For the proclamation of the Gospel and the edification of the Body of Christ
The Meaning of Ekklesia
The word church in the original Greek is ekklesia. Throughout the centuries institutionalized Christianity has completely mutated the original meaning and strength of ekklesia.
At present, when you hear the word church, innumerable associated ideas come to mind: a building, a temple, a religious hierarchy, a religious movement, a Christian tendency, an institution or a denomination. Tragically, we never associate it with that which it was originally coined to mean: a group of people called out to assemble or gather together.
For any person living during the New Testament times, an ekklesia was simply a group of people called out from whatever they were in, to gather with a given purpose. During those days, like today, people gather due to different objectives: such assembling could be due to politics, sports, social, philosophical or religious purposes. The Lord, however, spoke about a meeting that was different to any other experienced on this planet. A group of people called out by Him and for Him from whatever they were previously in. An assembly in which He Himself would be the center. The gathering of those called out by Him to meet in His name.
That meeting of men and women with Jesus Christ is the church. (1)
Beginning with this, its most primitive meaning, it is possible to understand how the church is being edified directly by Christ through the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul wrote: "But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus" (Ephesians 4:20-21). What is notable in this passage is that the apostle speaks to us about hearing Jesus and being taught directly by the Lord. He is not asking us if we have heard about Christ, but if we have listened to Christ. Not if we have been taught about Christ, but rather if we have been taught by Christ Himself. How can such a thing be? The answer is found in the Lord's words: "I will build my church (ekklesia)" and also, "Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of them". In the very heart of every work of God on earth one finds a gathering of saints whose real and living center is Jesus. This meeting, concrete and tangible, is the earthly expression of the bride of the Lamb, which is His body and His helpmeet. In her, Christ finds His joy and contentment.
"The Lord your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing" (Zephaniah 3:17).
"I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You" (Hebrews 2:12).
"Here am I and the children whom God has given Me" (Hebrews 2:13b).
And Christ, in the midst of her, is the One Who truly edifies her, speaking, teaching, exhorting, disciplining, encouraging and manifesting His love, compassion, will, power and authority. It is a gathering for Jesus Christ, because He is her center and goal. This is His assembly. It does not belong to anybody else. There is nothing like it in all the earth.
However, not any gathering of believers has a right to be acknowledged by Christ as His gathering place or church on earth, built directly by Him. To achieve such a goal, two simple additional conditions have to be fulfilled: unity and mutuality.
The unity of the church comes from Christ. In essence, according to the New Testament, there is only one single universal church, constituted by all those that have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit through time and space. That essential unity was founded on the invisible and indivisible union of all the members with Christ, their Head, through the Holy Spirit. Since the life that sustains the church is an indivisible Person, so also is the church. In other words, the vessel that fully contains Christ is definitely not an individual person, but the sum total of many that form the body and temple in which He dwells. The unity of the church is born of Christ and is, therefore, an irrevocable and indestructible fact. All those of us that believe in Christ, form a body and a spirit with Him.
On the other hand, although the spiritual fact of the afore-mentioned unity cannot be destroyed, its earthly and tangible expression can be altered. That is why Paul exhorts us to take care to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The great tragedy of Christendom is rooted precisely on this point. According to the New Testament revelation, the church can only experience separation by reasons of geographical convenience. Any other cause is forbidden, because it would damage its fundamental nature.
In the pages of the New Testament we find that the church of Christ was expressed on earth through a church in each geographical location. Thus we find, for example, the church in Ephesus, the church in Antioch, the church in Smyrna, the church in Jerusalem, but never the church in Greece or the church of Italy. On the other hand, when a geographical zone comprises several localities, the churches are named in plural, as "the churches in Asia" and "the churches that are in Judea".
The minimal basis for a group of believers to be considered a church is that they would all live within the same specific locality and nothing else. In other words, all the believers of a given locality belong to the only church of Christ that is manifested there in its earthly expression.
There cannot be more "churches" within the same locality because this would damage its essential unity. Any other basis for division is prohibited in the New Testament, because all the believers in Jesus Christ belong to one and only one unique heavenly church, which is distributed and is expressed through the churches, separated only because of geographical convenience. The churches on the earth that express the church that is His body are contiguous, in adjoining localities. They can never be juxtaposed or overlapping one another. Additionally, they form the assembly of all the believers that live in a specific locality, under the direction of Christ, their Head.
This model revealed in the New Testament, in the example of the churches founded by the apostles under the direction of the Holy Spirit, is the only one that can adequately express what the church is according to the eternal purpose of God. This is not an optional matter, because just as God warned Moses, His House has to be built according to the model God showed him on the mountain. God has given us the new wine of Christ, but He has simultaneously shown us the wineskin destined to contain it, because in the work of God, nothing has been left to human initiative or human improvisation, no matter how good, useful or attractive it may appear to us.
