Tag Archives: Church

The Inception of a Gathering

 

Question: what is the minimum number of people required to constitute a church or gathering of God’s people (ekklesia)?

It may be tempting to start answering this question by assuming this group must begin with a pastor/preacher, perhaps a plurality of elders – at least 3 for voting purposes, maybe a couple deacons, then expand to the congregation and say maybe 8-10 families?  So 20-30 people minimum?  Some people ask this question by placing it in the context of church planting and then ask what is the magic number for a launch team?  Or…what’s the maximum number of people a sending church could afford to lose and still provide a minimum number of people to sufficiently form a new church?

These are all questions that have been asked before, wrestled over, and then attempted to be biblically answered by many faithful servants of the Lord.  Generally speaking, a heavy dose of human wisdom is usually involved in the decision on how this question is answered.  That doesn’t make it wrong, or sinful, but it does make it subjective and situational.  Our aim here is to ask if Scripture bears any burden for answering these questions.

In Matthew 18, a passage well known for our Lord’s mention of ekklesia as the final stop of confrontation of a sinning brother, also provides for us the answer to these questions, though for some reason it often gets overlooked, confused, or downplayed, particularly when discussions of “church-planting” are taking place.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It’s uncontroversial to assert that the context for this passage is clearly revolving around the concept of “church”, or as we have seen more accurately termed a gathering or assembly of God’s people (ekklesia).  The opening for this passage involves a scenario created by our Lord to explain how to regard a sinning brother.  Here we have 2 brothers (in Christ), one who sins against the other.  Jesus instructs His disciples that the offended brother should go and tell the offending brother his fault.  If he doesn’t listen, go to him with one or two others, and if he still doesn’t listen tell the matter to the church.  Remember that the use and meaning of church (ekklesia) already had meaning and significance in its everyday use (The Old Testament use of Ekklesia).  Jesus wasn’t inventing a brand new word.  However, to this point in Matthew we have only seen the promise of Christ building His church, from Matthew 16.

In our passage cited above, there are three important features that we will focus on in this post, a gathering of two or three of God’s people, gathering is in the name of Christ, and that when this gathering takes place, Christ is among them.

First, we see in verse 20 above that our Lord sets the minimum parameters for a gathering of His people as where, two or three are gathered.  This is key to answering some of our questions posed above and we already know that the context of this passage has to do with church discipline of a recalcitrant brother.  Notice that this small number of believers is mentioned throughout this passage

  • take one or two others along with you
  • that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 
  • If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 
  • For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

This idea of two or three recalls a passage from the Old Testament, where two or three witnesses are necessary for conviction of a crime (see Deuteronomy 19:15; also 2 Cor. 13:1).  While this mention of two or three occurs throughout the passage, as we’ll see, this last mention carries with it a distinction.

Next, this assembly of two or three is a gathering in Christ’s name.    The word translated as “gather” is verbal form of the Greek word synagogue.  In another post, we looked at the semantic overlap between ekklesia and synagogue as well as the relationship between church and synagogue.  Here we want to simply point out that this gathering is not a random gathering of believers for a ball game or to discuss the weather.  It has intentionality and purpose.  It is a gathering in the name of Christ.  This distinction is critically important for understanding these minimum requirements for a gathering are not limited to where a small number of believers gather, but where they gather in the name of Christ.

We might at this point ask, how does one gather in the name of Christ?  Is it simply a declarative statement, “We come together in the name of Christ”?  Is it an internal posture of the heart?  How can one be sure that this small group is gathering in the name of Christ?

It is where believer’s gather under the authority of Christ, i.e. His Lordship, for the open proclamation and profession of His Word.  Commenting on this passage in his New Testament commentary, Hendriksen clarifies this gathering in Christ’s name as, “in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself.” (pg. 703)

Third, and finally, we see that this gathering of two or three in the name of Christ has a special promise attached to it, namely the presence of Christ in their midst.  This promise of our Lord’s special presence, in the midst of the gathering of His people, is not the same as His omnipresence.  It is a special presence of Christ in the midst of those who gather in His name.  It is here where Christ dwells in His temple (2 Cor. 6:16).

