Definitional Confusion

“Definitional Confusion”

Terry L. Johnson

This is the tenth of 18 articles in a series entitled “Who Needs the Church?”


The interchangeable use of the terms “church” and “Christian” contributes considerably to the confusion surrounding today’s discussions of the church. These two words have overlapping content but are not coextensive. Those things which are true of individual Christians may not be true of the church. So also the reverse. There are things that are true of the church that are not true of the individual. Yet sometimes people speak of “the church” when they mean individual Christians or informal groups of Christians. Sometimes they speak of “Christians” when they actually mean the church. Two examples stand out: culture and commitment.


Sincere but disillusioned Christians may say, “The church needs to be doing more about ________” or “the church has failed by its neglect to do anything or say anything about ​​ _________.” The blanks are filled with important social and cultural issues: education, poverty, employment, moral controversies, abortion, etc., about which the church is perceived as having been negligent. “Aren’t Christians supposed to be involved in culture, social issues, and politics?” they ask. Christians are. That is the point. Christians are, the church is not. A few years ago my denomination’s General Assembly featured the motto, “Anchored in Christ, Active in Culture.” Unanswered was the question, “Who is?” Is the motto addressed to the church as the church or to the church as individuals or groups of Christians? Since it was a gathering of the church as the church, I assumed the former which meant discomfort on my part with the motto.

The church has a fairly narrow job description. Essentially it is this: worship and witness. The Great Commission, our job description, has us making disciples of the nations, baptizing them into the fellowship of the church, and teaching them all that Jesus commands (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15-16; Lk 24:47-49; Jn 20:21-23). The New Testament portrays the early Christians gathering for simple services of teaching, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and fellowship (Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 2:1, 2; 4:13). We do not find any direct attempts to fight Roman political oppression, abolish slavery, end social inequality, or relieve poverty. The church is competent to gather for worship and evangelize and make disciples. It has done an admirable job of this for 2000 years. However, once it strays from these simple tasks it quickly reveals its incompetence while at the same time it neglects the very work that it was commissioned to do.

Years ago a political cartoon showed a clergyman at a chalkboard drawing up the X’s and O’s of a football play. Arrows showed the players moving wildly in every direction. As a football play it was senseless. The caption was, “The bishops statement on the economy.” The point was clear enough even if the chalkboard was incoherent. When it comes to the economy, the editorial page cartoonist was convinced that church doesn’t know what it is talking about. “Active in culture” is not what the church is called to be. It is active in being a counter-culture by the quality of its sacrificial love and high moral standards. It is called to relieve poverty (2 Cor 8, 9), to end bigotry and prejudice (Gal 2:11-14; 3:28), to treat others impartially and without regard to social status (Jas 2:1-7) among its own. However, the church as an institution has no particular social mission outside its walls, out there in the culture.

At the same time, individuals and groups of individual Christians are called to all manner of social and cultural activity. Some are called to artistic excellence. Others called to literary excellence. Still others to scientific excellence. Christians are called to the full spectrum of worldly activities. Some are called to be politicians and professionals (not just politicians and professionals who happen to be Christians, but politicians and professionals who think and act like Christians). Others similarly are called to be Christian athletes and workers. Still others are called to be Christian breadwinners and homemakers. As Christians pursue their vocations in the world, they bring light and salt into the community, they bring reform and reformation. So it was that Christians, such as member of Parliament William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and other members of a voluntary organization known as the “Clapham Sect,” successfully led the movement for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Christians have established schools, colleges and universities, including nearly every private institution for higher education in the United States until the late 1800’s. They have been patrons of the arts. They have established hospitals and countless organizations to help the poor, workers, immigrants, widows and orphans. They have formed all manner of charitable organizations and reform movements to combat social evils and promote social well-being.

This distinction between what Christians are supposed to do (the list of which may be limitless) and what the church is supposed to do (which is limited and particular) is crucial. It frees Christians to pursue their callings across the entire range of moral human activities, and it saves the church from false accusations, unwarranted expectations, dissipated energies, and mission creep.


The second area where this confusion of terminology exists is in the realm of commitment. “I’m committed to the church,” many sincere believers maintain, while remaining uncommitted to a particular church. What they mean is, “I’m committed to the group of Christians with whom I associate.” We don’t need to labor the point because we’ve discussed this problem at length already. We seek only briefly to remind ourselves that a group that gets together monthly in its member’s living room, or weekly in a restaurant, or Sunday’s in a coffee shop; that is voluntary, ad hoc, informal, self-selecting, and affinity-driven is not the church. It is a group of Christians. One might be committed at some level or even a serious level to a group of fellow believers that have gathered around a particular interest or affinity. Yet such groups of Christians are not the church. Identifying them as such is confusing things that differ. It betrays definitional confusion. The church, as we have seen, is an institution, an organization, and as such calls for my commitment to it and my support of it.

I may or may not be committed to meeting with my circle of Christian friends. That is my choice. There are no commandments, instructions, or directions about such meetings or gatherings. Not so the church. Gathering with the church that Jesus is building, that has a government, officers, membership, a method of discipline, and standards of inclusion and exclusion is an obligatory commitment for all believers (Mt 16:18; 18:15-20). Support and participation are not considered voluntary. Believers are not permitted to “neglect” (ESV) or “forsake” the assembly (Heb 10:25, NASB). Non-commitment is a non-option. Commitment to the church as the church, not the “church” as a self-selecting group of believers, is a necessary part of what it means to be a Christian.

Terry L. Johnson is the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.


TAGS: William Wilberforce; Clapham Sect; vocation; calling; church; individual Christians; mission; cultural issues; social issues; church and politics