-Acts 5:11 (ESV)
Acts 5:11 is the first time that Luke uses the word “ekklesia” to describe the community of disciples. Christians might be surprised to learn that the word “ekklesia” does not literally mean “church.” Biblical Greek has no word equivalent to our English word “church.” The word “ekklesia” translates the Biblical Hebrew word “Kahal.” Kahal means “assembly,” “congregation,” or “community.” The word ekklesia is interchangeable with “synagogue,” and it appears hundreds of times in the Greek version of the Tanach (Old Testament) to describe the congregation of the people of Israel.
Of course, I’ve heard that before, but maybe some of you reading this haven’t. My understanding of the word “ekklesia” is that it can be any collection of people who have gathered for a common purpose. It can as easily be a group of people who have gathered together for a riot or a lynch mob as to worship the God of Israel. A rather startling revelation for anyone who thought that “ekklesia” was a brand new word, something revolutionary for its time, the invention of the Christian church. (Only the Darby Bible Translation, World English Bible, and Young’s Literal Translation render “ekklesia” as “assembly” in Acts 5:11 according to Biblos.com. The other Bibles use the translation “church.”) D. Thomas Lancaster continues his Torah Club commentary on the subject.
By translating the term as “church,” our English Bibles have done us the great disservice of making us think of the church as an entity different, distinct, and outside of Judaism and the Jewish people. The “church” is not a New Testament innovation. When we read the word “church” in our English Bibles, we need to remember that it denotes the assembly of the messianic community within the larger Jewish nation, not something outside of Israel. (pg 97)
So, from Lancaster’s description, we see that the early “Christian church” of the Jewish disciples of Jesus was indeed not some new creation, but a continuation of the Jewish community that they had belonged to since the days when they were first called to follow the Messiah. It was a Jewish community no different from the other communities of the various sects of Judaism that were common in that day.
It almost makes it sound as if Christianity and Judaism are the same thing, but as I previously mentioned, in the modern era, Christians do not practice Judaism.
But our Christian faith was once very much a Judaism, as we see in the early chapters of Acts. I recently talked about this as well, but I’m sure you’re aware that a lot of water has flowed under that particular bridge, and we’ve been taken away from the foundations of the beginning of the Christian faith.
But during the time I’m discussing here, there was no “Christian faith” as we understand the concept. There was just another sect of Judaism that believed it was following the Jewish Messiah. That’s actually not incredibly unusual, as over the long centuries of Jewish history, there have been many would-be Messiahs who have attracted many followers. All those Messiahs and all of those followers have faded away…all except one.
But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
-Acts 5:34-39 (ESV)
For nearly 20 centuries, there were no Jewish followers of Jesus, at least none who retained a Jewish ethnic, cultural, and religious identity and lifestyle. Even today, halakhically Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah are few in number. Many have abandoned their Jewish identities and have joined “the church,” and they are, for the most part, indistinguishable from the Gentile Christians around them. Some are in the synagogues today and quietly worship alongside their Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform brothers in Jewish community. Very few worship in authentic Messianic Jewish communities, mainly because such communities are extremely difficult to establish and maintain. The overwhelming majority of followers of Christ are Gentiles and they worship in the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Christian churches in this nation and around the world.
So I’m looking at trying to connect to a church, an “ekklesia,” although as we saw above, “ekklesia” doesn’t mean “church.” But modern convention says that “church” is the only place I have left to go if I want to be a part of the community of the body of Messiah (they’ll call him “Christ” of course).
If I were to print this blog post out and take it with me to my meeting with the Pastor this Saturday (I had to move the appointment time back one day), I wonder what he’d say? I wonder what the church’s board of directors would say if they read it? What would any of the church members say if they could read this commentary about “the church?” Would they find a kindred spirit in me at all, or only some “religious oddball?”
As far as the nature, meaning, and implication of the word “ekklesia” in relation to Acts 5:11 and the early community of disciples of Jesus, I’m not an “oddball” at all, but there’s 2,000 years of Christian culture to address. The “church” isn’t just the community of Christ in the 21st century, it is the collection of all of the doctrines, theologies, dogmas, and philosophies that have been incorporated into what it is to be a Christian and what Christians understand and believe.
Derek Leman’s recent blog post Congregation Lift: The Principle of Aiming High included the following:
In evangelical Christianity (and I was totally immersed as a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where I got my B.A. in Bible and Theology) I found a principle I came to completely reject. It was the principle of aiming low. In church after church, chapel service after chapel service, the supreme height of Christianity was presented as “getting saved.” Christians lived for getting into heaven. Every sermon had to tell people how to gain access to the place of white clouds and harps. The “born again” experience, interpreted shallowly as “getting in,” was the be-all, end-all, the graduate degree of faith. Whenever deeper subjects came up (discipleship, serious commitment to giving and serving) these were optional add-ons for the few who were called to be more than “saved.”
