Saturday, September 29, 2007


Awhile back a friend let me borrow In the Father's House: A Member's Guide to the Local Church by Wayne Mack and David Swavely. It was highly recommended so I began reading it with great interest. However about half way through I put it down to pursue other interests because while it seemed promising in the beginning I was unable to overcome the authors' presuppositions. The very reason I wanted to read the book was to gain insight into my own presuppositions, but it seemed to me the authors were writing to those who shared their own presuppositions if indeed they even recognized them.

Recently Jonathan mentioned that he was reading through it so I picked it back up to refresh my memory. Hence this post.

To illustrate my point let me quote a few passages.

The book started well. The foreword (by John MacArthur) stated:

...All these metaphors feature the common characteristics of unity and shared life and fellowship.

Believers compose one priesthood, one nation, on race, one temple, one plant, one flock, one family, and one body. We have all been made one spiritually, and we belong together in communion, living out that oneness in local churches.

I was encouraged by this statement. I hoped it foretold a deep exploration of these metaphors.

The Introduction was likewise appetite whetting:

church (church) n. 1. a building for pubplic worship 2. public worship; a religious service 3. a particular sect or denomination of Christians 4. church government, or its power, as opposed to civil government 5. the profession of the clergy 6. a group of worshipers

Those definitions of the word church, taken from the Student Edition of Webster's New World Dictionary (1981) betray the confusion that exists in our day regarding that institution. We reflect the first five definitions when we say things like, "It's about time to redecorate the church," "I enjoyed church today," "My church is the Lutheran church," and "I believe in the separation of church and state." But not one of those meanings of the term church can be found in the Bible. Rather, the Greek word translated in that way (ekklesia) is used over a hundred times in the New Testament, and it always refers to "a group of worshipers," which is the last definition mentioned in Webster's!

The church, according to Scripture, is not a building, a denomination, or an activity - it is a group of people...So throughout this book we will be referring to "the church" in that sense - the local body of believers who meet together to worship God and serve one another.

Technically speaking, those people do not worship "at a church" or participate "in church" - they are the church! And if you are a member of the body of Christ, you do not "go to church" or "sit in church" - you are a part of the church who comes together for worship with the rest of the body. This is important to understand because the quality of a church is therefore not measured by the condition of its buildings or the appeal of its services, but by the state of the people themselves. They are the church, so the church is only as good as they are.

If you have read Discipleship and the Institution you may imagine my reaction to the previous quotation. I was incredibly excited. They basically summarized the whole article in 4 paragraphs! Here were two guys (Mack and Swavely) that "got it." Or so it seemed.

Three paragraphs later was this:

Not only is the meaning of the word "church" misunderstood today, buy many Christians are ignorant or confused regarding their roles and responsibilities in a local body. For example: Do you know why most church have a membership process, and is there any substantial difference between a "member" and a "regular attender"? What kind of church should a Christian attend, and what are good reasons to leave one for another? What kind of relationship should you have with the leaders of your church, and what role should they play in your life? How can you keep the Sunday services from becoming routing? And how can you either cause or prevent a "church split"?

There's some good stuff here, but a close look at this paragraph will reveal some important presuppositions.

First the good stuff:

  • The meaning of church really is misunderstood, not least by Christians.

  • Many really are ignorant/confused regarding their roles and responsibilities.

  • I would like to see a solid defense of why many churches have a "membership process."

  • I would like to read about relationships with church leaders and the role they play in the lives of those they lead.

That which reveals presuppositions:
  • The idea of a "regular attender" presupposes there is something (like the typical "service") that is available to be attended regularly. This doesn't seem to fit with their previous definition of church. A "people" is made up of members, but the idea of someone regularly attending a "people" doesn't make sense.

  • The idea of "leaving" a church connotes images of a church as a place rather than a people. This is just semantics, but I think a more accurate phrase would be "breaking fellowship" with a church.

  • Attempting to keep "the Sunday services from becoming routine" presupposes that such services are something that the church necessarily conducts. Even if its granted that services are necessary, the services are not the church. They would be a second-order matter.

