‘Going to church’? Think again.

Mark Raja
Acrylic on canvas, Bhaskar Rao

Yes, you read it right. We believe Hindus go to a temple to worship, Muslims go to a mosque to worship and Christians go to a church to worship. If so, have we missed the whole point? What is this church and what is it for? When the temple was there in Jerusalem, Jews from all across Israel and even outside, used to go to the temple to worship God at appointed times. Have we misunderstood temple for the church? For most of us Christians the church means what happens on Sunday at a particular place with certain activities. For those who work there, it is an organisation and for those who started it, it is their ‘ministry’. Many of us think we ‘go to church’ to, worship God, whereas some do not associate with any institutionalised church though they sincerely follow Jesus. So why do we need church and all its activities? What if we have been misguided?

Do we assume that God inhabits a space where we gather, and we can only worship him there? (We may misquote Matthew 18:20 for that.) If so, does the church become a sacred place? And the things we do there become sacred? Or the people who minister there become ‘servants of God’?

Church is a very vast topic for which I am not equipped enough to write with all its diversity and its long history. My intent here is to raise a few foundational questions as I ask myself, why the church? I believe our understanding about church is so critical, so we better put serious effort to think afresh from the scripture and history.

What is Church?

Firstly, there is a problem with the translation from greek. In greek, the word was ecclesia which means ‘assembly’ in a democratic greek political state context. Its root meaning is a compound of 2 parts, ‘ek’ a preposition meaning “out of” and a verb ‘keleo’ signifying “to call” — hence “to call out”. So in the historic context, the male citizens above 18 years were called out from their homes to a public place to look into the public affairs of the state proposed by the council called Boule. From the Jewish context, it is from the theocratic kingdom context that David and the prophets wrote about. When Jesus said ‘I will build my ecclesia’, this is the context the disciples understood it.

The term ecclesia presupposes that there is a democratic state or kingdom, there is a city, there are citizens of the city who have the responsibility to look in to the public affairs of the city under the leadership of the council. In this context, the citizens assemble in a public place as ecclesia to make policies, elect people, give vote, judge, discuss issues, etc. The author of Hebrews clearly draws a picture in (Heb 12: 22–24) which can help us see what the New Testament authors meant by ecclesia. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly (Ecclesia) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Though I will. not exegete this passage fully now, but just want to point how clearly this author describes that we (born-again disciples) are the ecclesia (assembly) of Jesus the firstborn as citizens of Mount Zion, which is the city of the living God the heavenly Jerusalem. This is what it means to be an ecclesia.

Why ecclesia and not anything else?

Why does Jesus want to build an ecclesia not anything else? Why not an army? Why take a greek idea? Ecclesia is not completely a new idea. God’s mission of redemption and restoration began in Genesis when God called Abraham and Sarah and blessed them and through them, bless the nations. (Gen 12:2,3) Then he called Israel as his kingdom of priests. (Exo 19:6) Now, Jesus is calling his ecclesia from all nations as a kingdom of priests. (1 Pet 2:9) “Jesus not only loved us and saved us, but he also made us a kingdom and priests to God.” (Rev 1:5–7) It is for this kingdom the Jews were looking for. Isaiah prophesied about it, John the baptist announced it. Ecclesia do not make sense without a kingdom or city. Jesus is the king and his kingdom is for everlasting. (Isa 9:6,7, Ps 47, Rev 11:15, Heb 1:8) For this reason he is building his ecclesia and gave the keys of the kingdom (Mat 16:19 ). So when Jesus said ‘I will build my ecclesia’ (Mat 16: 13–20) his disciples understood that in the context of this kingdom.

Ecclesia do not make sense without a kingdom or city. Jesus is the king and his kingdom is for everlasting.

What is its purpose in God’s vision?

Now, maybe it is getting clear what the idea of ecclesia is in this new kingdom, but what is this kingdom for? In Genesis God made man in his image, put him in the garden he planted and appointed him to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth”. (Gen 1:28) Man has lost this calling because of his sin. Now has not Jesus restored his image in man and his calling and put him in the city, the heavenly Jerusalem, which is his new creation to take care of it according to Mat 16:19?

