Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jesus original intention for his followers.

What did Jesus mean when he said, "Upon this rock I will build my Ekklesia?" This came up in Matthew 16 verse 18 when Jesus was speaking to Peter, after Peter is the first of the disciples to openly declare Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Do we automatically know what Jesus meant, or is it worth revisiting this again? The first mistake would be to simply assume we know what he meant based upon modern translations of the Bible. Modern translations all seem to translate the work Ekklesia as Church. Older translations into English such as Tyndale and others of the 16th century did not do so.

But what does the word Ekklesia actually mean? When Jesus uttered the word in this context it was radical. In fact, so many of the things that Jesus said were completely radical the first time he said them. That is why he had so many enemies and was crucified. Remember, he completely upset the religious sensibilities of established institutional Judaism.

Here are a few places that I have looked at to seek a definition:

1) A straight definition of the Greek word the way it had been used up until Jesus' time can be found in Wikipedia. Ecclesia (from ancient Athens).
In Ancient Athens, the Ekklesia was a political assembly in any one city that made decisions for that particular city. All citizens were welcome to be a part of the Ekklesia. When Jesus uttered the word Ekklesia, this is the definition that his disciples would have heard. Another definition did not exist at the time.
Could Jesus have had a political definition in mind when he uttered this word? Well good exegesis demands we consider Jesus' views on politics from elsewhere in the gospels. Jesus says in John 18:36 that "His kingdom is not of this world" and that his followers would fight to defend it, if it were. Pilate rightly goes on to say "so you are a king then?" to which Jesus agrees.
I would argue that Jesus did have a political definition in mind when he said the word Ekklesia. The distinction that needs to be made though is that he was not saying his Kingdom was of this world, so neither should his Ekklesia be.

How could the word Ekklesia be translated as it had been understood by Greeks and Romans before the first century AD? If it is to have some political meaning, then this needs to be considered. It carries the idea of a council, a body of representatives, a legislature, a parliament, senate or congress. This "council" is to be the representative of God's Kingdom here in this earth. This does not mean making earthly political decisions as such. It does mean however, making decisions to transform this world through acts of love into God's Kingdom.

Consider the place that early believers had in the Roman Empire. They were expected to worship the Emperor as all people were. The Emperor set himself up as a god and demanded worship. Early Christian believers refused to worship the Emperor, and said "we have a different King". What is more they also had a different Ekklesia, the assembly of believers that endeavoured to see Jesus' Kingdom established on earth. It is no wonder that Rome was threatened by this concept and executed early Christians. I count myself among these believers. I know that in today's world if the Ekklesia of Jesus was truly impacting society in a big way, that it would be a threat to the established political system of the day, a threat that would undoubtedly result in persecution and execution of Christians once again.

In my mind, this is something of what Jesus meant when he said would establish his Council Assembly, starting with his first follower Peter.

2) It is worth taking a look directly at the Greek scriptures. This is not hard to do these days. The NET bible on Bible.org makes the Greek text available.  (A note here for dissenters- the Greek text has been deduced from the over 25,000 original manuscripts available. The fact that there is some variation in these texts is not alarming, as a process of Triangulation can be used to come up with the original words.)
Read the Greek text. To actually read the Greek you will have to click on the Grk/Heb tab at the top of the right hand column. You can click on the word ἐκκλησίαν and come up with a definition.
The definition speaks of "a gathering of citizens" or "an assembly of people gathered". The definition then goes on to speak of what the word means "in a Christian sense". That is, the word Ekklesia did add meaning from it's original Athenian political sense. But this is added meaning that came over the next couple of centuries.

So, I will readily admit that Ekklesia also means "a gathering or assembly of Christians".  But that is the definition of the word as it appears in Acts or in Paul's letters, but not as it appears when Jesus first says it in Matthew 16:18.