The church or assembly of the saints is the full expression of Christ, as His body and His helpmeet. Through her, Christ expresses Himself on earth. All that Christ is in the Heavens is to be expressed through His church on earth. For this to be possible, the church is to keep herself united under His direct and permanent control, because, as we have already seen, it is through the mutual ministry of all the saints that the control, life and power flows from the Head to the whole body in total fullness. But, if His body is divided, such a thing becomes impossible and the Lord is blocked.
Certainly, it is physically inapplicable for the believers of the whole world to gather in one single locality. Because of this the Lord allows them to separate themselves in territorial units under His direct government. This is clearly seen in the book of Revelation in His relationship with the churches in Asia. However, such a division does not alter the fact of the essential unity of the church. This is because each locality, although independent of all the others in administration, is ruled by the same Lord. Only He is the Head of the church, since they still gather on the one and only basis of the body of Christ in the said locality, although not necessarily in the same place (the form, in the majority of the cases, seems to have been a network of meetings in the homes of all the believers)(2).
No hierarchy or organization existed over and above the churches in the localities, because these depended directly on the Lord Himself, who is the only Head of the church. Thus, when the believers gathered around Christ in a determined locality, they did so on the unique basis of belonging to His body. They were so constituted to be His church in a practical and experiential way. Therefore, the Lord was free to fully manifest Himself in the midst of them.
This fundamental fact partly explains the state of decadence in which the church is living at the present time. They are divided in innumerable factions or sects that mutually exclude one another. (Sect in the Biblical sense is a division of the church due to any reason that is not the above-mentioned geographical reason). Even at their best, they merely manifest a lukewarm camaraderie over the well-constructed strong walls that separate them one from another. Modern Christianity has thus become incapable of expressing its Lord in fullness.
No Biblical and foundational reason exists to validate such divisions. They severely injure and challenge the authority of Christ over His own. They simply exist because we, the believers, have given place to carnal motives separating ourselves from our brethren due to pseudo-spiritual reasons. And so, any sibling, or group of brethren that differs from others due to doctrine, practice or ministry motives, finds in them sufficient reason to separate himself and erect a new church gravitating around his pet doctrine, practice or favorite emphasis, even down to including racial, political and social differences.
Nevertheless, since our factions have been constituted on a different basis than the body of Christ in each locality (either adding or deleting something from that simple basis) they have lost the right to represent and express Christ as His church on the earth. Certainly, each one of the believers continues belonging in an individual way to the heavenly church that is His body, but the group that has been constituted, cannot be called the church that the Lord Jesus Himself is building.
Thus, the sphere of the Lord's action remains confined to individuals, with all the limitation this comprises. Because, without His church expressed on earth, His eternal purpose remains interrupted, postponed and unfulfilled. This is the tragedy that our divisions cause.
As we have seen before, mutuality means that all the believers can minister in the church meetings, according to the principle of 1 Corinthians 14. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, all are called to provide life through the gift that each one has received.
A typical meeting of the church has the seal of mutuality and flexibility, so that the Lord is free to be expressed with full liberty in the midst of the gathering. In accord with the Bible, the gathering of the saints does not consist in a service during which the pastor's sermon is the central moment, whereas the rest of the believers are limited to passively participate as mere spectators. Nothing is farther away from such a thing as the notion of mutuality anchored in the marrow of the New Testament.
Certainly, we find some meetings where the believers gathered to hear an apostolic worker or a minister of the Word of God (for example the apostles in the Temple, Paul in Miletus, and Silas in Antioch). But, it should not be considered that these were typical gatherings of the church. Truly, the church God designed in eternity past was conceived as a corporate organism where relationships prevail instead of rigid forms. The church is the vessel that expresses God Himself and therefore, has to be sufficiently spontaneous and flexible so that the Holy Spirit can move within her as He wills.
In 1 Corinthians 14 we find, perhaps, the only description of a church meeting chronicled in the pages of the New Testament. There the emphasis is placed on the mutual ministry ("each one has...") and the participation of all of them ("...if all prophecy"). It is not necessary to be dogmatic about it. What Paul tells us should not be interpreted as a method or a rigid model. It is not about establishing a new way to meet in which all the believers are forced to speak. As has been said before, God's emphasis is not on highlighting forms, but life. Nevertheless, the principle of mutuality should be found active in each gathering of the church, because, otherwise, life cannot be expressed with liberty and without impediment.
