Tag Archives: ekklesia

When is Church Not Church?

Long before the church was called the church, it consisted of an assembly of Jewish believers who practiced Judaism as part of their devotion to Yeshua of Nazareth.

In the days that followed the spiritual outpouring of Shavu’ot, the disciples found themselves shepherding a large community of new disciples in Jerusalem. Three thousand men and women received the message about Yeshua and immersed themselves for his name. Many of these joined themselves to the community of his disciples in the holy city.

By devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the community of early believers continued in the Jewish mode of faith and practice, which prioritizes study above other pursuits. Judaism places a heavy emphasis on study, learning, and Torah education. Jewish life structured itself around study, and the study of Torah permeated every aspect of Pharisaic Judaism. Rabbinic literature frequently extols the virtues of study and praises the man whose “delight is in the Torah of the LORD, and on his Torah he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The sages had numerous axioms about the greatness of Torah study. Judaism regards the study of Torah as a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew and the primary obligation of Jewish life.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
“Before the Church Was Called the Church,” pp 16-17
Messiah Magazine, Spring 2014 issue

I wanted to juxtapose the above statement with a definition of the Church as a spiritual body, but all I came up with was this:

1. a building used for public Christian worship.
“they came to church with me”
synonyms: place of worship, house of God, house of worship; cathedral, abbey, chapel, basilica; megachurch; synagogue, mosque
“a village church”
the hierarchy of clergy of a Christian organization, esp. the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England.
noun: the Church

Old English cir(i)ce, cyr(i)ce, related to Dutch kerk and German Kirche, based on medieval Greek kurikon, from Greek kuriakon (dōma ) ‘Lord’s (house),’ from kurios ‘master or lord.’ Compare with kirk.

This is an extension, a sort of “Part 2” to my prior blog post Notes on the Church from an Insomniac, except that I’m writing this wide awake after enjoying a reasonably good night’s sleep. But the concept I’m trying to explore is “the Church” as a unique entity of people from all walks of life, including Jews, who have converted to a religion called “Christianity” based on the worship of Jesus Christ as we find him in the Gospels, and because of their faith in Christ, are saved from eternal damnation and when they die, will go to Heaven to be with God in a realm of eternal peace.

OK, that’s an oversimplification and I’ve deliberately employed more than a little “tongue-in-cheek” in crafting that description. Let’s see what happens when I put “Christianity” in my Google search string.

noun: Christianity
1. the religion based on the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, or its beliefs and practices.
Christian quality or character.
“his Christianity sustained him”

Not much help there.

But consider, as I understand it from the teachings at the church I currently attend. “The Church” (big “C”) was “born” in Acts 2 by the Holy Spirit inhabiting, first the apostles of Christ in the upper room on Pentecost (Shavu’ot) and then a body of thousands of Jewish people coming to faith in Jesus. So far, that’s semi-consistent with Lancaster’s description, except that he doesn’t say something incredibly new and disconnected from prior Jewish and Biblical history was established on that occasion. As I read Lancaster and understand his teachings on the New Covenant, I can only interpret the Acts 2 event in terms of previous Biblical history and see it as the logical and natural extension of God’s plan going forward in time without the requirement to make the train “jump the tracks,” so to speak, and violently diverge from everything written in the Bible (in this case, Torah, Prophets [Navim], and Writings [Ketuvim] or “Tanakh”) up to this point in history.

Spirit, Torah, and Good NewsThe classic New Covenant texts in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 clearly identify Israel as the focus of the New Covenant, a Covenant with identical conditions to those listed in the Old Covenant given at Sinai through Moses. The only difference, and I’ve said this before, is that the covenant would be written on the heart by the Spirit, not on tablets and scrolls, and internalizing the Torah makes it possible for the Jewish people, that is, the nation of Israel, and those who attach themselves to Israel through an Abrahamic faith in the Jewish Messiah, to wholly obey the instructions of God and live a life of holiness.

The New Covenant was inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit was given as a pledge (2 Corinthians 1:22) that when Messiah returns, he will complete what he has started and the New Covenant will be fully enacted in our world.

Revisiting my quote of Lancaster regarding the vital importance of Torah study, even the Gentiles were required to do this (Acts 15:21) as the means by which they (we) could understand the teachings of our Master and learn to also strive to live holy lives in anticipation of the Messianic Era and the age to come.

So what happened? The original assembly or ekklesia (which also can be interpreted as synagogue) of Messiah was first wholly Jewish, and then it was legally determined that Gentiles had standing in the Jewish ekklesia of “the Way” without having to undergo the proselyte ritual (Acts 15). That is, we people of the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12), can be equal co-participants in the blessings of the New Covenant without converting to Judaism and being obligated to the entire set of responsibilities in the Torah. Make no mistake, though. This does not make us absolved of great responsibilities and does not render us “Law-free,” and we indeed have a unique obligation to the Torah of Moses. If we repent of our sins, receive atonement through Messiah, and daily pick up our cross and seek our Master, we will become the crowning jewels of the nations, but only because “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) through the centrality of Israel and her firstborn son, Yeshua of Nazareth, not because we convert to Christianity and join the Church.

Confused? Am I repeating myself?

What I’m asking is if this more “Judaic” viewpoint on the Bible is correct, and the ekkelsia, in terms of Messianic community simply means “assembly” rather than requiring the creation of a unique body called “the Church” which after being “raptured” to Heaven and subsequently returned with Jesus to Earth, remains separate from anyone who came to faith during the “tribulation” (which doesn’t make a bit of sense), then how did things get so messed up?

Whole books have been written trying to answer that question (including this one, which I will start reading soon), but something I read on New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado’s blog seems to (somewhat) apply.

In the article I note one or two “fashions” in NT studies of past decades, ideas or emphases that seem all the rage for a short while but then seem to have faded just as quickly as they appeared. In this case, I cite “structuralist exegesis.”