The rest of what I read (through chapter 5 or so) hits on these presuppositions over and over. That isn't to say there isn't any good material in the book. There is much to commend, but most of it is stuff that we all have heard before.

I may continue my review of this book in subsequent posts, but my aim was to get a discussion about our presuppositions going.

What presuppositions do you think we have about "church"? Where do we contradict ourselves? How do we illuminate our presuppositions? Once illumined, how do we overcome them?

Hopefully I'll have time soon to post my own answer to these questions, but my laptop battery is running low. I'll see you guys tomorrow.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Towards a definition of "Church"

In our discussion of the Kingdom of God and his work among us, our efforts to define church will be, in my estimation, particularly helpful. Unfortunately, I think that it is also going to be particularly challenging. Last night I gave some thought and writing to this. Below is a first effort toward a definition.

The "Church" is the assembly of the covenant people of Yahweh. By nature of being in Christ and having fellowship based on our common Union with Christ, we are the "church".

Defining ekklesia as the "assembly of the covenant people of Yahweh" makes sense of usages of ekklesia that most modern definitions of "church" do not. For example, in Luke 7, Ekklesia is used to refer to ancient Israel and her assembly. Yet it is not translated "Church". It was the gathering/assembly of the covenant people of Yaweh. The marker of that covenant was circumcision and by nature of being descendants of Jacob, they were the ekklesia of God. The marker of the new covenant is the Holy Spirit and by nature of being 'in Christ' we are the ekklesia of God. It is our common union with Jesus that is the basis for our fellowship and 'defines' us as the ekklesia.

In this discussion, I am hesitant to even use the word 'church' for two reasons. First, there are so many strong and misguided ideas associated with that term. Our minds naturally turn to services and buildings when the term is used, yet there is no evidence in the New Testament that it evoked those ideas for the people of God in the first century. They certainly would not have thought of starting a non-profit organization registered with Caesar, calling it First ______ of Antioch, and then initiating a building campaign. Such readings of the text are woefully anachronistic. Secondly, I don't think that 'church' is the best translation of the word ekklesia. As I mentioned previously, Israel is referred to as the Ekklesia, yet it is never translated 'church'. Also in acts 17, ekklesia is used to refer to a rioting mob that has gathered in Ephesus because of Paul and his fellows. That mob is referred to as an Ekklesia, yet it is not translated "church". In both of these instances the term assembly most often used. Ekklesia ("Church") was not a new word that appeared in the Greek language after the resurrection of Jesus. It was a term that was used to refer to all kinds of assemblies. The different assemblies did not have different technical names (eg church), but were qualified on the basis of their fellowship. The usage of ekklesia in the New Testament is no different. Ekkesia was not used as a technical term to refer to a group of people with a specific religous affiliation. Modern Americans could say that they were a part of the "church" and people would understand that we were referring to the Christian faith. Paul could not simply say that he was a part of the "ekklesia". He would quickly be asked, "Which One?" The would wonder if he was referring to some sort of political assembly or perhaps an association of workers or a religious assembly. Simply by using the word ekklesia, they would not know. The word would always have to be qualified, unless the context was understood. Paul was a part of the assembly of those in Christ. The qualifying preposition would tell you everything you needed to know about what kind of assembly it was. That qualifying preposition was needed precisely because ekklesia was not a formal term in the Graeco Roman world, including Palestine and the world of first century Christianity. It is for these reasons that I think that assembly is the best translation of the greek term ekklesia. We are the assembly of those who are in Christ.

There are some more thoughts that I would like to add, but not enough time at the library! I look forward to seeing you guys tomorrow night.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ekklesia resource

I have created a small document detailing the definition and all the New Testament uses of ekklesia. Hopefully it will be a useful resource as we study.

Discussion this Sunday...

As an FYI I will think I'll continue in the "fear" theme that Brandon initiated 2 weeks ago. More specifically, digging deeper into the phrases "fear of the Lord" and "fear of God". See you soon!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Witherington on the Lord's Supper

I saw over on Jollyblogger that Ben Witherington is coming out with a book soon on the Lord's Supper. Apparently his take is going to be that the Lord's Supper was a full meal. Check Ben's post for more details. I'm eager to read it.