Thus, the order of the meeting consists in that whosoever has received something from the Lord, according to the gift that he specifically has (1 Peter 4:10-11), would find the opportunity to deliver it to the rest of his brethren. It is good for the prophets to speak, but it is also necessary that time be allotted to the rest of the brethren, even including the youngest, to minister to the body. All should consider themselves to be active participants and not simply passive receivers of a religious service that others have prepared and performed for them. Truly, Christ and the church constitute an indivisible reality. And when we find the church expressed as she should be, we also find the Lord of the church in her midst. Because, according to Paul, whoever touches the church, also touches Christ ("declaring that Christ is really among you").
That is why, the notion that best describes her basic nature is found in the expression "one to another", which appears more than 60 times in the New Testament. Words like mutuality, reciprocity, flexibility and subjection best explain the form of life of the believers. The relations among the children of God are never merely unidirectional (for example, I command, you obey; I teach, you learn; I speak, you listen), but rather are bidirectional and reciprocal (we give and receive; we teach and learn; we speak and listen; we correct and are corrected).
This "one to another", without hierarchies in between, is the way in which the church manifests and experiences on earth the way of the Divine life. Merely the "one to another" can safely keep the absolute centrality of Christ and His lordship among the believers.
However, we have inherited a system of classes that separates the believers between professional ministers (clergy) and plain people (laity). Nothing is more aggressive against the manifestation of the Divine purpose than this anti-biblical distinction. Where a few men exercise the ministry while the majority is limited to passively receive the so-called "benefits", we merely have a form of Judaism. Where all minister and all are benefited by such service, we have the church of Jesus Christ, of whom "the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:16).
The gathering of the saints with Christ as their center can only be fulfilled on the basis of unity and mutuality, because otherwise it lacks true legitimacy in the eyes of God. Certainly, some grade of blessing can be obtained in meetings that do not satisfy that condition, but these can never be constituted into His church, which has the exclusive authority of fully manifesting Him.
In our days, believers seem to run after the super-ministries of supposedly great men of God. Mega-leaderships are greatly sought after and people seem to think that only through these God can be touched and reached. Men and women live blinded by the glare of the super-stars of contemporary Christianity, that too often follow the same patterns of fame and mundane power that Hollywood has. Nevertheless, the words of Christ remain as an irrevocable judgment on our ambitions and strivings for greatness: "I will build my church".
Our ministries and personal empires shall never do what only God can do. God has chosen only one Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be represented and expressed in His power and authority in this world through His body, the church of Jesus Christ, of which He alone is the Head.
If we do not acknowledge this essential fact, if we do not clearly see it, all our efforts will turn out to be in vain. We can fervently pray, engage in spiritual warfare, perform extensive evangelistic campaigns, erect mega churches, preach to multitudes, heal the sick, become known and famous beyond our frontiers, write books, prosper economically and noisily work, only to discover, at the end of the long day, that we have advanced very little in our task.
The world, Satan and sin continue to exist, almost as tranquil and safe as always, while the words of the old prophet resonate above our heads: "We have been with child, we have been in pain; we have, as it were, brought forth wind; we have not accomplished any deliverance in the earth, nor have the inhabitants of the world fallen" (Isaiah 26:18).
Meanwhile, the Kingdom of God will continue to wait for its hour, and that is not the hour of any man, ministry or "anointed preacher", but only the hour of the church of Jesus Christ.
(1) The basic original meaning of the Greek word ekklesia is formed by two Greek words: ek (out) and kaleo (called). In other words, as far as the church is concerned, called out from whatever they were in, to corporately assemble, gather and meet with Christ and in Christ." (Divine Intimacy, Fred Malir).
(2) In regards to the meeting place of the church, Watchman Nee has pointed out with penetrating wisdom: "The great buildings of today with their proud columns speak of the world and of the flesh and not of the Spirit, and, in many ways, they are not so well adapted to the purpose of the Christian assembly as the private homes of the children of God. In the first place, people feel more at ease to talk about spiritual matters in the informal ambiance of a home than in a spacious temple where everything is done in a formal way; therefore, there is not the same possibility in a temple for mutual interchange. For some reason, as soon as people enter into those special buildings, they involuntarily adopt a state of passivity and wait to be preached to. The ambiance of a family gathering should penetrate in all the meetings of God, so that the brethren would feel free to express their personal questions (1 Corinthians 14:35). Everything should be under the control of the Spirit, but there also should be there the liberty of the Spirit. In addition, if the churches are in the homes of the brethren, they will naturally feel that the interests of the church are their interests... Consequently, the scriptural method of the organization of the church is extremely simple. As soon as there are a few members in a place, they can begin to gather in one of their homes. If the members increase numerically so much that it becomes impractical to gather in one home, then they can gather in several different homes, but the entire company of believers can gather now and then in some public place. Some adequate venue can be obtained by borrowing it, renting it, or building it, according to the economical possibilities of the church; but we must remember that the ideal places for the meeting of the saints are their own homes". (The Normal Church, Watchman Nee).