Since 2014, I’ve had ebbs and flows in my thoughts regarding the church. When I lay aside these studies, they inevitably come back seeking further clarity and resolution until I grow weary and lay them down again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
In that year, I was taking a seminary course called the Doctrine of the Church where we looked at every single use of “church” in the Scriptures. Note that I didn’t simply say use of church in the New Testament. That’s because the Greek word, ekklesia, translated church in our English Bibles (a poor translation by the way), is also in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) quite frequently. It is a common translation of the Hebrew word qahal, which our English Bibles translate as assembly or congregation (hold on to that).
So the concept of ekklesia, or what we read translated as church, is not an entirely New Testament idea. We must also allow the Old Testament to inform our understanding of how we define church. Want a practical implication of this?—How often have you been taught that the church was formed at Pentecost? Really? Then we need to explain how the church was in the wilderness with Moses, as described by Stephen in Acts 7:38 as well as the more than 100 times ekklesia appears in the Greek Septuagint. There is both continuity and discontinuity from Old to New Testaments regarding ekklesia.
I’ll hope to unpack all this in the future, but for now I simply want to lay out some thoughts or better, questions, much like I did in the post “Who or What determines how you worship?” As there, so also here, the Scriptures must be our final authority.
- What is an ekklesia?
- What is the church? A building, event, identity, or other (denomination)?
- Does church require a building?
- Can we leave the church?
- Can you become a member of a church?
- Who runs the church?
- Is the church a 501c organization?
- Is the church universal?
- Is the church invisible?
- Is the church an institution?
- Is church history monolithic?
- Is Christ building His church eschatological?
- What does Christ intend to communicate to Peter (and us) by the statement, “Feed my sheep”?
- Is there a biblical distinction or hierarchy between clergy and laity?
- Are “pastors” the only preachers?
- What is preaching?
- What is teaching?
- Is pastoring a profession/vocation?
- Is a formal seminary education required to “pastor” or preach?
- Is church a worship service?
- Is church participatory or non-participatory?
- What are the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 on our churches?
- Where did our modern expression of church come from, Scripture or tradition?
- Can we build a church?
- Can we plant a church?
What about you? What are you thoughts on church? Have you thought about it with Scripture as your guide? Have you wrestled with what you see versus what Scripture describes? Have you ever stopped to ask, wait…now why are we doing this?
My goal is not to ask why as an end to itself. My goal is to more conform my life to the Word of Almighty God and participate in His ekklesia as He has directed.
John, do you think that the word, “church,” is just used functionally for short hand to refer to that assembly of people with exclusive NT qualities (holy spirit baptism, ordinances, government, etc) and mostly with good intentions? What do we lose with this short hand though?
Historically, the word church came from two words, “kurios,” Lord, and “oikos,” house, put together, later kirk in Scottish and eventually church. What effect has this had on the “church” about its own identity?
Good comment and questions Jacob, thanks. I’m wrestling through the “What do we lose with this short hand though?” I’m not sure if we lose anything as long as we define what we mean by “church”. Unfortunately it has come to mean many things to many people, evangelical church, First Baptist Church, church building, we go to church, etc. It could be that perhaps all this has emptied what was intended by ekklesia.
Good summary on the etymology of church, kuriakos, belonging to the Lord (used only in 1 Cor. 11:20, Rev. 1:10), which is certainly a fine description for the body of believers for whom Christ died, but does it convey the meaning intended by ekklesia? It seems lacking. Ekklesia (apart from tou Theou or Tou Kuriou) doesn’t have to have any religious connotation at all (see Acts 19:32, 39, 41) and may in fact carry more of a political connotation. So why did our Lord say that He would build His ekklesia and not, say for example His sunagoge, which is perhaps more functionally equivalent to “church”? It’s at least worth thinking through. Also, I wonder why William Tyndale died to keep the word “congregation” in his English translation instead of “church”?
“What effect has it had on the church’s identity?” I’m not sure, other than if we see it merely as a NT creation at Pentecost over and against Theocratic Israel, then perhaps we have missed something. Perhaps then, Christ has been building His ekklesia (eschatologically) since the Garden (see the OT usage in the LXX, also Acts. 7:38 as mentioned). Though we certainly would have to make some distinctions between Old and New Covenant.
I think you’re right, its functionally short hand and NOW used with mostly good intentions, if not inaccurate at times. As Kittle concludes in the TDNT (pg. 505) after stating that the use of assembly or gathering may be more accurate, “This does not mean that we should banish the words ‘Church’ and ‘congregation’ from our vocabulary. Apart from the impossibility of such an undertaking, there would be no sense in forfeiting the wealth of meaning proper to these terms. What is needed is that we should grasp the precise significance of the word ekklesia, since at this point linguistic sobriety will help us to the true meaning and bearing from the standpoint of biblical theology.” (footnote 6)
As always, thanks for the thought provocation (in a good way of course!).
Grace and peace,
An addendum just as I was thinking more about this, perhaps if we clarified terms more accurately, believers, particularly Millennials, would realize you can’t actually leave the “church”. What they are running from may actually be Christendom and what they are searching for may actually be “church”, as properly defined.