Strategy 3 The Church part 2 What is the Ekklesia
Reminders from last week
- It’s important to remember that the church first and foremost, beginning, middle and end, is a body of people in relationship with Jesus Christ, and first and foremost He calls us to Himself before He calls us to a task.
- We need to identify not so much what the church looks like but what the Father’s purpose, what the Father’s business, looks like and once we’re clear about that then we’ll be much more clear about why we exist.
In this session, we want to explore the Father’s Purpose and the Father’s business.
I hope that we’ll see from the Bible, although we may already know it, that as Emil Brunner put it, “the ekklesia of the NT, the Christian fellowship of the first Christians, was not a ‘church’ and had no intention of being a ‘church’ … the New Testament ekklesia, the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is a pure communion of persons and has nothing of the character of an institution about it” [Brunner The Misunderstanding of the Church 1951 edn. p.16/17]
Primarily then, the Ekklesia is about relationship – being in community, a worshipping, witnessing and working community. We have tended to focus on meetings, ever since Constantine corralled us into buildings in the 4th century! Michael Griffiths, in his book ‘Cinderella with amnesia’ says: “The question arises, where is the community when it is not meeting together? Does the congregation exist only when it is in plenary session, and is it therefore dissolved between meetings? Or does it exist in a state of suspended animation, kept in cold storage from Monday to Saturday?”
He goes on to say: “ The church continues to be the church, not only when it is actually meeting in congregational session, but also when it meets in smaller groups, as it lives together in Christian families, and as its members who are ‘the light of the world’ are scattered throughout society during the working day. Salt is not salt only when it is all collected together in the saltcellar. It is equally salt when distributed throughout the meat of society to preserve it from corruption. The Christian family and the Christian home is a basic unit of the Christian congregation.” [Griffiths ‘Cinderella with Amnesia’ 1975 Edn, p87ff]
This seems to be how the early church functioned and somehow it has morphed into the organisations we see today. The danger is that we write off the visible communities that we call churches while we are looking for the ekklesia (is that part of the reason that there are some 42,000 denominations today – each one splitting off as they thought they had the ‘truth’?).
But where is this ekklesia to be found? It’s an important search as the Lord’s promise that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it”, is made solely to the ekklesia that Jesus is building, not to the organisations and structures which claim the name of ‘church’
To quote Emil Brunner again, “With or without the churches, if necessary even in opposition to them, God will cause the ekklesia to become a real community of brothers.” He goes on to say, “Not the hostility of the unbelieving world, but clerical parsonic ecclesiasticism has ever been the greatest enemy of the Christian message and of brotherhood rooted in Christ”. [quoted in Griffiths op.cit. p.175] For examples throughout church history, see The Pilgrim Church” by E.H. Broadbent
But we do need to recognise that meeting together in community is a gracious gift from our Father (Bonhoeffer quoted by Griffiths op.cit. p.123ff), and is the means whereby the body of Christ is fed and built up (Griffiths p.126). As David Andrew said last week, you can’t have the head without the body, as there is a special grace given when Christians meet together – for one thing, Christ Himself promised to be in their midst.
I have likened the visible church to scaffolding surrounding the building, and I’m not alone I this! J. C. Ryle made the same comment in a sermon delivered in 1858. We have spent centuries building and elaborating and beautifying the scaffolding while ignoring “the church the Jesus is building”. So the scaffolding is all people see and it’s obscuring the true church and blocking its light.
The following notes are from the discussion which followed – for the full discussion, please chack out the video on YouTube
A question of scaffolding – visible or invisible?
There is a narrow dividing line between what’s the building and what’s scaffolding! So what we’re in search of this morning is the ecclesia of the New Testament – what does it look like and what we’ve got today. This has been a problem since the Reformation! Actually the Roman Catholic Church has no problem – in their mind, the Catholic Church is the ecclesia of the New Testament so they’re just a continuation of the Apostolic authority. So there’s no issue for them. But when the reformation came in into being, it then became an issue – we’ve got these churches and church buildings and so on, but they’re not the church.
