Ah, what power there is in a word. A skilled communicator agonizes over choosing precisely the right word for the occasion—that exact nuance in a verb, a noun, or an adjective, to guide the reader’s eye and the listener’s ear to the intended message. Miscommunication is always a danger. And it’s a danger that grows with passing days, for over time language becomes loose. With use, words morph to take on reduced and alternate meanings. Awesome. Gay. Sick. Wicked. You get the picture.
So, here’s a key word from a Christian’s vocabulary: “Church.” Imagine I’m an outsider to the whole Christianity thing. Let’s see if I can define “Church” by the way most Christians speak. …
“Do you want to go to Church with me, this weekend?” “The wedding will be held at the big Church, corner of Smith and Straight Street.” “I know you’re not really into Church, but why not give it a go?” “Wasn’t worship at Church great this last Sunday?”
Okay, let’s put it together. Church is an event, a building, a hobby, and a religious club?
Now, before you accuse me of nit-picking—“It’s all semantics, Dave. Ease up!”—realize the power of words. Christians believe it was with words that God spoke the universe into being; words are the means by which we acknowledge or deny Jesus; words convey the Gospel of life to those who haven’t heard; and words reveal the way we feel and think about our world. Maybe we need to dust off the word “Church” and get back to where it began. Until we do, our words may erect an unscalable barrier that blocks engagement with a Church-weary world.
Church: ἐκκλησία, ek-kle-siae, ecclesia. Nearly 500 years before Jesus, the ecclesia was the key assembly for ancient Athens’ democracy. Same with Rome. The ecclesia was the administrative body for the Kingdom. There were multiple Kingdom outposts, helping administer Rome’s Empire in the local regions. The ecclesia were there, like ambassadors for Rome, to make sure the everyday citizen experienced the flavour of the Kingdom. The ecclesia was not so much a place, or a program, but a people called out to represent the Kingdom in word and deed, spreading Greece’s or Rome’s influence wherever they went. The aim wasn’t to get outsiders into the ecclesia. The aim of the ecclesia was to get out and serve the citizens so they might freely align with the Kingdom.
Jesus borrowed this particular word, ekklesiai, from the political language of the day, to make sure his followers understood their call to be a new humanity, rather than forming another clique to replace the Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes, and Zealots. Rome was merely a cheap version of the true Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. And Christ called out and commissioned his disciples as a Kingdom outpost, to announce God’s reign and give this world a taste of how things run when God is in control (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:18-19). The Church isn’t a place you go. The Church is God’s pilgrim people, a body of believers selected and sent by God to administer the Kingdom and make Christ the King known by word and deed. Each region had its own ecclesia (the Church in Jerusalem, the Church in Corinth, etc.), but these various branch offices of the Kingdom were joined as one “catholic Church” as the Apostle’s Creed describes, united in Kingdom business. (Sounds ecumenical, no? Hmm.)
So, back to the present. We use “Church” with almost the exact opposite of Jesus’ intent. Instead of going to the world, we expect people to come to us. We think that getting our “lost” friends into a building to hear a religious service is the end-game for our witness. And we’ve offered the world the Church now and Heaven later, instead of the Kingdom of God which starts now and only grows in influence until the day Christ the King returns and sets everything right.
My local church knows how to celebrate when we get together on Sunday. But don’t be confused. The gathering of the ecclesia for corporate worship may attract some outsiders to align with Christ’s Kingdom. But the most powerful witness by far is when we serve up for our neighbours a taste of the Kingdom, whether by the way we love, the way we listen, or even the way we cook.
Yes, words are powerful. The average ‘unchurched’ person has no interest in joining a religious club and tying up their sunny Sunday inside a building. But when the Church is truly the ecclesia of Christ, there is nothing more attractive and no more powerful witness. It’s our love for each other, and radical acts of loving service for those outside our community, that best points people to Jesus. And this will only happen when we stop heaping our salt in a pile, and hiding our light under a building. I mean a bushel.
So, what is the Spirit of God saying to His Church today? In short, “Get Out!” Follow Christ outside the Church building and into the midst of our post-Christendom culture. And let’s stop going to Church, and start being the Church Christ gave His life to establish—the kind of Church against which even the gates of Hell will never prevail.
Hey Dave, very helpful thanks.
Not sure if you’re aware, but the moving advertisement on this page is for Dan Murphy’s Liquor.
Thanks Sue – love the irony :)
Ben’s post (below) challenges, and destroys, my historical premise! Hopefully, though, the conclusions stand, albeit upon a different foundation.
Dave, I hate to be that guy and I always look forward to your posts, but some of your details are a bit off.
