They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47 (NIV)
Think for a moment about the church you attend. I’m going to identify a group of people that attend there as well. It doesn’t matter what church you go to or where you live; these people are there. I call them “once-a-weekers.” There are of course several species of this organism. Some attend Sunday School. Some sing very loudly so all can hear. Some make it a point to shake as many hands as possible. Nevertheless, they dutifully appear every Sunday morning as if a perfect attendance award existed. But once the service ends, they disappear – until next week. These people persist because somehow our culture has been warped to the extent that the word “church” doesn’t mean what God meant by it. Further, the damage done by this cultural distortion transcends just the concept of church. It also skews our perspective on our own relationships with each other and drives people away from the church as a result.
The original word is ecclesia, a word with no direct translation in English. In my view, the best approximation is the word “assembly” but even that word is problematic because it implies that the assembly members are all together physically. The original word doesn’t imply that. For example, in my home state, people love to identify as “Texan.” If a few of them get together and take a road trip to New Mexico, they don’t stop being “Texans.” What’s more, if they then decide to explore a tourist area as individuals, they are still an “assembly of Texans” in the ecclesia sense. So when Paul wrote about ecclesia, he meant all the believers, at whatever point in time and space they existed at that moment. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt. 18:20). If ecclesia is a physical place, a building, or a denomination, then how can Jesus say this? He didn’t say “…gather in my name in a church building.” There is no qualifier about the gathering at all.
Reading our passage above from Acts carefully, we see the same thing. There is nowhere that ecclesia can’t exist. They met in homes and whatever places were available. And they did so “every day”! Does that mean that they had church every day? Is the Bible telling us to have daily services? (All the ministers in the room just had a panic attack.) Of course not! They met together because they were bonded by something beyond a label, a sanctuary, or a building. They met together because they were family, in a sense that goes beyond the earthly word. They shared, they became vulnerable, they communed. In America, anyway, this idea has been albeit lost.
And that has ramifications. The word ecclesia occurs 5 times in a certain passage: Ephesians 5:21-33. This passage is controversial in modern times. In the English, it seems to be saying that women are inferior to men, that men are the rulers. This has not played well in modern culture as you might imagine. It’s a good thing that Paul wasn’t saying anything of the sort. The passage is below:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Paul is using marriage to talk about what church is, not using a corporate conceptualization of “church” to dictate leadership and superiority in a marriage. That interpretation is completely backwards. But the modern ecclesia has become a corporate entity with districts and conferences and leaders and politics, embedded in a society that has been paternalistic for centuries. When we have this image of church in mind, I wouldn’t like this passage either if I were a woman. The beautiful picture Paul draws here of marriages being partnerships between two people whom have different abilities, skills, and gifts that complement one another is obliterated by the illusion we’ve created today of what church is. Take a moment to read popular media about churches in America, and you will see one common theme (among many) – Christianity is paternalistic and dismissive of women. And of course, if we repeat something enough times, we believe it without evidence. Those have convinced themselves of the chauvinism of the Bible are refusing to listen anymore.
We only have ourselves to blame. We took the idea of church and made it no different than a social club. We don’t worship, we conduct business. We don’t study the Scripture, we just buy some curriculum and watch some videos. Church is just another service organization in America today.
Be part of the solution. Meet with your church family. Take someone to lunch or just grab a coffee. Have some friends over for Bible study. Meet at the river to feed the ducks. Serve at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Being part of ecclesia means building relationships, not just filling seats.