Christopher Wright in his book ‘The Mission of God’ writes “…It is not so much a case that God has a mission for his church in the world, but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission — God’s mission.” How tragic it would be if we do not know God’s vision and our role in it? If so our Sunday gatherings may as well be called a leisure activity. Sadly most of the time our interest is not beyond getting to heaven and in the meanwhile run Sunday events, so our understanding about ecclesia does not go beyond that scope. We have reduced the gospel of the kingdom to a personal salvation and a ticket to heaven. What if God’s mission is not just to ‘take us to heaven’ after we die?

“Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission — God’s mission.”

Acrylic on canvas, Bhaskar Rao

When God created the heavens and the earth and everything in it and man in his image and likeness, everything was beautiful. God, man and all creation was at peace. (Gen 2) But man’s sin destroyed this beauty and separated us and all creation from God. God out of his love, is in the mission of redeeming and restoring this beauty. Old testament authors call this vision ‘Shalom’ or ‘Jubilee’. This is God’s vision as we read across the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It is expressed in different words like, wholeness, flourishing, well being, prosperity, salvation, joy, peace, freedom, etc. (Lev 26: 4–6) (Ezk 34: 25–29) (Isaiah 11:4–9) (Jer 29: 10–14) (Luk 4:18,19) Scott Kauffman writes “…shalom characterises the Garden (the way it was supposed to be) and the eternal City (the way it is going to be), and so provides the vision for our existence in between.” God’s vision for New Jerusalem is shalom. Where “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” (Isa 65:21–25)

God’s vision for New Jerusalem is shalom.

Paul writes about this vision to the ecclesia in his letters, ‘making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Eph 1:9,10) ‘and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Col 1:20) Jesus has become our shalom. (Eph 2:14, 15) (John 14:27) (Isa 9:6).This is the gospel of shalom. (Eph 6:15) This is the vision we are called to serve as his people.

“…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

What is God’s mission like?

God’s mission begins by choosing and blessing Abraham so that through him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.(Gen 12:2,3) But, this requires Abraham’s faith and obedience because, God’s mission calls for and includes human response. “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Gen 18:19) Abrahamic covanent demands walking in the ‘way of the Lord’ by doing righteousness and justice. The hebrew words used here are Sedeq and Mispat. Chris Wright says “Possibly the nearest english expression to the double word phrase would be ‘social justice’”.

God’s mission calls for and includes human response.

In Exodus 19 God redeemed Isreal from slavery to become a priestly kingdom and a holy nation to bring about the blessing of the nations as promised to Abraham. God’s covenant with Isreal demands holiness. Here holiness does not mean isolation or being religious but being different from the ways of other nations around them. From Deuteronomy 4 we can identify four accepts of the covenant. Visibility of Israel’s society to the world, the exclusivity of Israel’s worship, the uniqueness of Israel’s experience and the missional responsibility of Israel’s obedience. Wright says, “The mission of God through Isreal is nothing less than the redemption of the nations and the restoration of creation”.

Jesus came to liberate people and all creation from the slavery of satan. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18,19) Bind the strong man to plunder his house.(Mark 3:27) This is the Jewish idea of jubilee. Christopher Wright writes “If exodus is God’s idea of redemption then jubilee is God’s idea of restoration”.

Jesus did not come to take us to heaven somewhere above the clouds but, to liberate us from satan’s slavery by his blood on the cross and restore us to his father’s house. In the ancient patriarchal culture this is the duty of the first born, to redeem their family members captured by the enemies and bring them into the household. This was the mission of Israel his first born. Like wise Jesus as the son of God is redeeming and restoring all things. That is why he said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) Ray Vander Laan wonderfully explains this idea here. This redemption and restoration is not just spiritual. Satan’s bondage is not just spiritual either. It is also physical, emotional, relational, sexual, social, economic, political, cultural, environmental etc. All of human experience has been captured. We as the ecclesia of the first born, are called to join his mission in redeeming and restoring all things. It may be romantic to call this whole world as our mission field but, this is a serious battle. The gates of hell are not going to be quiet when its kingdom is being dismantled.

Jesus did not come to take us to heaven somewhere above the clouds but, to liberate us from satan’s slavery by his blood on the cross and restore us to his father’s house.

What is ecclesia’s responsibility?

Peter said, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1Pet 2:9). By saying this he connects ecclesia to old testament Israel through Jesus, who are called for the same purpose, redeemed by the same God committed to the same response of obedience.