So what is the Church? Calvin apparently doesn’t deal with the Church until his fourth book of the Institutes of Religion. He deals with the whole question of justification and he has a very individualistic view of it. He was one of the first one probably to express the idea of the “invisible church” within the “visible church”. It’s a viewpoint that I have held for a good long time but the “invisible church” is not actually a New Testament concept.
In the New Testament, they would never have thought that they had a church – a group of people collected together as a church and within that there was a smaller select number of those who really were the church. It’s because of the deterioration over the centuries and we’ve still got that problem today. Talking of the invisible church is an individualistic way of thinking – just talking about those who are those who are elect. The church in the New Testament is visible and it’s together and it’s a community.
The New Testament Model
So let’s look at Acts 2 verses 42-47. This is to my mind a wonderful description of how the ecclesia functions, what the ecclesia is. There’s a big debate in in the scholarly environment as to whether the book of Acts is just descriptive or is it prescriptive? Does it simply describe what went on, or does it prescribe a formula for what we should be doing. I believe the church in Acts is the model to follow. This is not just, “Oh, that’s what they did then, and now we have organs, vestments, and crosses, and buildings, and ministries” and all these sort of things.
So we are in search of the ecclesia that Jesus is building as we look at these verses:
And they continued steadfastly in (or the NiV has ‘they devoted themselves to’) the Apostles doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul. And many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together and had all things common. They sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all men as every man had need. And they continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house did eat their food with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the lord added to the church daily such as were being saved.
I’ll make one comment on verse 42 and then then throw it open to discussion. I read somewhere of a Baptist minister who gave up his Baptist ministry and went to run a pub. Somebody said to him that it was a bit of a contrast going from a church to running a pub. He said, “Well, what I love about the pub is that my customers here are devoted! I don’t have to do rotas, I don’t have to cajole them to come along, to come and do this that and the other. They’re devoted to what they’re doing.” The pub was obviously a community that attracted people! A healthy Christian community should attract people to it but the community that most people see is a group of people who meet in a church building on Sunday mornings and that as we know is often a mixed multitude!
Visible or Invisible?
What struck me reading up on this in the New Testament is that there was no difference between the ‘invisible church’ (as we define it today) and the ‘visible church’. The visible church was the ecclesia that Jesus was building. Reading this passage it sounds to me like they met in the Temple courts (probably Solomon’s Colonnade) and then they went home to someone’s house and had their meal. We are talking about a different culture in the New Testament, certainly – this is in Jerusalem and in the Jewish culture people did have open homes.
One of the pivotal phrases in this passage, in the New American Standard Bible, it says in verse 45 “All those who believed were together and they were continually devoting themselves together; they were devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, and to breaking bread”. Verse 43, “And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe and many wonders and all those who believed and they began selling their property and possessions” and as it goes on, it’s this body this group of people together and it’s like they’re living and moving always all together as a living organism.
“Together” – it’s when two or three people are gathered together, Jesus said, “There am I in the midst.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a building, on Zoom or outside or in the pub, it’s the reason that you’re meeting there. I think it’s important that it has to be known that you’re meeting there for that purpose. It’s not just two or three of us getting together for a drink! When Jesus says “gathered together”, He says “in My Name.” So they are owning Jesus’ Lordship. He is owning their gathering together, and, in fact, the Greek is “into My Name” – gathered into My Name – the gathering together is not the key point! The key point is you are gathered together under the name of Christ and there’s a declaration of that
Going to Church or being the Church?
The apostles would never thought they were going to church –they were the church, they were the ecclesia! But verse 42 must have been happening in their homes. We have an example of a prayer meeting in a home in acts 12 when they were praying for Peter who’d been arrested by Herod. They were they were meeting in the upper room at the house belonging to Mary, the mother of John Mark.
So we know these things happened in their homes and certainly breaking bread from house to house in verse 46 was in their homes. But note verse 46, “continuing daily with one accord in the Temple.” Now taking that back into First Century culture, Jesus taught in the Temple and apparently there’d be places under Solomon’s Colonnade where Rabbis would sit and teach their group of disciples.