I also discuss a couple of “fallacies,” by which term I refer to ideas that obtained wide and long-lasting currency but have subsequently been shown to be errors. The question here is why this happens. How do a wide assortment of scholars take something as given when there never was adequate basis for it?

Finally, I explore very briefly some possible future emphases in the field, such as the growing internationalization of those who comprise NT scholars, the growing interest in “reception history,” and one or two other things.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

A pre-publication version of Dr. Hurtado’s article Fashions, Fallacies and Future Prospects in New Testament Studies (PDF) is freely available for you to read. Hurtado spends much of this article describing how brief “fads” in certain New Testament studies gained traction momentarily, but then…

I turn now to consider some other approaches and ideas that had much more impact and much more “staying power,” but were subsequently shown to be erroneous. These ideas are much more important to consider precisely because they won such wide acceptance and over a goodly period of time. These were not passing fashions. They were firmly held and confidently asserted widely, in some quarters treated as solid truth, but are now clearly seen to have been fallacious.

-Hurtado, pg 4

Hurtado says nothing to discredit current Christian doctrine, but the fact that Christian scholarship had gained an attraction and wide adherence to theories and interpretations of the New Testament that have subsequently proven to be unreliable or just plain wrong is compelling to me. For one thing, it establishes that really anything we believe about the New Testament in specific and the whole Bible in general is up for examination, just like any other scientific endeavor. That’s actually pretty huge since from the point of view of sitting in a pew at church every Sunday morning and listening to the Pastor’s sermon, we are generally intended to take everything we hear at face value and consider the message as (mostly) unquestionable fact and truth.

I say “mostly” because I know Pastor doesn’t expect everyone to agree with him all the time, and because it’s possible to ask questions about the sermon in Sunday school class, but even within that context, there’s a limit and one does not cross the line of (so-called) “sound doctrine” or “solid truth” to consider perspectives that, from an Evangelical point of view, would be considered “cultic” and even “heretical.”

But while we may consider the Word of God as Holy, inerrant, and inspired by the Spirit of God, subsequent human interpretations don’t fall in those categories and therefore are “up for grabs.”

Judah Himango in his blog post Torah demands interpretation: an example from Deuteronomy 16, states:

My modus operandi for the EtzMitzvot.com project is to restate each command in the broadest, least-interpretive way possible, keeping faithful to the text without inferring or assuming what those words mean. As I came across Deuteronomy 16:16, I wrestled with this standard.

For some commandments, this standard is near impossible to apply without some creative interpreting/inferring/assuming.

For example, “just the facts, ma’am version of this mitzvah is, “Appear before God at the place he chooses for the 3 pilgrimage feasts.”

OK, that’s nice, how would you actually apply this in your life, today?

Judah also says:

You might think I am arguing for rabbinic or church interpretation; leaving the hard work of Bible interpretation to people smarter and more studied than us. But the take-home here should be: commandments are not always straightforward. Practicing them requires study and learning. Jewish and Christian traditions can guide us as a point of reference, but should not be elevated beyond the educated guesses they are.

So Biblical interpretation is not only normative in our studies, it’s unavoidable. It is impossible to understand everything we see in the Bible without running it through some sort of interpretive matrix yielding a hopefully accurate but undoubtedly biased set of conclusions. Bias isn’t necessarily bad and as I said, in any event, it’s unavoidable. The trick is to come to a set of conclusions that not only fits the immediate text being studied, but the underlying and comprehensive theme running through the entire body of the Bible. If isolated or “cherry-picked” bits of scripture contradict the overall tapestry of the Bible as a whole, chances are something’s wrong with your hermeneutics.

These musings are necessarily limited and selective, and others will no doubt offer observations additional to or even critical of mine. This is to be welcomed. But, if NT studies is to continue as a viable field, I suggest that the future approaches taken will have to demonstrate that they offer something substantial, something “value-added” to the study of the fascinating texts that comprise our NT and the remarkable religious developments that they reflect. Trying out this or that new speculation, or appropriating this or that methodological development in some other field will (and should) continue to be part of the ensuing discussion. But, I repeat, to amount to something more than a passing fashion, our approaches will have to be both well-founded and substantial in what they produce. And to avoid the sort of serious fallacies that we have noted, we will have to exercise both committed scholarly effort and self-reflective critique.

-Hurtado, pg 21

Carl Kinbar
Rabbi Carl Kinbar

This summons questions about the level of Messianic Jewish scholarship today, and I explored that question, thanks to another blog post by Dr. Hurtado, almost a year ago. Rabbi Dr. Carl Kinbar responded in part:

Here are a few thoughts about peer review. The “peer” in “peer review” is used in a very specific sense: it is someone who has recognized expertise in the subject. For example, the scholars who reviewed my doctoral dissertation are peers in the study of rabbinic texts rather than people “just like me” (since I was only a graduate student at the time). You cannot have a peer review process without experts. Although it is possible for someone to become an expert through self-study, such people are as rare as hen’s teeth and the reason is very simple: 99.9% of people who have never been discipled in their field have not learned the basic habits of scholarship and have not been exposed to the sort of critique that would help them to avoid errors of method and fact. With very few exceptions, even the best of the self-taught are like talented basketball players who have only played in pick-up games but have never been involved in organized basketball on any level and therefore have never been coached or received high-level input. I suspect that there are thousands of such basketball players, some of whom have a lot of talent but none of whom have learned the moves that are required even of entry-level NBA players. Becoming a professional player will depend on how others evaluate their talent, not on their own sense that they are NBA-quality. A true peer in “peer review” is someone who has been evaluated as an expert by existing experts.

As a Messianic Jewish scholar, I try to make up for the lack of peer review by submitting my work for review by a range of people, including both scholars and non-scholars. Before I received a significant amount of traditional and academic discipling, I thought that self-study was enough. I now know that it isn’t.