When this passage is often discussed in the context of defining the minimum gathering of God’s people, many have objected to it and denied that such a small group, two or three, could constitute a gathering of God’s people.  But that is precisely what our Lord is communicating.  We have no need for dozens to be sent out, nor does the institutional church with her hundreds meeting at once constitute a gathering anymore than two or three who gather in the name of Christ.

Writing in his classic work on the doctrine of the Church, Edmund Clowney offers the following affirmation, “Not only do we come to the assembly where our risen Lord is; he comes by his Spirit to the assembly where we are.  Where two or three gather in his name, there he is.  Because the Lord’s true assembly is in heaven, it appears in many ways on earth: in house churches, in city churches, in the church universal.  Even two or three gathered in his name may claim his power, for he is there.” pg. 31-32

This discussion brings up one additional question.  If this minimum group, of two or three, gathered in Christ’s name constitutes a “church”, when has the “universal church” ever been gathered together in the name of Christ?

Answer: they haven’t…yet.

Ekklesia in the Gospel of Matthew

 

In our last post on the doctrine of the church, we began our Scriptural examination with an overview of the Old Testament, particularly the Greek translation (Septuagint), use of ekklesia, the Greek word translated as church in the English New Testament.   Here we want to turn our attention to the first use of ekklesia in the New Testament, which as we have seen is not a new concept, rather a clarification and reapplication of an existing concept.

The word ekklesia is used only used three times in the Gospels, all occurring in Matthew and all used by our Lord.  We will begin with an overview of these passages, some brief observations/questions, and follow up with more in-depth exposition in subsequent posts. The first passage is Matthew 16:18 within the context of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and Son of God

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 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. 18 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. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” Matthew 16:13-20

Historically, this passage has been the source of two significant controversies concerning the understanding of church.  First, is the identification of the rock upon which Christ will build His church.  This interpretive controversy has led to no shortage of division, most notably between Protestants and Catholics.

The second controversy concerns the notion of a doctrine of the universal church.  What is it? Does it or Does it not exist?  This has had massive implications such as who belongs to the church and may find its origin in the 3rd and 4th centuries, most notably with Augustine and the Donatist Controversy.  Here is where a nuanced understanding of church vs. ekklesia will help navigate the waters of this controversy, which we will traverse in a future post.

Additionally, as we dive into this passage in subsequent posts, we must distinguish between this concept of ekklesia (church) and the kingdom of heaven, a matter of confusion that also has its source around the time of Augustine.  Also, we’ll need to look at to whom the “keys of the kingdom” have been given.  Relatedly, what is the “binding and loosing” that is here mentioned?  Answering these questions biblically, while avoiding the tangles of tradition, will aid greatly in identifying the form of Christ’s ekklesia.

The next two uses of ekklesia (church) in Matthew are both found in Matthew 18:17.  Here the context of is the confrontation of a sinning brother or sister for the purpose of bringing them to repentance.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:15-20

Here, it is often asserted that the use of ekklesia is substantially different than in the previous use, perhaps suggestive of a more specific application, which some have determined to be a reference to the local church.  For obvious reasons, if a universal church existed, it would be impossible to “tell it to the church” universally, so by necessary reasoning the scope of ekklesia here is often seen to be different and narrower.  However, we will need a closer examination and not merely assume that there is an implied difference between ekklesia found in Matthew 16 and here in Matthew 18, as so many have done before.

Next, we find an additional mention of binding and loosing, which would seem to be a clarification and indeed an application of the previous mention in Matthew 16.  Additionally, some have used this passage to promote a concept known as “church discipline”.  As we unpack these uses of ekklesia by our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew, this will be one of the issues we will need take up.  What situations warrant discipline?  Who is qualified to issue this discipline?

With these passages from Matthew introduced, we will turn our focus to the first controversial issue from Matthew 16, namely upon whom is the rock which Christ will build His ekklesia?

 

 

 

 

 

What About the Synagogue?

 

In our last post in this series on the study of church or ecclesiology, we looked at the origin for the translation of ekklesia as church in the English Bibles through the work of Tyndale and his decision, along with Luther’s, to refuse to use the word church, opting instead for congregation.