3)  A well researched article entitled "The translation of the Greek word 'Ekklesia' as 'church' in the English Bible and its ramifications", further discusses the definition of the word.
The article makes the point that there is no sense in scripture of a universal hierarchical church. Indeed the word Ekklesia is always used in a local context. Even in Revelation, Jesus addresses seven separate Ekklesia groups, but not one mass Ekklesia. This article argues that it is a mistake to translate the word Ekklesia as church, and that assembly or congregation are better suited.

Conclusion: Jesus was interested in establishing his Kingdom on earth, a new order. To do this he wanted to see Local Council Assemblies of believers be his representatives through out the earth. He always intended to remain the King in charge of all of these assemblies, never to have an intermediate person in charge. These Local Assemblies are of course places of worship, but if they never consider how to transform the world around them, then they are not fulfilling their purpose. Therefore the Council part of the definition needs to be worked out in practical Christian love.

I have argued strongly against the word church before. Again, I am not even suggesting a replacement. It is equally possible for us to behave as the representatives of King Jesus in local gatherings without having to put a label on anything. Often when we start to use labels, we begin to shape them into our own human religion and depart from Jesus' original intention. Let's be about doing Jesus' Kingdom.

Ekklesia in my own life

I've been enjoying reading some posts on Jim Wright's blog recently. One post that really blessed me was "Finding Ekklesia"  and another was "Organic Dead Ends". The thing I really like about Jim's writing is that he is completely honest. He gives the reader permission to be who Jesus wants us to be. His writing is the shot in the arm that I have needed.
A few weeks ago I was feeling all depressed and guilty about "not going to church" after having spent two months in church services while back in Canada. I feel some of this guilt lifting after reading Jim's posts. Why? Well because the posts are about simply living as an authentic Christian. Jim describes this as simply reproducing the life that Jesus has put in us.
In Jim's post "Finding Ekklesia" he warns against people seeking others for the purpose of sharing their hurts from the institutional church. Rather he encourages people to seek genuine fellowship by simply being hospitable. That is either inviting people for meals to your own home or visiting people in their homes. In the midst of this it is possible to share the life that Jesus gives us with one another. From this genuine Ekklesia should develop.
The great thing is that is exactly what my wife and I are already doing. The thing is, most of the time we are actually doing this with non-believers. Of course we are sharing the life of Jesus in us with them. We are hopeful that in time life will reproduce in these friends of ours. It has changed my perspective a little. I have been brought up with the attitude that if I don't have enough fellowship with Christians that I will find myself in trouble. But in time, I am sure these friends will be a huge blessing. We already find our time with them an encouragement often anyway. It will just be special to hear the things they have to teach us as they hear the Holy Spirit talking to them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

An honest plea for open discussion about dropping the word "church".

I remember some years back some people visited the city we were living in at the time, which was Novosibirsk. They were traveling from church to church, proclaiming that denominations are not in God's will. This particular premise has a lot of validity. However, I found their methods wanting. There was one man in their group who was from an indigenous Siberian people, so we were keen to get know him a little more. As this man, and another from his group sat in our living room, we spoke of the the Body of Christ and true fellowship. But we were disappointed to find they did not have time to hang around for long and pray with us, because they had to hurry off to another church meeting and tell people why they were wrong. I remember back to this time, and how badly they shared their message and how so few listened to them. They did not have the spirit of fellowship in them. I really don't want to be like this as I try to convey the message that is on my heart.

I am hoping to again bring up discussion surrounding the use of the word "church". There are a few prominent bloggers and authors who have taken the time to explain or defend their use of the word church. What I write here is not meant to be an attack, rather a plea that this become a topic for discussion. I would like to approach this topic from my professional background as a linguist, taking into account issues of semantics and translation.

My argument goes deeper here though, I want to see believers dropping the use of the word church. I think the word itself is a sacred cow to so many of us, and we are afraid to stop using it.

So many modern protestants would prefer that the word "church" would mean a gathering of God's people, or the Body of Christ, or other metaphors that scripture uses. But sadly, every time the word is used for that definition, a qualification needs to be added, "Church isn't really the building, it's the people you know." But even as modern Christians, we so often speak of "going to church", "the church roof needs repairing", "the altar is at the front of the church" or similar phrases. We betray the desired definition by the constant use of the other definition.

