The Geographical Dimension of Ekklesia – Part 1

Several months ago I announced the upcoming release of What is Church, a book I have been working on for some time. At the writing of that post, I already had the book assembled, reviewed, and was within a week or two of publishing the e-book .pdf version (Bookstore). However, the release was held up as I came across another use of church (ekklesia) that fit so well with what I had already written and was a necessary part in understanding what church is.

By way of review, over the past several years I have been looking closing at ecclesiology or the study of church. As a reminder, ecclesiology is a natural progression out of covenant theology – or what the Scriptures have to say about covenants, which itself is a natural progression about what the Scriptures have to say about salvation, particularly God’s sovereignty in salvation. This multi-year study is nearing completion, but there was at least one additional aspect that I had been wrestling with. This had to do with how the Scriptures use church, specifically its geographical dimension and relatedly the structure of governance. Throughout the posts devoted to this subject, we have seen that the Scriptures refer to the local ekklesia (church), plural ekklesiae, and the eschatological ekklesia. However, there is a finer distinction that is made with reference to the house, the city, and the region that needs to be both defined and explored in order to round out the Scripture’s description of ekklesia.

The House Ekklesia

It is well known that the early church utilized homes for their gatherings. The Scriptures clearly speak to these as in Romans 16:5 and 1 Corinthians 16:19 with reference to the church that met in the house of Prisca and Aquila; Colossians 4:15 referring to the church that met in the house of Nympha; and Philemon 1:2 concerning the church that met in Philemon’s house. Inference can also be drawn from the upper room of Acts 1:13 as well as the house of Lydia in Acts 16:15, 40; The Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31-34; Acts 17:5 and the house of Jason; Acts 18:7 the house of Titius; the house of Philip in Acts 21:8; and Stephanas in 1 Corinthians 16:15. Each of these is a development from Acts 5:42
42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.

Acts 5:42
Which itself was a development of Acts 2:42-47
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47
In addition to direct statements of the church in the house and the inferences drawn above, there are a number of allusions to this location of early Christian gatherings such as references to households as well as household managers/management (e.g. Acts 11:14; 16:15; 16:31-34; 18:7-8). It is upon this framework of oikos (household) that these early house (oikia) ekklesiae were developed.

The structure of the oikos in the Roman era of the New Testament was significantly different than that of the modern, nuclear household consisting of two parents – mom and dad – along with their children, that has become common in Western Civilization. Whereas modern cultures today continue to erode the structure of the family to non-existence even from this basic unit, the oikos in early Hellenistic influenced Christianity included not only the immediate family living under one roof, but a multigenerational extended family as well as workers and slaves, who were more akin to indentured servants. The entire household could consist of forty people or more all of which would be under the leadership of the household head (which in Roman society could be men or women; see Lydia in Acts 16:15). Because society in the first century Mideast was still largely agrarian, it necessitated larger, extended families and workers to form a community around the oikia. This is in fact where the term (home) economics finds its origins – oikonomia, but that is a discussion topic for another day.

It is into this structural framework of the household that Jesus was born, ministers as He warns of division caused by those who believe and those who do not (Matt. 10:34-39), and reimages as He reorients the meaning of family around obedience to Himself (Matt. 12:46-50). As the gospel continued to spread after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we find in the book of Acts that whole households believed and were subsequently baptized. While the emphasis on these household baptisms is often incorrectly placed on whether or not infants were present, the reality is that the oikos likely consisted of a large number of multi-generational people who embraced the Lord as Savior and were immediately baptized. It would have been natural then for these believers to organically gather together in the name of Jesus (Matt. 18:20) and be referred to as an ekklesia (church). These formed the foundation of the ekklesiae of a city or region, as we will see.

By recognizing the structure of the household during the time of the New Testament writing, we can more readily understand the context of Paul’s letters to Ephesus where he outlines the ordering of the oikos including the relationship of husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves all of which are not isolated and individualized but are collectively a part of the household (see also: Col. 3:18-4:1). Additionally, in 1 Timothy Paul devotes extensive attention to the oikos, particularly as it relates to household management or oikonomia. This figures prominently in his descriptions of qualifications for both overseer’s and servants (deacons) who both must know how manage their own oikos (1 Timothy 3:4, 12). Knowing that this is the basic unit for the house ekklesiae and that the head of the household would have most likely led the gathering, perhaps something else is intended in these descriptions, but we will entertain that discussion later. Continuing in 1 Timothy we see our subject again with reference to the ordering of oikonomia with respect to the elders – older men (presbuteros) and older women (presbuteras), as well as rules for widows, and the familiar, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:2; 1 Tim. 5:8).

When the New Testament refers to the ekklesia in the oikos it is always in the singular, meaning a singular gathering in a singular home (usually). While oikos primarily refers to an inhabited house, it is significant to note that it can also refer to a household, in other words the people of the house, i.e. a family. Unfortunately, throughout history some have chosen to focus on this particular geographic location and concluded that it is prescription through description of where God’s people should gather today, namely exclusively in homes. The emphasis should not be on where they gathered, i.e. a home, rather that these small family-centered gatherings in fact took place whether in a home, on a mountainside, or at the beach.

The oikos ekklesia would’ve been the primary location for believers to gather for meals, prayer, dialogical teaching, and the exercise of spiritual gifts, among other activities such as giving testimony of what the Lord had done. This singular, home-based ekklesia is itself a complete and full church, using our modern nomenclature. It is not a part of the church but is in itself the church of God in Christ, His body.

With this in mind, in the next post on the geographical use of ekklesia we will look at the second, although lesser used, dimension that also has a singular reference, namely the city-church.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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