I often have a hard time explaining my understanding of the church (that is, my ecclesiology) when I’m talking to people. I’ve talked about this with many friends who have a similar understanding of the church… and they agree with me.
The main problem – as far as we can tell – is that we start from different places when it comes to the church. And, if you start from different places, then it’s going to be difficult to understand each other.
Three years ago, I wrote a short series while I was thinking about this problem. This series started at the beginning… with God:
To me, each of those steps are important and necessary in order to understand the church. But, it’s difficult to answer a question like, “How do you think elders should be chosen/appointed?” with, “It all begins with God…” But, in reality, if we don’t begin at the same place, then we are not going to understand each other.
The way I see the church, we must understand God’s desire for a relationship with people, our identity as God’s children and God’s family, how we display the character of God’s family, and the reason for us to gather together before we ever begin tackling questions like, “How should elders be chosen/appointed?” or “How/When do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper?” or “How long should the sermon last?”
In fact, if we take the time to work through the first few points, we may find that the original questions become unimportant and unnecessary to ask.
Unfortunately, many people don’t want to start at the beginning with God and work through those other important points. They want to jump to the BIG issues… So, we often end up talking without understanding each other.
If you have time, please read the four posts above. Whether you agree with each item in those posts or not, I’d love to hear what you think about my approach to understanding the church. Is something missing? What would you add, change, delete? What needs to be expanded?
Last week, my good friend Eric from “A Pilgrim’s Progress” wrote a post called “Not Looking for the Perfect Church. Just Looking for the Church.”
In the post – and as the title suggests – Eric explains that he did not leave “the institutional church” in order to find “the perfect church.” Instead, he says, he was simply looking for church.
At one point, Eric wrote:
Many of the things that pass as the church today are not the church. I can list a few that we are all familiar with: the building, the worship service, the clergy, the tithe, the youth group, the sermon, etc. It is for many of these reasons that we left the institution never to return. We weren’t looking for something better; we were looking for something qualitatively different.
In response, a commenter by the name of “die” (I’m assuming that’s the German definite article…) asked the following question:
Can you list the distinctions between “The Church” and its less ideal institutional counterpart?
Eric pointer the commenter to some of the blog posts that he’s written in the past on the topic. But, Eric’s post and the commenter’s question swirled around in my head for a few days.
Like Eric, people have often suggested that I’m “looking for the perfect church” or that I’m “angry with church leaders” or that I just want things my way. Interestingly, none of those are true. Like Eric, I know that no group of people – however mature in Christ they may be – will be “perfect,” at least, no in this age. Also, looking back over my experiences, I’m not angry with any church or church leader or denomination or anything like that. Finally, the group that I meet with does not do everything “my way,” so that can’t be it either.
So, why do I prefer to meet in a way that is different from the way most traditional churches meet? Why do I define the church in a way that is quite different from the traditional definitions? Why do I seek to share my life (fellowship) in a way that crosses boundaries normally erected by “local churches”? The answer to all those questions is the same: maturity in Christ.
The things that Eric lists above – building, worship service, clergy, tithe, youth group, sermon – and other things like those are often considered to be part of the nature of the church. In fact, many could not imagine the church without many of those things.
But, to me, those things are usually distractions that hinder the growth of the church. According to Scripture, several aspects of our shared life with Christ and our shared lives with one another facilitates our spiritual growth and maturity: fellowship and mutual (“one another”) discipleship/edification.
It’s never my desire to separate from my brothers and sisters in Christ – even if they want to meet in traditional ways that I think are less healthy to they spiritual growth. Unfortunately, when people’s identity as the church is tied up in those activities that I consider hindrances, it limits our ability to share our lives with one another. So, while it may appear at times that I’m “leaving the church,” it’s really a desire to leave the distractions, never the people themselves (who are the church).
[By the way, in the image attached to this past, the line of text at the bottom – which is difficult to read – says, “Distractions can seem important at the time, though later you realize that it was what was around it that was important…”]
As I mentioned last week in my post “Gathering with the church at the beach again,” instead of gathering as we normally do on Sunday, we spent yesterday at Wrightsville Beach, NC (near Wilmington, NC).