So on the one hand, we may conclude that the current state of Messianic Jewish scholarship would not yet meet the standards set in the realm of New Testament scholarship at the highest academic levels, but on the other hand, it’s headed in the right direction. Does that mean we are forced to accept Evangelical Christian interpretation as the de facto standard? I personally don’t think so, especially when, thanks to Hurtado’s aforementioned paper, we see that even long-standing and popular opinions on the New Testament can be subsequently discounted or discredited.

Am I right and you’re wrong? I can hardly say that and that’s not the point of this missive. My point is that Evangelical Christian theology and doctrine sits on its own laurels at its great peril, as does any position, system, or intellectual endeavor. Intellectual and spiritual honesty and integrity requires continuing investigation and study. The minute you stop questioning your own assumptions and take a position of static dogma, is the minute you lose a living relationship with the Word of God and perhaps even God Himself. That’s not intentional, of course, but it often is a sad result.

Just remember, at one point the Church thought the earth was the center of the universe based on the Bible. At one point, the Church burned people as witches (Europe) or pressed them to death under heavy stones (America) based on the Bible.

Now we are finally facing the idea that much of the Church’s “sound doctrine” and “solid truth” is based on a two-thousand year old mistake, and worse, that we’re taking our major cues, not from the Judaic understanding of the scriptures as they were viewed during the Apostolic Era, but from a group of European reformers who lived barely five-hundred years ago and who themselves may well have been anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish people.

Up to JerusalemIs that what Jesus taught? Is that how Paul interpreted the scriptures? Is that the way James the Just, brother of the Master, determined Gentiles should be included in the branch of Judaism then known as “the Way?”

When is Church not Church? When it’s the assembly of Messiah longing for the coming of the New Covenant, when God’s instructions are written on hearts, and the spirits of men and women, young and old, from the least to the greatest, know God.

We aren’t there yet, but we have a responsibility to strive to be better than we are and in spite of our assumptions and traditions, to continually “be in the Word” (to employ a Christian aphorism), and to realize that our perspective might not be the best vantage point from which to view the full panoramic scope of God’s overarching plan for His people Israel, who are absolutely necessary and central to the Way of salvation for the rest of the world.

To find out more about why the word “ekklesia” and the word “sunagōgē” which we translate into English as “synagogue,” could all be translated as “meeting place” or “assembly” and don’t have to be translated as “church,” read What does Synagogue mean in Hebrew? by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg.

A final note. I’m quite aware that I’ve scheduled this “meditation” to automatically publish on the morning of Easter Sunday or Resurrection Day. This is probably the most holy day on the Christian calendar and I suppose my interpretation of “ekklesia” into something other than “Church” could be seen as an inappropriate criticism. And yet, who we are and to what body we belong is of vital importance, on this day as much as any other, for our Master is Risen, and he is returning. The Kingdom is at hand, and the New Covenant is unfolding. We must be ready, but to do that, we must understand the actual and authentic nature and character of King, Kingdom, and Covenant. It is to that purpose I have dedicated this blog post and all of my writing.

Notes On the Church From an Insomniac

Old English cir(i)ce, cyr(i)ce, related to Dutch kerk and German Kirche, based on medieval Greek kurikon, from Greek kuriakon (dōma ) ‘Lord’s (house),’ from kurios ‘master or lord.’

I’ve always wondered how you get “church” out of “ekklesia” and in a bout of insomnia, I decided to find out. It’s not so much that I want to know about the usage of “church” as a building or even an organization, but as the entity that has, in some circles, replaced Israel as the focus of all His New Covenant prophesies and promises (see my five-part review series on D. Thomas Lancaster’s lectures, What About the New Covenant for more).

The definition above is what I first came up with in a Google search using the search string “origin of the word church”. Here’s more detail:

church (n.) Old English cirice, circe “church, public place of worship; Christians collectively,” from West Germanic *kirika (cognates: Old Saxon kirika, Old Norse kirkja, Old Frisian zerke, Middle Dutch kerke, Dutch kerk, Old High German kirihha, German Kirche), probably [see note in OED] from Greek kyriake (oikia), kyriakon doma “Lord’s (house),” from kyrios “ruler, lord,” from PIE root *keue- “to swell” (“swollen,” hence “strong, powerful”); see cumulus. Phonetic spelling from c.1200, established by 16c. For vowel evolution, see bury. As an adjective from 1570s.

Greek kyriakon (adj.) “of the Lord” was used of houses of Christian worship since c.300, especially in the East, though it was less common in this sense than ekklesia or basilike. An example of the direct Greek-to-Germanic progress of many Christian words, via the Goths; it probably was used by West Germanic people in their pre-Christian period.

Also picked up by Slavic, probably via Germanic (e.g. Old Church Slavonic criky, Russian cerkov). Finnish kirkko, Estonian kirrik are from Scandinavian. Romance and Celtic languages use variants of Latin ecclesia (e.g. French église, 11c.).

-from Online Etymology Dictionary

This resource has links that define the sources used to generate the information above so please click the link for more.

As you can see, it’s not as simple as saying that “church” equals “ekklesia” which is how it seems if you simply read your English-language Bibles.

Now what about “ekklesia” (alt. “ecclesia”)?

noun, plural ec·cle·si·ae [ih-klee-zhee-ee, -zee-ee] Show IPA .

1. an assembly, especially the popular assembly of ancient Athens.

2. a congregation; church.

Origin: 1570–80; < Latin < Greek ekklēsía assembly, equivalent to ékklēt ( os ) summoned ( ek- ec- + klē-, variant of kal-, stem of kaleîn to call, + -tos past participle suffix) + -ia -ia

The same source, dictionary.reference.com also provides the following:

— n , pl -siae
1. (in formal Church usage) a congregation
2. the assembly of citizens of an ancient Greek state

[C16: from Medieval Latin, from Late Greek ekklēsia assembly, from ekklētos called, from ekkalein to call out, from kalein to call]

churchAccording to biblehub.com, the “English word “church” comes from the Greek word kyriakos, “belonging to the Lord” (kyrios).” By comparison, “ekklēsía(from 1537 /ek, “out from and to” and 2564 /kaléō, “to call”) – properly, people called out from the world and to God, the outcome being the Church (the mystical body of Christ) – i.e. the universal (total) body of believers whom God calls out from the world and into His eternal kingdom.”

