Tag Archives: Ekklesia

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.

A Universal Theory of the “Church”

 

In a 1963 address given to members of the Westminster Fellowship of Ministers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones offered the following question for discussion,

“Is anything spoken of in the New Testament apart from the local church? Have we any right to talk about the holy Catholic church in the sense of a visible institution? In terms of the New Testament, is it right to speak of the holy Catholic church in any sense except the invisible?  I think it is an acute problem.  It may be a part of the solution to many of our difficulties.”

Lloyd-Jones was not asking about the Roman Catholic Church, as is common to speak of today, rather his concern was to bring attention to a notion of a catholic or universal church.  This concept of a catholic or universal, invisible/visible church is where we now turn our attention in our ongoing study.

Over the past few months we’ve been slowly working our way through the doctrine of the church, or what some call ecclesiology.  Through this study we’ve seen the distinction between the original Greek word ekklesia and it’s English counterpart, church, the former being a gathering, assembly, or congregation and the latter a people belonging to the Lord or building where said people meet.  Despite this distinction, we’ve yet to really see why it matters, until now.

More recently, we opened up Matthew 16:18 to examine the first mention of ekklesia in the New Testament, one of three uses in the gospels, all found in Matthew.  This principial use of ekklesia has had no shortage of controversies regarding its contextual interpretation, the first of which we looked at last time concerning the foundation or rock upon which Christ’s ekklesia was to be built.  Here we want to discuss the second of these controversies, this time specifically regarding the nature of Christ’s ekklesia.

It has often been assumed that the mention of ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 is substantially different than that in Matthew 18:17.  The rationale being that Christ’s use of the word in the former is a larger more inclusive concept while His use in the latter is more narrow in scope.  This has often led to the distinction of the catholic or universal (Matt. 16:18) vs. local “church” (Matt. 18:17).  Similarly, this has led to further distinctions in understanding the nature of the church by identifying it as both visible and invisible.

Without question, the majority report on ekklesia by the New Testament relates more to the concept of the local church than to any notion of a catholic or universal church.  However, a few exceptions, including this passage from Matthew, have opened the possibility to this universal theory.  Bear in mind that if we allowed these words to retain their natural meaning,  we’d be asking whether Scripture speaks of a universal gathering or assembly, not necessarily a universal people of God.  Considering this even briefly, and we’d begin to understand why Tyndale, Luther, et. al. pushed back against the translation of church instead of congregation, assembly, or gathering.  They were quite aware of the monolithic, institutional implications of this translation.  Nevertheless, our role is not to rewrite history and strike the use of church from the record, rather to speak with clarity and consistency to better inform  our future understanding.

For our purpose of introducing and discussing the concept of the universal church theory, the Westminster Confession (1646) offers a representative description of the catholic or universal, invisible/visible church.

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all.

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

III. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.

IV. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.[11] Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.

VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

Summarizing the Westminster Confession of Faith, the catholic or universal church is invisible in its extent, comprised of the elect from the past, present, and future, under the headship of Christ.

Furthermore, the sometimes more sometimes less visible church, also catholic or universal, consists of all those that profess true religion, i.e. faith in Christ, and their children.  Additionally, the church IS the kingdom of Christ and IS the house and family of God.

On the surface of this universal church definition, which has somewhat evolved since its origin, we can perhaps see three issues that have likely led to the controversy surrounding it.  We’ll point these out below and then look at them in more detail later.

First, when has there been an actual gathering or assembly of the elect from the past, present, and future?

Issue #1, the theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering).  This gains clarity in the additional problems below.

Second, notice that after making a strong statement regarding the elect of God, the second paragraph not only defines the church as those who profess a true religion, but also their children.  This is primarily due to the Westminster (Presbyterian) over-emphasis in continuity between the Old and New Covenant.  In other words, that infant circumcision under the Old must have a correspondence under the New and that correspondence is infant baptism, which admits “their children” into membership in the universal church.

Issue #2, the theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.  As we saw in our OT look at ekklesia, it provides a foundational understanding of the NT ekklesia, but obviously there are differences.  The people of God have always and only included those who by faith have embraced Him as Lord, whether in the Old Testament or in the New.  There is one consolidated people of God in Christ.  The relationship between OT Israel and NT “church” has continuity and discontinuity, but also typology which simply cannot be overlooked.

Third, notice that paragraph two conflates the church with the family of God and the kingdom of God.  Does ekklesia anywhere in the New Testament ever refer to the family of God or the kingdom of God? Largely this is an Augustinian error, as we will see, and is often rooted in faulty exegesis of Matthew 13’s parable of the weeds.

Issue #3 The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.

The historical development of this theory deserves our attention, just as Lloyd-Jones sought to bring attention to it in his own day.  Understanding and applying the implications of this theory have led some to consider whether they are Roman Catholic or Protestant; whether one is Presbyterian or Baptist; Whether one can simply belong to the universal church without belonging to a local church; Who belongs to the “church”; and perhaps most profoundly it leads one to question the idea that a monolithic universal church was plunged into the darkness of Catholicity only to be rescued by the light of the Reformation.  In our next post, we’ll examine the historical development of the universal church theory.