In the next chapter Peter and John go up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, chapter three verse one. So they were participating in the formalities of the Temple. I think we’re entitled to read into verse 46 that this is where they got together in public, because if they didn’t get together in public how would all the people view them with favour? There’s obviously a public demonstration of their community and in verse 44, “All that believed were together” that’s an important point. But it doesn’tgo on to say that they had “all things in common” – having “all things in common” is communism! “Having all things common” is sharing things with one another, not regarding their possessions as belonging to them but still preserving ownership – making ‘my’ possessions available to the community.
They were seen to be a community bearing in mind that they were they would stand out because of what they had done. Later on, of course, they’ll stand out even further; be ostracized by the Jewish community, ostracized by Roman society. And the fact that they looked after each other and a bit further on in chapter four it says and there was not a poor person amongst them because of this this sharing they were doing, that would have been such a testimony to the to the people around them to the society around them.
To my mind this all springs out of their homes. As I said earlier, quoting Michael Griffiths “The Christian family is the core unit of the Christian community” so your first church is your home.
The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit
The other significant thing that happened of course in that chapter is the Holy Spirit came down and the Ekklesia is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit according to the last verse of Second Corinthians. Derived from that, it’s also a fellowship of believers in fellowship one with another – koinonia (sharing). So the Spirit has come down and obviously the birth of the Church, which this chapter marks, is very much birthed by the Holy Spirit. Just as in Genesis chapter one the spirit brooded over the face of the deep and brought forth the first creation, now we have the Spirit brooding and we’re seeing the new creation coming into being.
Giving witness to the Resurrection
In chapter 4 verse 33, Luke records that “with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection” and here in our in our chapter in verse 42, the people there devoted to the apostles doctrine and fellowship. What were the apostles telling them about? Here are the close circle of people around Christ; they’ve been around him for three years and they personally had witnessed the resurrection.
What power comes from that and that’s what they’re communicating. What we’re seeing in Acts is that it was very much in public. We don’t have places like the temple where the church in any sense can meet. At the moment there’s very few spots where we could do anything that would be visible to others. We hide ourselves away in a room somewhere the danger of becoming a private members club
Relationship is key
Let’s go over to Ephesians chapter two because we’ve been we’ve been discussing what people see, bearing in mind that what we’re saying is that the number one feature of the ecclesia is it’s relationship. Relationship with Christ and relationship with one another, and you can’t have one without the other.
If it’s relationship with one another without Christ, well we might as well be down the bowling green or n the British Legion Club or something, just getting together. If you have relationship with Christ without one another, then you’ve cut yourself off from the body and any part of the body cut off from the body dies. So we have to have that one-another-ness, that was so visible then, as part of an expression of our fellowship. This togetherness, this sense of belonging really comes out Ephesians 2 :19-22.
God wants a family and the Ekklesia is a home for it
Notice the “togethers” there but what struck me when I was looking at it there are seven words in this passage all of which include the Greek word for house “oikos”.
- the word translated sojourners or aliens in verse 19 means those who have a home nearby so there’s the first mention of the home
- but then we are the household of God –that’s the place where God dwells having been built together having been built
- verse 20 built on – there’s the the house word again. It’s again it’s the same Greek word reminding us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18 “On this rock, I will build my church”
- same word verse 21 the whole building being framed and joined together
- in verse 22 you are being built together
- and the peak, the keystone, of it, it is a dwelling place for God through the Spirit
This whole passage is rooted in the idea of the house, the home, the family getting together as a family. What really struck me, looking through this, is that God’s purpose is family. God doesn’t want services and ceremonies and so on. He doesn’t want us to come along and say, “There we are, we’ve lit the candles, we’ve said the prayers, we’ve said Amen and that’s it. We’ve done our bit”. God’s not looking for that!
God’s not looking for our service. We do serve him as a result of His love, but He’s looking for our love. He’s looking for our fellowship. He’s looking to make us part of our family and the ecclesia of the New Testament is, I think, above everything else, a family, made up of people who are born into the family. And people who are not born into the family are not part of the Ekklesia. Unfortunately they are part of the so-called “visible church”. But you have to be born into family by the Holy Spirit, which is why the Holy Spirit is so important. At the beginning of Acts 2 – the Holy Spirit gave birth to the church and at the end of Acts 2 we see how the church the early church operated. I don’t think we look back and say, “Well they were primitives you know. We know better now and we’ve got better systems and whatever.”