Most of the people were from this area and meet with us regularly. One family moved from here to the Atlanta area about three years ago. A couple of families spent Saturday night in Wilmington. Most of us drove to the beach Sunday morning. Some began arriving around 9:00 a.m., while the others arrived between then and about 1:00 p.m.
We helped each other carry coolers, and chairs, and boogie boards, and other assorted stuff from cars to the beach, and we helped each other find parking places. (Parking was awful!) We hung out in the shade of a pier, played volleyball, and played in the surf and sand. (Okay, full disclosure: I hurt my knee running a half marathon a couple of week ago, so I didn’t play volleyball or play in the surf or sand. I just hung out under pier.)
There was no sermon. No one gave a formal “teaching.” We didn’t sing any songs. We didn’t stop to take prayer requests. We didn’t pass an offering plate.
So, how can I call this “church”?
Well, it’s “church” because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ (children of God) and we were gathered together. That is “church” – based on the Greek term “ekklesia” associated with followers of Jesus Christ.
Being “church” (ekklesia) is not about what we do or don’t do – although some things may help us grow in maturity in Jesus Christ more than other things. Being “church” (ekklesia) is about who we are together in Jesus Christ.
We started disbanding around 2:00 p.m. Others stayed until after 6:00 p.m. Some came back home to the Wake Forest / Youngsville area; others drove to Myrtle Beach or the Outer Banks; still others stayed in the Wilmington area. And, of course, our friends who moved away three years ago drove back toward Atlanta.
While we’re separated, we remain children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. But, when we come together (anytime we’re together with any other brothers and sisters in Christ), we become “ekklesia” (church) in Jesus Christ – wherever we are and whatever we’re doing.
Four years ago, I published a post called “Donkeys sleeping in the bathtub.” The post was inspired a commercial that was airing around the time that I wrote the post. The commercial was about crazy laws that were on the books in certain states. It made me think about how there are certain traditions among the church, and how those traditions started, and how those traditions just seem to hang around… whether they are helpful or not.
According to a commercial on the radio, there is a law in Arizona that makes it illegal to allow a donkey to sleep in your bathtub.
Also, apparently, in Minnesota, there is a law that makes it illegal to cross the Minnesota state line with a duck on your head.
While these laws seem funny and even ridiculous to us, there was probably a good reason for passing the laws in the first place. If we traced the history of these laws, we would probably understand why the laws are on the book. However, while the history may clear things up for us, history will not make the laws make sense today.
Why? Well, most people don’t own donkeys today, much less allow them to sleep in their bathtubs. And, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with a duck on their head.
But, of course, once a law is on the books, it is difficult to remove it.
The same thing happens with our traditions and practices and rules in the church. For very good reasons, the church begins doing things and begins doing them in certain ways. Eventually, the reasons disappear, but the practices continue.
Eventually, if we’re not careful, those practices become more important to us than who we are as the family of God in Christ. The way we do things becomes more important than the reason we started doing them in the first place. We become defined by our methods instead of being defined by our relationship with God and with one another.
I think we see this today in many aspects of our lives together as the church. We don’t know why we do the things we do or why we act the way we act or why we’re structured the way we’re structured, but someone must have had a good reason to start doing it this way, and we’re familiar and comfortable with these things, so we just let them continue.
But, the silly laws I mentioned at the beginning of this post – laws against donkeys sleeping in bathtubs and wearing a duck on your head – generally don’t affect people today. For many people, their lives will not be changed if the laws remain or are repealed.
But, it is completely different for the church. The things that we do day after day, week after week, year after year, simply because that’s the ways it’s been done, or the ways we’ve been taught, or the ways that have worked before, or even the ways that seem rational and logical… these things affect us as followers of Jesus Christ. They affect our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.
The things that we do or don’t do, the way that we’re structured or not structured, the way that we speak or don’t speak, all of these things work to either build us up toward maturity in Christ, or they hinder our development in Christ.
Laws against donkeys sleeping in the bathtub seem funny and ridiculous to us. But, I wonder if the way we treat one another as the church, the way we set up hierarchies among believers, the way we abandon our responsibilities toward one another and pay others to carry out our responsibilities… I wonder if these things seem funny to God.
