Is it just my imagination, beloved covenant child, or does it seem to you, also, as if our voyage of discovery in search of an authentic life in Christ is being almost continually bombarded by detractors—ideas, teachings, traditions, even cultural expectations—that threaten to dissuade us and turn us away from the simple truths of God’s word. Some of these detractors appear rather obvious; but others, not so much. Among the more subtle miscreant concepts with which we must often contend in today’s world, and one that seems to blindside many, is that of organized religion.
When people hear the word, “church,” they often think of distinct corporate religious entities. They think of all those different denominations that we’ve been talking about; with their various names, labels, and titles. Sometimes, people tend to think of church buildings, property, and assets. They may even think of diverse, and often competing, ideologies, doctrines, and religious traditions.
Because we have become so accustomed to thinking of the church as a corporate organization, it is often easy to forget that we, the ekklesia—the “called out” people of God—are “Christ’s body and individually members of it” (I Corinthians 12:27, NASB); and that, as Jesus said, “…where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20, NASB). Do you want to find the ekklesia? You don’t have to consult the Yellow Pages or your local business directory. Just look in the mirror! You need look no further than yourself and that faithful family member, or friend, or neighbor, or associate at work who has been taught the way of the Lord, loves Him, and wants to serve Him.
The ekklesia is not some legal corporate entity. The ekklesia is us—God’s people. The ekklesia exists wherever His people exist; regardless of how organized or unorganized they may appear. It goes wherever His people go and accomplishes its work in the daily lives of every Christian as we go about living, working, loving, serving, reaching, teaching, and praising God through our everyday activities. This is why the Bible says, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Colossians 3:17, NASB).
Let me share with you, beloved, a few of my seemingly, but not really, radical thoughts about authentic Christianity and the ekklesia—church—here on earth:
- Corporate organization is not necessary because the ekklesia is not some corporate structure or religious institution that must be legally organized and approved by men.
- Owning, leasing, or renting buildings and property is not essential because anywhere, anytime, two or three Christians gather together in His name, well, as one newborn babe in Christ recently put it: “church is in session!”
- Formal edicts, doctrines, dogma, articles, bylaws, or creeds issued and enforced by some legal or alleged religious authority on earth—papacy, synod, council, convention, headquarters, eldership, trusteeship, board of directors, or local church leaders—as well as the enforcement of distinctive denominational traditions, are not necessary because the Bible is all we need to guide our beliefs and practices:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:14-17, NASB)
- Choosing separate and distinct names and labels by which to identify ourselves to one another is not essential to the unity of the ekklesia; and is, in fact, detrimental and divisive, regardless of how benign the name. Even terms like “community,” “evangelical,” and, believe it or not, “nondenominational” can become facilitators of religious pride and be used to separate and divide the children of God around differing doctrines. Our brothers and sisters in Christ who lived back in Bible days did not settle on any one name by which they sought to be identified; or invent names or labels in order to advertise themselves to the world. While many descriptive phrases are used in scripture to identify the ekklesia, they did not take any of these expressions and turn them into a denominational brand name and then rally around, take pride in, or boast about any one particular group identity. Rather, as the Apostle Paul stated: “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14, NASB).
- A sophisticated business or ministry model, with accompanying organization depicting well defined roles and administrative responsibilities, is not necessary for cultivating Christian community within and among the ekklesia. We have no evidence from scripture that God’s people organized themselves beyond the immediate, local, community level. And even at the local community level, there was very little formal organization. The Bible says:
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
(Ephesians 4:11-13, NASB)
- “Apostles” were the original ambassadors of Christianity, men chosen by the Lord and recognized by the ekklesia”in the 1st century as having the direct empowering of the Holy Spirit; which they received on the day of Pentecost (See: Acts 2:1-12). They alone had the authority to pass along the miraculous empowering of the Holy Spirit to others (See: Acts 8:18-19).
- “Prophets” were men and women who were indirectly empowered by the Holy Spirit “through the laying on of the apostles hands” (See: Acts 6:3-8, 8:14-19) through whom God’s word was made known during the first century, prior to the completion of the New Testament.