Neil Cole mentioned that he considered the word church to have been corrupted and abused. This is not actually the case. A look at the history of the word will show otherwise. The word "church" comes from the Greek word Kyriakon. It is the same word that is also translated Kirche in German or Tserkov in Russian. In the time of Constantine, believers were moved from the home into the temple. Constantine built basilicas, and banned people gathering in their homes to worship God. They were to gather in these public buildings to worship God. These buildings were named after apostles. As the Roman Empire institutionalised Christianity people began to call these basilicas Kyriakon doma, or the "house of the Lord." Sound familiar? Later on the phrase was shortened to simply be Kyriakon, the possessive "Lord's". The concept of this basilica and Kyriakon became synonymous. But this was never even a concept or a word that appeared in scripture. So the word in scripture has not been abused, but sure enough God's people have been. [1]

Over the centuries the word itself dictated definition to God's people. To be God's people they must meet in the Lord's house. It was not possible to truly worship God other than in this context. It began to shape people's understanding of what it meant to be the people of God. The Institution took over in people's understanding. The real fluid, organic nature of God's people was lost. There were always underground movements through out history, be they monks in the desert fleeing institution or Waldensians in Italy getting killed for their "heretical" faith in the 12th and 13th centuries. [2]

William Tyndale was a famous reformer, who tackled this controversial issue head on. Tyndale translated the New Testament into English after being inspired by Martin Luther who had been translating the Bible into German. When Tyndale came to translate, he was not reading the word Kyriakon in the Bible, he was reading the word Ekklesia. He accurately decided that the word was best translated "congregation." Tyndale came up with other controversial translations such as "elder" instead of "priest", "repent" instead of "do penance", "love" instead of "charity." These translations got Tyndale in a lot of trouble, ultimately getting him burned at the stake for his efforts. [3] 

Tyndale saw fit to translate Ekklesia faithfully. The established church however had been using a word based on the Greek Kyriakon. Tyndale's translation was an affront to the institution. To stop using the word church today in some ways carries similar risks, but likely not resulting in execution.

Can the word "church" really have two definitions? Some would like to say it means "a gathering of God's people", but in reality any survey of the English speaking population would show that it actually means "a religious building." Words influence how we behave. This word has had a massive effect on how we behave as believers, dragging us away from an honest expression of the priesthood of all believers into a religious temple form of worship. An attempt to redefine the word will not yield results, because the majority of the English speaking world will continue to use the word "church" the way it always has been.

I wonder just how the Spirit of God would lead us if we were no longer bound by a label, such as "church"? I am not even proposing we come up with a new word. I say let's just drop the word, be the Body of Christ and see where the Holy Spirit leads us. This is kind of like walking a tight rope with no net beneath us, but if we fall, we just might fly.


Neil Cole took the time to answer my initial comments on his blog on August 17th, when he had blogged on the topic of "Is Bigger Really Better, the Statistics actually say No!"  You can read my comments and his responses there.
Alan Knox wrote a post, "How others use the word Church, according to Google." He also took the time to answer my initial comments.
I would like to continue this discussion, but have chosen to not put a string of comments on their blogs, but open it up to wider discussion (if anybody ever bothers to read my blog. :)  )

Sunday, September 09, 2012

New AFL Draw proposal

The structure of the Australian Football League fixture has been a mess for years now. Many of the clubs complain that the fixture needs to be more fair. The AFL how ever constantly ignores these requests because they want to stage the block buster games more often in a season. The AFL would prefer to have clubs such as Collingwood and Essendon play each other twice every season, or both Perth teams etc.

In 2012, amid controversy Adelaide received a very easy draw which saw them play Greater Western Sydney (new club), Gold Coast (new club) and Port Adelaide (greatly under performed) twice. This east draw saw them finish in second place at the end of the home and away season. Adelaide went on to lose easily to Sydney even as they hosted a home final.