When it comes to the church – and especially when it comes to moving away from a more institutional/organizational approach to church and moving toward a more organic/simple approach to church – it seems that deconstruction is a necessary first step. As many have found, it can be a difficult and painful first step, but an important one all the same.
Two of my favorite bloggers have (or will) write about this kind of deconstruction…
Eric at “A Pilgrim’s Progress” recently completed his 10 part series and summarized it in a post called “Series Summary: Ten Church Structures That Hinder Disciple Making.” He introduces his summary like this:
Discipleship ought to be alive and well within the church. However, several time-honored church traditions act as roadblocks when it comes to discipleship. Many of these are so familiar that they are not questioned.
Similarly, Miguel at “God Directed Deviations” is just beginning a new series with a blog post called “I Don’t Want To Be That Guy Who’s Pegged As Anti-Church, But…” In this introductory post, he writes:
Anything that impedes The Gospel, detracts from Making Disciples, or moves in a direction that is Contra-Kingdom has got to be shattered. I do understand though, that the speed or manner by which any institution or system is shifted away from the actions or attitudes that cause those things will differ depending on context, culture, and willingness. Likewise, I understand that the time frame in which a local body becomes self-aware on those issues will vary.
I’ve been through this process – and in some ways, I’m still going through it and probably always will be going through it. The most difficult part is that relationships are often fractured because of differences (and growing differences) in the way people understand and live as the church.
I think this is probably caused by what Miguel refers to as the differences which depend “on context, culture, and willingness” and the “time frame” in which both a local body and individuals take these steps of change (or don’t take these steps of change).
If you’ve been following my blog over the last couple of weeks, you know that I’ve been writing about two related topics: “real relational unity” and “community hermeneutics.” Of course, this concept and process of “deconstruction” is strongly related to both unity and community hermeneutic/interpretation.
So, while thinking about deconstructing our church traditions, organizations, institutions, etc. in order to see the kingdom of God increase (the title of this post), a question kept running through my mind…
Knowing that people grow and change at different rates, how do we change structures that affect us as a group (when we are not at the same place as a group) without breaking those important relationships (i.e., maintaining unity)?
What do you think about when you hear the word “church” (or “ekklesia” if you prefer the Greek term, or “iglesia” if you prefer Spanish, or “eglise” if yo prefer French, etc.)? What picture comes to mind? What fills your imagination?
Many, many Christians – probably most – would immediately respond that the church is the people. Of course, when we talk about “church,” we not just talking about any people; we’re talking about God’s people. And, again, most would agree.
But, many would also put limitations, boundaries, or conditions on which “people of God” they can refer to as “church.” And, that’s a problem.
Because, you see, even if we SAY that we believe that the church is the people of God, in practice we actually live as if other things (besides the people) work to define who constitutes church.
What kinds of things do people allow to define who among God’s people actually constitutes “church” for them? Well, for some, it’s location. For others, it’s time. For others, it’s event or activities. For some, it’s organization or leadership or hierarchy. For still other, it’s certain particular doctrines.
If these things are allowed to define church, then what happens when the people are in a different location? They’re not the church. What if they get together at different times? Then it’s not the church. What if they gather for different activities? They’re not the church. What if the organization or leadership is not present or disappears? Then the church is gone too.
Then, for others, it’s only “church” when a certain group of the people of God get together. If it’s others among God’s people who get together, then they don’t consider that church. (It’s a slightly different take on the organization aspect mentioned above.)
We must be honest with ourselves. If things like location, place, activities, or organization modify our understand of who is or who is not “church,” then we are not truly identifying the church with the people of God.
The problem is, the church really is the people of God. It’s that simple. When we are with our brothers and sisters in Christ (in any place, at any time, for any activity, with any or no organization), we are the church.
When we don’t recognize ourselves as the church, we’re likely to miss what God is intending to do through us to build up others or through others to build us up. When we don’t recognize ourselves as the church, we will also miss the fact that we are family and should treat each other as family.
So, the church really is the people of God. We must not allow anything else to qualify (or “disqualify”) that definition.
