our way of thinking (“of the abundance of the heart. . . “, Lk. 6:45). If we do not mean what our words convey, we should not mind changing the words.

In my early preaching days, whether right or wrong, “missionary” had a denominational connotation and was rarely used except with the quotes. A friend warned me that by continued use of the word we would eventually drop the quotes. This principle applies to saying many other things. Since thinking precedes the wording, we may finally get around to expressing concepts that have been buried in the subconscious. This is all the more reason to re-examne both thinking and wording. If we do not really believe what we are saying, change it.

I am persuaded many of us are saying things about the church that leave wrong impressions. Those who are “in Christ” make up the church, but the church does not procure the spiritual blessings which are “in Christ.” Christ is the Savior, the church is the results. “In Christ” and “in the church” may refer to the same realm, but are identical only in this limited sense and special context. Christ died for us, and we must so trust him as to be converted to Christ, The emphasis belongs here, on the means of procurement and not on some term that designates the results. Yet we frequently read or hear “redemption, reconciliation, inheritance, salvation, and all spiritual blessings” are “in the church.” Little wonder many conclude some institution is the saving power. Semantics? With some this is surely so. But there are thousands, yea millions, who are taught that the church is actually the means of salvation.

Take a look at the Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. III, p. 752): “. . only by entering the Church can we participate in the redemption wrought for us by Christ.” Truth is, only by participating in the redemption wrought by Christ can we be a part of the church. Again, “Incorporation with the Church can alone unite us to the family of the second Adam. . . . ” We would say, all those who have become children of God are collected in the term “church.” And again, “and alone can engraft us into the true Vine.” We believe obedience to the gospel engrafts us into the true Vine, making us a part of his church.

Are we saying the same thing with different word arrangements? I think not. “Church” is a collective noun, used to designate those saved by the blood of Christ. We are saved by coming to Christ, and all who have been saved are collected in such terms as “flock” or “church” (Acts 20:28). We should state the case so as to keep the Savior foremost, and leave the church where God’s word puts it: the result of that salvation. It is as the product of Christ’s sacrifice the church exists, and receives the love, honor and attention so justly given in the Scriptures. There is no evidence an institution was established to be the saving power. Institutional religion has its basis in a concept that is far more than mere wording. This concept is clearly stated in a Roman Catholic summary: “From all this there is but one conclusion: Union with the Church is not merely one out of various means by which salvation may be obtained; it is the only means.” The “means” of salvation, please note. They have put the cart before the horse, and that is more than semantics.

It is also important to note that in the above we are using “church” in its universal sense, designating all the saved either collectively or distributively. The Scriptures also use “church” in a limited sense: the saints who have agreed to work and worship as a team, or what we often call a “local church” (Phil. 4:15; 1 Tim. 5:16; Matt. 18:17). While the universal church consists of those whom God knows to be his own (2 Tim. 2:19), the local church fellowship depends upon man’s judgment which is often faulty. Ideally we are to receive only those who are truly saints, but we may unknowingly or otherwise do differently (1 Cor. 5:1-2). The local church roll can not, therefore, be considered identical with God’s “roll” of his own. We should not speak or write in such a way as to leave the impression that our local fellowship is the standard of acceptability with God (2 Cor. 10:12-13).

Will this article be clearly understood? Who knows? One should try to write carefully and clearly, but people read with their background and preconceptions. Stirring thought and reconsideration of traditional subject matter may be costly, but resting on human traditions is more costly. All of us must remain open to continued Bible study, and the re-examination of how we present our conclusions to others. May God help us to “say the Word” carefully.

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 4, p. 103
February 18, 1988