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The Phenomenon of Ekklesia: Part 1 of 2

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 19-04-2012

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Phe-nom-e-non

1. An observable fact or event. 2. An extraordinary person or thing or event.

3. An outward sign of the working of a law of nature (The Merriam- Webster Dictionary)

Ekklesia

1. Assembly, as a regularly summoned political body.

2. Assemblage, gathering, meeting generally.

3. The congregation of the Israelites.

4. The Christian church or congregation (Arndt & Gingrich Greek- English Lexicon)

Let’s not use the word “church.” It has so many preconceived meanings. Also, it is not even a translation of the Greek word ekklesia. “Church” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word kirk meaning, “of or pertaining to the Lord.” A good statement about God’s people, but not an accurate translation of ekklesia.

Notice our theme — the phenomenon of ekklesia. By phenomenon I am thinking of an eventful thing, and an unusual event at that. I am also thinking of the event as having its roots in another dimension. The cause of this phenomenon lies in the spiritual realm not the natural chain of cause and effect. In the ancient Roman Empire the followers of Jesus Christ were viewed with great suspicion. They usually met in secret, at night, in non-public places, and were rumored to be eating the body and blood of a sacrificed Son of God. What do you suppose it meant for non-believers to learn that these people identified themselves as ekklesia?

Well, they had the advantage of already knowing what the word meant in their world. It was, as noted above, a regularly summoned political body. It was a sort of recognized town meeting or parliament. Hence in Acts 19:39-41, the town clerk of Ephesus was concerned about the illegality of the assembly that had gathered itself, and insisted that they should go home and leave the issue at hand up to the lawful ekklesia So the Christians were using a word that, in their cultural context, meant they were assembling for the purpose of deciding policies — of determining how they were going to conduct themselves as a people in their daily environment.

We need to note that in so doing they were putting themselves at odds with the established culture of that day. The Roman Empire already had its governing bodies — its policy-makers. So the Christians were, in effect, setting themselves over against those established social institutions. Jesus Christ, not the Roman Emperor, was Lord — a political statement as well as a religious one.

Paul spoke often of the ekklesia. He does refer to it as a place where prophetic discernment is tested and confirmed (1 Cor.14:29-33). But he seems to assume that his readers already knew what he was talking about. We today seem to know much of what he was not thinking of — buildings, religious services, evangelistic centers, educational plants, religious specialists, etc. But where do we go to find a basic biblical definition of the word ekklesia? The book of Acts, like Paul, speaks often of the ekklesia without defining the concept for us. Although even there we see it functioning as the agent for updating and applying the understanding of God’s purposes (Acts 15:6-30).

Jesus & Ekklesia

The first person to ever say anything about ekklesia as it related to God’s new revelation in the Son was Christ Himself. He did not say a lot about it (that has been recorded for us), but what He said seems to give us what we need — a basic Biblical clarification of the ekklesia. The important place that Matthew 16 and 18 should occupy in our thinking is often undermined by textual questions (such as, what Aramaic word must Jesus have used that Matthew translates as ekklesia?). The effect is to bog down in the uncertainty of such issues and lose the insights that can be gained by accepting Matthew’s record of Jesus’ message. That message seems to contain the following elements –

1 Revelation from God is the foundational reality of how to be involved in Christ’s ekklesia.

2. It is the ekklesia of God — God gathering together His own people.

3. There is to be a process of resolving conflicts and arriving at a mutual agreement on what should be done.

4. A determination that such policy — whether loosing or binding something — is set into motion by the joint action of their decision and God’s participation.

5. That this employment of “the keys of the Kingdom” shall release a power which the grip of death cannot stop, but must capitulate.

Jesus may be linking His ekklesia with the idea of the Jewish synagogue. But even there the policy process remains intact. “Loosing and binding” was a formula the Rabbis used for making ethical or moral decisions that became incumbent upon the Jewish community. So we are not too far away from the ordinary Greek insistence upon unity in the determining body, and the participation of Christ and God in the determining process These elements make a crucial difference, but still ekklesia has close links with the ordinary meaning of the term in that day. And the meaning of that word seems to be removed from what the commonly received meaning of “church” is in our day.

Well, there is a lot going on in the event of Christ’s ekklesia. Also there are many levels to the dynamics in this event. The partnership with God Himself is the most exciting element, and the insistence upon unity is the most distinguishing element. But I suggest that we attempt to read the many other New Testament references to ekklesia in the light of the above definition. I do not know of a better clarification in the Scriptures themselves. Here we are defining ekklesia in terms of a specific activity (human and Divine), not in terms of specific offices or even specific listeners. It is a specific activity engaged in by specific participants, being available only to believers. But it specifies the type of activity that those believers are to engage in: expressing and discerning the mind of Christ, and focusing it into an historical situation.

New Levels of Understanding

Reading the N T references to ekklesia (“church”) in this light will open up new levels of understanding and appreciation for God’s intentions in the world. It will show us why there was such a strong and repeated insistence on unity of mind and judgment, such unity being an extension of the harmony that exists on the highest levels in Christ and the Father It will highlight the distinctiveness of the ekklesia — setting God’s people on their own course of determination (not shaped by the world’s policy-makers).

It will open up the vista of commonality among believers that transcends social structures and national boundaries of the world. It will help to clarify the role of leaders — they are to alert the ekklesia to the areas of concern, and to help mobilize the ekklesia for acting in those areas Notice that leaders are not the policy-makers in the ekklesia — this is a cultural norm that is dominant in the Western world. Neither is the ekklesia a democracy — not a majority rule or a people rule, but a discernment of the mind of Christ by the whole body is the norm.

An Enormous Task

Unity in policy-making is a high ideal — one that seems impossible for an assembly of immature people coming from such a complex culture as ours today. The task is an enormous one. It requires faith in God’s ability to reveal His will to us. It also requires that we expect people to grow up. The temptation, in the face of a difficult task, will be to resort to the old pattern of selected religious specialists being the policy-makers.

This has the effect of reinforcing the immaturity of the people. More seriously, it fails to release the power of Christ into the present world. The assembly is reduced to a holding pattern of introducing people to Christ, while failing to enter into the death-conquering experience of their inheritance It would be far wiser for religious leaders to dedicate themselves to learning how to trigger a dynamic release of power in the whole ekklesia Decision-making characterizes the ekklesia, but not a centralization of decision-making or power. Good leadership will offer system oversight that enables the whole people to mobilize the power of Christ for the occasion.

I do not want to suggest that the above is all that there is to the ekklesia of Christ. I suggest it as a good starting point for a biblical understanding. A people called together to be this kind of assembly will find new and higher visions given to them in time. But this vision seems to be a correction of much of the caricature of Christianity that is presented by today’s “churches.” It also is a noble task to which one should not commit themselves until they have given sober reflection to the kind of dedication it requires.

Written by Floyd Mackler

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