In a recent study concern community development in the New Testament, I came across an article called “The Trans-Congregational Church in the New Testament” by Jefrey Kloha (Concordia Journal 34 no 3, July 2008, 172-190).
In this article, Kloha suggests that the term “ekklesia” was used for local congregations that generally met in houses, and more generally for the church-at-large – the heavenly assembly – the “universal church” – the una sancta. But, Kloha says there is a third usage of the term “ekklesia” in the New Testament, which he calls “the trans-congregational church”. He says this “trans-congregational church” consisted of “several (or many) local congregations conceived of corporately”. (173)
Kloha suggests several examples of “the trans-congregational church” in the New Testament. For example, he says that the “church in Jerusalem” could not have met in one place – even the temple courts – so, they must have met in many locations. However, they were considered a single “church”. Also, Kloha says the singular use of “ekklesia” in Acts 9:31 indicates that the individual congregations of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria were considered one church. (Yes, he does discuss the plural variant in this passage, albeit briefly.)
Also, Kloha suggests that the trans-congregational church is demonstrated in the relationships between churches. For example, there is a close connection between the church of Jerusalem and the church of Antioch. Kloha recalls that Paul told the church in Collosae to read his letter to the Laodiceans, and vice versa, indicating a relational connection between the congregations – or multiple congregations – in each city. Paul recognizes the relationships between the various churches in Rome as well (Romans 16).
I think that Kloha has pointed out something that may be missing among the church today. The church has become so exclusive and independent that we often miss the fact that we are united with other brothers and sisters in Christ as well – not only with the ones that meet with us from day-to-day or week-to-week. Kloha offers this concern at the end of his article as well:
By ignoring the NT understanding of the trans-congregational nature of the church we have weakened the bonds of fellowship, mutual concern and support, and unity in doctrine and practice which should inform and indeed define our life together as church. By turning again to the New Testament we might sharpen our understanding of church and apply that understanding to our structure. (191)
I think Kloha has inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) pointed to one of the problem – structure. Many churches have structured themselves in a way that precludes trans-congregational relationships.
In the life of our community, we have seen this in action. We often encourage our brothers and sisters to meet with other churches. In fact, our elders have met with other churches. Of course, we have to explain that we are not unhappy with our church, nor are we interested in “joining” their church. We simply want to build relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ.
When we talk about the possibility of other “church members” or leadership meeting with us to further build relationships, this seems strange and odd to them – like they would be unfaithful to their church or their pastor.
Our view of church has become so exclusive and structured that we have a hard time recognizing our relationship to those in “other churches”. So, I agree with Kloha that we have (for the most part) lost this idea of “the trans-congregational church”.
What do you think? Is it important for believers to have “trans-congregational” relationships? Why or why not?