God has restored our calling (Gen 1:28) in Jesus but, we are not taken back to the garden but, we are placed as a city, a city on a hill, the heavenly Jerusalem, in the midst of the kingdom of darkness. We may also say ‘in the midst of hell’. That is what Jesus meant when he said “I will build my ecclesia, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mat 16:18) Like Abraham before Sodom, Israel among the nations. Ecclesia is to be as visible to the nations by the quality of their moral lives as Israel had been intended to be but failed.

Chris Wright in his book The mission of God summarises what ecclesia is meant to be. “A people who are light to the world by their good lives, a people who are learning obedience and teaching it to the nations, a people who love one another in order to show who they belong to.” (1 Thes 1:4–12) (Eph 1:4) (Col 1:9,10) (Tit 2:9–14)(Isa 43:21) (Mat 5:14–16) (Mat 28:18,19) (John 17)

A people who are light to the world by their good lives, a people who are learning obedience and teaching it to the nations, a people who love one another in order to show who they belong to.

This is why we are called as his witnesses through our good lives, this is why we are commissioned to go and make disciple of all nations, teaching them to observe all that he commanded. This is why we are commanded to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. Tim Keller writes “The church is to be a new society in which the world can see what family dynamics, business practices, race relations, and all of life can be under the kingship of Jesus Christ. God is out to heal all the effects of sin: psychological, social, and physical. On the other hand, the church is to be an agent of the kingdom. It is not only to model the healing of God’s rule but it is to spread it. “You are . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation . . . that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). Christians go into the world as witnesses of the kingdom (Acts 1:6–8). To spread the kingdom of God is more than simply winning people to Christ. It is also working for the healing of persons, families, relationships, and nations; it is doing deeds of mercy and seeking justice. It is ordering lives and relationships and institutions and communities according to God’s authority to bring in the blessedness of the kingdom.

Stephen Grabill said “The Church is the body of Christ given as a gift for the life of the world.” (John 6:51) Ecclesia is the hope of the New Jerusalem the ‘now and the not yet’ kingdom mysteriously present in the now. We ought to be the hope of God scattered around the world as local worshiping communities living life in common in the midst of the kingdom of darkness — as the body of Christ beaten and bruised, offered as a gift for the life of the world, so in living this way, we are preparing ourselves for him. Like the virgins prepared the way for the bridegroom.

Ecclesia is the hope of the New Jerusalem the ‘now and the not yet’ kingdom mysteriously present in the now.

John Stott in his book “What Christ thinks of the church” summarises what Christ wants his seven churches in Revelation to have. “love for Christ and willingness to suffer for him, truth of doctrine and holiness of life, inward reality and evangelistic outreach, with an uncompromising wholeheartedness in everything.” These are the marks of his ecclesia.

Have we lost this truth today?

In the letters to 7 ecclesia in the book of Revelation we can notice that satan attacks the ecclesia through sin, error, lethargy within and tribulations and persecution without. Here are a few critical errors that I observe today, in understanding God’s mission and our role as ecclesia in it.

The temple idea is transferred to ecclesia: The place and the people who serve there and their vocation have become sacred. This is the reason why the term ‘Church’ was used which gives a meaning of ‘the Lord’s house’ came from the greek word ‘kuriakon’ instead of the word ‘ecclesia’. This error has created the sacred and secular dichotomy that made the ‘ecclesia’ retreat from God’s mission in this world to the four walls of our church buildings. This overtook the biblical idea of ‘priesthood of all believers’ (1 Pet 2:9). It suppressed the truth that our body is the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16) and instead made a place as the ‘house of God’ so that the clergy can gain power over the masses. That is why even today it is common to say we ‘go to church’ to worship God. Bible says true worshipers worship in spirit and in truth.(John 4:23) We don’t go anywhere to worship but, we gather because we worship, (Rom 12:1,2) in fact we bring our temples when we gather.

Over emphasis on the gathering: Over emphasis on the gathering, activities, structure and organisation rather than its ethics and purpose. Once we made the place, its activities and vocations sacred we automatically focus more on this over rest of life. We focused only on how to conduct these gatherings, its production quality, how to keep people coming, its hierarchy, denominational identity, its buildings, property, monetary income, etc. We focus on numbers, membership rather than making whole-life disciples for his kingdom. We are more worried about what music to have, what liturgy to participate in rather than bearing one another in love. Many ecclesia have become personal empires, event management companies, or businesses that can even be acquired and sold.

