by Leland Yialelis
For us Christians, this should be the age of questions. We see a world that is becoming ever more secular, ever further from a world of transcendent values to a world of materialism, hedonism, and the raw lust for power.
Christianity itself seems to be degrading before our very eyes. If we look at evangelical Protestantism, there is a large wing that identifies as Christian Nationalists. This movement is fueled by a toxic brew of Dispensationalism, Zionism, and Dominionism.
All of this while the secular world is finally waking up to the reality that our modern industrial age is literally destroying the planet, with plastics, toxic chemicals, and greenhouse gases.
If we turn our gaze to the denomination in which we were reared, or many other denominations, we find hierarchical struggles for power, declining memberships, and infighting as to who should wield the power of pulpit and purse. We see no consistent concern for Biblical truth, nor a serious attempt to understand how to reach this secular age with the timeless message of the Gospel.
Yes, there are calls for revival, but these ring hollow because the vision for revival is very clearly nothing deeper than a nostalgia for a by-gone era of 50 or 100 years ago, rather than a recognition that that world is gone forever and the world that lies ahead of us is a vastly different one and changing faster than the patterns in a spinning kaleidoscope.
What form will Christianity take in the years ahead? Some considerations:
- Is it time to re-evaluate our understanding of the role and place of congregational worship as central to the Christian experience? Is congregational worship based on the New Testament?
- Is it time to re-evaluate our attachment to church buildings? Is there such a thing as sacred space in Christianity?
- Who is the head of the Christian movement?
Our modern understanding of worship is rooted in the traditions and forms of Catholicism. Yet worship remains the keystone in the arch for congregations, their “sacred spaces” (church buildings), and denominations.
New Testament Greek has two words that we translate as our English word worship: latrevo (λατρευω) and proskvneo (προσκυνεω).
“Proskynesis demands visible majesty before which the worshiper bows,” says Gerhard Kittel’s famous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. VI, p. 765). A good example of this usage is John 9:38:
And he said, “I believe, Lord.” And he worshiped Him.
The word latrevo occurs only 21 times in the New Testament. Again, from Kittel:
The word in the New Testament . . . is used almost exclusively for the ministry of prayer and then more broadly to the total view according to which the whole life of the Christian is fundamentally brought under the concept of latreuein (Vol. IV, p. 65).
A classic example of this word’s usage is in Romans 12:1:
Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
Neither of these New Testament words is ever applied to a congregational activity. The New Testament conceives of worship not as a temporary activity for assembled Christians, but as the permanent state of a Christian’s life. For Jesus and His disciples there was no sacred secular break, no dichotomy between the religious life and life. Worship was never conceived of as a ritual performed only during one brief hour in a context wholly removed from anything related to the daily living of life.
The brotherhood formed by Jesus did indeed gather—of that there is no doubt. But their gatherings had a much more significant reason and focus than the mere passive participation in a ritual. Their gatherings were to come together as the people of God to experience the community, the brotherhood, the fellowship, to build one another up, to be built up in the faith, to love one another, and to be loved by the others.
This experience which touched the whole life of the believer empowered and transformed the individual and the community of faith. It was in the community of faith that the members could and did experience the “one another” texts of the New Testament. From this shared experience the individual received the power to make every moment of life a true experience of worship and devotion to a loving, personal God and Savior.
Their gathering was described by the word ekklesia, sometimes translated as “church.” Yet this word had been used for hundreds of years before the New Testament was written—it was a secular word drawn from the civil life of the world’s first democracy. The most important part of that democracy was the gathering of the citizens to discuss the issues important to the group, to debate, and ultimately to vote on the course of their democracy. The word was all about a meeting of fellow citizens who were all equals and who had equal rights.
Please understand, ekklesia originally had no religious overtones, no connection to a place, to a particular ritual, to any particular day or time. This gathering of fellow citizens could be held at any time, in any place that met the needs of the group.
Citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ meant that one was an active member of the community of faith, here and now. Wherever and whenever two, three, or more citizens of the Kingdom of Christ gathered, they would understand that that gathering was an ekklesia of the Kingdom.
Christianity was never meant to be a solitary experience. From the very first moments of Jesus’ public ministry, we see Him calling those who would follow Him, to fellowship with Himself and with the others responding to that same call. Discipleship meant fellowship with the other disciples. Sin is an isolating experience, and the process of redemption includes the restoration of a genuine experience of community and fellowship. The New Testament writers could find no better word to capture the essence of this community than the word ekklesia.
Christianity, of all of the world’s great religions, is uniquely social and relational. The individual is called to be in a relationship both with Christ and with others of like faith. Discipleship is both an experience in following the Master and in being in relation with those who have also accepted His call.
It is this reality that sets Christians apart from other religions. The essence of the experience is bound up in these two relationships, and the one cannot be experienced without the other. The call of Christ is to the individual but the invitation is to become a uniquely special member of a community of believers.
A redefinition of what we do on Sabbath
Given the original meaning of these significant words, we may have to abandon the non-Christian idea that worship is a holy ritual performed in a holy space, supervised by those set aside by a special dispensation of a hierarchy. When we set aside our preconceptions, we are freed to be the living temple of Christ, His ekklesia. We gather as Paul describes it,
…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, that is, Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” Ephesians 4:14-16.
It is only in this renewed ekklesia that the “whole body . . . by every joint . . . proper working of each individual part . . . building itself in love” becomes a living reality once again. We are liberated to be the community of faith now as it was then, with Christ as the Head.
Leland Yialelis has worked as a pastor in Arizona, and later as the mission president in Greece. He lives in Washington state, and leads tours to Greece.