(Prepared for our small congregation May 21, 2017)
I will begin to address this topic with our favorite teacher’s favorite question: “Well, what did you find?” I hope some of you did your “homework” and have some ideas to contribute.
(This was followed with responses by people who had looked up a few references as requested ahead of time, most of which were properly focused on the word “church” in Scripture).
This is not at all what I “grew up with”. My family usually “went to church” – a weekly visit to a large, gray stone building where you had to dress up (heels and stockings, hat, and gloves!) and be quiet. Children did not go to “big church”, but to “Sunday School” where you heard stories, sang songs, memorized a few psalms and other “verses”, and dressed up in bathrobes and long nightgowns (with cardboard crowns and tinsel halos) for a yearly “Christmas program”. In early teens, you “joined the church”, after which you were expected to sit quietly and listen to the skilled, hired choir, organist and preacher. I did not meet Jesus there.
I only encountered people who were serious about following Jesus after I went to college. I found the way they studied the New Testament, interacted, looked out for each other, and included me, fascinating and attractive. From these fellow-students, I learned that our most genuine need was to focus on trying to become the kind of disciples that the New Testament described. It was several years and (thankfully) in another context before I was subjected to the rhetoric about “wrath” and “being lost.” By that time, I was already immersed in the study of the New Testament and its original language, first just to learn more, and then to prepare for translating it for people who lacked that privilege. This had two very helpful results: it both led me to the practice of trying to figure out just what was meant by many of the words that most folks used almost automatically, and protected me from the unBiblical threats of some who called themselves “evangelists”. The New Testament itself became my standard and my goal.
The word translated “church”, “ekklesia”, which etymologically means simply “called out”, was not at all uncommon in classical usage – but not in the way I had ever heard it used. As early as Homer, in the 6th century BC, it was used of any assembly officially summoned for a particular purpose: legal, civil, or even military. It is used that way in the account of the riot in Ephesus, described in Acts 19, referring to both the angry mob and the legal jurisdiction to which the town clerk referred them. The classical dictionary notes that the NT uses it to refer to a “body of Christians”, and notes that the word was not applied to a building or to a cadre of officials, until sometime in the 4th to the 6th centuries, well after the Roman emperor Constantine had restructured the “church” into a civic institution.
But we are concerned today with the faithful New Testament pattern. The word occurs only three times in the Gospels: once in Matthew’s account of Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity (16:18), and twice in Jesus’ instructions for reconciliation among brethren (Mt.18:17). Very likely, the lack of gospel references is due to the more common use of sunago and its related words (English “synagogue”) as a gathering, or the gathering place, of the Jewish faithful. If this is the case, then Jesus’ deliberate choice of a different word takes on sharp significance. When he says “I will build my church”, he clearly intends to do a new thing. Please note that Jesus says HE intends to do the building! In recent years it has been in vogue for individuals or groups – mere people – to set out to “build” churches. With all due respect to their sincerity, THAT IS NOT OUR JOB!!!!! Peter casts it properly in the passive voice, (I Pet.2:5) that we are to BE BUILT into Jesus’ household! We are the building materials – called “living stones” – not the builders. We need to make ourselves available as building materials – but leave the building to the Master Builder! HE knows what he wants done and how he wants to operate. He, after all, is the architect, the head contractor, and the construction superintendent!!
There’s plenty of work that IS assigned to us. This is found in the epistles, which are addressed to the growing churches – NOT, please notice, to officials in charge of them! Check out to whom the vast majority of the NT letters are addressed: “to all the saints” (faithful) at a particular place.
It is “through the church” – not a place, but a people – that “rulers and authorities”, whether in heaven or on earth, are expected to see a demonstration of the “many-faceted wisdom of God”! as was read in Ephesians this morning.
For this purpose, Jesus has been provided to us as “head over everything with respect to the church, which is his Body” (Eph.1:22, Col.1:18). Paul has furnished us with an “instruction manual” (I Cor.12) for learning to function as members of that Body – with each person actively contributing to the interdependent unit.
The closest we come to a “recipe” in the New Testament for a gathering of the church is found in I Cor.14 – especially verses 24-31, where everyone was expected to come with something to share. I have never seen a group try that, have you? It would be a truly wonderful meeting! Admittedly, it would probably be upsetting to anyone who has a need to be in control, or who feels he “needs” to be under the control of some sort of “superior”. But please note that when anyone speaks, the rest are expected to evaluate what is said. It’s not a situation of an “anything goes” free-for-all. Nothing is to be automatically accepted without that evaluation. The description of their other activity in Ac.2:42-47 is similarly attractive, and just as rare.