Five years ago, I wrote a series of posts on Watchman Nee’s book Assembling Together. Overall, I found the book to be very informative, easy to read, and encouraging. I had already come to some of the same conclusions that Nee had come to, although we disagree in a few places as well. Below, I include the contents of the first post of the series “Assembling Together 1 – Joining the Church” along with links to the other posts. (By the way, the links will send you to my old blog at Blogger, but you will then be redirected back to the post on this site.) If you haven’t read this book yet, I would highly recommend it.
The first chapter of Watchman Nee’s book Assembling Together (chapter 14 of the Basic Lessons series) is called “Joining the Church”. This is a great chapter with which to begin to understand Nee’s ecclesiology.
The phrase “joining the church” is quite interesting. To Nee, this means something completely different to how I’ve seen this phrase used in contemporary churches in the United States. I think even Nee understands how this phrase is normally used. He says, “We do not like the phrase ‘joining the church,’ but use it temporarily to make the issue clear.”  So, what does Nee mean by “joining the church”? He first explains how believers immediately become part of God’s family upon salvation. He then specifies exactly what he means by “joining the church”:
A Christian therefore must join the church. Now this term, “joining the church,” is not a scriptural one. It is borrowed from the world. What we really mean is that no one can be a private Christian. He must be joined to all the children of God. For this reason, he needs to join the church. He cannot claim to be a believer all by himself. He is a Christian only by being subordinate to the others. 
Never once in the Bible do we find the phrase “join the church.” It cannot be found in Acts nor is it seen in the epistles. Why? Because no one can join the church… Rather, we are already in the church and therefore are joined to one another. 
When, by the mercy of God, a man is convicted of his sin and through the precious blood is redeemed and forgiven and receives new life, he is not only regenerated through resurrection life but is also put into the church by the power of God. It is God who has put him in; thus he already is in the church. 
Then why do we persuade you to join the church? We are only borrowing this term for the sake of convenience. You who have believed in the Lord are already in the church, but your brothers and sisters in the church may not know you. 
At this point, Nee remains close to Scripture. He is correct that “joining the church” is not a scriptural phrase, and is never commanded or exhorted in Scripture. Instead, we become part of the church when we are “born again” into the family of God. It is true that we may still need to seek out brothers and sisters with which to fellowship, but that is not the same as “joining the church”. Of course, the best place for a new believer to begin to find fellowship with other brothers and sisters is with the person or people who made the gospel available to him or her.
Next, Nee answers the question: which church should I join? Most believers today would probably disagree with his answer. First, Nee explains the rise of different churches and denominations based on time, area, human personalities, or a particular emphasis on one aspect of truth. He then says that all believers in a city form a city-church, and that is the church that a new believer should become part of. In fact, he argues that the only valid biblical definition for “church” (singular) is the city-wide church:
The Bible permits the church to be divided solely on the ground of locality… The smallest church takes a locality as its unity; so does the biggest church. Anything smaller than a locality may not be considered a church, nor can it be so recognized if it is bigger than a locality. 
This statement is problematic. Nee examines several passages to demonstrate that the singular “church” is used to represent all the believers in a given city. I do not have a problem with this analysis, except I think he left out a few key passages of Scripture. It is not true that the singular “church” is always used to represent all the believers in a city and that the singular “church” is only used to represent all the believers in a city. Here are a couple of passages that use the singular word for “church”, but may not represent all the believers in a city or the believers of only one city:
But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:3 ESV)
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. (Romans 16:3-5 ESV)
I should also mention that in Acts 9:31, some manuscripts have the singular “church” (while others have the plural “churches”) for the believers in the regions of “Judea, Galilee, and Samaria”. There are also other passages that mention the “church” in someone’s house which may or may not be the entire church of a city.
So, I do agree with Nee that Scripture describes all the believers in a certain city as a “church” (singular). However, it appears that there may be smaller groups within that city-church that are nevertheless called “church” (singular). Similarly, in Acts 8:3, it appears that Saul is persecuting believers over a larger area than a city, but Luke still considers Paul to be persecuting the “church” (singular). The usage of the word “church” is more complicated that Nee makes it out to be.
There is one other point (and a major point, I think) with which I disagree with Nee. He claims that individuals are not the dwelling place of God; only the church is God’s habitation:
In the past God dwelt in a magnificent house, the temple of Solomon. Now He dwells in the church, for today the church is God’s habitation. We, the many, are joined together to be God’s habitation. As individuals, though, we are not so. It takes many of God’s children to be the house of God in the Spirit. 