So as nearly I can figure, not being a linguist or etymologist, we can understand the word “ekklesia” as originally meaning (for the purposes of this brief study) an assembly of Greek citizens or more specifically, a popular assembly in the city of Athens. In its most generic sense, it was probably used to mean any assembly of people for a common purpose.

There’s also a sense, when used to describe an assembly of believers, as it’s used in the New Testament, that said-assembly is a group of people “called out”. This is probably (in the minds of the Jewish writers of the New Testament) related to the Hebrew word Shaliah, meaning “legal emissary” or “agent,” equivalent to the Greek word “apostolos” from which we get the English word “apostle”. It’s reminiscent of the use of the word Shaliach as employed by the Chabad to mean “a member of the Chabad Hasidic movement who is sent out to promulgate Judaism and Hasidism in locations around the world.”

That probably fits since historically and into modern times, one of the primary functions of the Christian Church as an institution is to send out members as missionaries or “sent out ones” to “promulgate Christianity in locations around the world.”

Called out ones, sent out ones. In either case, a population of individuals separated from the larger group for a common purpose. From a Christian standpoint, “the Church” is called out of the generic population of the nations for the purpose of being worshipers of Jesus Christ. An important secondary mission (Matthew 28:19-20) is to spread the gospel message of salvation to the world, creating more called out ones to join “the Church.”

Except, as you may have noticed above, the word “church” is more related to the Greek word “kyriakos,” so I’m not sure it’s reasonable to directly translate “ekklesia” as “church”.

But I haven’t written this in the middle of the night to be that picky. I’m just using it as background.

In studying Lancaster’s What’s New About the New Covenant lecture series, I started wondering, given the centrality of Israel in all the New Covenant language, how “the Church” managed to replace Israel or usurp her position in that Covenant. Actually, I’ve wondered this for a while and it keeps bothering me.

PaulI’ve learned in past conversations with Pastor Randy at the church I attend, that “the Church” was created in Acts 2 at Pentecost, was originally made up of mostly Jewish people, and was centralized around Jerusalem and the Temple. Subsequently, the Church began to spread and its locus of control was shifted to the assembly at Syrian Antioch (see Acts 11 starting at verse 19 and subsequent chapters) as more Gentiles were added. Paul returned to Antioch after his first two “missionary journeys” rather than Jerusalem, to give a report of his activities. He only returned to Jerusalem after his third journey (Acts 21) at the prompting of the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:22-23), not as a missionary going back to his “home church” to make a report, but for a larger and most likely eternal purpose.

From this perspective, as time goes on, starting during the lifetime of Paul, “the Church” becomes less and less Jewish and less and less of a Judaism, and increasingly describes a body of Jewish but mostly Gentile people focused on the worship of Jesus Christ, while divesting themselves of the various practices, perspectives, and even thoughts that previously associated it with a first century stream of Judaism (very similar to the viewpoint of John MacArthur on this topic).

Can you see why this bothers me? I’ve mentioned recently that if God really did reject Israel and replace her with “the Church” in all of the covenant prophesies and promises, then it would be like a man cutting off his own legs and expecting to run a marathon afterward.

It would be impossible.

All of the New Covenant language we see in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 is focused on Israel as the object of God’s prophesies and promises, not another entity, and certainly not an entity that isn’t Israel and Judah (which “the Church” isn’t). It’s as if traditional Christian thought on the New Covenant starts in the Gospels and particularly the Epistles, and then works its way backward into the “Old Testament,” proceeding to engage in some significant theological and eisegetical gymnastics to rework the words of the Prophets in order (some how) to make them fit the way institutional Christianity chooses to interpret Paul.

I’ve also mentioned recently how at least some of what Paul wrote is all too easily interpreted as anti-Torah, anti-Judaism, and anti-Jewish people, making Paul a big problem for understanding the New Covenant as it’s described in the Prophets, and giving “the Church” the (apparent) leverage it needs to reinterpret the New Covenant in a Gentile-focused manner that diminishes Israel and the Jewish people in favor of Goyim Christianity. At this point, if the Jews weren’t kicked out of the Church (unless they converted to Christianity and gave up Judaism and being Jewish people), they would have walked out, since the “no Jews allowed” sign had been raised. The Church isn’t a Jewish place, it’s a Gentile place.

“The older I get, the more I realize how different it is to be a Jew in a Jewish place as opposed to a Jew in a non-Jewish place. It’s definitely a different feeling in terms of how freely you can be yourself and celebrate your culture and religion.”

-Natalie Portman

Etymology is defined as “the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.” As we’ve seen above, the etymology of the word “Church” isn’t as straightforward as the casual users of that word might believe. In fact, “Church” is more related to a completely different Greek word, but most people don’t know that.

JudaismI suggest that the way most Christians understand the word “Church” today isn’t how the original apostles and disciples of the Master understood “ekklesia” or meant for anyone to understand it. The “ekklesia” were the called out body of Messiah, but did not call out Jews from Judaism. If the New Covenant prophesies mean anything at all, then primarily, it was the non-Jewish peoples who were “called out” of paganism in order to be grafted in to the commonwealth of Israel to benefit from the blessings of the New Covenant through their Abrahamic faith in Messiah, Son of David. The Jewish disciples may have been called out of other Jewish streams and into the Judaism of “the Way,” but if they had been called out of Judaism as modern Christians believe, then they (and we) would have exited the New Covenant altogether.

