Only one legal adjective

It is genuinely difficult to know what was going on inside the mind of someone like Paul in the NT times. We are not living in that culture, and there has been so much development in church tradition since then. I often ask myself a question along the lines of ‘what on earth was Paul seeking to do as he travelled across the Roman Empire?’ We can answer it with planting, encouraging and seeking to keep on track the various ‘in Christ’ communities. But for what purpose and what did he hope might be accomplished by his focused activity?

I open with that because often, and certainly so in Protestant circles, the adjective ‘local’ has been added to the word ‘ekklesia’ which seems to make that expression legitimate… and, by default (or design) all other expressions as illegitimate. To some other expressions the adjective ‘para’ has been added, thus accepting that they have some relationship to church, but are certainly not the real thing.

The new church movement is what shaped me with a belief that the church was built on a foundation laid by apostles and prophets. The ongoing work of the church was to evangelise a locality, plant new LOCAL expressions that carried the same DNA, and enable people to grow in Christ. And I thank God for the many lives that have been impacted through that work.

However, the adjective ‘local’ is questionable. I can certainly find the understanding of the church in the locality (‘saints in Corinth’, for example), and the use of the word ‘church’ across a region (Acts 9: 31).

Maybe tradition means that the word local is the one word that legitimates but I challenge that. In challenging that I am not questioning the validity of a local expression, but I am seeking to push beyond that to legitimise other expressions, that have often been delegitimised through the addition of such adjectives as ‘para’, or worse ‘not proper’ church.

It seems that the word ‘ekklesia’ has two underlying backgrounds. It was an everyday Greek word, being the regular assembly where those who qualified could give their vote on the issues facing the community / city. This local assemnbly had been pioneered in Athens at least 600-700 years before Paul. A solidly agreed description of the ekklesia was that it was

The regular opportunity for all male citizens of Athens to speak their minds and exercise their votes regarding the government of their city. It was the most central and most definitive institution of the Athenian Democracy.

By the NT era this assembly was something well established across the Graeco-Roman world. It was open to males over a certain age and those free. Paul’s mantra of ‘neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female’ is radical not only in the light of Jewish but also Graeco-Roman restrictions.

We see this use of the word ‘ekklesia’ with this meaning when the town clerk responds to the riot in Ephesus with ‘If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly (ekklesia, Acts 19:39).

The radical nature of Paul’s language into the culture of the day was that of using the term ekklesia for what he was involved in planting. Each city already had an ekklesia before he arrived! Just a little provocative.

The other background is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures and again in Acts we can see how it is used when we read that Moses

was in the assembly (ekklesia) in the wilderness (Acts 7:38).

This word, ekklesia, is normally used in the LXX (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures widely used in the NT era) when the underlying Hebrew word was not simply ‘people’ (edah) but a word used when the context was of people being called to listen to God and to act in response. The word ekklesia normally translates the Hebrew word ‘qahal’, which seems to be related to the word for voice. It is a purposeful word, referring to a people on a mission.

Unless we suggest that Jesus’ use of the word ‘ekklesia’ in Matthew 18:17 are words written back into the mouth of Jesus by the writer, then he seemed to suggest that the travelling companions were indeed church… and certainly not ‘local’.

If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church (ekklesia); and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Back to Paul… So what was he up to?

If you build it?

‘If you build it they will come’ (Field of Dreams, 1989) is a powerful inspirational strap line. Go do something, set it out and there will be a response; rather than try to get the result consider the context. A truly motivational directive. At some level this is what lay behind the flow of the OT hope where something will happen in Jerusalem and the nations will be drawn to it. In the days when there was no visible centre there (Temple) the hope was for its rebuilding and the nations would then come to that place where the glory of God was and acknowledge the One true God. Such a strong motivational and eschatological hope.

Cyrus was proclaimed the Lord’s anointed and in the (normally) last book of the Writings (2 Chronicles for us) we read that he instructed the people to go (re-)build a temple in Jerusalem:

This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the Lord their God be with them.’ (2 Chron. 36: 23).

In Matthew’s Gospel with its focus on the fulfilment of Scripture we find such a clear echo of those words as that Gospel closes with the ‘Great Commission’:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28: 18-20).

The parallels are clear:

  • authority given
  • go
  • promised presence.

Fulfilments are not repeats but often transform the original hope. As inspirational as the ‘go build it’ was and a stretch to faith, the scope of the Jesus’ commission and the how to do it are in another league all together.

Build it somewhere becomes be everywhere; go to a place becomes go from a place; and the clear implication is that the Temple being built will not be with literal stones, nor confined to a specific geography but invisible and universal.

In Field of Dreams the challenge was to build something not knowing what the result will be. Build something and believe there will be a result was a clear challenge to faith. In the Jesus’ commission the challenge to faith is so much greater. Don’t even build something, but have a very clear focus, and something will be invisibly built. He also does not focus on ‘they will come’ but on ‘I will come’.

Everywhere can manifest somewhere: ‘where two or three are gathered together’; but the somewheres must never claim to be everywhere nor create borders that stop people going everywhere. (I hope that sentence makes sense!) Jerusalem is not the goal, the New Jerusalem is the goal, that image of the total transformation of the then known world, the presence of God being the light that fills everywhere. That presence can manifest in specific places at specific times, but when any wonderful expression of God is held on to it can eventually resist the very reason for the manifestation. This is why there is such a need for continued apostolic and prophetic ministry as new terrain is entered into. Any centres that are reproduced, in the big scheme of things, can only be temporary. The Revelation vision is not I saw a Temple, nor I saw many Temples, but I saw no Temple, the city without a Temple.

The Jesus’ commission is of the continual movement into new terrain by those imbibed by his Spirit, God building something where previously there was either rubble or nothing. At the core is a multiplication of ‘disciples’ (learners) and those who are walking in the light of the presence among them.

If we do not keep the big picture in front of us, the steps along the way will become the camp, the model to be reproduced. There is no model. There is only a journey and the step we take on that journey will depend on our context at that time. True north sets the direction; the Spirit calls for followers; followers are promised his presence.

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