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A Church – An Alternative and “Subversive” Society

by André Schwartz last modified Jul 23, 2014 03:49 PM
Back to Biblical Basics (BBB)

It may be easy to get past the “church is a building” mistake, but we if we still think of ekklesia as “all of the members of a particular Christian institution, whether they are present in the gathering or not,” we have to reconsider our understanding.

If someone asks you, “How big is BPPC?” You might answer, “We have about 120 members.” You do not necessarily mean that all members on the books are in the same place at the same time. In common speech, BPPC are those who consider our group of people their religious home, whether they showed up very much or not.

This understanding of church makes good sense, because then you are part of the church even if you are sick and cannot come to worship on Sunday. This is comforting.

But there is a downside to thinking of a church as a collection of people who may or may not ever actually be together. If the church has nothing to do with actual gatherings, then this is fine. But if the essence of the church is related to actual assemblies (ekklesia) of actual people, then the one who rarely shows up is hardly a member of the church.

From a New Testament point of view, however, this is peculiar, indeed. One was part of the ekklesia in Thessalonica if one was part of the real gathering because, indeed, ekklesia meant “gathering.”

To demonstrate: Imagine you invite me to a gathering of friends at your place. What would you make of an answer, “Sure, I’ll be a part of your gathering, but I won’t be able to attend?” I'm sure you’d be confused by my answer because being a part of a gathering means being physically present. If the ekklesia is meant to be the actual gathering of people, not some ethereal club, then something is terribly wrong if the majority of so-called church members aren’t regularly present with the church.

Please understand I’m not necessarily blaming church members for this problem, though we all surely contribute to it. Churches and church leaders have much to do with the problem of inactive members. We have perpetuated a notion that church is about joining something where literal attendance isn’t assumed. Moreover, we have often made the content of our services so irrelevant that members can’t be blamed for attending irregularly. I think all pastors need to ask themselves: Would I show up on Sunday morning at my church if I didn’t have to?

You see, the assembly is not the assembly when it isn’t assembled. Now, I certainly believe there’s a sense in which we can be the church when we’re scattered in the world—more about this later.

But, for now, it’s important to note that there’s something extremely important, and, indeed, essential about the actual gathering of Christians. Though there may be a derivative sense in which the church can be scattered, the regular assembly of believers is absolutely crucial to the health, if not the essence of a church.

As pointed out in the previous article, the normal citizen/city dweller in Paul's time would understand ekklesia of the Thessalonians as the civic rulers of the city.

Surely Paul and his fellow Christian church planters knew what they were getting into by calling their gatherings ekklesiai (plural of ekklesia). No doubt they realised that referring to the Christian meetings as thiasoi (religious clubs) or synagogai (assemblies, synagogues) would be less troublesome. Yet they chose ekklesiai in spite of the potential for that name to cause trouble for the believers in a city that already had its own ekklesia.

It would seem that the early Christian use of ekklesia was indeed meant to be a bit subversive but not in the ordinary manner. The first followers of Jesus were not intending to overthrow the established ekklesia of their cities. They were not plotting political rebellion. Yet, the Christians were setting up an alternative society that, as it grew, would indeed come to upset the apple cart of civic life throughout the Roman Empire. The Christian ekklesia was not some little religious club off in a corner or some harmless gathering that fitted nicely into Greco-Roman society. Rather, it was a thumbnail sketch of the kingdom of God. It was a foretaste of the new creation yet to come. And, in this sense, it was an alternative community, even an unusually subversive one.

I do not mean that Christians were plotting to overthrow the local ekklesia (governing body of the city) by political or military means (1 Pet 2:13). Rather, in some sense, the ekklesia undermined the social order of the Greco-Roman city, with its own ekklesiai (town meeting-like gatherings). The Christian ekklesia was meant to be an alternative society, a society of a radically different order with radically different values (Rom 12:2).

In the ekklesia of God, Jews and Gentiles shared life together as brothers and sisters (Col 3:11). Slaves could also be full participants in the Christian gatherings, enjoying equality in Christ with non-slaves, even with their masters (Eph 6:8). Women could actively participate in the gatherings (Rom 16:3). The theological truth that in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” was lived out in the Christian assemblies (Gal 3:28). Thus, they were a kind of alternative society, one that implicitly rejected the domineering, segregationist and elitist values of the Roman world.

Could this be said of BPPC that it is also an alternative society? A “subversive” society? In our culture the church tends to play a very different role than what was once envisioned by Paul and the early Christians. Instead, we often reflect the fallen values of our society rather than the holy values of God’s kingdom. (1 Pet 2:9)

As a Christian Church, we often just play a comfortable religious role in society, offering a spiritual narcotic to soothe tensed nerves rather than an alternative way of living under God’s rule. We don’t want to rock the social boat. We want to find our niche in society so that society will smile upon us.

But we must note that nowhere in Scripture do we get the idea that the role of the ekklesia is to directly influence (or replace) the civic ekklesia. Nowhere is it suggested that the Christian assembly should major in “speaking truth to power” other than the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (compare Eph 4:15 and 1 Tim 2:1‑7). Rather, the power of the ekklesia to change society comes from the authenticity of its corporate life, which is a manifestation of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, the ekklesia offers not political advice to the members of the civic ekklesia but, instead, a whole new way of living—one that reflects the kingdom of God rather than the empire of Caesar.

What does this mean, in practice?

  • We should care much less about our other organisational meetings (ekklesia) (not that they are not important too) and pay much more attention to the regular, tangible, essential gathering of our local ekklesiai.
  • We should put much more effort into nurturing healthy ekklesiai—planting and caring for churches through the Gospel.
  • We should put ways in place that support our mission of “making disciples” rather than holding on to the structures that hold us back from that mission.
  • We should strive harder to be an alternative society through our ekklesiai—one that truly reflects the gospel of Jesus Christ, one that shines as a light into our dark world.
  • We should see our local gatherings as essential, not only to our congregational life, but also to the health of our city.
  • We should care more about doing God’s justice, and less about talking about justice in ways that divide and weaken our churches.
  • Our congregations should embrace our identity as “missional churches”; fellowships sent by God to proclaim and live out the reality of his kingdom. We should be less committed to our own self-preservation and more committed to offering our neighbours the good news of Christ.