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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Simplicity in Ecclesiology

How's that for a formal-sounding title? It probably seems to most to be an oxymoron to use the word "simplicity" juxtaposed with the word "ecclesiology". Ecclesiology is the study of things related to "church" (the Greek word translated as "church" is "ekklesia"), and often is made quite complicated. But I am once again drawn to discuss the topic of simplicity when it comes to defining things related to the church.

Ask several people what constitutes a church, and you will likely get as many answers as the number of people you ask. In conversations I have had with others, the following representative answers (though not an exhaustive list) have come up:

  • Presence of worship and teaching in the meetings
  • Existence of a non-profit corporation under which the church can accept tithes and offerings
  • Presence of the "five-fold ministry" (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers)
  • Two or more gathered in Jesus' name
  • A building in which to hold services
  • Someone employed as the pastor (this often is related to the "five-fold ministry" mentioned above, but sometimes stands on its own)

As you can see from the wide spectrum of thoughts in those ideas, ecclesiology is often complicated by assumptions of what is "necessary" in order to identify a "church". I would like to prompt our thinking in the direction of a much more simple approach.

I'll just tell you up front that I believe that there is a "correct" answer, and that it is the gathering of two or more people in the name of Jesus. In other words, when two or more people who are "in Christ" come together, the church is meeting. But if that is the case, where do these other ideas come from? Some of them actually do come from Scripture, but I believe there may be an added layer of interpretation clouding the true concept. The "five-fold ministry" is one of those areas (more on that to follow).

And not all of the ideas above are necessarily invalid. It is definitely true that when the church meets, the Holy Spirit will prompt the use of gifts (such as prophet, teacher, evangelist, etc.) that are needed in that fellowship. And when the church meets, there will likely be worship and teaching taking place. However, I believe that the definitions of "worship" and "teaching" in the previous sentence are not what we would traditionally use. Or, to put it another way, I don't believe that "worship" and "teaching" need to be interpreted to be nearly as formal as they usually are.

I do not believe that a non-profit organization, a building, or an employed pastor are needed. In fact, I would actually be more inclined to see those as hindrances to true expressions of the church than to see them as beneficial. Obviously, we can agree to disagree on these, but to date the arguments I have heard and read in favor of incorporating or building or staff pastors are not convincing to my mind.

So, when I meet a Christian brother for lunch, there is church. When my wife and son and I get together with another family to spend time together, there is church. When larger groups of believers get together, there is church. "Church" is neither a place nor an institution. It is the fellowship of people of like faith. Anything that seeks to add to that definition of church serves to complicate the issue.

Now, much has been said by others about the "five-fold ministry" (taken from Ephesians 4:11), and so I would like to offer a different viewpoint. There are a couple of points I would like to make about this. It seems to always be our tendency to want to "package" something and take it as definitive. For example, you may recall the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", or the 40 days of purpose, or any number of "five steps to..." or "twelve steps to..." or -- well, you get the picture. We always love to have a list of the steps necessary to accomplish something. And we find the same temptation when reading Ephesians 4:11.

First of all, it is debatable whether or not "pastor" and "teacher" are two separate identifiers. Grammatically, it is quite possible that they go together as descriptive of one. That would make it a list of four, not five. But that's actually not the point that I would like to emphasize!

In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul begins a similar list of gifts as in Ephesians 4:11. He starts with apostles, then prophets ... so far, it sounds just like Ephesians 4:11. But then he jumps right to teachers, and goes on to include miracle workers, healers, helpers, etc.

So the point I would like to make about this is that we must be careful looking at Ephesians 4:11 as any definitive (or even exhaustive) list of gifts given to the church. To me, the existence of a different list in 1 Corinthians 12 gives reason to question the "five-fold ministry" concept. (Important note: I'm not questioning the validity of those gifts! I'm referring to the "package" called "five-fold ministry" as a concept.) In other words, the five listed in Ephesians 4 are not any different in importance than the others listed in 1 Corinthians 12. Therefore, they should not be elevated above the others. In fact, 1 Corinthians 12 goes out of its way to decry the elevation of any gift above another!

Now admittedly, this is not one of the more cohesive posts I've written, but I hope it will cause some thought on the part of the reader. Perhaps the next time someone asks you the question, "Where do you go to church?", you will stop to think about the "who" of the church, not the where. Let's not "go" to church, let's "be" the church! If we can see ourselves as the church anytime we are together with other believers, it will simplify a lot of our thinking and cause us to reach toward the maturity available to us as Christians in relationship to each other. And we just may find ourselves functioning as the church in a much more meaningful and edifying way!

Until next time,

steve :)

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