While the ekklesia was a key institution for Athens, the same isn’t true for Rome. Rome had the senate and was never a “democracy” in the way that Athens was, but rather a republic. Further, while the senate was a group of people, indeed, a social class, in Rome, the ekklesia in Athens was a distinct meeting rather than a reference to a group of people. The group of people who met in the ekklesia (if it was not the whole democratic collection of free-born men in Athens) was the council (βουλή).
Further, neither the ekklesia nor the senate were ambassadors of their respective governments. They were simply governing bodies. In the first place, the ekklesia was an Athenian institution and there was no unified Greece to speak of in its classical heyday to which you are referring. The senate met in Rome exclusively (except in times of danger when they could convene elsewhere for safety sake) and the ekklesia similarly met exclusively in Athens. Rome (both republican and imperial Rome) did not put a senate everywhere they conquered but rather they put governors, etc. The senate wasn’t there. Neither was the Athenian ekklesia.
As for Jesus using the political term from Greece and Rome, such an argument only works if you posit that Jesus knew and used Greek (or, less probable, Latin). However, the vast majority of New Testament scholars would argue that Jesus principally spoke Aramaic. In that case, the equivalent would be qahal (or edah), both of which refer to Israel as the people of God rather than a political administrative body. Furthermore, the term ekklesia only occurs three times in Matthew and not at all in the other Gospels where Jesus prefers the concept of the Kingdom of God. Most scholars argue, and I think they’re right, that the term ekklesia originated not with Jesus but with the early Hellenistic Church (i.e., the Greek-speaking churches outside Judea).
Finally, it is strange that you don’t give any consideration to the possible Jewish background to the concept of ekklesia from the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew terms qahal or edah.
It is true that some scholars (and I’m thinking particularly of Wolfgang Schrage here) would argue that the term ekklesia was deliberatly adopted from the political sphere, but even there it is not becuase the term refers to people called out to “spread the flavour of the kingdom” but because they were trying to differentiate themselves from the synagogue (the other Greek term used to translate the terms qahal and edah) and it was a word that referred to a gathering of people. For the record, however, I think use of the term ekklesia in close connection with other concepts linked with Israel as the people of God points to a Jewish “religious” background rather than a Greco-Roman political one.
Nevertheless, I agree with you that the Church ought to quit merely attending church and be the Church.
I hope this is helpful.
yes, you were ‘that guy’!
Genuinely, though, thankyou for pointing out the errors which fall squarely within your field, not my area of expertise (if I have one, that is!).
I was mostly bouncing off Lesslie Newbigin’s writing (where the ‘church’ is always responsive and relative to the ‘secular’ needs ot the surrounding community – he leans heavily on political readings of ‘ekklesia’), and also E. Stanley Jones, that the church is relative to (a pointer towards) the Kingdom, not a place you go, but a people we are. Frank Viola picks up similar themes in “Pagan Christianity” and “Reimagining Church”. My initial stimulus was Regent’s course in “Reevangelization”, though I’m sure Charles Ringma and Darrell Johnson wouldn’t want to sign their names to what I wrote given the inaccuracies you pointed out.
I didn’t go with the Hebrew use of ekklesia (I gather it was used in the Septuagint), using it in place of “the assembly”. Either way, the emphasis was on *being* the called out community of God for the world, rather than *going* to a meeting.
Hopefully I’ve reached the right conclusion, albeit by the wrong historical premise. And I trust it’s opened up an interesting dialogue on what it means to be the body of Christ, given not just for us, but for those presently outside our community.
So, what are you thoughts. Is *going* to church legitimate language? Is it helpful? In my experience, this almost standard language makes us “Sunday-centric”. I’ve always found “church gathered” (Sunday) and “church scattered” (the rest of the time we’re not meeting together) much more helpful in reinforcing our call–breaking outside the Christian bubble.
Thanks again, Ben – much appreciated (even as I’m a bit red-faced!),
I suppose that whether or not “going to Church” is legitimate language depends on your goal. If it is a pastoral goal of motivating a congregation that has become complacent and “Sunday-centric”, then I imagine that one would want to emphasize the consistency of the calling of the Church throughout the week.
On a lexical level, however, I think the word “church” as a reference to specific local meeting places of the Church is perfectly legitimate. This sort of transfer is common. Take for instance the US Senate. It is a political body made up of legislators, but the place where it meets is often also called simply “the Senate.” Eventually the word itself takes on that added meaning through use. So, the common sermon topic “the church isn’t the building, it’s the people” is true on a theological level, but not so much on a lexical level.
Still, I definitely agree with your post insofar as you were emphasizing the fact that the Church has a calling every day rather than simply to attend a meeting once a week.