 

 

 

The Foundation of Ekklesia

 

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

In the passage cited above, we have what may be properly called the first confession of Christ’s ekklesia, given by Peter via revelation from God the Father.  Our Lord Jesus’ reply has led to numerous interpretive challenges that have caused no shortage of division and schism among those who profess the name of Christ, at least outwardly.

To address the first of these controversies, we begin by asking, “Who or what is this rock upon which Christ will build His ekklesia?”

Historically, there has been recognition given to a word play between Peter (masc. – petros) and the rock (fem. – petra) that some have used to help support their interpretation.  There may be something to this and our Lord seemingly is making a distinction between the two, i.e. “You are Peter (little rock) and on this rock (rock cliff) I will build my ekklesia“.  Despite the obvious differences, I do not lean on this distinction to determine the meaning of the passage.

Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church has asserted that the “rock” in this passage is Peter, which for them sets up the doctrine of Apostolic succession upon which they fabricate their doctrine of the Pope.  Some, even well-intentioned Protestants, affirm that the rock does indeed refer to Peter, their implications simply being that the church was built upon the apostles, of which Peter may have had preeminence.  Of course, this latter, Protestant interpretation in no way allows for the establishment of apostolic succession from Peter to popes.

Others, perhaps recognizing the validity of such an interpretation have affirmed not only Peter as the rock, but Peter + his confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  This is the view that I held by default, meaning I hadn’t really studied the passage for myself but relied on faithful teachers who held this view (never a good idea by the way!).  Similarly, some have simply allowed that the rock is the confession that Peter makes or even the faith that he displays.

However, now arriving at this passage with fresh eyes for the purpose of defining my understanding of the church, I find myself in disagreement with all of the above interpretations concluding that, along with John Owen, the rock is none other than Christ.

First, notice the ESV translation of this interaction between Peter and our Lord:

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.

In making observations on this passage, the question that I’ve asked first is not who is the rock, but why does our Lord repeat Peter’s name in a formulaic expression, first in saying Simon Bar-Jonah and then declaring “you are Peter”?  The answer, I humbly assert, is to repeat the formula that Peter uses.  In doing so, Christ reminds Peter of the name change that He gave him (John 1:42), the little rock from the larger Rock, so to speak, thereby affirming Himself as the central focus of this confession and passage, not Peter.  Note below:

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church

If our Lord was determined to declare Peter as the rock upon which He would build His ekklesia He could have simply said “You are Petros and upon this Petros I will build my ekklesia”, no word play necessary.  The two confessions seem to be directly parallel, but let’s go on.

Second, note the framework for this entire section is the assertion that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ/Annointed One).  It begins with the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” to which Peter answers, “The Christ, the Son of the living God”.  The section ends with the instruction by Jesus for His disciples to “tell no one that he was the Christ.”  The focus is not that Peter has been in some way given the distinction as the rock, but that Jesus is the Christ,  the Anointed One and Son of God.  This fact frames the entire interaction between Jesus, Peter, and subsequently the other disciples.

Third, almost as if to dispel any confusion that Peter may have been given the preeminent designation as THE rock, Matthew’s gospel follows up this account with a rather inauspicious portrayal of Peter.  If in fact he was just designated as the rock upon which Christ’s ekklesia would be built, then this foundation begins to crumble in the very next narrative.

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Matthew 16:21-23

Fourth, the word our Lord chooses to use here for rock, petras, has a prior usage in Matthew’s gospel.  In Matthew 7:24-25 we read

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

Can there be any reasonable argument made that the rock upon which the wise man builds his house is none other than our Lord?

Fifth, outside of the Gospel of Matthew, we have clear passages that designate Christ as the stone, or Cornerstone, upon which His ekklesia is built.  Sometimes this is the word lithos, but other times it is the very word we find here in Matthew.  We can see this in Romans 9:33, 1 Corinthians 10:4, and most notably 1 Peter 2:8 (see also Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22)

Finally, the equivocation of Christ as the primary rock (Cornerstone) and the apostles as the foundation upon which the “church” is built is made in Ephesians 2:20.

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Additionally, note the larger context of 1 Peter 2 and the highlights I’ve made below

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and

A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offense.

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

It seems likely that the above two passages, Ephesians 2 and 1 Peter 2, could easily explain the declaration of Peter as little rock and Christ as THE rock.

Peter’s role in the formation of the early church is important, no doubt.  But if preeminence were to be given to any Apostle, we might more easily conclude that this eventually became the Apostle Paul, whose influence was arguably greater that Peter’s.  Additionally, in Acts 15, at the so-called Jerusalem council, a passage we will look at later, James seems to have a position of seniority or superiority, not Peter.

Finally, let’s conclude with a summary statement from Owen,

There is but one rock, but one foundation. There is no mention in the Scripture of two rocks of the church. In what others invent to this purpose we are not concerned. And the rock and the foundation are the same; for the rock is that whereon the church is built, that is the foundation. But that the Lord Christ is this single rock and foundation of the church, we shall prove immediately. Wherefore, neither Peter himself, nor his pretended successors, can be this rock. As for any other rock, it belongs not unto our religion; they that have framed it may use it as they please. For they that make such things are like unto the things they make; so is every one that trusteth in them: Psalm 115:8. “But their rock is not as our rock,
themselves being judges;” unless they will absolutely equal the pope unto Jesus Christ.
Solus Christus!