Being composed of very human people, of course, even the early church was not all glorious sweetness and light. Jesus himself (Mt.18:17) had given instructions for dealing with conflict, with the help of the church. An excellent practical example is described in the conference at Jerusalem (Ac.15), dealing with conflict concerning the inclusion of Gentiles – an outstanding example of mediated reconciliation. Notice that this was a meeting of the whole group, not just the “apostles and elders”. Paul emphasizes in I Cor. 5 and 6 that the church, and not civil courts, should be called upon when mediation is needed, and gives explicit instructions for dealing with someone who needs to be corrected.
So, what is “the work of the church”?
The church at Antioch, after consensus about the Holy Spirit’s leading at a simple prayer meeting, sent out Paul, Barnabas, and Silas (and possibly others) to carry the message into unreached areas. Paul, however, is careful to remind folks that he has earned his own support and did not beg it of others (Ac.20:34). On occasion, congregations also volunteered to help support their work: the letter to the Philippians is basically a thank-you note. See (Phil.4:15, II Cor.11:8, 12-13), and a sizable group cooperated to send relief to needy brethren (II Cor.8) when they heard of a famine among distant brethren.
“The church” was also charged with the care of widows who had no family – which would have been a serious concern in groups under persecution. Paul gave very explicit instructions for this responsibility to Timothy in his first letter. The description at the end of Ac. 2 and Ac.4 lists some of their other activities, as does the extensive reference to the relief offering in II Cor.
Most of the church groups seem to have met in people’s homes. Ac.2:46 speaks of “breaking bread from house to house”, and Paul mentions groups meeting in the homes of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor.16 and Rom.16), and Titus Justus (Ac.18:7) in Corinth; Nympha (Col.4:15) and Philemon (Phm.2) in Colossae; Lydia (Ac.16) in Philippi; John Mark’s mother in Jerusalem (Ac.12:12); and probably Gaius (Rom.16) wherever Romans was written from. Occasionally, as in Ephesus (Ac.19:9) at the beginning, a rented hall was used – perhaps to accommodate a larger group, or before a host was available. It was natural, then, for Paul to refer to the church (I Tim.3:15) as “the household of God.” About half of the references are plural, which probably indicates more than one congregation in a location. In any event, real estate does not seem to have been a concern.
There is no reference to the church as “a place to go on Sunday” to sit and listen to a learned lecture (or less-learned diatribe) and professionally performed music or other entertainment. There is no prescribed agenda or “liturgy,” except for Paul’s advice referenced in I Cor.14 and mentioned earlier.
It is important to note that, except for his instructions to Timothy and Titus, who seem to have been serving as his “deputies”, Paul addresses his letters to “all God’s people [the “saints”] at ….” [a location], and not to officials of any kind. In Phil.1:1, leaders are included in the address, but are not primary. This makes one wonder about the addressing of the “mail” in Rev.2 and 3 to “the messenger” (aggelos)– traditionally rendered “angel” (there is a word study on this usage), and the “you” words are singular, which is uncommon. Might this person have been some sort of corresponding secretary? But even in this case, everyone is called upon to heed “what the Spirit says to the churches.”
So what is this New Creation called “the church”?
I like the suggestion of a student years ago in a word study class, “a combination of a colony of the Kingdom and a support group!”
These are people gathered, as in Ac.2:42-47, to celebrate and share the resurrection life of their King.
As in Ac.11:26, to learn his ways, in order to represent him faithfully to those outside,
As in Ac.12:15, for mutual support and prayer in the face of persecution.
They deliberately avoid (Heb.10:25) neglecting to get together, since they need to keep coaching and encouraging one another to faithfulness,
(I Cor.14:12) each seeking to excel in what will edify the church, as they
(Heb.10:24) concentrate on prodding each other with love and good deeds.
They serve as a “demonstration project” of the wisdom and glory of God (Eph.3:10)
being “built together into a permanent dwelling place for God, in the Spirit.”(Eph.2:22).
No, the citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus do not and can not “go to church.” If they are faithful, they never LEAVE!!! “Church” is not a place to go. It is WHO YOU ARE!!! Not a place, but a people. Remember, that “you” is plural. Jesus’ statement that he is present whenever two or three of his people are deliberately “gathered in his name” (another subject that needs serious study, along with the rest of Mt.18), has far-reaching implications. The identity of the “church” and those who compose it is a personal, but not a private, affair. One’s decision to commit his life to faithfulness to Jesus should be the last wholly individual decision of his life. Only together can we be truly faithful to the gracious calling that we share.
May we learn to do so faithfully!