Sorry for being pedantic. It comes so naturally to me. ;-)
Thanks Dave and Ben. Sue, maybe the ‘Dan Murphy’ has some connection to St Patrick’s Day! (Only joking!) Keep up the good work as my experience is that it takes an aweful long time to break people’s thinking and useage of the word ‘church’ but well worth the hard work. The ministry of the community I pastor consists of ‘Everything everyone thinks, says and does 24/7’ so that take it well and truly out of any building. However, be careful when you say that people ought to stop going to ‘church’ as a great many would wrongly interpret that as saying they are to become lone rangers. Those who need the frequent ‘gathering together’ are those who are genuinely living their faith out in every facit of their communities (living, playing, working, studying, etc.).
Thanks for the comments Bill – sounds like a lively community :) (And not too far from where I am in Brisvegas I gather! – I’m connected with Kenmore Baptist Church.) Good advice re: use of the rhetoric of “not going to church” … hopefully the article fleshed out my commitment to intentional gatherings – more a catchy title for wondering fair! – but it’s a fair point. Frank Viola in his “Reimagining Church” makes the good point that many emerging expressions of church have criticized overly institutional gatherings, only to have unstructured catch ups in coffee shops – which also isn’t truly *being* the church – it’s just Christians meeting together. At KBC we emphasise the 5 C’s for church: CELEBRATING the life of God COMMUNICATING Christ to the world CARING for those within and beyond our community CULTIVATING the life of Christ in individuals and together as a body, and doing all of this in COMMUNITY. Kind of helps us be intentional no matter what format or forum we’re meeting in.
God bless in your own ministry, Dave
No apologies necessary – very helpful for my own growth. I was surprised, though, how ‘off’ this ekklesia history was, as I have heard it as commonplace even by quite reputable theologians (like Newbigin, as I mentioned). What you said made total sense, though. An historical furfy – go figure!
ps – what are you doing now, post PhD – are you still in England? … very jealous you’re on the other side … I’m 7 weeks into mine @ University of Queensland, but it’s coming along well – albeit slowly.
Oh, if only I were post-PhD. Instead, I am in the second year of the program and should be finished next year. We’re still in England, but we don’t know where we’ll end up after this whole thing. Lots of applications are in my future.
Glad to hear that you’re starting a doctoral program. A guy as sharp as you, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble at all.
God bless in the process Ben – and thanks for the encouragement. Interested to see where all your studies take you :)
THIS thread is a reflection of the Kingdom of God coming to earth – Grace. Two people, serious about handling the word of God accurately, using their intelligence and wisdom and being able to correct and receive correction in a mature, non defensive way. Love it!
Perhaps a recent qualification will help. I was listening through Darrell Johnson’s course on Christian Education from Regent College (sections J05-J06 in the mp3) while preaching about Revelation. He was unpacking the “letter to the ekklesia in Ephesus” and emphasised the political function of this term. (None of which challenges Ben’s rebuttal above – I was historically off on Roman/senate connections.) Anyway, he went into more detail than usual on this, and brought to my attention the work of Larry Hurtado. Hurtado is a New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity and Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
In his book, “At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion” (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1999), pages 49-56, he distinguishes the early Church’s Greek adoption of ekklesia from the many religious terms available to this community, both Graeco-Roman and Jewish. True, ekklesia was used by Israel (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:2), but not for their explicitly religious services (for which ‘synagogue’ was used). Rather, “ekklesia designates Israel summoned by God to assemble for some act of obedience”. I won’t make his argument here, except to quote his conclusion on page 55.
“So, it appears that early Christians deliberately adopted and preferred a distinctive self-designation, a term not used by pagan or Jewish religious groups to refer to their cultic gather- ings, yet a term whose pre-Christian usage connoted official significance and, in the Old Testament, a special religious association. More specifically, the term reflects the self- understanding of early Christian groups as being a legitimate continuation and heirs of Old Testament Israel, and also as assemblies of God’s people, summoned by God to obedience and service, proclaiming God’s kingdom in this world. In the use of the term ekklesia for the worship gatherings (used both for the ‘whole church’ of Christians in a given city, e.g., Acts 5:11; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor 14:23, and for the house-church groups, e.g., Rom 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15), we have an indication of the effort to invest these otherwise modest gatherings with a high meaning, which, among other things, would have helped members to find in them a rationale for making Christian worship their sole religious association.”
In Darrell Johnson’s paraphrase, the church (ekklesia) was an assembly of people summoned by God (that is, the Father through the resurrected Son in the power of the Spirit) to conduct the true affairs/business of the city. It was, in the broadest sense, a new politic.
The civic implications are clear, and I think support my basic argument that ‘going to church’, framed as a religious service, is unhelpful. It may reflect the natural drift of a term, but I think it distracts from the core ‘business’ of the church representing kingdom business for the sake of the world. While Jesus, speaking Aramaic, may not have explicitly made this point, it certainly resonates with the Hellenistic church’s appropriation of his teaching.
Hopefully something in this might be helpful to those looking to explore in a tad more depth.