In a series about the Church, it’s vital we come together on our definitions. If I ask four people to capture a mental picture of a dog, chances are good each will imagine a different breed. The same is true when I say Church. For this reason, I want to begin with the biblical definition.
Ecclesia is the Greek word for gathering, congregation, assembly, or church. The Greek usage is not specific to the Christian religion or any religion. It was used to describe groups of people. It’s no surprise it was picked up by Hellenistic biblical writers to describe the groups of people who came together surrounding the life and mission of Jesus. This needs to be understood, because most people assume that when they read the English word “Church” in their bibles, they are interpreting that within the modern framework, as if a Methodist, Presbyterian, or Catholic even existed back then.
A common mistake which I see often is to associate Ecclesia (assembly) as stemming from the word Ek-kaleo (called-out) because that is an extremely common teaching in Christian circles. However, no etymology bears this out. The connection is made in 1 Peter 2:9 where it says:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
The biblical definition then goes beyond just a group of people, but a select group which shares a conscious awareness of how the group supersedes each individual and shares a common (priestly) purpose of pointing one another, and the world at large, back to the Basis for gathering, namely Christ.
So how did we get here?
“And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:17-18)
The Catholic church interprets this verse as Jesus naming Peter to be the first Pope. Textually, Jesus is clearly talking about Peter’s discovery and awareness of Jesus’ true identity. Peter (Pétros) is similar to rock (pétrai) and thus we gain the construction metaphor. Jesus was saying that he would build an assembly or gathering around people who share in the same discovery, namely, that Jesus (the man from Galilee) is one and the same as the Christ (cosmic, historic, prophesied, figure sent from God to humanity). To this day, every valid community church has some confession of Jesus as The Christ.
After Jesus’ death and prior to his ascension, this “gathering” (known as disciples) were wondering if Jesus was going to restore Israel to political and military power. After all, that is what the Jews expected of a Messiah. It is precisely why some Jews denounce Jesus as their promised messiah today. Jesus had other plans. His kingdom was not one of “overpowering” the powers, but repatriating power back into the people.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
With these words, Jesus left the party. As a consolation, he promised them the return of the Holy Spirit, which the Jews had seen on many occasions throughout Hebrew history. This time, however, it would be different. This time, the tabernacle (now destroyed) was within. Like concentric circles of a pebble being dropped into a pond, so each person would now carry this “confession of Peter’s” with them into all the spheres of life. Starting with those most culturally and geographically close and moving outward to those least culturally and geographically close. Those who share this confession, comprise the corpus (body) of the larger group.
Because Jesus said that this assembly would be his “witnesses” to the ends of the earth. The word used is “mártures” or martyr. This group witnessed something amazing and their mission was to tell the world about it. This is where we get our impetus for evangelism. Is evangelism supposed to make us rich, popular, successful, or have huge followings? No. Witness is what this assembly is to “BE” not what it Does. Does Jesus leave instructions on how to get people converted to a religion that didn’t even exist at this point? No. No. NO! There is NO new religion. When empowered by Spirit, this assembly is to report on what they saw. The are to tell others about this experience at the price of their own freedom and life. Jesus knew what was before them. His life and death is THE path and archetype (Christoform pattern) and if any follow they would be martyrs in like manner.
This group doesn’t contain a message about the true identity of Jesus, the group IS supposed to BE the physical identity of Jesus, conferred with His own Spirit and power. The group’s work is not conversion, but restoration of the world by reconnecting people toward their Maker and toward one another. It’s mission was inclusive, not exclusive. There were no threats of condemnation, no forced choice.
With Jesus gone, this gathering cloistered in fear with a substantial level of uncertainty. The disciples closest to Jesus helped organize and serve the people, and in doing so, became it’s leaders. This assembly was gaining some attention. Would this group be dangerous, subversive, or disruptive to institutional powers? It was uncertain. What was their goal or purpose? Did they establish position papers? Did they begin condemning their culture? Did they initiate political power plays? NO. They served one another and attended to one another’s needs. There was no counter culture.
The early church was a community which thrived in an impoverished and desperate world. Those who were in the assembly benefitted from the groups shared confession and resources and as such were “saved” by comparison to the suffering world around them. Salvation was the ability to huddle together and keep warm, it wasn’t understood at that point as “going to heaven.“
When the Holy Spirt shows up, some amazing things began to happen. This group of people were able to tell the story of Jesus life and mission to countless people who had traveled to learn more about what was happening in the city. The Spirit’s first job wasn’t a worship service. It wasn’t a camp meeting, telethon, or building campaign; it was contextualization. The gift of tongues wasn’t a weird utterance, it was the ability to speak in another language so that foreigners of all kinds (mostly Jews) could be included in the story.
Peter addresses this growing assembly with a history lesson from Hebrew school as it relates to the Messiah and he reveals how Jesus was that guy and that His Spirit is here among the group. Peter ends by pointing out that their religion killed their own messiah. (Act 2:36). This brought about a huge sense of contrition and the people asked what they could do. Peter instructs them to “rethink” or “repent” and then asks them to get “all in” or be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The group knew that they had become the living, tangible, body of Christ. Each person was a participant, not a spectator, and served as part of His body. Repentance is the rethinking of religion. It’s moving from perfunctory performance into living faith.
This is not the same as “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and savior and then converting to the Christian religion.” This is Peter showing others how to rethink the whole thing so they can experience the same confession Peter holds onto. There is no requirement to change or abandon one’s religion. (They still practiced Judaism in the Temple) There was no request for membership. Just the confession that if you can see that Jesus, whom religion and State murdered, was the Christ (the Thing beyond everything), then our past is behind us (sins are forgiven) and the future is fueled by receiving Christ’s promised Holy Spirit (which was obviously a tangible reality).
Compare this to what we see today. Contrast this to the last five churches you’ve visited. The assembly which started then, still exists today, but it’s not found in any particular denomination and there is no domain name or Instagram feed. It’s not even found in religion because it is based upon the confession of Jesus and his teaching which, if we are to be biblical, are quite hostile toward dead rituals and religion. If it is indeed fair to conclude that the modern Church has lost it’s moorings, then the question remains:
What are we going to do about it?
Joining the assembly today is the same as it was back then. The work of the assembly is the same today as it was back then. This confession gave a new way of experiencing their old religion. It gave it life again. It resurrected it unto a living faith. If this is what your church is doing, then you are a part of the assembly.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:42-47)
How many homeless today ask churches for help but receive nothing because the economic burden of the church has bankrupted it? How many in our cities would say that the local church has favor with all the people? How many church goers are selling their possessions in order to help the body? Or are we buying possessions leaving us unable to help the body? Are we to believe that jumbotrons, parking attendants, prom songs to Jesus, and dropping some cash in a bucket is somehow the same confession of Peter?
I’m not asking you to leave your church. I’m asking if you can see the difference. If so, then I’m asking if you will be a voice which seeks reform in your assembly. Do we need to give money to the status quo? How did the mission of the church become exclusively about religious conversion? How did this confession become a line in the sand? If the group (church) cannot feed the hungry within it, from what exactly have they saved anyone?
I’m sure you are seeing now how each body has gone off course, while at the same time possesses a remnant of the original assembly. To the degree each community let’s go of it’s cultural entrapments and regains the Spirit which empowered the first group, to the same degree the Church will regain its power to redeem the world. Let’s face it, what most call a religious conversion, is actually a cultural conversion which is not the same as restoring the world.S
It’s time we cease spectating at the culturally contrived church, and start living AS the Church in the world.