We have spent our lives trying to be good Christians that “go to church”. However, you would be hard pressed to find anything that looks like modern day American church anywhere in the pages of the Bible. It might even surprise you to know that the word “church” isn’t in the Bible. We have created the traditional concept of what we call church.
What about the texts where we literally read the word church in nearly all translations such as the infamous Matthew 16:18 in the NASB? “Upon the Rock I will build my church”? Or how about the beginning of Philemon when it clearly states the church as a home meeting? Let me better explain.
In the greek we usually see the word ekkelsia/ekklésia and in Hebrew the word typically translated as church is qehelah. But Jesus never used these words to describe the congregations of people that came to Him. One of my life Mantras has always been to try to figure out exactly what God desires of us. I have written books and countless articles on the subject; what are God’s ideals in our life? If we were to follow exactly what God is asking and Jesus’ calling to live as wholly devoted disciples what would it look like; specifically in this article what would the coming together of believers and the unity of the body best look like. Would it still resemble and Old Testament torah observant festival schedule or perhaps look like a more evolved version of family meetings in people’s houses? Or if the great commission is successful, would we naturally arrive at the concept of the great American mega church?
In the Old Testament we have Torah. Torah explains how the community of believers might live towards a life that points to holiness and purification and eventually to Jesus. There were 7 festivals that the family attended, 3 of which were pilgrimage large community meetings and then the idea of coming together as a family each sabbath to stay on track with what Yahweh desired of you. It was a great mosaic life picture to stay on track with God as a stop Gap until the Messiah would once and for all act as atonement for sin. But the Torah continually encouraged all of life to surround God.
In the New Testament we get similar pictures of keeping your family on track and functioning in one accord as the body of Christ. But what we have turned this act into, (what we refer to as church), is likely far from what Jesus was asking. Did his disciples regularly attend church as we know it? Was Jesus commissioning Peter to build the modern church brought to us by Catholicism?
We have all heard and probably studied that the word mostly translated as church in the Bible is is ekklēsía, an assembly, but you might find it interesting that this Greek word is more accurately described in Greek as a non-religious assembly. Consider its use in Acts 19:32 and other verses. So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together. Acts 19:32 NASB It is described as an angry confused mob. Well that actually might be a pretty good definition for most people’s modern day church experiences ha ha.
When we read the word ekklēsía in Greek you find it starts with the Greek word kaléō which means to call or invite, which better translates to Hebrew as qārāʾwhich is the more common word for being called. In Hebrew religious assemblies were synagogues, but this carries a problem in the first century. Synagogues became associated with Greco-Roman pagan connections to the extent that most Jews stopped using the word to describe the place where Yahweh was met. In the Greek it specifically does not mean “a religious assembly.” Synagogue meant any religious assembly; it is used far more in first century literature to describe temples for Athena or Zeus than for Yahweh. As a result, the word synagogue just migrated into a Jewish term just like ekklesia, it wasn’t Jewish to begin with.
The reason the word ekklēsía is (rightly) used is because it meant “the called-out ones.” It is an invitation, particularly focused on God’s provision of salvation (which in Hebrew is better described as an exodus or rescue). To be part of the body that was summoned and invited by the sovereign God for the purpose of rescue from immediate danger. But Paul repeatedly uses the term such as in 1 Corinthians 1 to take on an exodus motif. There are several modern day Biblical scholars that have picked up on this such as Frank Viola and Francis Chan. Mark Nanos offers this:
“It is widely recognized that the first appearance of christianos postdate Paul and that he never refers to himself or anyone else by this term or its cognates.”
“ . . . the term ekklesia, from which the translation ‘church’ derived, has also come to represent something that is by definition distinguishable from ‘synagogue.’ . . . ekkelsia was a term that, if not also qualified as being specifically Christ-following, would naturally be understood to represent synagogue gatherings of Jews that were not assumed to be affiliated with Christ-followers: the ekklesia were not yet what ‘church’ came to represent. Thus it is anachronistic and unhelpful for understanding Paul in his own context to use the translation ‘church’ when reading and discussing Paul and his Jewish ‘assemblies.’”
What Mark, and most theologians will tell you is that church as we know it, was a religion of later gentiles, most probably the Roman Catholic Church. Paul and Jesus and the first century disciples didn’t practice this form of “church”.
Skip Moen suggests that as “This may seem bold, unsettling, even heretical. But it is heresy only if you accept the revised history of the Church. What actually happened is a matter of historical investigation. What the Church teaches is something quite different. So, who’s the heretic? Was Paul a Christian? The historical record strongly suggests that he was not, and neither were any of his compatriots. The historical record suggests that Paul never converted; he was always a Torah-observant Jew with a Jewish Messiah. The historical record recounts the creation of the Christian Church with a separate theology, Christology and ecclesiology in the mid-third and fourth centuries. So it’s time to correct the text and remove all those terms whose meaning was determined by men who never shared the faith of Paul or his Messiah.”
My problem with the great American church is that it is more worldly than it is Biblical. Didn’t Jesus preach the opposite?
Against Christianity by Peter Leithart is a penetrating examination of the difference between the post-modern view of the world and the biblical view. According to Leithart:
Modernity refers to the civilization of the West since about 1500. Culturally, modernity is characterized by “value pluralism,” which entails the privatization of religious institutions and religious claims. Every individual and every group chooses its own shared values, and civil society is the arena where those values enter into combat. Politically, modernity is shaped by “liberalism,” the political system dedicated to the one proposition that political systems must not be dedicated to one proposition.