The finals draw for 2012 has seen a potential top six being capable of winning the Grand Final, but realistically only the top four have a chance of winning. After the first two games of week one of the finals, it became clear that Hawthorn and Sydney will mostly likely contest the Grand Final. The following six games before the Grand Final are almost meaningless.

The AFL are scared that they will not deliver to the tv networks the highest ratings for the $1.253 billion contract that was drawn up in 2011.

I have a solution that will deliver both fairness and even more blockbuster games.

1) During rounds 1-17 all 18 clubs will play each other just once. This will be done on a purely home and away system. If Sydney were to play Collingwood at the SCG in 2014, then they would play at the MCG in 2015, and then alternate every year. If Collingwood had 9 home games in 2014, then they would have 8 home games in 2015.
This is the only fair format with the current number of clubs, unless a conference system is put in place, which has other draw backs. The team at the top at the end of round 17 would be the minor premier.

2) After round 17 the finals would start. All top 8 teams would play each other once. The finals series would have a new ladder. The points from the first 17 rounds would not count. Home games would be played on rank from the first 17 rounds.

3) After the 7 week finals series the teams would have a new ranking of 1-8. From this the top four would go through to direct knock out semi finals, followed by a Grand Final.

This new system would not involve less blockbuster games. In fact there would be four blockbuster games every week for the duration of the finals series. The finals series would remain competitive to the very end as all top eight teams battled to earn their place in the semi finals.

Under this system every game would count for the entire season.

The ten teams that did not make the finals could play an 'International Cup' exhibition series. The ten teams could be split into two groups. Group A would play each other once (four games per club) in a European Pool. Group B would play each other once in a North American Pool. There would be a final in each group with the winners playing a Grand Final in either London or New York (to be rotated each year).

Sunday, September 02, 2012

I am a baby Christian learning to take my first steps

I made the decision to stop going to church in July 2011. It was a decision that was a long time coming. I have long known about the priesthood of all believers and long known this is God's plan for the body of Christ.

So leaving church was not a sudden decision nor was it not deeply considered. Back in 2007-08 my family was blessed to be part of a home church when we decided to step out in faith following reading "Organic Church" by Neil Cole. This wasn't even the first time I had been involved in something close to the priesthood of all believers. Back in the early to mid 90s I was part of a church that made its way from a traditional "sitting in rows and pastor led church" towards an "open church" where all were encouraged to share, prophesy and lead in worship and teaching.

The decision in 2011 followed after reading "Pagan Christianity" by George Barna and Frank Viola. (Yes, I did read Reimagining Church and found it to say nothing new than I already knew from previous experience and reading.) There were many good points made in this book about the development of the church from Constantinian times. I had also long been aware of the massive changes that happened during the fourth century, but never to the extent that the book pointed out. I no longer needed any convincing. 

If I was to be a part of the solution instead of the problem I needed to be a part of something new. This meant I would have to go through a period of "detoxification" from many of the things in the church that had polluted my faith. At times this past year has been very good, and at times very hard. On the positive side, I noticed that I made friends with a lot more people who were not Christians. At the same time I did not judge them, I did not plot how I would invite them to church. I spoke to them of Jesus out of an overflow of my faith. I know this has had many positive effects on people, leading them towards Jesus. But on the downside, there would be times of feeling guilty for not going to church.

This guilt passed with time. It is quite ridiculous that I had subconsciously picked up the belief in my life that to be a good Christian you have to go to church. This is fraught with so many problems and is at the root of human religion. As I realised that there must be something else to being a Christian I began to go back to the gospels, and began to see Jesus in a very different light. I began to notice that Jesus is very forgiving. In fact, he forgives without provocation. 

The biggest story that wedged a splinter in my mind is the story of the woman caught in adultery. This woman had just been caught, she hadn't even the time to repent. Yet as Jesus exposed the hypocrisy and sin of the pharisees as none could throw the first stone, he tells the woman "no one condemns you, nor do I, now go away and sin no more."  Jesus does not ask the woman if she repents before he is willing to forgive her sin. (He hasn't even died on the cross yet.) He forgives her first! He then asks her to repent as an act of response to her forgiveness. This is not in keeping with evangelical doctrine, and so I have realised neither am I.