Prior to that, we asked What is an ekklesia to see if the definition and Scriptural use matched our understanding of the word church.  We found that while ekklesia simply means a gathering or assembly (congregation is a possibility too), church in both its meaning and common usage most often refers to a people or building belonging to the Lord.  In that, we noticed that on the surface, church would seem to have more in common with synagogue, than it does with ekklesia, despite the semantic range overlap between these two. This will be our focus in this post.  To do this, I’ll need to refer to a few academic sources, which may lead us to discover more than a surficial relationship between synagogue and church.

In fact, evidence for  this deep relationship abounds.

Noted historian Philip Schaff states, “As the Christian Church rests historically on the Jewish Church, so Christian worship and the congregational organization rest on that of the synagogue, and cannot be well understood without it.” (Vol. 1 – pg 456)

Likewise, Jewish historian Alfred Eldersheim writes, “It was, surely, a wondrously linked chain of circumstances, which bound the Synagogue to the Church” (The Life and Times of Jesus Messiah, pg. 298) and also, “For the Synagogue became the cradle of the Church.  Without it, as indeed without Israel’s dispersion, the Church Universal (more on this later!) would, humanely [sic] speaking, have been impossible, and the conversation [sic?] of the Gentiles have required a succession of millennial miracles.” (pg. 299).

Furthermore, Sam Waldron in his seminary course, “Doctrine of the Church” at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary affirms that this connection is a modern observation as well when he defends the regulative principal of worship as it pertains to Old Testament temple and synagogue by writing, “I will stipulate that the church and its worship is patterned on the synagogue.” (Course Notes, pg. 171)

Each of these statements, and there could be many more, argue that the basis for what we have come to experience as “church” finds its historical origin in the synagogue.  This argument is assuming that church = ekklesia =~ synagogue.  Is that significant or merely hair-splitting?  Let’s see.

First, it would appear that if we are to rightly understand the form and function of the modern church, then it will be proper to understand what the synagogue is and how it functioned, particularly in first century Judea.  In other words, how do you know where you are and are going unless you understand where you have been?  To answer this, lets look at the origin of the synagogue along with its first century form and function, followed by its place in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel.

Most historians and theologians assume that the synagogue developed after the Babylonian captivity (see Jeremiah and Ezekiel) when the first temple, Solomon’s, was destroyed in 586 B.C.  They suppose that at the time of Ezra the synagogue practice developed as a result of the crisis of a destroyed temple (~480 B.C.).  In this view, the synagogue became a replacement for the temple.  This may be true, but it has difficulty sustaining its point when we arrive at the first century A.D. because there we have BOTH the temple (Herod’s) and the synagogue.  In this period they were parallel and complementary, not competing, nor did one supersede the other.  In fact, as we will see, their functions were distinct and separate, nearly as distinct as one might see between say “Church and State.”

In his helpful book, Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament, Julius Scott writes, “Most simply put, the synagogue developed as the center of Hebrew life after the loss of traditional institutes.  It was not a substitute for temple worship and services as such, but a supplement to them.”  (Pg. 139)  Scott would seem to affirm the origin of the synagogue as being post-exilic, which is certainly fine.  The point he makes is that the synagogue was never meant to be a substitute for the regulated worship of the temple, rather a supplement.

Contra to this popular view of the post-exilic synagogue development, Levine persuasively argues that the background for the synagogue was the “city-gate”.  He reasons this on the basis of similarity between the community functions that took place between both (“The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered”).  This connection is not a difficult one to make, particularly in light of the pervasive occurrence of the city-gate in the Old Testament.

He points out that at the city-gate “served as a marketplace (2 Kings 7:1) and as a setting where a ruler would hold court and where prophets would speak (1 Kings 22:10; Jer. 38:7).”  Additionally, Levine notes that one of the “primary functions at the city gate was judiciary.  City elders would assemble there to dispense justice.” (see Deut. 21:19; 17:5, 22:24).  Finally, he notes the significance of the city gate as the setting for personal affairs, Ruth 4:1-2, the place of a conquering king’s throne (Jer. 39:3, Jer. 1:15-16), a place for the king to meet with the people (2 Sam. 19:8-9; 1 Kings 22:10; 2 Chron. 32:6), and finally religious functions (2 Kings 23:8).  Thus evidence for parallel activities, even the precedent for synagogue activities, may be found in studying the city gate.