NOTE: The Bible says that “God’s household”—the ekklesia—is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Ephesians 2:20, NASB). While there are no longer apostles or prophets in the world today—because when the last apostle died the empowering could no longer be passed along to others—the New Testament contains their inspired writings and teachings; and continues to serve as the foundation of the Christian faith.
- “Evangelists” were proclaimers of the message of Jesus Christ. They traveled to various places throughout the world preaching and teaching the word of God. Today, we might think of them as missionaries in a sense. However they often spent considerable time with local communities of the ekklesia helping them to become firmly established in the one faith (See: 2 Timothy 4:1-5).
- “Pastors”—also called “elders” or “overseers”—were older Christian men who served as the spiritual shepherds of the flock within their local communities. They were formally recognized by the ekklesia among whom they lived. These men were role models, teachers, spiritual counselors, and even protectors of the flock. The Apostle Paul informed the young evangelist, Timothy, concerning what character traits he should look for in these men before formally acknowledging them as pastors, saying:
It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
(1 Timothy 3:1-7, NASB)
- “Teachers” were men and women like Priscilla and Aquila who, after listening to Apollos preach, “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26, NASB).
- We know that there were also men and women who served as designated public “servants” within the ekklesia. Some modern versions of the Bible still use the three-hundred year old King James Version transliteration of the Greek word [diakonous] or [diakonon]; thus substituting the word “deacon” or “deaconess” for the actual meaning of the word, which is simply, “servant.” For example the Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess [diakonon] of the church at Cen′chre-ae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.
(Romans 16:1-2, RSV)
Far from being positions of power and authority, these men and women were simply public servants who were appointed to serve in more visible roles. They took care of physical needs and provided hands-on assistance to others when and where needed. The Apostle Paul tells Timothy what character traits to look for in appointing both men and women to such positions of service, saying:
Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
(I Timothy 3:8-13, NASB)
In Bible days, the ekklesia shared life together as much as possible. They met together as often as they were able and wherever they could—whether it was always convenient, or even safe, for them to be together or not. The Bible says:
Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.
(Acts 2:46-47, NASB)
While the above passage is a reference to the ekklesia in its infancy—being newly founded by Christ—later in the 1st century, it continued to be typical for the children of God to simply meet together in their homes. For example, when the Apostle Paul closed his letter to the church at Rome, he said:
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the [ekklēsiai] of the Gentiles; also greet the [ekklēsian] that is in their house.
(Romans 16:3-5, NASB)
He also said:
Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ. Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus… Greet those of the household of Narcissus, who are in the Lord… Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them. Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the [ekklesiai] of Christ greet you.
(Romans 16:10-16, NASB)
Apparently, as this passage indicates, the ekklesia living in Rome and elsewhere consisted of many small groupings or “ekklesiai”—congregations, assemblies, communities—of people meeting together in homes, or other venues, scattered throughout the city or region. These were independent, autonomous, local, community fellowships without formal ties to any larger associations or corporate entities, but bound in heart and faith to one another and to God’s people everywhere. There is no reason why the ekklesia cannot continue to exist and operate in this same simple fashion today.
When I look at the simplicity, the beauty, the sheer elegance of early Christianity and how it was practiced at the community level back in Bible days, I’m tempted to get kind of legalistic myself and insist that their way of doing things is the only legitimate way of doing things. In other words, I’m tempted to want to turn the New Testament into a codified book of rules and regulations and insist on always doing “Bible things in Bible ways”; which, of course, would pretty much require doing away with organized, corporate Christianity altogether. But, as much as I might like to see that happen, I fear that kind of thinking is only another device of Satan to dissuade me from seeing the bigger picture and to lead me into some kind of narrow, self-serving, party-spirit mentality.
I need to remember, and you probably need to remind me from time-to-time, that, while modern Christianity sometimes seems to only remotely resemble that which we read about in the scripture, still, when it comes to the area of human opinion, “All things are lawful” (I Corinthians 6:12, 10:23, NASB). In other words, we need to keep in mind that, due to the freedom of the new covenant, the ekklesia is not prohibited from adapting to contemporary culture in order to remain relevant throughout the ages and to expedite the mission to which Christ has called us.
