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July 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 3 · pp. 326–31 

The New Testament Church as Ekklesia

V. George Shillington

Church renewal is “in the air.” Renewal theorists such as Lawrence O. Richards have stimulated serious thought in the minds of frustrated pastors who, in turn, create a spirit of re-formation in their congregations. The new interest often results in superficial change, adding yet another link to the program-chain that keeps the church intact. But sometimes it results in a totally new approach to Church life. Robert Girard describes his transformed pastoral ministry in his book, Brethren, Hang Loose. Donald Allen writes of his pastoral experience in a house-Church in his book, Barefoot in the Church. Other churches are studying Body Life by Ray Stedman. 1

According to their own testimony, the Church renewal people are in quest of “authentic Christian community.” 2 They realize that they are not living the dynamic life of the New Testament Church. They sense that they are depending on ecclesiastical machinery instead of the Spirit of God. They begin to realize all this and gradually they begin to move from “Institutional Church” to “Christian Community.”

While I do not intend to analyze any particular form of renewal, I think it is important for us to study quietly, scripturally, and rationally the central principles that lie behind this movement to Christian community. What is the true nature and function of the New Testament Church in comparison with what we may call “acceptable” evangelical Church life today? Unfortunately, that which makes the Church acceptable to the modern mind can also hinder our understanding of the New Testament concept of the Church.

TWO “ACCEPTABLE HERESIES” WHICH HINDER UNDERSTANDING

Augustine, theologian in the early part of the fifth century, distinguished sharply between the “visible” and the “invisible” Church. The Reformers, especially Calvin and Zwingli, picked up Augustine’s idea and modified it to suit the Reformation spirit. The visible Church, according to Calvin, is merely the externum subsidium fidei, the external means of individual salvation. The Church visible helps, undergirds, the individual believer, but it is only a means to an end, never an end in itself. The only Church which really matters is the invisible Church, the number of the elect in heaven. Brunner is quite correct in saying that “these twin conceptions, so far from clarifying what was intended, have served but to increase the confusion.” He adds that the concept of an invisible Church is foreign to the New Testament. 3 But these unbiblical ideas are deeply imprinted in our Protestant mentality.

While the Reformation represents the religious struggle for freedom {327} from the powerful rule of Rome, the political upheaval of the same years represents the individual’s struggle for freedom from the shackles of feudal lords and tyrants. Psychologist Erich Fromm evaluates the history of western man since the Reformation thus:

Modern European and American history is centered around the effort to gain freedom from political, economical, and spiritual shackles that have bound men . . . Many died in these battles in the conviction that to die in struggle against oppression was better than to live without freedom. 4

But Fromm also points out that freedom from evil powers has another side which modern civilization has not yet fully discovered. “Freedom” is becoming “individualism,” and individualism leads to disintegration. Man has a compelling need to avoid aloneness. “To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death.” 5 But the freedom which leads to individualism has deep roots and extensive branches. “In our time it is the individual who is stressed. Self-development, self-expression, self-realization have become the watchwords of modern society.” 6

Those of us who hope to recapture the life of the Church in the Apostolic Age must get beyond these influences. We must, somehow, shift from twentieth century thought patterns to the mental processes operating in the lives of first century Christians. We must try to acclimatise ourselves to the atmosphere in which Jesus and the apostles lived and breathed.

THE NEW TESTAMENT EKKLESIA

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The English term “church”, as professor Hort suggests,

carries with it associations derived from institutions and doctrines of later times, and thus cannot at present, without a constant mental effort, be made to convey the full and exact force which originally belonged to ekklesia. 7

Hence, for purposes of clarity and accuracy in this discussion, I will use the term ekklesia. In the minds of New Testament Christians the word had specific, peculiar, associations, Etymologically, the word means “a called-out group.” It comes from two words: kaleo “I call,” and ek meaning “out of.” Ekklesia was a common word in Greek culture and referred to a group of citizens who were called out of their houses by a herald for the discussion of civic business in the public square. Thus Christians were a called-out group. But this basic meaning was not uppermost in the minds of those who heard Jesus and the Apostles when they used the term.

The background of the New Testament meaning lies in the Old Testament. When the Septuagint translators sought for a suitable word to translate the Old Testament “congregation of the Lord,” they chose ekklesia. Israel was “called out” to represent Jehovah on the earth. The nation was quite visible, quite real. As Zorn puts it, the Old Testament ekklesia “was to reflect God’s glory and embody His grace and truth, not only to preserve it as a witness, but to perpetuate it among the nations as well (1 Kings 8:41-43).” 8 {328}

When Jesus elicited Peter’s bold confession (Matt. 16:13-19), he announced there and then that he would build His ekklesia on the Apostles, Peter having the primary position in the foundation after Jesus himself (cf. Eph. 2:19-20). Because they were familiar with the meaning of the ekklesia of the Old Covenant, they recognized the far-reaching implications of Jesus’ intention to build a new ekklesia of the basis of true discipleship to himself (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).