Unfortunately, I do not think that Nee considered enough scriptural evidence. It is true that most of the references to the Spirit dwelling within beleivers occurs in the plural. But, of course, most of Scripture was written to communities of believers to be read to the entire community. It is also true that the Spirit dwells with the community; however, just as Solomon’s temple could not contain God, the community alone does not contain God’s Spirit. There are plenty of references to individual believers being filled with the Spirit of God (i.e. Acts 6:3, 9-10).
Besides these two points of disagreement, this is an excellent chapter. Nee encourages all believers to find other believers with which to fellowship. He especially exhorts new believers that they should not try to live in isolation.
I usually find the last paragraph of one of Nee’s chapters to be very helpful. Sometimes, even when I do not agree with Nee’s arguments, I agree completely with his conclusion in the last paragraph. I agree with much of this first chapter, and I also agree with his last paragraph:
You who are already in Christ should learn to seek the fellowship of the children of God. With this fellowship of the body you may serve God well. If you as young believers can see this light, you will move a step forward in your spiritual path. Thank God for his mercy. 
The next chapter in this book is called “Laying On of Hands.”
Review of Watchman Nee’s Assembling Together Series:
1: Chapter 1 – Joining the Church
2: Chapter 2 – Laying on of Hands
3: Chapter 3 – Assembling Together
4: Chapter 4 – Various Meetings
5: Chapters 5 & 6 – The Lord’s Day and Hymn Singing
6: Chapters 7 & 8 – Praise and The Breaking of Bread
Six years ago, I wrote a post called “Models and Methods and Forms, oh my.” Even before I started studying ecclesiology in seminary, I knew about church models. I knew that many authors had written about different kinds of churches, and I knew that different church forms had popped up around the country, especially during the last couple of decades. At times, it seemed the church was being franchised… but, was this a good thing?
It only takes a few moments of perusing the local Christian bookstore to notice that volumes have been written suggesting certain models, methods, and forms for the church. Similarly, there are conferences, workshops, seminars, and even degree programs that recommend and instruct in one model or another method or a new form. Many of these models, methods, and forms arose in response to various spiritual and practical concerns. Most of these concerns were valid. So, in response to failures or problems, believers developed models, methods, and forms to better present the church in their context, or to correct aberrant teaching or practices.
Most of the time, when people study the church in Scripture, they recognize that there is very little (if any) indication of a specific model, method, or form. The Bible clearly shows that believers should gather together, but there is no command as to how, when, or where that gathering should take place. Scripture indicates that believers should teach one another, but it does not indicate how that teaching is supposed to occur. Similarly, in the Bible, we see believers singing, praying, giving, etc. without any particular instructions about how they should do this together.
So, does this mean that all models and methods and forms are bad – wrong – evil? No. But, I think it means that the church cannot be defined by those models, methods, and forms. What, then, is the pupose of those models, methods, and forms?
First, I believe that the Holy Spirit will (super)-naturally gather believers together. Similarly, I believe that the Spirit will gift those believers as He deems necessary in order to carry out His purpose among this group and, beyond this group, to the world around them. The activities, concerns, and mission of this group will be determined by the Spirit himself, through His gifting and through the opportunities that He gives them to serve believers and unbelievers alike. The Spirit will use some primarily as teachers as he gifts them. He will use some primarily through their giving of money and other resources. He will use others primarily through their abilities to serve other people. As the believers obediently follow the gifting of the Spirit and his will in their lives, the church will build itself up and will function as salt and light in the world around it.
Now, this is not an easy process. It takes humility, complete reliance on the Spirit, and continually seeking His will. There will be bumps and bruises along the way. Some will misunderstand what the Spirit is doing. Others will assume that the Spirit wants everyone to function the same way. Still others will prefer to let more spiritual believers function while they “do” nothing. There will be failures. There will be sin. There will be hurt feelings. There will be discomfort. This happens because even believers do not always obey the Spirit. However, as the group of believers learn to recognize and respond to the work of the Spirit in their lives and in the lives of others in their group, the church will be edified and the community will be affected.
