All right, so I am being a bid pedantic, but the very word ‘church’ is a source of confusion to many, and in my own quest to help liberate the Christian community from all of the misunderstandings that clutter that quest, one significant factor is the very word ‘church’ itself. Actually, it is not even a Christian term. It is employed by Jesus only a couple of times. Rather, in the original Greek New Testament documents, it is a common word: ekklesia, (ek kaleo, or ‘called out’) which refers to an assembly of citizens called out for some common purpose, maybe political or civic. It was only the later translators of the Greek text into English, who took the translator’s liberty of substituting a word that reflected an assembly of the Lord’s people—kyriakos (or: an assembly that belongs to the Lord), or our word: church.

It’s worth my using this Blog to attempt to bring it somewhat into focus. It is a word which a whole lot of people (most?) use, but which almost nobody can define—or, at least if they attempt to define it, usually identify it with some traditional religious institution of their experience.

Look at the primary occasion when Jesus uses the word: he had been with his small band of intimate disciples for a couple of years, teaching primarily that the Kingdom of God was at hand, calling folk to listen to what he was teaching, to realize who he was, to understand that the long-awaited promise of God’s new creation was being inaugurated in himself—such stuff that was so off of their chart. And yet he was doing miracles, healing sick folk, raising a dead guy to life, spelling out a whole radically different understanding of what it meant to be God’s people. It must have been pretty overwhelming. He didn’t fit the pattern, or their conception (of what the enigmatic promise from their Jewish writings) about a coming ‘anointed one’—a messiah would look like.

So, one day at the city of Caesarea Philippi, he put it to them: 1) Who do the people say that I am? 2) But who do you guys say that I am? Look at the evidence. Think about what you have been experiencing, and what I have done, and what I have taught you. What do you make of this? What do you think this whole ‘kingdom of God’ thing is about, and how does that kingdom, and what you have experienced in, and learned from, me fit into this? And what does it all have to do with the hope of Israel for an anointed deliverer?

The lights went on! Peter (always the impetuous one) blurted out: “Wow! You are ‘the messiah’ we have been looking for!” Jesus affirms that Peter’s answer is spot on: “Yes, that is the correct conclusion, and it is upon that (rock) reality that I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell will never be able to prevail against it.” There’s that word.

Briefly, for our purposes here, note that Jesus says that he, himself, will build his church, not them. They are to obey. They are to be witnesses. They are to demonstrate him and his new creation—but he will … call out an assembly of people who will be his new humanity, and will live out his teachings. He never called upon them to build institutions, but to be his witnesses, and to herald his new creation by their witness, by new creation lives and relationships. The rest of the New Testament documents show the early history of this being realized.

If you try to trap Christ’s ekklesia in an institution, then you can rest assured that it will break out and emerge in other forms of assembly, or colony. There will always be those assemblies-colonies for whom Jesus, the new life he gives, his teachings, and by his Spirit will ultimately permeate all of the human community. Even the controlling philosophy of many church hierarchies are always faced with ‘break-outs’ in the form of base communities, floating parishes, house churches, clandestine forms of the colony, as Christ builds his church.

My point? When you use the word ‘church’ be aware that you are talking about colonies that Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, is calling out to be his living, breathing witnesses into every corner of this very broken human community that Jesus came to seek and rescue. Got it?

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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