Through its roots in the patristic period, Christianity in its more developed form is the Church’s adjustment of the gospel to modernity, and the Church’s consequent acceptance of the world’s definition of who we are and what we should be up to. Christianity is biblical religion disemboweled and emasculated by (voluntary) intellectualization and/or privatization.
Christianity is not merely haphazard embrace of the values and practices of the modern world. Worldliness in that sense has plagued the Church since Corinth and will be a temptation to the end of time. Christianity is institutionalized worldliness, worldliness accepted in principle, worldliness not at the margins but at the center, worldliness build into the foundation.
Some don’t like the term Christianity anymore and I can see why. It is unfortunate that the name so closely associated with Jesus has been perpetrated by the world to represent something near counter to what Jesus taught. Leithart picks up on this. Unfortunately, Christianity is tied to the systems of the world which is what Jesus routinely spoke against. Jesus wasn’t interested in joining any systems other than the His own, the kingdom of God. Jesus calls for radical discipleship, kingdom living, and challenges the message of this world and people’s allegiances to systems, structures, and ideologies.
Church as we know it has become much of what Jesus spoke against. It is big business with a worldwide, organized hierarchy that resembles pharisaical tradition more than anything.
Skip Moen makes another point that I have to completely agree with, “Just consider the almost universal acceptance of democracy as the proper political system of Christianity. Nothing in the biblical record supports this idea. Where did it come from? From the Greeks. The Church is not a democracy. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. But most Christians have accommodated to the state by accepting democracy as the correct political system.”
Jesus spoke of a radically different culture. It was family based with regular teaching and accountability to the body of and fellowship of believers (not the church leadership) in Him and only Him. It wasn’t about routine programming, or a schedule of events driven by what the world looks like. It was the opposite of that. Today Christians act more like Greeks following a pagan God in a pagan Temple than they do theocratic followers of the one king. Being a follower of Christ was never supposed to be aligned with being a morally upright member of a political nation. To Jesus that was described as having two masters and being a slave to something of the world. The central message of Jesus was to not conform to the world, yet this is exactly what modern American Church has done. We have built churches that look desirable to the world. Rock and roll light show events, cool Christianity, and events geared towards entertainment or prosperity over discipleship.
A BETTER VIEW
What is the answer, what is the solution? How do we get back to Jesus in one accord? Is there any room to migrate from the Torah or the New Testament Biblical model? If you want to follow God’s ideals I am afraid the unpopular answer to these questions is likely, “NO.” We were given similar models in both the Old and New Testaments and are simply asked to follow them, but in typical human fashion we think we can build a better model than what Jesus asks for. God offers a theocracy, man demands their own king, Jesus says he is the only king, we try to hire pastor kings, Jesus says leave the world on the beach and completely follow me, we want to enslave ourselves to the world for 40-50 hours a week with mortgages of enslavement up to our eyeballs. How is that God way?
In the Torah dedication to a holy God is the meaning and source of life. Nothing can take precedence over this. Everything about life itself pointed to life in Yahweh. You were surrounded by Him and the body of His people. In the first church we get the same idea. Your life existed to promote Jesus as king and deny the ways of the world.
Home church, church underground, whatever you might call it is a better picture than big business church. I like some of the aspects of American church. Perhaps some people come out of the world and find God at a traditional church first. I consider myself a missionary to the evangelical church in hopes of shepherding those that realize they are looking for a better picture of dedicated discipleship in Jesus.
The better goal of following Jesus is to live every day live as if your mission of holiness for your spiritual family was/is all you are concerned about. It is hard to imagine this calling in our American lives, in fact it would be a complete paradigm shift, totally radical. But guess what, it was the same thing in the first century. It was totally radical and completely counter cultural; yet the first century church embraced it. Today I think most evangelical Christians desire the world more than we desire Jesus.
How do we get there? Let me paint a picture.
- Every day is completely, wholly given to Jesus and the calling to be a disciple and make a disciple by Jesus’ definition not the worlds
- You don’t give your time, treasure, and talents to the world in any way, they are reserved solely for Jesus
- You train up your kids as your primary responsibility and your core act of making disciples
- You live intimately with Him and present deeper devotion to the king and His kingdom within your family and surround yourself with one accord of a body of believers that think the same way.
- Don’t be immersed in the world, let the world find Jesus through you. Offer living water at each and every opportunity. You don’t need to drink the worlds water anymore.
- Bring your gifts to and for the body each and every day
- Meet regularly as a spiritual family communing with Jesus as a central strand of life together
- Your best should be given to Jesus, everything points that way
- Work repeatedly and regularly to present yourself completely devoted to Him (a living sacrifice) and your spiritual family of disciples
- Get back to God’s ideals, perhaps 7 feasts for 7 days and each sabbath together; or perhaps that was just the beginning of what God wants. Eventually in a recreated heaven and earth we are going to be in fellowship not just 7×7 but completely. That should be the goal today too, not once a week, but wholly given in complete life pursuit. That is the thrust of the New Covenant disciple, not just a tithe, or a first fruit, but all in all the time.
What would it look like if your spiritual family lived this way. Can you imagine it? Could you survive in America? What if you had 10 families that made this commitment. Your gifts enabled housing out of debt. (pipedream, impossible? I think your limiting yourself and God) You shared what was “needed”; you provided for not only your own but the others. You all learned to live this way. I would actually venture to say that it is not only possible but is the ONLY Biblical model and is a recipe for amazing life in Jesus. You might conduct a business but it is surrounded together in Jesus. Maybe the Amish building houses together weren’t too far off from a New Testament picture of working together, they just got hung up on legalism along the way.