Ekklesia and the missional church
Here’s another example (see also Review of Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, ReJesus) of the disconnection between great missional ideas and a coherent narrative theology.At the Christian Associates leaders summit in Portugal last week Mike Frost argued that for Paul the Greek word ekklēsia would have signified in the first place a gathering of local elders who would be a source of wisdom and good counsel to the local community. So, for example, if a man had a dispute with his brother over the division of an inheritance (cf. Luke 12:13-14), the issue would normally be settled not by an itinerant rabbi (‘Man, who made me judge or arbitrator over you?’) but by the elders of the community in lengthy and time-honoured deliberations at the city gates.
What Frost infers from this is that the missional church should aspire to function as just that sort of ekklēsia of the elders for local communities - as a source of wisdom and good counsel for the wider society within which it is embedded. Yes, Paul overlays this notion with other images - a body, a family, a household, an army. ‘But isn’t it interesting,’ Frost and Hirsch write in ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church (32), ‘that the base, raw material he uses to develop his vision for us is that of a group of elders adding value to the village, bringing wisdom, and connecting our destiny with that of the community?’ They then tell the story of a woman who prophesied that if their faith community smallboatbigsea were ‘taken away from its neighbourhood, the whole community would grieve its loss’.
That surely is a marvellous vision of the place that communities of faith might have in a post-Christendom world. Wisdom is one of those biblical categories of creation blessing that ought to be mediated by the church to the nations. We might speak of the missional church being a priestly community in a similar way: we are a priesthood of all believers not for our own benefit but for the sake of a world that does not know how to approach and engage with the creator God. Or a prophetic community: we communicate the justice and compassion and purpose of the creator God to a world that does not have the ears to hear him or eyes to see him.
But is the exegetical argument correct?
The word ekklēsia occurs only twice in the Gospels. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus tells his disciples what to do if ‘your brother sins against you’: if the matter cannot be resolved directly or through the intervention of one or two others, tell it to the ekklēsia - and if he still refuses to listen, ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’. This could be taken to suggest that the ekklēsia functioned as a council of elders which passed judgment over community disputes - BDAG gives as a first sense ‘a regularly summoned legislative body’ (cf. Acts 19:39). But the brothers in dispute are themselves part of this group, so there is no reason think that ekklēsia here does not simply refer to the ‘gathering’ of those who ‘gather (sunēgmenoi) in my name’ (Matt. 18:20).
The second occurrence, Matthew 16:18, is interesting because it echoes a passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls where it is said that God ordained the Teacher of Righteousness to build for him an assembly (4QpPs37 3.16). The background to Jesus’ statement about building an ekklēsia, however, lies in the widespread Septuagint usage of the word for the congregation of all Israel, particularly - though not only - for religious purposes. In Joel 2:15-16 LXX, for example, God urges the people to ‘gather together’ (sunagagete), to ‘sanctify an assembly (ekklēsian)’, in order to repent and seek forgiveness from God. Note also Stephen’s words in Acts 7:38: ‘This is the one (ie. Moses) who was in the congregation (ekklēsia) in the wilderness….’
What I think this suggests is that while ekklēsia may indeed denote an ‘assembly’ of elders or judges (Sir. 38:33 is another example), quite possibly gathered at the city gates, there is no basis for making this sense primary or normative. Jesus will build (on the rock which is either Peter himself or his confession) his alternative congregation of Israel, over which death will not prevail. Here is the point: the old congregation of Israel is travelling a broad path leading to the death and destruction of divine judgment; this new ekklēsia, which confesses that Jesus is the Christ who will suffer and be vindicated (Matt. 16:21), will not be defeated by the gates of Hades (not ‘hell’ but death).
In classical Greek the ekklēsia was the assembly of full citizens of the polis or city state. It was a political and judicial body, but not according to the pattern described by Frost. If anything, therefore, the word would signify in Paul’s writings that group which had full rights as citizens of the city of God. Or perhaps Paul speaks of the ekklēsia ‘in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thess. 1:1) in order to differentiate this particular gathering of people from other religious and political gatherings (including the synagogue of the Jews) in Thessalonica.
There is nothing, as far as I can see, which suggests the sort of underlying missional function of an ekklēsia that Frost describes. It seems far more likely that the term had its origins in Jesus’ programme of constructing around himself an alternative congregation of Israel - an eschatological community that would endure the sufferings of the end of the age. It has then been carried over into the Greek-Roman world where it has resonated further with Hellenistic ideas of political or religious gatherings. Nowhere does Paul speak of the ekklēsia as actually functioning as a community of the wise serving a local community - though that may well have happened. On the contrary - and contrary to Frost and Hirsch’s argument in ReJesus (31) - there is every reason to think that in Paul’s mind the ekklēsia was a community called out (ek kaleō) of the pagan world.
So I think that Frost’s metaphor of the church as a council of wise elders serving a local community is an excellent one. But some better biblical basis for the idea needs to be found than the supposed original meaning of ekklēsia. It is clear, from the Gospels in particular, that the word ekklēsia constitutes a significant motif in the narrative about the people of God; there is little basis for transforming it into a paradigm of missional engagement.