by Leland Yialelis | 5 December 2023 |
“‘Why,’ asked a friend this week, ‘are so few Adventist churches really happy, rewarding places to be?’”
This quotation from a recent editorial in Adventist Today poses a most salient question. From my own experience as a pastor, and from pastors that I have known, all recognize that this question goes to the heart of the church experience.
A lifelong friend, reflecting on his memories of growing up in our local Adventist church, says, “When I think of that church, they were always fighting about something: who was going to have which office, what one member had said to another about some other member. They always seemed to be fighting about something.” (This was a church of less than 30 people!)
In searching for an answer to this critical problem, we should begin by asking ourselves this question: why did the New Testament writers choose the word ekklesia as the preferred name for the gathered members of the community of faith?
They could have Christianized the word “synagogue.” They could have Christianized the word “temple.” But they didn’t choose either of those words, even though each embodied a reference to a religious gathering.
In its discussion of the New Testament usage of the word “synagogue,” Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Wordbook of the New Testament poses this question,
One may ask why primitive Christianity chose to call itself ekklesia and avoided synagogue.
Kittel offers this answer:
Again, in NT days synagogue had become so restricted in meaning that its first reference was to the building, as may be seen from the usage of Jos., Philo, and primitive Christianity. Above all, however, the synagogue was very closely bound up with the law and tradition. This alone makes it easy to see why synagogue could not be used in self-designation by a community to which the central position of the Law expressed in the name “synagogue” had become suspect because it knew that it was constituted, not by Moses and observance of the Law, but by the eschatological Christ event” (Kittel vol. 7, p. 829).
“Temple” had equally loaded meanings: it was used to describe both the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and the pagan temples that were ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean world.
The same word is also used to refer to the heavenly temple. Interestingly, and to our point here, Revelation reminds believers that
Yet there will be no temple in the New Jerusalem (21:22). God himself is the sanctuary of the eternal city (A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament).
“Temple” was not descriptive of the people gathering as a community: it was about a place and the rituals performed at that place. It was about a hierarchy and a worship service. It was not focused on the gathered individuals but on the sacredness of the space and the rituals within it.
It is clear that the New Testament writers had good reason to avoid these two words.
The response of the Jerusalem elders in Acts 15 offers the critically important understanding of the key issue regarding the nature of Christianity: would it be just another off-shoot movement of Judaism, or would it truly become something the world had not witnessed up till then: a fellowship of those faithful to the person and message of Jesus the Christ?
It is graphically clear that those gathered at that meeting understood the pivotal decision resting on their shoulders. Led by the Holy Spirit, “and after there had been much debate,” (v.7) the group came to a decision:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell (vss. 28-29).
Christianity here turns a corner: it was to be new wine in the new wineskins. Christianity would no longer be identified by its Jewish roots. It would not be another synagogue. It would also abandon, except in a metaphorical sense, the concept of temple. This would be a new assembly of the community of faith. Christ’s teachings and His values were to shape this new entity.
The word chosen as representing those living out the values of Christ within their community would be one that was associated neither with a particular building, nor a specific ritual, nor a style of architecture, nor a formal clerical hierarchy. Instead, the word must emphasize a gathering of fellow citizens with a focus on the issues most critical to the life and experience of each of them. This new gathering stressed participation by each person, no matter their background.
The word the New Testament writers settled on was ekklesia.
Ekklesia vs. church
Ekklesia had for at least 500 years only a secular meaning: it was a word for how a democracy functioned. When Athens made a break from kings and tyrants to create a new political reality, this is how they described their new order. Though that era of true democratic rule was past by this point—supplanted by Rome and its caesars, the word was still a part of the Hellenistic vocabulary.
“Church” is not a translation of the Greek word ekklesia. It is a substitute word. Typically when a translation is made, the translator seeks to use a word in the language that is similar in meaning to the word being translated. If there is no word that has a similar meaning, the translator is faced with a choice: either explain the meaning of the word being translated or simply transliterate the word.
An example of transliteration is the word baptism. For whatever reason, the translators did not choose to use the English word “immerse”—which is the literal meaning of the Greek word. They chose to transliterate the Greek word.
But oddly, with the ekklesia they chose neither to seek a word of similar meaning—none seemed quite right—nor to transliterate the word. Instead they substituted the word “church.”
The English word “church” retains three basic meanings: a building; a ritualized ceremony called “worship;” or an institutionalized religious group. In reflecting on these meanings of “church,” we begin to understand our problem: “church” has much more in common with “synagogue” and “temple” than it does with ekklesia!
The key to the New Testament understanding ekklesia is found in the many “one another” texts of the New Testament.
- “Members of one another” Romans 12:5,
- “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” Romans 12:10, “Give preference to one another in honor” Romans 12:10,
- “Be of the same mind toward one another” Romans 12:16,
- “Do not judge one another” Romans 14:10,
- “Build up one another” Romans 14:19,
- “Accept one another” Romans 15:7,
- “Admonish one another” Romans 15:14,
- “Care for one another” I Cor. 12:25,
- “Serve one another” Galatians 5:13,
- “Bear one another’s burdens” Galatians 6:2,
- “Showing forbearance to one another in love” Ephesians 4:2,
- “Be subject to one another” Ephesians 5:21,
- “Comfort one another” I Thess. 4:18,
- “Consider how to stimulate one another to love and good works” Hebrews 10:24,
- “Do not speak against one another” James 4:11,
- “Confess to one another” James 5:16,
- “Fervently love one another from the heart” I Peter 1:22,
- “We have fellowship with one another” I John 1:7,
- “We should love one another” I John 3:11.
Here we see the essential difference between the experience within a church and the experience within the ekklesia: the ekklesia was gathered to be the living temple by loving, serving, caring, bearing the burdens, building up, admonishing, and fervently loving one another. Every member was to have a living connection to the other members, and to Christ.
We must ask ourselves: do the members of the community of faith gather to engage one another in this New Testament manner? When are we the ekklesia in action? When are we really connected to one another?
It seems to me that we Christians need another Acts 15 moment, when we ask ourselves: how long will we struggle to force the new wine into the old wineskins—and then wonder why the old skins keep bursting and spilling the wine?
Why do we want to be a mere church, when we could be the ekklesia?
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.