In my previous post (“The ekklesia that actually gathers in a location“), I explained that I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite academic books on the church: Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004). Banks says that in Paul’s earlier letters (1-2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans), he only uses the term ekklesia to refer to groups of believers that actually gather together at some point.
However, when he turns to the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians, Banks finds an extension to Paul’s use of the term ekklesia. While he continues to use the term to refer to believers who actually gather together, he also uses the term to refer to “a heavenly reality.”
Banks says this concept is not new and that it can in fact be found in the earlier letters. However, it is not until the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians that Paul uses the term ekklesia to refer to this “heavenly reality.” But, Banks says it would be incorrect to equate this “heavenly reality” with the concepts of a “universal church” or an “invisible church.”
So in Colossians we are introduced to the idea of a nonlocal church of whom Christ is the head (Col 1:18,24). This notion is generally misinterpreted as a reference to the “universal church” that is scattered throughout the world. It is not an earthly phenomenon that is being talked about here, but a supernatural one. The whole passage in which the expression [ekklesia] occurs focuses on the victorious Christ and his kingdom of light that believers have now entered (1:9-2:7)…
If any hesitation remains about the possibility of understanding ekklesia as a heavenly assembly in Colossians, it is dispelled by the language used in Ephesians. There it is explicitly said that God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5-6 RSV)… Here again we see church taking place in heaven and Christians participating in it, even as they go about the ordinary tasks of life. Metaphorically speaking they are gathered around Christ, that is, they are enjoying fellowship with him. (pp 40-41)
So, according to Banks, Paul now has used the term ekklesia to refer to two different gatherings: 1) actual physical gatherings at certain times and certain places on earth and 2) heavenly gatherings in which all of God’s children are already raised and seated with God in Christ. The physical ekklesia, then, is a representation of the heavenly reality. And the fact that all believers were already gathered as a heavenly reality (not any kind of organization or structure) is the basis of expanding fellowship and relationships on earth:
These scattered Christian groups [churches] expressed their unity not by fashioning a corporate organization through which they could be federated with one another, but rather in a range of organized personal contacts between people who regarded themselves as members of the same Christian family.
So, Paul’s use of ekklesia as a “heavenly reality” should not be misunderstood as some type of umbrella organization. It is similar to the understanding that we are all part of the real family of God in Christ even though we may never meet each other in this physical reality on earth.
So, what do you think of Banks’ description of Paul’s reference to the ekklesia as a “heavenly reality.”?