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Monday, March 14, 2011

group, church, and cultural context

            On the northern edge of the downtown business district of Norfolk, VA, there is a certain office building.  Unlike most of the downtown buildings, it has a small strip of lawn in front of the building, and on that piece of lawn is a sign stating the tenants of it.  One of them is “The Group for Women.”  The name tells one little about the organization.  I have intentionally not done any research about it—the reason why will be obvious in a moment.  Knowing the day and age I live in, I could reasonably guess that it might be a feminist organization, or an organization that concentrates on a physical or psychological problem that is largely a concern of the female gender.  Therefore, I cannot even guess whether it is for profit or not for profit.  In spite of the name, “The” does not imply that it is the largest or most dominant women’s group in the area, or I probably would know something about it.
            The problem is with the word “group.”  Many large Japanese corporations end their name with the word “Group”, but that isn’t common here.  In our culture, a group could be an informal association of people, or an organization of just about any type one can imagine.  It has a specialized meaning in the military.  It can be a synonym for band.  About the only thing specific is that it isn’t referring to an individual.
            The importance to believers in Jesus is that, to the best that I can see, group is the modern English word most similar to the word in Biblical (Koine) Greek that is generally translated “church.”  Yes, I know that it is supposedly most close to “gathering” or “assembly”, but neither of these words are as commonly used as “group.”  The key in my saying this comes from Acts 19.  There appears the story of the idol makers guild protesting the work of Paul.  The idol makers, in spite of the statements of honor to the goddess Diana in this passage, were really motivated by their bottom line being hurt by persons who formerly were involved in the city religion leaving that to follow Jesus.  We must also take note that this town belief gained no small amount of money by travelers, especially sailors, who cared nothing about the belief, but did drop money to the temple to take part in its sexual sacrifices.  Anyway, in Acts 19, the protestors they gathered are described in most English versions of the Bible as an “assembly” or “gathering,” and I’m fully well aware that many institutional church pastors have described this more colorfully, and to our cultural accurately, as a “mob”, but that word, in the Greek, was the same word that in all other places in the New Testament is translated as “church.”  That was why city officials were so concerned, as such dissent was one of the few things that irritated their superiors in Rome, and they, as all politicians, were concerned about their own jobs. 
            This tells us that, to the original writers and hearers of the books of the New Testament, and also to unbelievers who lived in that culture, that word implied something that was not necessarily formally organized, not necessarily permanent or temporary, and not a religious term.  When almost any person in our culture hears or reads the word “church” in our culture today, they will think of something religious, organizational, permanent (as possibly incapable of adjusting quickly to anything), and established.  When we take that attitude to reading that into that word in scripture, we are now reading that passage out of (cultural) context, which can easily lead to interpreting the whole passage in a way that is not at all like it was meant to be understood. 

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