We need to remember that any practice is permissible; so long as it does not invalidate the word of God or circumvent God’s expressed will for our lives. As long as a given practice or tradition does not endorse, permit, promote, or advocate that which God, through His divinely inspired written word—the Bible—says is sinful, the practice is permissible. Likewise, so long as the practice or tradition does not hinder, invalidate, repudiate, circumvent, or disavow a specific commandment of God—that which the written word of God has expressly enjoined upon us—the practice is permissible. And, so long as the practice or teaching is not inculcating the personal opinions, beliefs, traditions, interpretations, or doctrines of men as though they were the word of God, and then binding those practices or teachings upon others and holding them accountable—as though their personal relationship with God or fellowship with the body of Christ depended on it—the practice is permissible.
For example, if the ekklesia in a given location decides that it is expedient—appropriate and in their best interest—to incorporate, open a bank account, purchase land, build a building, and engage in corporate ministerial programs, the terms of the new covenant do not condemn such activity because “all things are lawful”; even though they are not altogether necessary and there is nothing in scripture that specifically authorizes any of these actions. Or, if God’s people living in various locations decide that it is expedient—useful or beneficial—to the cause of Christ for them to work together in order to accomplish foreign mission work, or to build hospitals and clinics, or to found schools and orphanages, the terms of the new covenant do not condemn such activity because “all things are lawful.” This is the freedom of the New Covenant. It allows for the adaptation of Christianity—as far as outward forms and ways of doing things goes—throughout the ages and across all cultures so that “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3, NASB) remains relevant throughout all generations.
If, however, some men among the ekklesia began to assume ecclesiastical authority over others, resulting in a separate clergy or priesthood, as some churches have done, this would certainly amount to a violation of the expressed intent of the new covenant because it circumvents, or hinders, what the scriptures specifically teach in regard to the priesthood of all believers; consider:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.
(I Peter 2:9. NASB)
…and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen!
(Revelation 1:6, NASB).
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.
(Revelation 5:10, NASB).
From these verses we learn that every new covenant child of God is a priest and that the entire ekklesia constitutes a priesthood. What this means is that you and I can go directly to God and have personal access to Him at all times. We do not need specially ordained people to represent us before God. Furthermore, because we are all priests, we can mutually minister to one another as we, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16, NASB), and as we, “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NASB).
Do we really want to allow some man-made, human-ordained clergy or priesthood to get in the way of, or hinder, our practice of these beautiful privileges and responsibilities; and thereby circumvent the wisdom of God and His manifest provisions for finding abundant life together within the body of Christ? To do so would not only constitute a tragic loss, but would be a departure from the word of God. So then, we need to be careful in choosing what practices we can endorse and which ones have the mark of satanic influence and need to be avoided.
God calls us to walk in circles of love; surrounded by people who love us and who share our faith. The ekklesia kept their community life very simple during the 1st century, as is demonstrated in the pages of the New Testament. They practiced their Christian faith in the context of the culture in which they lived; and so must we. While the fundamentals of the faith—those spiritual truths that identify us as the children of God—are unchanging, the ways and means by which God’s children live out their faith may change from age to age and from culture to culture. In fact, one of the enduring beauties of authentic, new covenant Christianity is that it is not limited to the way things were done during any one period of history, nor is it bound by any one particular culture.
Sorting out the eternal principles by which we are to live our faith from those things that are only cultural is not always easy; but it constitutes a big part of our quest for an authentic life in Christ. It has been my observation that our adversary would love to thwart the cause of Christ by keeping us in a continual state of confusion regarding what is necessary, what is expedient, and what is a hindrance to our faith. However, it is also my observation that, when the children of the covenant remain faithful to our quest, and maintain a firm commitment to walking together in Christian fellowship—in whatever form our circles of love may take—God will always make clear His will for our lives.
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