But just as we see how the word or words that eventually became “church” in English went through many changes throughout history, the meaning, purpose, and composition of the body of believers has also “morphed” a great deal over time. I doubt Paul would recognize a modern group of Christians in a Sunday worship service because of the result of nearly two-thousand years of evolutionary changes.

I wish I could do this wee study more justice, but it would take more study and time than I have right now. I fell asleep exhausted several hours ago, woke up way too late (or too early) and now I can’t sleep at all. For some reason, I keep thinking of “the Church” in general and the little local church I attend in specific.

I emailed one of the associate Pastors earlier today in relation to the church’s website, and one of the things he asked in response was, “How are you doing in your walk?”

Given how unusual I am in relation to just about everyone else in church, I didn’t know how to respond. I feel “fine” in my “walk,” but I don’t know if that’s how I’d appear from his point of view.

I suppose I should try to get some more sleep. Morning will come all too soon and I’ll regret it if I go to work with my brain in a fog. Maybe I’ll write a “part two” to this when I get more time and can do more research. I don’t really feel like I’ve said what I wanted to say, except that I wanted to say that what the Church has become today, not as a building or even an institution, but as an entity or even a concept, seems to have changed a great deal from the hopes and dreams of the apostles and from the spirit of what was intended in the New Covenant, a covenant non-Jewish people can only partake of through Israel and her firstborn son, Messiah, Son of David…the person we call Jesus Christ.

Read Part 2: When Is Church Not Church?

What Makes You Think Your Church Is Better?

It’s funny. We still live in a celebrity culture. Even Christians have chewed hard on it.

Whenever a celebrity Christian author or blogger talks about “leaving church,” all of a sudden masses of Christians think a new conversation has suddenly began, and people left and right start firing off opinions.


A few words about “leaving church.”

Virtually every time I catch wind of the phrase—leaving church—almost always the person using the phrase never explains what he/she means by church.

Frank Viola
“10 Reasons Why I Left the Institutional Church in Search of the Ekklesia”

No, I’m not talking about me doing any leaving, but in considering my recent writing on the role of non-Jews in Messianic Jewish worship space and how some Hebrew Roots proponents believe that the Torah of Moses is somehow owed to them, I pondered other applications of Viola’s article which I quoted above.

I first found the article several days ago in Facebook and read it, but Viola’s issues don’t really resonate with me. In re-reading his missive though, I started clicking links to find out more about him getting to his personal blog and figuring out that he writes these articles, in part, to market his books and ideas. That’s not a bad thing. If you produce something you want someone to buy, you have to market it. I’m an author in my spare time and I work for the marketing department of my “day job,” so I know how it goes.

But when Viola talks about “leaving church,” he isn’t saying what you might imagine. He separates out what he calls the “institutional church” from something more “organic” and what he calls “the Deeper Christian Life” (which he’s written a number of books about, and all of them seem to do well on Amazon).

In reading his ten reasons for leaving the institutional church and his ten (eleven, really) reasons for becoming part “of the organic expression of the church (the ekklesia)…”, I started thinking of my own current church experience and of the aforementioned Hebrew Roots movement, (I used to belong to a Hebrew Roots congregation) and the common statement one often finds in Hebrew Roots about leaving “church” AKA “Babylon.”

On a fundamental level, unless you leave the faith altogether and become an atheist or a member of a religion other than Christianity (and I include Hebrew Roots and even, to a degree, Messianic faith as part of “Christianity” … faith in and worship of Christ/Messiah), you never really leave “the Church,” the community of believers in Jesus. As Viola points out, you really have to define what you mean by “church,” especially if you think you’re leaving it. Even if wherever you worship isn’t called a “church,” you probably still worship with other people in a somewhat organized fashion and have a theology and doctrine that is more or less recognized as “Christian.”

So what are people leaving and what are they looking for? Having done no research at all and having no data to back up my personal opinion, people are leaving congregations and organizations where they do not feel connected and are joining or at least searching for congregations where they feel they belong.

Seems pretty obvious, huh?

That probably is one of the reasons why there are so many denominations and so many different types of worship venues, styles, and whatnot. Identify a disenfranchised Christian population and cater to them. Churches split periodically for a wide variety of reasons and create new churches that satisfy the desires of those who were previously not satisfied.

Church splitBut to split, you have to possess a sufficient population of dissatisfied people to gather around and create a new church. They all have to also be dissatisfied in the same or very similar way so that you don’t gather together a group of individuals with each of them wanting something completely different out of the new church.

I have no statistics about how many people leave traditional, institutional churches each year specifically to enter into an entity called “Hebrew Roots”. It gets more complicated in that within the umbrella term Hebrew Roots is a plethora of different sorts of congregations, with overlapping but differing beliefs, practices, theologies, and so on. Often, these different subgroups don’t get along with each other for a number of reasons. Some believe in praying only in Hebrew, others prefer English, some pronounce the Sacred Name of God one way, some do so a different way, some believe it should never be pronounced at all, and on it goes.

Another confusing factor is that many Hebrew Roots groups call themselves “Messianic Judaism” when in fact, their definition of the term flies in the face of what I consider Messianic Judaism to actually be.

Be that as it may, a non-trivial number of Gentile Christians are leaving various institutional churches each year (again, I have no specific numbers) and joining some variation of a Hebrew Roots or sometimes authentic Messianic Jewish congregation, small group, home group, or study group.

What are they looking for?

Like I said above, they’re looking for other people who think, act, and believe just like they do, or enough like they do that any differences don’t really matter.

So what’s the attraction?

Both Hebrew Roots in all of its variations and Messianic Judaism in all of its variations have one thing in common. They believe institutional Christianity in all of its variations has the Bible all wrong. They believe that “the Church” (big C) made a big mistake in “establishing” that the Law was nailed to the cross with Jesus, that grace replaced the Law, that Jewish people need to convert to Christianity and functionally (though not genetically or in name) stop being Jewish, and that Judaism as a faith and worship form is a dead-end made up of “dead works” and no spiritual life.

