Monday, April 7, 2008

Let’s cut through the theological jargon

Let’s cut through the theological jargon and think about the church for a while. First published September 29, 2007

A couple weeks ago I started to do an blog on ekklesia, because in many ways it is at the heart of christian unity and a misunderstanding of the greek term, heavily aided by both the institutions and the King James Version of the Holy Bible, actually works toward disunity among believers. Here is a good article on the word ekklesia. Your thoughts and comments are encouraged.

Let’s cut through the theological jargon and think about the church for a while.In the New Testament (NT), the church is actually the ekklesia (Greek). The problem is that “church” is not a helpful translation of ekklesia. In the world of the NT, the ekklesia was a socio-political term, an assembly of people called together to discuss and decide civic issues. It had no special religious significance. It’s interesting that Jesus and the NT writers selected this word to describe the special “called-out” community He founded. Under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, they apparently wanted to stress the communal side of Christian experience, not so much a “religious” or cultic side. After all, they didn’t identify this new community chiefly as “the temple” or any such thing. There is a total absence of any religiosity in the Greek and Roman idea of the ekklesia, and there is no religiosity in the NT idea of it either. It is the local, called-out followers of Jesus joined together in assembly.

The real distinctive of the church is that they are the followers of Jesus — as opposed to the rest of the world, which does not follow Jesus. This is probably why ekklesia was chosen to describe this congregation in the first place (1 Cor. 11:18; 14:23, 26). It is an assembly called out from the world for a particular purpose. It designates a distinction from the world of unbelievers — the church is distinct from the world.

This congregation is under Jesus’ authority (Eph. 1:20-23). He places human leaders in this assembly. They are called elders or bishops (Tit. 1:5-7). The assembly is called to follow and obey them (Heb. 13:7-17), but they are servants and may never lord it over the assembly (1 Pet. 5:3). They are not “priests,” in an a way more “spiritual” than the other believers, who are priests also (Rev. 1:5-6). They are not a member of some spiritual caste system; the Bible knows nothing of clericalism. They are specially gifted (Eph. 4:7-16), but they are not of a different order than their sisters and brothers (“laypersons”). Their goal is simple but often hard — oversee the spiritual health of the “flock” (1 Pet. 5:1-4).

Second, the only church the Bible knows about is local. In the NT era a city would have a church, usually planted by an apostle or another elder (Ac. 14:23; 15:41; Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 4:17). It was a local church. In Hebrews 12:23 we read of the ekklesia registered in heaven, but even here it is visible and localized [!]. Sometimes the Bible uses “church” in a generic sense, as we would of the family, as in, “The family is under attack in today’s world.” The Bible uses the term “church” in this way (Ac. 8:3; 1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28; Eph. 1:22), but it is the local church being talked about. The only church is this local assembly or congregation.

This means that the Roman Catholic Church is not a church. Neither is the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Church of Christ or the Lutheran Church-Missouri-Synod. Neither is the OPC, the PCA, the CREC, the URC, the PRC, the ELCA, the RCUS, the RPCUS, the RPCGA, the CRC, the RCA, or any of the rest of the Protestant ecclesial alphabet soup. An assembly of believers from around the state or nation is not a church. A collection of ministers and elders from a denomination is not a church. These are all human organizations, and they may be useful in the Kingdom of God (see below); but they are not the church, and they should not act as though they are the church. They have no elders, no deacons, and do not enjoy the promises that God granted His church (e. g., Mt. 16:18-19). Now, it’s possible that the true church may have met in different houses, portions at one spot and portions at another in a city (Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15). But if it isn’t local, it’s not a church.

Nor is the church “invisible.” The ideas of the “invisible church” arose when men had to deal with the problem of sinners and depravity and apostasy in the church. “How could a church that contains sinners and apostasy be the bride of Christ, the blood-washed body the Bible talks about?” It is a good question, but it should not have been answered by creating a new category the Bible knows nothing about: the “invisible” church. The Bible knows only about very visible, local churches — nothing else. True, there is an invisible dimension of the church — the true believers seen to God’s eyes alone. But this is no church the Bible knows anything about, and we shouldn’t act as though there’s a separate “invisible” church.

The Church is Not the Kingdom

There are two final problems — (1), when the church claims to be something it is not; and (2) when things that are not the church claim to be the church.

Let’s take these in order. One of the most injurious errors in the history of Christianity is when the church is identified with the Kingdom of God. Jesus said very little about the church and very much about the Kingdom, and He did not equate the two. Nobody else in the Bible did, either. This is just a fiction dreamed up early in the Western church in the attempt to conform it to the structures of the collapsing hierarchical Roman Empire by which it was surrounded, and this view was later passed on to the Protestants (and even in the Westminster Confession). The church is a local assembly of Christians, but the kingdom is the rule of God by Jesus in the world, wherever that may be (1 Cor. 15:23-28). The church should not try to monopolize these aspects of the kingdom. Sometimes I hear well-meaning Christians say, “All ‘para-church’ ministries are anti-Biblical.” They have yet to find a Bible verse for this assertion. They believe that if the church isn’t doing it, it shouldn’t be done. The problem with this is that God’s plan in the earth is bigger than the church, which is to be sure a vital part of it. The family is a basic ministry in God’s plan. It should be a part of the church, but it is not the church. It has its own calling separate from the church (Gen. 1:26-28). The same is true of the state (Rom. 13:1-7). It is not a part of the church, though it is God’s minister and subject to His authority. The state should be a part of the Kingdom of God in Jesus, yet it is not the church. “Ecclesiocentricity” (church-centeredness) subverts the Lordship of Christ by arrogating to itself tasks and institutions beyond its purview. So, the church is not the Kingdom.

The church (ekklesia) is God’s called-out assembly of Jesus’ followers, his blood-washed people under His Lordship and governed by elders. It is local. All Christians should be members of a local church. The church is not the Kingdom.

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