The Family is where discipleship takes place
Discipleship can only take place where there is relationship, where there is fellowship, where the koinonia, the fellowship of the saints and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, exists. And the point here is that, that’s what God is wanting to do – to turn us into a family. Peter picks it up in one peter 2 verse 5:
You also as living stones are built up into a spiritual house a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ
If you think of stones being built into a building, there’s got to be chipping and shaping to get it to fit in and none of us will fit in as we are! We’ve all got rough edges that need to be knocked off and no doubt the fellowship of the saints is one of the primary ways that God uses. In fact when you find someone in the church who’s most obnoxious and the most difficult person to get on with, you need to thank God for them because he’s using them to sanctify you to bring out those bad things in you that he wants to be knocked off and chipped away at!
A place where God feels at home
Of course, human families are often difficult and split and divided and problematic. The family of God shouldn’t be like that but the church has moved so far away from this whole concept of family and openness and what we read of in Acts chapter two. What I wanted to stress from this passage is this is the Father’s purpose that it should be a place where God himself feels at home. So in our comings together for fellowship, does God Himself feel at home? Does he feel welcome? Bearing in mind that it’s His house after all! It’s His doing – – He invites us, but do we bring things with us that make God feel uncomfortable or grieve the Holy Spirit?
The Father’s Business
Next week we’ll go on and look at the Father’s business, because, as David Andrew reminded us last week, the body must be about the same business as the Head. So if the Head of the body, Jesus, is wanting to build this family, this fellowship and we’re not working towards that end, if we’re building our own domains, then we’re working against the purposes of the Head. And we have to be working to the same purpose as the Head which is this building, this koinonia, and then next week we will try to discover how do we go about the Father’s business. Jesus was “about his Father’s business” when He was in the Temple as He had been about His earthly father’s business in the carpenter’s shop, learning the trade. Are we learning the trade? That’s what Ephesians chapter four is
But I just want to close with this thought. How do we respond to this? What does this mean for us Michael Griffiths concludes his book:
“Surely it is time for us to meet one another in penitent acknowledgement of our common failure to be what the church ought to be.”
We’ve failed and we can’t say, “Oh well, our church has failed, our forebears have failed, the ministers have failed”. We need to take personal responsibility for the church not being what it should be. Michael Griffiths asks “How are we going to realize the goal of making the congregation into an effective community?” That’s the big problem! We’ve got church programs; we’ve got meetings; we might be on Zoom or maybe in-person; or whatever we’re doing. But is it actually building making us into an effective community or are we just doing our own thing? So it’s this question of repenting for not being what the Father wanted us to be.
As we go through these sessions, I’m praying that we find the ecclesia and also avoid the error of dismissing the visible church in its rather imperfect form. Because, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in his book “Living Together”, the opportunities to come together are a gracious gift of our Father and it’s too all too easy to be lone rangers and go off and do our own thing
The Saviour’s Heart
Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. Would any one of us here give our lives for our church or our company of believers? it’s challenging thought ,isn’t it, to get that level of commitment and oneness which they obviously had in Acts 2, praising God and having favour with all the people and God blessed it! The Lord added to the church daily such as were being saved.
We’re also an army and someone said, the real church has been at war ever since those days. The nominal church, the visible church from the third fourth century, might have times of peace when it was in the ascendancy and it ruled the roost. But the real church has always, always, been at war! But there’s that sense of unity of coming together, of oneness, about the ecclesia, as a trained fighting unit. I have a friend who was in the army and the group of men who train together become a very tight unit. They’ll die for one another if necessary but that’s a real deep level of fellowship!
May the Lord grant us grace to pursue that level of fellowship, so that, whoever we meet with, whoever we consider our koinonia, He will be pleased to own it with His presence and blessing! A home where God dwells through the Spirit.