I believe “the Church” made its big mistake early on and through nearly two-thousand years of reformations, revivals, and any other course change you could possibly imagine, the Church never, ever corrected that mistake. In fact, the mistake has become so ingrained in the Church, that it never even occurs to any of the institutional and local expressions of Christianity to even question the initial interpretive error that is now driving some individuals and groups away from “church” and into something that is attempting to behave as a corrective effort.

How many Christian denominations exist today? Somewhere in the thousands? Tens of thousands? Heck, how many translations are there of the Bible just in English? Almost as many it seems. So many expressions of “the Christian faith” and “the Word of God,” apparently created to satisfy the perspectives, opinions, wants, and needs of various human beings who don’t want to leave God but who want God and Christ on their/our own terms. There’s even a brand new Bible translation called The Gay Bible.

Do I sound cynical?

No wonder Jesus asked poignantly, “…when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)

Human beings are a pain in the…

Frank Viola
Frank Viola

I wonder how God puts up with us?

Frank Viola’s answer to all this is in a book he wrote called Reimagining Church. No, I’m not going to rush out and buy it or any of his other books. My current wish list of books is already long and getting longer all the time. It’s also crafted to suit my current perspective on God, Messiah, and everything and I suspect based on what I’ve read of Viola’s writing so far, that we probably don’t share a lot of opinions.

Viola (Pagan Christianity), a leader in the house church movement, believes the church as we know it today is nothing like what God intended it to be. According to Viola, the first-century church, which should be our pattern, met in homes without any official pastor. All members of the church were involved in worship, spontaneously breaking out with teaching or song as they were moved. Decisions were not made until everyone reached consensus. There were no official leaders or elders, but there were men who served and taught and helped others, thus leading by example. Viola believes that to bring the church back on track, both clergy and denominations must be completely abolished. Churches should not have buildings nor should they worry about doctrinal statements. Such radical ideas will best be received by Emergent and postmodern readers. Skeptics will cringe at Viola’s strident tone and all-or-nothing approach. More concrete examples of what Viola has seen work well in his 20 years of house church work would have greatly strengthened the book.

-from Publishers Weekly
as found at Amazon.com.

If I had to pick a “reimagining of church,” it would probably look more like Beth Immanuel and less like the so-called first-century home churches that Viola seems to hold up as an ideal. But then Viola is doing what I said we all do, finding a congregation (or making one) that reflects his own desires and ideals. We all want to have it our way, as the old Burger King commercial goes.

So what’s the real answer? Underneath our vain attempts to assuage our own discomfort in the world of religion and to make ourselves feel better in a body of faith, I’m going to trust that at least some people are actually searching for something authentic, something real, something that will allow them to actually encounter God on God’s terms.

Is there more than one way to do that? Can you encounter God in a Baptist church, a Lutheran church, and dare I say it, in a Jewish synagogue? My personal opinion is yes, since I’ve encountered God in all three communities (and I don’t mean just a Messianic Jewish synagogue, I mean a synagogue where they don’t believe in Jesus).

One of the things Viola writes that I can agree with is that we all need to worship in community rather than as “lone wolves” (my words, not his) or just as an individual family or a few families who come together.

I wanted to know Christ deeply, and I discovered that we can only comprehend “the breadth, depth, height, and know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” when we are “together with all saints.” It’s not an individualistic pursuit, but an intensely corporate (collective) one.

BabelAll that said, I’ll be the first to admit that it can be incredibly difficult sometimes to find a group that meets your needs. For some, they have to build it, if at all possible and within the will of God (and make no mistake, like Babel, it’s possible to build something outside the will of God, it just won’t last past the return of Messiah).

I don’t have an answer for you. I know that may be disappointing, but I’m caught in the same trap as everyone else. If you’re human, you can only see everything from ground level, so to speak. No one has the perspective of God. We’re all down here wallowing in the mud, struggling to climb to even slightly higher ground so we can get a better look at what we think is better.

Problem is, we all think we’ve got the inside track on “better,” that by “coincidence,” just happens to map perfectly to our personal wants, needs, and desires. Imagine that.

I can only imagine that God looks down at all of us, covered in mud, dead leaves, and our own grandiose arrogance and just shakes His head, the way we would at some teenage kid who thought he or she had the whole world figured out. “Yeah,” He says. “Just you wait. You’ll find out what’s really going on one day and aren’t you going to be shocked out of your socks.”

So people leave “church,” however they define it, because it’s “Babylon,” because it’s “pagan,” because it’s “apostasized” from the true faith of Messiah and has thrown away the Torah like a used diaper and the Jewish people along with it.

But are any of those folks doing any better? I guess it depends. At the center of all this isn’t the institution, and it isn’t the rituals, and to some degree, it isn’t even some of the interpretations and doctrines, it’s the authentic, true, real, and valid desire to serve the living God of the Bible. We may get a lot of things wrong, all of us (yes, you too and yes, me too). But somewhere in there, we probably manage to do a few things right as well.

I’ve heard it said that God doesn’t grade on a curve, but I prefer (here I go with what I prefer) to think of God as a forgiving Father. No, not forgiving of an endless list of willful sins, but forgiving as the Father is of a toddler who throws tantrums, falls down all the time, says incredibly silly stuff, but who is continually struggling and working hard in a two or three-year old’s best effort, to growing older, growing better, and growing up.

But we all grow up in different families, and in different neighborhoods, and in different towns or cities, counties, states, provinces, and countries. The people aren’t the same, the cultures aren’t the same, the languages aren’t the same, but God is the same. I guess that’s how we can look at our churches, our “ekklesias,” our communities in Christ/Messiah, however large or small they may be.

There’s a difference between thumbing your nose at God and just making goofy mistakes because as human beings, we don’t know any better. The waters are cloudy and we don’t see what’s in the pond too clearly. We complain at each other for being in the “wrong church” or even being in “church” at all instead of where we think all the “cool kids” in Christ are supposed to hang out. We keep forgetting God has an “opinion” too and that it’s not an opinion at all but the final truth.