So, what happens when the Holy Spirit (super)-naturally brings together another group of believers? There are many options for this group (just as there were for the first group mentioned above), but let’s consider two of these options. First, this second group of believers could go through the same process as the first group. They could work through their sin and pride and independence to determine the way that God expects them to respond to His Spirit and the world around them. Like I said before, this is not necessarily an easy process.
There is another option for this second group of believers. They could look to the first group of believers, notice how the Spirit worked among them, and begin doing the same things. In this way, a model, method, or form is birthed. It will begin much more easily and perhaps “grow” more quickly, because the form defines how the believers should act toward one another and toward the community. However, what if the Spirit has not gifted this group in the same way that He gifted the first group? What if the community context of the second group is different than the context of the first group? What if the resources available for the second group are much less (or much more) than the resources available to the first group? When the second group of believers begin operating in ways that the Spirit has not directed, then they are disobeying God.
Thus, the Spirit can work through people using certain models, methods, or forms. But, that is for the Spirit to decide, not for the people to decide. When a group of believers begins gathering together within a certain model, method, or form, without considering the will of God and how He has gifted them and how He is using them in their communities, then they place the model, method, or form above the will of God.
Similarly, we should never assume that the church will be found and will operate within these models, methods, and forms. The church is the people of God – those separated by God from the world and for himself. The models, methods, and forms should never be confused with God’s people. And, where the models, methods, and forms begin to interfere with God’s work among His people, or where they do not allow the church to function as they are instructed to function in Scripture, then the models, methods, and forms should be modified, changed, or jettisoned.
But, what about disorder? If a church functions with no models, methods, or forms, won’t that church encourage disorder in its meetings? Wouldn’t that disorder be sin, since the church is not obeying Scripture? Wouldn’t following a model, method, or form that maintains order be better?
If there is disorder when the church comes together, that disorder is caused by disobedience to the Spirit, not by a lack of models, methods, or forms. Those causing disorder demonstrate that they are not following the Spirit, since the Spirit will never lead into sin. In fact, it may be that models, methods, and forms encourage order, but hide the sin of disobedience within that same order. People may follow the model, method, or form and thus seemingly remain “in order”, but they may actually be living in disobedience to God.
The Spirit may use (or may have used) certain models, methods, and forms in the life of a church. But, those models, methods, and forms should never be allowed to substitute for believers genuinely seeking the will of God then living according to His will, gifting, and mission in their community and world. This may be “messy” at times, but it also allows the power of God to work through His people when they are not bound by models, methods, and forms.
As I was thinking about my post yesterday (see “How specialization harms the church“), I also thought about how my understanding of the church had changed over the last few years.
I remember when I once saw the church as a team with a coach (or coaches). The coach(es) trained the players, helped them learn their roles, then sent them out to play. Of course, in this view, the leaders among the church are the coaches while everyone one else is a player.
Later, my view changed slightly. I began to realize that among the church the coaches were also players. They still played an important role, but they were not just coaches; they were player-coaches. Of course, in this view, there was still a distinction between leaders (who were now player-coaches, not just coaches) and everyone else (who were still players).
Now, though, I see the church in an even different light. All are players and all are coaches. Yes, there are certainly different specializations (to use the coach/team analogy) and different levels of experience/ability. But, this doesn’t change the fact that all have the ability to coach others, and all are responsible for playing.
When we see the church as a team of player-coaches, it emphasizes several important aspects of our life in Christ that we share together.
1) We’re all equal in Christ; all are important; all are necessary.
2) At any point in time, any follower of Jesus could be a coach (leader).
3) At any point in time, any follower of Jesus could need a coach (leader).
4) Leading (coaching) is not about position or even function (since there can be leadership in different aspects of life).
5) Leading (coaching) is about helping others follow Jesus (in whatever aspect of life that is needed).
6) We all play the same game (which is not a game, but is life in Christ).
7) We all play for the same team.
8) We all play for the same owner.
9) We all take our directions (plays) from the same owner.
Obviously, every analogy fails at some point. But, what do you think of my analogy of the church as a team of player-coaches? Or do you prefer one of the other analogies that I mentioned (players with coaches or players with player-coaches)?
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.”?