While the ekklesia of Matt. 16 is universal, it is not invisible any more than the Old Testament ekklesia was invisible. Central to the meaning of Matt. 16 is the ekklesia as the goal of the gospel. Whatever else the ekklesia may involve, one thing is clear: the ekklesia is not a means to an end. It is itself that end towards which Jesus is working. When the work of redemption is complete the building will begin. The building blocks will be disciples, new creatures, followers of the Master; and they will be bonded together by Christ’s new law of love (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).

Jesus Christ planned the ekklesia as a new humanity standing alongside the old. The New Covenant in Christ’s blood produced a new community. When the writers of the New Testament simply assume the formation of the ekklesia through evangelism it is because they have caught the meaning of Jesus’ plan to create a new community. New Testament evangelism resulted in the formation of a new community as surely as day follows night (Acts 2:41). Paul’s missionary journeys did not result in converts here and there, but in the ekklesia everywhere. Membership in the ekklesia was not an optional fringe benefit of the gospel; it was the goal of the gospel.

When the writers of the epistles take up the subject of the ekklesia they do so with Jesus’ thought in the background. Peter’s description of the ekklesia harmonizes perfectly with Jesus’ words in Matthew 16.

Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God; which had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Jesus Christ has made them free from sin, but He calls them together as people (plural) to become a community encircled by God and indwelt by His Spirit, so that they might manifest His glory before the old humanity. They do not have to suffer the coldness of individualism. Individuals are nurtured within the ekklesia (1 Pet. 5:2) as being together “a people claimed by God for his own “ (1 Peter 2:9 NEB). They matured through the integrated study of God’s word, not through graded curricula. Leaders were God’s shepherds of God’s flock, not officials in an organization (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Committees and boards were never allowed to detract from the love, the union, and the witness of the ekklesia of God. There was internal communion and spontaneous expansion.

Paul’s metaphor of the ekklesia as the body of Christ adds much to the understanding of the nature and function of the New Community. His view of the ekklesia is the most exalted in the New Testament. How far Paul intended his body image to be carried is {329} uncertain. To what extent can the ekklesia be identified with Christ Himself? When Paul writes to a local ekklesia and calls that group “the body of Christ” (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:27), what does he actually mean?

Part of the answer must come from Paul’s own experience with the risen Lord on the Damascus road. At that time Paul was engaged in an all-out persecution of the new Christians wherever he found them. Then the Lord Jesus stopped him on the road and asked him that strange question: “Why do you persecute me?” From that point on, Paul must have made a close identification of the ekklesia with the Lord himself. Taken at face value the body image indicates, first, that if the ekklesia does not exist in the world, Christ has no witness. The ekklesia is His representative. When the watching world sees the ekklesia of the Lord Jesus Christ, it sees Christ, for the ekklesia is His own body. Second, the life of that new community depends on organic union of members with the Head. Paul’s severe rebuke of the Corinthian Christians concerning division is not merely a reminder that they are human—that while they are in this life they will never be perfect. He insists that the body cannot have division (cf. 1 Cor. 12:24-26). To think of any body continuing to live and function while an arm is in one corner, a foot in another, and an eye in another is simply absurd. The ekklesia exercises its life only when its various members are bound together by the love and grace and truth of Christ through the Spirit. Thirdly, it is possible for the body to become diseased. But it is not possible for the normal life of the body to continue while the diseased member persists. The body (ekklesia) has the built-in mechanism of discipline to counteract the disease. On several occasions in the New Testament the process of discipline was set in motion to heal a sinning (diseased) member (Matt. 18:15-18; 2 Thess. 3:6, 11, 14-16; Rom. 16:17) or to eliminate a “foreign body” (Jude 4, 1 Cor. 5).