We just don’t have unfiltered access to that truth, we only think we do. Hence thousands or tens of thousands of different Christian religious organizations which we say, depending on which one we belong to, that ours is the one, and it’s the best, and God loves us because we aren’t part of that other one down the street.

Oh brother (rolls eyes).

Leave the church? You can leave anything you want to, but as long as you are a believer, you don’t leave the body of Messiah, which is a good thing. Even if you leave religion, you don’t leave the universe and so you don’t escape God by becoming an atheist (you only think you do).

dad-and-babyThe only thing we can do is our best and believe me, it’ll never be as good as we think it is, but that’s OK. Fortunately, God is forgiving and He does understand that we all are as dumb as a box of rocks (as compared to God) and He doesn’t really expect that we will ever get to a point where we get most things right.

Our biggest “silliness” is thinking that we can and that we do get most things right and that we somehow are better than other churches, synagogues, congregations, whatever.

Think about all of the arguments we all have about our religions. Now think about how all that sounds to God. No, really. If that’s difficult to picture, recall any argument you’ve seen between two pre-schoolers fighting over a toy and how they each had a really, really good reason why they should have the thing instead of the other kid.

Now do you get it?

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Come Together

Mount SinaiMoses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.

Exodus 35:1 (JPS Tanakh)

The verb vayakhel – which gives the portion its name – is crucial to an understanding of the task in which Moses is engaged. At its simplest level it serves as a motiv-word, recalling a previous verse. In this case the verse is obvious:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they assembled around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” (32:1)

Moses’ act is what the kabbalists called a tikkun: a restoration, a making-good-again, the redemption of a past misdemeanour. Just as the sin was committed by the people acting as a kahal or kehillah, so atonement was to be achieved by their again acting as a kehillah, this time by making a home for the Divine presence as they earlier sought to make a substitute for it. Moses orchestrates the people for good, as they had once been assembled for bad (The difference lies not only in the purpose but in the form of the verb, from passive in the case of the calf to active in the case of Moses. Passivity allows bad things to happen – “Wherever it says ‘and it came to pass’ it is a sign of impending tragedy”. (Megillah 10b) Proactivity is the defeat of tragedy: “Wherever is says, ‘And there will be’ is a sign of impending joy.” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13)

At a deeper level, though, the opening verse of the portion alerts us to the nature of community in Judaism.

In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: edah, tsibbur and kehillah, and they signify different kinds of association.

-Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
From the “Covenant and Conversation” series
“Three Types of Community”
Commentary on Vayakhel

There’s a tendency in certain corners of Christianity to struggle with the definition of words like “kahal” and “kehillah” vs. the word “ekklesia.” Does “ekklesia” mean “church” or is it associated with one of the words that has to do with “Jewish” gatherings? Certainly “ekklesia” and “synagogē” although related, tend to be split in our modern world to mean (Christian) church and (Jewish) synagogue. But digging just under the surface, here’s what we find.

At its most basic level, “ekklesia” means “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” (see BibleStudyTools.com). This strips the word of all its religious connotation and gives us the “nuts and bolts” understanding. An ekklesia can be any gathering of citizens called out into a public place. They could be football fans or a lynch mob. They don’t have to be “the church.”

Interestingly enough, one definition provided by my source says, “the assembly of the Israelites,” but there’s no way to understand in that context if we are to take “Israelites” as strictly Jewish people or rather to overlay a Christian understanding and include Gentile believers as “Israelites.” Given that ekklesia tends to be considered a compound word made up of “ek” (out of, from, by) and “kaleo” (to call, to invite, to give a name to), it seems more likely that the application in this sense, is recognizing “Israelites” as those called by God in the original “called” or “chosen” manner at Sinai. I don’t see the idea of a “mixed” population of Jews and Gentiles being called collectively “Israelites” here.

By contrast:

A synagogue (from Koine Greek: συναγωγή transliterated synagogē, meaning “assembly”), sometimes spelt synagog, is a Jewish or Samaritan house of prayer (When broken down, the word could also mean “learning together” – from the Greek συν syn, together, and αγωγή agogé, learning or training) that emerged at first essentially within the context of Hellenistic Judaism in the diasporas of Greece and the Hellenized regions of the MENA area (Cilicia, Syria and Alexandria) in the second half of the Second Temple period, then progressively became the typical place of Jewish worship and education after 70 CE, when Roman persecutions accelerated the geographic dispersion process that accompanied the abrupt ending of Temple worship and priestly rituals and traditions.


So synagogue seems to be more related to “house of assembly,” “house of prayer,” or “house of study,” but within a specifically Jewish context (we do see God-fearing Gentiles periodically attending synagogues in the late Second Temple period, but they were clearly non-Jewish guests within a Jewish venue). People don’t typically ever say something like “Christian synagogue” or “Jewish church.”

calvin-susie-conflictBut why am I delving into all of this and why should you care?

This week, I’ve been discussing (complaining) about the interactions and friction that seem to occur between certain groups of believing Jews and certain groups of believing non-Jews (i.e. Christians). One of the questions that comes up in such transactions is how closely those groups are related. Are they a single group with a single identity, differentiated only by a bit of DNA and a slice of culture, or are they defined as more distinct and separate on the level of community and covenant?

Let’s take a look at what we know about “ekklesia,” which is how we commonly think of the community of disciples of Jesus Christ, and compare it to Rabbi Sacks’ definitions for different communities of Jews (and I’m setting “synagogue” aside for the sake of this conversation). First, Rabbi Sacks’ discussion:

Edah comes from the word eid, meaning “witness.” The verb ya’ad carries the meaning of “to appoint, fix, assign, destine, set apart, designate or determine.” An edah can be a gathering for bad as well as good. The Israelites, on hearing the report of the spies, lose heart and say they want to return to Egypt. Throughout, they are referred to as the edah (as in “How long will this wicked community grumble against Me?” Bemidbar 14: 27). The people agitated by Korach in his rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s authority is likewise called an edah (“If one man sins, will You be angry with the whole community?” Bemidbar 16: 22). Nowadays the word is generally used for an ethnic or religious subgroup. An edah is a community of the like-minded. The word emphasises strong identity. It is a group whose members have much in common.

