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When the Church Is Not the Church

May 17, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – 1 Thessalonians 1:1 (NRSV)

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

Focus

The first Christians referred to their communities with the Greek word ekklēsia. We translate this word into English as “church.” “Church” means something like “Christian religious group or gathering.” But the early, Greek-speaking Christians didn’t hear ekklēsia in this way. For them, the ekklēsia was governing body in their city. It was more like the city council than what we call a church. Thus, the biblical use of ekklēsia reminds us that our churches are not to be self-contained and self-absorbed groups of Christians. Rather, we’re to be assemblies of God’s authorized people who bring the good news, peace, and justice of God to the places where we live.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Encouragement from 1 Thessalonians.

Devotion

I don’t know how many times in life I’ve been told that the church isn’t a building. It must be at least 200 times, maybe more. Plus, I’m quite sure I’ve said it dozens of times as well. Yes, we Christians meet in buildings called churches (though, increasingly Christians gather in schools, theaters, restaurants, parks, and community centers). But the church really isn’t the building in which we meet. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the assembly of Christians gathered in worship and scattered into the world.

I’m good with all of that. But even a theologically-precise view of what the church really is can sometimes keep us from understanding how the first Christians would have thought of themselves and their communities. The earliest Christians did not have buildings dedicated for their meetings, so they wouldn’t have been tempted to think of the church as a building. Yet, I would argue that the first Christians didn’t think of themselves as a church, either. For them, the church was not the church.

I realize this might sound confusing, or even incorrect, so let me explain what I mean. In the letter we know as 1 Thessalonians, Paul and his colleagues are writing “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1). When we read this English translation, we naturally interpret it to mean something like, “To the Christian religious community in Thessalonica.” That’s what a church is. Right?

Well, not according to the first recipients of 1 Thessalonians. When they heard the word ekklēsia, the Greek word translated in New Testament as “church,” they did not think of a “religious organization” or “religious gathering.” Ekklēsia did not have that meaning in first-century Greek. It was not used to describe religious organizations, groups, or gatherings. Rather, ekklēsia had two basic meanings: 1) a regularly summoned legislative body; 2) a casual gathering of people. Since the Christian gatherings were not casual, but intentional and regular, the use of ekklēsia in the early Christian writings, of which 1 Thessalonians is probably the earliest, echoed the secular, legal sense of ekklēsia. Even as the citizens of a Hellenistic city would gather as the ekklēsia to do the official business of the city, so the Christians gathered to do God’s official business in the places where they were located.

Given how familiar we are with the religious sense of “church,” it can be hard for us to hear ekklēsia as it was first heard. Perhaps an example will help. Most cities in the United States have some kind of local governing body. It might be called the “town council” or “board of aldermen” or “city council.” Members of this body are authorized to govern the city where they live. In Pasadena, California, where I live, we have the City Council. The council meets every Monday at 4:30 p.m. to govern our city, along with the mayor.

Now, suppose I decided to plant a new church in Pasadena. Suppose further that I decided to call my church “The City Council of Pasadena in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” How do you think that would sound to my neighbors? How about to current members of the official city council? Don’t you think they’d be perplexed, even rather bugged? Calling my little church “The City Council of Pasadena” might seem rather bold, or perhaps arrogant, or uppity. What was I implying about the existing city council? Did I have political aspirations? Was I trying to undermine the authority of the city council?

Conversely, how might the people in my little church feel to be called “The City Council of Pasadena in God . . .”? What might this say to them about their identity and mission? Might such a name suggest that the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just forming new religious communities, but rather transforming the social order, perhaps even the political order. I expect the members of my Christian community would sense that their calling to our city was significant, that they were involved in something big, something disruptive, something like, well, the kingdom of God, for example.

I believe that translating ekklēsia as “church” misses the sense of the original language. Neither Paul and his co-writers nor his Thessalonian recipients would have heard ekklēsia as a “Christian religious community.” A better translation might be “assembly” because this word can mean “official governing body” as well as “gathering of people.”

But my point here really isn’t about the word. It’s about how we think of the community of Christians. Are we just some little religious group that cares mostly about its own worship and wellbeing? Or are we an assembly of God’s authorized representatives who are called to transform the places where we live with the good news of God’s kingdom? Are we to embody and extend the love, justice, and peace of God in our part of the world? Maybe the church isn’t supposed to be just the church.

Reflect

When you hear the word “church,” what comes immediately to mind? (Be honest. Don’t just give the “right answer.”)

How do you think people in your city would feel if a new church called itself “The City Council of [Your City ]”?

What do you think of the idea that “assembly” might be a better word for ekklēsia than “church”?

In most of the world today, Christian assemblies are not the dominant authority in the places they gather. So then, how might we make a kingdom difference where we live as “assemblies” of Jesus Christ?

Act

Pay attention to ways your church is serving folks outside of the walls of the church. See if there’s a way you can get involved.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for the gift of what we call the church. Thank you for the community of your people, for our gatherings to worship and celebrate, for the love we share together, for the mission to which you have called us.

Help us to see with fresh eyes, Lord, what you have designed us to be together. Help us to see clearly how we can embody and extend your kingdom into the places where we live. Give us the freedom to serve our neighbors, bringing your love, grace, and justice into our common life.

No matter what we are called, Lord, may we be your faithful body, living for your purposes and glory in this world. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Grow Up: How Can We Grow Into Our Head?


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