Moreover, membership in the ekklesia was not an option about which the individual could decide one way or the other. Membership was a logical necessity, and the new disciple was simply baptized into the body of Christ as the logical sequel to conversion (1 Cor. 12:13). Every individual disciple of Christ finds himself vitally connected to the heart-beat of that new humanity, the ekklesia. He suffers with the body, he rejoices with the body, he experiences the inner tensions of the body, and he serves the body, for by so doing he serves the Lord to whom the body belongs. Furthermore, he is vitally attached to the body (ekklesia) because his own life depends on it. Individual believers are not separately attached to God by a spiritual umbilical cord. The New Testament doesn’t make that kind of provision. Instead, the Lord Jesus Christ developed a living body to which the individual Christian becomes solidly attached, not as a parasite but as a natural member. His new nature depends on it. F. F. Bruce’s comment is most acute:

He is a member of the community which exists on earth to continue the ministry of the Servant of the Lord. He shares a common life with others. He neither lives or dies to himself. The Apostolic gospel, like the rest of the Bible, knows nothing of a solitary believer and solitary believers, if they are solitary believers by their own choice are mutilated believers, spiritually mutilated. 9 {330}

The dominating principle of the New Testament ekklesia was fellowship, koinonia. In the New Testament, there cannot be an ekklesia apart from koinonia. Unfortunately the word “fellowship” has been debased and as a result its subtle meaning has disappeared. Today when a few people, any people, get together over coffee, they are having “fellowship.” Apartments are advertised as ideally designed for an atmosphere of “fellowship.” When the Authorized Version of the Bible was translated, “fellowship” had a much richer meaning, a meaning which closely approximated the New Testament idea. Wuest translates koinonia as “joint-participation in a common interest and activity.” 10 When the congregated believers of Acts 2:42 “continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and in koinonia-fellowship and in breaking of bread and in prayers,” they recognized their common denominator, Jesus Christ, and brought all their activity into perfect agreement with Him. They were literally bound together, and together they were bound to Christ. When they observed the Lord’s supper, the principle was fellowship (1 Cor. 1:9; 11:29). In the furtherance of the Gospel the principle was fellowship (Phil. 1:5). Within the ekklesia there was “joint-participation” in every activity. “All that believed were together” (Acts 2:44). Resident somewhere in the heart of that New Testament fellowship lies the real genius of the community of God in the first century.

RE-FORMING THE EKKLESIA

From these views we may derive an understanding of the simple genius of the New Covenant community. At the same time, we must distinguish carefully between the character of the ekklesia and the historical mould in which the New Community was cast in the first century. More specifically, the practice of meeting in houses did not constitute an intrinsic principle but a historical necessity. For any modern group of Christians to think that meeting in houses will by itself capture the dynamic of the first century community is to mistake a principle for a practice. It would be equally foolish for the Church to deceive itself into thinking that a good program means a good Church. The time has come for careful scrutiny of our Church-life. To what extent are we the Church of God, the new community, the ekklesia?

It is also time for a careful scrutiny of the place of the minister. Since this would take an equally long paper, it will be sufficient for now to point out that the New Testament ministry was simple and functional. God provided pastors (sometimes called elders or bishops depending on the cultural and religious background at the particular church). These leaders were God’s gifts to the Church to bring the body to full maturity, “unto a perfect man” (Eph. 4:11-13). Therefore, the only role for the pastor is “to equip the members for the work of the ministry.” Pastors themselves are not the only ministers. Every member of the New Community was a minister. When the pastoral ministry becomes so professional that the pastor is the only minister in the Church, then at that precise point the Church has degenerated into a formal institution. It may have a “top-notch” program, a large {331} Sunday school, a talented choir, and all the rest, but it is not a New Testament ekklesia in which every member is a minister and the pastor simply an overseer-teacher.

I conclude that the true nature of the first century New Testament ekklesia, its love, its unity, its fellowship (koinonia), its ministry, can become a reality in the twentieth century Church. If the present forms within the Church structure deprive the Church of its essential character, then the forms must go so that the ekklesia remains. But the diligent Church will sort out the difference between the principle and the form and will never confuse the one with the other. In this way, vital and widespread renewal of the Church will occur.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Lawrence O. Richards, A New Face for the Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1970); Robert O. Girard, Brethren, Hang Loose, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1972); Donald R. Allen, Barefoot in the Church, (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1972); Ray Stedman, Body Life, (Regan Books, 1972).
  2. Marlin Jeschke, Discipling the Brother, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1972), p. 1.
  3. Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1952), p. 17, 9.
  4. Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, (New York: Holt, Rinehard & Winston, 1941), p. 3.
  5. Ibid., p. 19.
  6. William Barclay, Ethics in a Permissive Society, (London: Collins Fontana Books, 1971), p. 91.
  7. F. J. A. Hort, the Christian Ekklesia, (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1900), p. 1.
  8. Raymond Zorn, Church and Kingdom, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 1962), p. 15.
  9. F. F. Bruce, “Evangelism in the New Testament” in Thrust Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 3, July 1973, p. 7.
  10. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies, Philippians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1942), p. 31.
Rev. Shillington is Dean of The Emmanuel Bible College, Kitchener, Ontario. He is a member of the Mennonite Brethren Church, Kitchener, Ontario.