Person lead instead of Holy Spirit lead: This problem I want to raise cautiously. I may be wrong. Historically ecclesia is headed by a council. Paul helped appoint leaders in the ecclesia he planted and the Holy Spirit lead him to the places he planted. These leaders or elders are elected or appointed by the ecclesia but they are not the owners. Catholic tradition has stressed to the extreme of elitism and evangelicals to the other extreme of populism. This lead to the individual empires or ministries in the evangelical tradition. Then ecclesia is not a community anymore but a person’s empire. Holy Spirit may lead one person to plant an ecclesia but, ecclesia is a community overseen by a group of elders elected by the community lead by the Holy spirit where Christ is the head. (Acts 6:3) True ecclesia is born of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus began his ministry the Spirit descended on him like a dove. (Mark 1:10) (Luke 4:18). It was the same Spirit that came down at Pentecost, which Jesus instructed them to wait for. The same Spirit called Barnabas and Saul for the first missionary journey. It is the same Spirit that is leading the ecclesia today.

Lack of kingdom vision: Since our understanding of the gospel was reduced to personal atonement and a place in heaven after you die, the kingdom has become a confused idea. Closest we can get is, ‘we christians are the kingdom’. LT Jeyachandran says, “We have removed the first 2 and the last 2 chapters of the Bible”, so we don’t fully understand New Jerusalem and our responsibility in it. When we remove kingdom vision ecclesia turns out to be a temporary waiting room for the Lord to come or an opportunity to feed your pietism or just a leisure time hobby.

Loss of local covenanted community: Our post-enlightenment, postmodern, individualistic, consumeristic mindset has made us self-made individuals. We practically don’t need neighbours or extended family around us. This social construct is shaping ecclesia as well. So our new ecclesia has become a group of individuals who basically don’t need each other and don’t commit to anyone, but ‘attend’ at our convenience or hop congregations based on our preferences. We don’t want to be discipled and we don’t have time to disciple others so, we prefer connecting virtually on the internet. Historically local ecclesia does not make sense without citizens living together in a city and taking responsibility in building that city in all its accepts. So, discipleship is almost impossible without living life in common. ‘Corporate worship' is meaningless without corporate living. We are a body, a living organism which ought to be deeply connected and dependent. If we remove this context of living together in a local covenanted community as a body we may have lost it’s meaning.

Final word

Is your local ecclesia like the ecclesia in Sardis to which Jesus said “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev 3:1) Do we take the warning that Jesus gave to the ecclesia in Ephesus seriously? “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev 2:5) How many of the ‘churches' today are truly his ecclesia?

If you are a disciple to Jesus, may I request you to think about these questions? Am I committed to a local body of Christ to be discipled and disciple others? (Mat 28: 18–20) Are we as a local body of Christ teach the ‘way of our Lord’ in our neighbourhoods and public squares by the quality of our moral lives with acts of righteousness and justice? (1 Pet 2:12) (Mat 5:14–16)(Gen 18: 18,19) Are we as local body of Christ known for our love? (John 13:35) (John 17) (John 20: 30,31)(Mat 22:37–39) (Yes, a local community is a privilege few lack due to different circumstances like persecution, travel, sickness etc., but our Lord did not ask us to remain isolated.)

Hope we don’t ‘go to church’ anymore to feel spiritual, or receive blessing, or by compulsion, or to feel good but, begin to know what we are truly called to become his disciple in the local body of Christ. Os Guinness in his book Renaissance writes “We are to trust and obey God, and to follow his call in every inch of our lives, in every second of our time, and with every gift in which we have been endowed.” So, gather, read, pray, sing, cry, feast, fast, marry, work, rest, love, live all of life in obedience to our call. Amen!

Thanks to Sam Joel for editing

Further reading:

  1. Living towards a vision by Walter Bruggemann
  2. What Christ thinks of the church by John Stott
  3. The mission of God by Christopher Wright
  4. Renaissance by Os Guinness
  5. Life together Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  6. The gospel of the kingdom. Eng Hoe

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