By contrast the word tsibbur – it belongs to Mishnaic rather than biblical Hebrew – comes from the root tz-b-r meaning “to heap” or “pile up”. (Bereishith 41:49) To understand the concept of tsibbur, think of a group of people praying at the Kotel. They may not know each other. They may never meet again. But for the moment, they happen to be ten people in the same place at the same time, and thus constitute a quorum for prayer. A tsibbur is a community in the minimalist sense, a mere aggregate, formed by numbers rather than any sense of identity. A tsibbur is a group whose members may have nothing in common except that, at a certain point, they find themselves together and thus constitute a “public” for prayer or any other command which requires a minyan.

A kehillah is different from the other two kinds of community. Its members are different from one another. In that sense it is like a tsibbur. But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. The danger of a kehillah is that it can become a mass, a rabble, a crowd.

The beauty of a kehillah, however, is that when it is driven by constructive purpose, it gathers together the distinct and separate contributions of many individuals, so that each can say, “I helped to make this.” That is why, assembling the people on this occasion, Moses emphasises that each has something different to give: Take from what you have, an offering to God. Everyone who is willing to bring to God an offering of gold, silver and bronze … All you who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded …

Moses was able to turn the kehillah with its diversity into an edah with its singleness of purpose, while preserving the diversity of the gifts they brought to God…

And to sum up his definitions, Rabbi Sacks states:

To preserve the diversity of a tsibbur with the unity of purpose of an edah – that is the challenge of kehillah-formation, community-building, itself the greatest task of a great leader.

Kehillah seems to be what God, through Moses, was trying to forge from the Children of Israel. Each type of group had something valuable to offer but those elements needed to be brought together and combined within a single container to result in both diversity and unity being focused on constructive purpose.

How does that compare to our understanding of ekklesia?

In a Christian sense:

  • an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting
  • a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs, according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake, those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united into one body
  • the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth
  • the assembly of faithful Christians already dead and received into heaven

many peopleBut ekklesia can also mean “any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously.”

It’s as if ekklesia is trying to mirror the Jewish (or at least Rabbi Sacks’) understanding of kehillah. Ekklesia is taking the general understanding of a group of people who are called out, in some sense, who are dissimilar, who can also be assembled by random chance, but who also, when given a purpose by God, gather together from widely diverse backgrounds to be united into one body of believers for the sake of Jesus Christ.

I know that some people don’t think being gathered together for the sake of Christ is a “constructive purpose.” Certainly the vast majority of Christian history has shown us we haven’t been very “constructive” in relation to the Jewish “kehillah.” Many atheists would also agree that, based on their perception of “Christian bias,” the body of believers is hardly constructive and especially not “progressive.”

But for those of us who authentically and honestly seek out God through being disciples of the Master, being gathered together in the ekklesia of Messiah very much is a constructive purpose. Feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, visiting the sick and imprisoned is all “constructive purpose” as far as I’m concerned and as far as the teachings of Jesus and the Torah are concerned.

Pulling all this together within the widest possible sense of the body of believers, just how close a comparison can we make between the Messianic Jewish kehillah and the Christian (including Hebrew Roots) ekklesia? I’m unwilling to say that the only difference between Jewish and Gentile believers is a string of DNA or a bit of cultural context and rather, believe that the manner in which God distinguished the Children of Israel at Sinai continues to distinguish their descendants, the Jewish people, even within the community of Messiah. I also believe, going back to Rabbi Sacks and his commentary, that community must be active and not passive, we must live holy lives, not just talk about holiness.

In other words believing Jews and Gentiles are and aren’t different at the same time. We are different in that Sinai is the defining moment for the Children of Israel and always will be relative to their special “called out-ness” from the nations. All Jews are born into this covenant relationship whether they want to be or not. But what believing Jews and Gentiles have in common is that we all had to consciously and willingly hear the voice of Messiah and respond to him, and to accept the good news of salvation from sin and the promise of the restoration of national Israel under her King.

There are groups who want to separate the believing Jews and believing Gentiles completely and have us live in two parallel but isolated silos. There are other groups who want to pour us all into a single silo like so many millions and millions of grains of wheat, completely indistinguishable form one another.

black-and-white-sheepI believe we are more like two sheep pens united in a single flock with a single shepherd. Not all sheep look the same. Not all sheep act the same. Some of the sheep, a relatively small number, have a more specified purpose within the flock than the vast majority of other sheep in the flock. In spite of that, we have one shepherd whose voice we all listen to and who we all respond to in faith and trust. Since we’ve originally come from two separate pens, we have two separate histories and we different sheep have a lot to learn about one another. Sometimes, that means we “butt heads,” so to speak. The shepherd, seeing this, encourages us to live at peace with one another, not as identical drones or dough stamped out from the same cookie cutter, but as sheep from the Jewish pen and sheep from the Gentile pen in the flock of Messiah.

Kehillah/Ekklesia: different and distinct but brought together for a common and constructive purpose, offering our distinctive talents and identities in a unified container all for the sake of Messiah and by the plan of God.

Come together, right now
Over me

-John Lennon (credited to Lennon-McCartney)
Come Together (1969)
from the Beatles album Abbey Road

Good Shabbos.

62 Days: Going Back to Ekklesia

And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

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.

from Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
Torah Portion Vayera (“And he appeared”) (pg 97)
Commentary on Acts 4:32-5:42
Produced by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)


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.

That still makes it sound like finding “true Christianity” is about as simple as locating teeth in the beak of a hen or finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

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.