Forgiveness is a massive part of Jesus' purpose. When he heals the paralytic he is more concerned that he be forgiven than physically healed, "so that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you take up your mat and walk." Jesus teaches in some hard hitting parables that if we do not forgive, we are fried. I'm not much of a fan of hell, but I can not avoid that Jesus teaches about it. But it is not in reference to punishment for sins that he so much speaks of hell, but rather that people who do not forgive will lose the Father's forgiveness. This seems so backwards, but I believe it is a massive part of the gospel that we have misunderstood. There is NO option to not forgive. We endanger our very salvation by not forgiving. Yet at the same time Jesus is handing out salvation as quickly and as generously as he can to who ever will receive it. This challenges me in ways that have often been glossed over in my past church going life, where there is much unforgiveness.

Let's go straight for the most obvious of all stories Jesus taught when it comes to heaven and hell. Many church going evangelicals will love to put this one in the too hard basket. It's the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus does not let us off the hook. If we ignore those in need around us, we are ignoring Jesus, we are unloving (perhaps unforgiving of someone for offending our prejudices), and yes we set ourselves up for hell fire. Surely my idea of Jesus forgiving everyone is a universalist sounding idea? No, I am not a universalist. I do believe Jesus hands out forgiveness much more easily than any Christian or any church on the planet. But we humans have an awful knack of throwing it back in Jesus's face and saying "no thanks, I think I will hold on to my comforts, my prejudices, my unforgiveness and I will go it my own way." People reject salvation, far more than missing out on seeing it.

I have been praying for the last couple years that Jesus would help me to love the weak and the poor. I am such a novice at this. I have began to really take a notice of the poor people in our city, of the street people and the beggars. Jesus tells us to give to everyone who asks of us without expecting anything in return, and as a rule I really try to do this. Only recently my wife and I found ourselves holding the hand of an old lady we know from the street as she died of gangrene behind some rubbish bins on the wet concrete. The Lord's graciousness in this situation speaks such volumes. He provided a person to tell us that she was dying, he provided an old arm chair that someone had thrown out so we could lift her on to it, he provided a caring doctor in the ambulance who did not reject a street bum. It is staggering for us to realise that our friend Marina was most likely destined to die alone in the cold, rain and garbage, but that the Lord loved her enough to make sure that this would not happen. I read to her from Psalm 23 and Revelation 21. As I was walking on the way to those garbage bins with another street lady, the Lord spoke to me and reminded me "what ever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." I knew that I would offer her forgiveness of sins. Melody and I were at her side, Marina was quite unresponsive as she died from toxins in her system. But the Lord blessed us as we saw Marina nod a couple of times in response to Melody. I prayed for Marina, "Marina, Jesus forgives you of your sins, Jesus is waiting for you." No matter your belief on sin and forgiveness it is hard to argue that Jesus did anything else in the gospels. Of course I do not know Marina's heart. But I also know it would have been her choice to reject this forgiveness that was freely given to her. We saw this woman open up to us slowly over the last couple years, shedding tears as my wife and I hugged her many months ago and declared our love for her.

It is only in taking these baby steps that I am beginning to learn what actually being a Christian means. This feels like the beginning of the journey of my faith, that my entire life up to this point has been embryonic. I am still very weak and hopeless in being able to truly love the way Jesus does.

So back to this dreaded church thing. Why do I feel so guilty about not going to church? Recently we went to Canada for two months, to see family and supporters of our work. We went to church every Sunday for two months. I didn't have the heart to tell people I wanted to skip services. I didn't want to offend them. I figured, how could going to church for a couple months hurt? But I fell into my stupid little subconscious lie that I was pleasing God by going to church services, that I was performing some kind of holy religious ritual. And surely all the people in these church services are good people who love God, so it can't be that bad? But after doing this for two months, and getting my religious reward in God's eyes for attending his holy temple, I suddenly feel like a heathen again for not going to church. It feels like a year of progress in my detox has gone down the drain.