Church teaching always aimed low. Get them saved. Tell them over and over again. Preach 52 sermons a year that, no matter which Bible text was used, ended up being about afterlife admittance. And this was called “the gospel,” even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the word gospel (euangelion) in the New Testament. The people in the pews were viewed as probably incapable of any higher life with God. So appeals to things like giving, serving, serious pursuit of holiness, were extras to which people would be vaguely invited to discover outside of the weekly 60-minutes for God event.
This makes my “spider-sense tingle” or, put another way, screams “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson” at me. It scares the heck out of me. What am I getting myself into?
Fortunately, Leman goes on to say:
Now, this is not actually Christianity. In my opinion, what goes on in the 60-minutes-for-God event in most church buildings is not Christianity. True Christianity, I would argue, is a beautiful thing. What keeps good people in low-aiming evangelical popular churches? I think it is the fact that small, inner circles of Bible readers in these places all find something deeper than what is presented in the 60-minutes-for God events.
But I have to start somewhere.
I once employed an Internet meme stating that “One does not simply learn Torah in a church,” and was promptly, though indirectly chastised by none other than Boaz Michael, who along with his wife, does attend a church in a small town in Missouri. Apparently, the “weightier matters of the Torah” are indeed to be found in the church, or at least in some churches.
My point, a point for congregational life, is this: the Bible and the great thinkers and teachers of Judaism and Christianity, aim high, not low.
What does aiming high in congregational worship, teaching, and discussion mean? It means that leaders are educated and expected to have read other opinions and to be familiar with a broad range of ideas. The “what it means to me” approach to Bible teaching is a disaster. It means that the prayers and songs should call to a deep devotion and a wise faith. It means complexities and realities of suffering, of the failure of goodness to produce a pain-free life, of the highest goals of loving sacrificially, should be the core of the teaching. It means people at all levels of learning and practice should be challenged.
I guess I’m just trying to “psych” myself up for this Saturday. I worked up the nerve yesterday to tell my wife about my appointment and she took it pretty well. I looked for any signs of “discomfort” in her facial expression and body language and listened closely to her vocal tones, but everything indicated that she was calm and accepting of my position. So why do I feel like I just pounded another nail in the coffin of whatever shared faith experience we used to have?
It doesn’t help to have just discovered (literally, as I’m writing this) that people in middle age (i.e. “me”) are the “group making the biggest exodus out the back door of their churches,” according to information I read on Michelle Van Loon’s blog. Lovely. As I’m trying to get back in, all of my age-mates and peers are going back out.
Feinberg’s list of things that push older members out the door tags the usual suspects (changing worship styles, lame small groups, politics, communicators in the pulpit instead of pastors), though I believe that some items on her list torque those over 65 differently than they might if a person was in his or her early 40′s. For instance, Boomers developed church services heavy on entertainment and light on organ music and choirs; older Gen X-ers, now in their forties, came of age in an era when worship style wars had already been fought in many corners of Protestantism. For instance, I appreciate some hymns, but prefer thoughtful, organic modern worship music. I have a long history of breaking into highly inappropriate giggles if I visit a church and find my sung worship accompanied by bombastic organ music (and is there any other kind?).
Organ music? Lame small groups? Communicators instead of pastors? Oy!
Van Loon continues:
That said, those in the second half of life simply can’t freestyle their spiritual lives. God calls us to community, though our relationship with that community can and should change as we mature. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if church leaders were willing to consider how to better facilitate spiritual growth for those in the second half of life?) Illness, the needs of aging parents and travel change our relationship with regular Sunday morning church attendance. Others find what they have to offer others is better received in contexts (non-profits, missions organizations) other than that of their local church.
I can see there’s no going back to the simple concept of “ekklesia” as Luke describes in Acts: the community of disciples who meet, pray, teach, share, and worship. To be part of a community is to meet the community where they are. It would be nice, as Van Loon says, if “church leaders were willing to consider how to better facilitate spiritual growth for those in the second half of life,” but how is the church supposed to meet me where I am, or is that even the point anymore? Who is supposed to be serving who and why does one even go to church?
So though I disagree with Feinberg on one hand, I agree with her on the other. She’s right: those of us who are older are called to mentor those younger than us, and to give ourselves away in generous, selfless service.
I can’t imagine, “oddball” that I am, even getting that far. In fact, I’m still trying to find out why I’m “going back to church.” I don’t really expect or need to “be fed” by the church, but I can hardly imagine they’d trust me to do any feeding, particularly as a “newbie.” I don’t know that I want to do any feeding. Teaching is draining and as a teacher or just a person, I’ve been wrong before, and I don’t want to take others down a wrong path with me. Maybe, I’ll just see if they need their carpets vacuumed once a week and that will be my Christian “mitzvot,” my way of giving back to a community that seems about as familiar to me (especially reading Van Loon’s blog) as the surface of one of Saturn’s moons.
What am I doing anyway?
Edit: I posted this a day early (it was supposed to be tomorrow’s “morning meditation”) because I had something of an epiphany. You’ll see what it’s all about in tomorrow morning’s blog post.