Function

While pointing out the differences between some early names for this community building, proseuche and synagoge, Levine finds a common denominator in that, “first and foremost, the synagogue served the full range of needs of a particular community.  As documented in contemporary sources, such functions included political meetings, social gatherings, courts, schools, hostels, charity activities, slave manumission, meals (sacred or otherwise), and of course, religious-liturgical functions.”  Scott adds, “Synagogues, as the word implies, were gathering places.  The buildings were used for official public meetings, schools, tribunals of judgment, and social occasions.” (Pg. 144)

As to the Jewish synagogue, especially that in first century Palestine, the emphasis seems to be more on religious activity than community involvement, consistent with what we see in Scripture.  Scott points out some of these early synagogue functions as being, “first and foremost a place for reading Scripture and prayer. It was the synagogue, with its regular reading and interpretation of the Law and of the Prophets, and with its schools for the young, that wove the Scriptures into the fabric of life and experience of the people.” (pg. 140)

Form

Archeological evidence reveals that the synagogue architecture may have varied, but largely featured, “benches along all or most of the walls, the focus of each building was the center of its hall, much as was the plan in contemporary Hellenistic and Roman communal buildings. (Levine)

Scott adds, “There were no altars nor sacrifices in the synagogue; instead only the sacred books (scrolls) were absolutely necessary.  Although priests who were in attendance were usually selected to be the public readers and to pronounce the blessings, their presence was not required for synagogue service as it was for worship in the temple.  The revered leaders of the synagogue were the elders of the community and those with recognizable expertise in the law.  Synagogues were organized wherever there were enough men (ten) to constitute a proper assembly, whether in the land of Israel or beyond.” (Pg. 140)

While Scriptural evidence points to the oversight of a council, known as the Sanhedrin, the synagogue was basically a lay institution, because the priests were largely involved with the regulation of the temple.  Scott adds, “Actual leadership was in the hands of the elders, respected heads of families in the community. The major official was the archisynagogos, the chief of the synagogue who was in overall charge of its affairs. The hazzan (minister or attendant) was, in Jewish areas, an executive officer for the town as well as the synagogue.” (p. 143)

Liturgy

The worship services, if we may use that term, were often held multiple times on the Sabbath, as well as other days of the week such as Monday and Thursday.  Additionally, services were held on days of special assemblies, feast days, etc. (Scott, p. 141)

The order of worship, or liturgy, was basic but could last several hours.  These included, “recitation of the Shema, the daily prayer (Shemoneh ‘Esreh), and reading of the Law and the Prophets.  The reading was accompanied by a translation-interpretation (a targum), and frequently a sermon-homily.” (Scott, p.141)

Finally, we must note one of the reasons for the synagogue, at least providentially, was to provide an avenue for access to the gospel proclamation of our Lord and the apostles to the Jews.

In Scripture, we see Jesus and His disciples utilizing the existing structure of the synagogue while simultaneously proclaiming the formation of the ekklesia.  This should serve as a caution in our study on decrying the form and function of what we experience today as church vs. what constituted an ekklesia during the apostolic period.  Perhaps Philippians 1:18 is a good exhortation for us in this regard.

What can we conclude from this synagogue layer added to our understanding of the development of church?

While ekklesia does not seem to provide a clear pattern for development of our concept of church, synagogue does seem to have some striking similarities.  However, it must be noted that there have been some significant departures, most notably in the “liturgy”, governance, and sociopolitical aspects.  The synagogue was a Word-centered, lay-led, house of study (and later of prayer) that encouraged dialogue, questions, and multiplicity of speakers.  Likewise, it played a critical role in the community, serving as a location for social and political functions alike.

Having now laid some of the historical groundwork in our study, we will next turn to Scripture and explore how ekklesia is used along with its implications on our modern conception of church.