What in the World is the Ekklesia?
R. Keith Parks, Th.D.
“All you need to do is tell people about Jesus. Don’t invite them to a church. Your Bible and your personal experience are your only tools. Just pray for the Holy Spirit to work through you.” This was part of my instruction to a group of students at the Indonesian Baptist Theological
Seminary in Semarang, Java.
At the time there were more students/prospective pastors than there were churches where they could serve. I was working with them on weekends starting churches. Our goal was to start churches in ways the students could duplicate when they graduated. So, we were trying various
methods that did not require money, equipment, or trained personnel.
We were working in a newly created community near the Seminary. The government had built hundreds of simple bamboo-thatch houses for those who had been living on the streets. We had sketched the community’s streets using numbered blocks to represent houses since there were neither street signs nor house addresses. Each team of two was assigned about twenty houses. As we met for reports the second week, students began telling how
families (it was more likely families in their culture than individuals) had expressed their desire to follow Christ. “They’re asking how they can learn more about Jesus.” So I suggested that they begin explaining the Bible in their homes or on front porches or under trees. The following week they reported these new converts had heard of others and were asking about getting together. Groups began meeting together.
Then, predictably, these larger groups wanted to gather in one place to worship and study. A church came into being. This occurred as a normal result of conversion, not because of plans to start a church. There was a desire to join others with the same experience. People who are exposed to the gospel for the first time spontaneously worship, serve and witness. New believers follow simple scriptural practices if they are not exposed first to unfortunate examples of many traditional Christians and distorted practices of their churches.
Sometimes in repressive societies I have asked those who worship at the risk of prison or death, “Why?” Amazed at my apparent ignorance or lack of commitment, they reply, “We had to worship!”
This grouping is the church or ekklesia,1 those called out from the world who join in fellowship to worship and praise their newly discovered Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and then go out to witness and serve. (Acts 2-4)
Jesus took a neutral term with no religious significance and poured His own meaning into it. It meant persons called out for any specific purpose. The mob in Acts 19 that came together to riot in behalf of the goddess Diana was called an ekklesia. In Matthew 16:13-26 Jesus declared that those who acknowledge Him as Lord will be “called out” from the world to be His “group” or “gang.” This group will be the only ones in all the earth who will carry out what He has determined in heaven should be done on earth. His unlimited power, if applied to His agenda, will enable this ekklesia to overcome the strongest opposing force that can be defined. Even Satan’s kingdom of hell cannot withstand this ekklesia. However, death to self for believers and Christ’s control of the ekklesia are required. This power only applies to accomplishing His agenda, not ours.
The only other time Jesus used the term, ekklesia, is in Matthew 18:15-17. Many who claim to follow scriptural teaching in “being church” seem to have ignored this reference. A few may on occasion go privately to a fellow Christian “who has sinned against” them. Less often, if ever, mature Christians are called in to help resolve the estrangement. Bringing the matter to the ekklesia for resolution is almost unheard-of in any church of which I am aware. Why did Jesus refer to the ekklesia this way in one of the only two times He used it?
Perhaps we have failed to grasp the essential nature of the ekklesia. The New Testament reveals that the only way an ekklesia exists is when persons who believe in and commit themselves to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are knit together through koinonia. The word we use for this is fellowship, but our concept is much too weak to truly express it.
Koinonia is the spiritual unifying of those who have this common conversion experience and choose to join with others in a commitment to each other’s well being that could cost their lives. Any breach of trust, misunderstanding, or offense against a fellow believer breaks the koinonia and thus cripples the ekklesia irreparably.
This damage may explain the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). The account troubles and confuses us to think they were killed just for lying. Howany of us would be alive today if the Holy Spirit struck dead all Christians who had lied?!
However, this first ekklesia in Acts is the model for all the succeeding churches that follow through the ages. It was the prototype! The lives of these first believers were literally in each other’s hands! Since Ananias and Sapphira compromised their honesty over money, they had violated the integrity of the koinonia. They could not be entrusted with the lives of fellow believers! So God removed them from the fellowship.
There are multitudes of Christians around the world today who live and die in a New Testament kind of existence. They grasp this lesson much better than we Americans.
One unmistakable characteristic of this “called-outgroup” was their persistence in worship. The conversion experience fused them spiritually with others of the same experience. As they joined together they worshipped.
Doubtless the Jewish believers were influenced by their history of Tabernacle and Temple centrality in worship. Note that they did not confuse the imperative of worshipping with externals such as buildings, altars,sacrifices, priests. Rather they recognized the spiritual realities. They remembered the shed blood and the broken body of Jesus. They used the Psalms to express their praise, confessions and needs. Worship was in the model of Isaiah (chapter 6) who saw the Lord; recognized his and his people’s sinfulness; received cleansing and accepted the call to share what he had experienced with people whether they responded or not.
The ekklesia today must recognize that it finds its identity, power, and purpose in authentic worship. Style of worship is not the issue. The experience is the issue. Worshippers desperately need to encounter the Holy God, repent of sin, and commit to sharing the gospel with all peoples. Then the ekklesia will have truly worshipped and can assume its true role.
The glory, excitement, and centrality of worship in the victorious ekklesia are vividly described in the Revelation. John was in worship when his vision came. The Spirit describes worship around the throne by the ekklesia from every nation, tribe, people, and language. The Triune God, described in various ways, is the center of worship. Heavenly beings join the redeemed in worship. Some of the most magnificent words of worship ever sung (such those in Handel’s “Messiah”) are found here. If worship is the focus of eternity, we should certainly value it more highly and experience it more fully before we get there.
The Ekklesia Explodes Into Being
The tornadic winds and the lightening-like fire came upon the first disciples as they had been obeying the Lord’s last command to worship and pray till the Holy Spirit fills them. THE EKKLESIA WAS BORN! Acts 2:1-12. The explosion of the Holy Spirit caused the disciples to speak in other languages—persons from “every country in the world” were drawn by the excitement and heard about Jesus in their own language!
The birth of the ekklesia on the day of Pentecost could well be one of five top events ever to occur. Certainly we would count the birth, life and teaching, death and resurrection of our Lord. This first coming of the Holy Spirit on believers resulting in the Body of Christ, however, was
essential to the completion of Christ’s ministry on earth.
The promised Spirit of the living Lord dramatically demonstrated His purpose for the ekklesia in its first public act. The Gospel was preached in the languages of all the major peoples groups. This dramatically demonstrates Christ’s intention for His ekklesia. He intends to use it to tell everyone in the world about His love. This is its highest priority.
In His first public statement Jesus declared that He fulfilled the Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 61 which detailed the full spectrum of human needs: physical, social and spiritual. (Luke 4:14-30) He proclaimed good news and salvation, healed, comforted, brought release from all kinds of bondage, defeated enemies, and brought gladness and praise. This was what God sent Him to do!
Then He contrasted the responsiveness of both the widow in Sidon and Naaman in Syria with the rejection by the Jews in his hometown. Yet He was limited by neither His hometown nor His race. He came to meet all needs of all peoples. If we are to be Christ’s ekklesia we must do likewise.
Missions as the primary purpose of the ekklesia should be practiced in the balanced expression of Jesus’ teaching. The story in Acts and the descriptions in the Epistles reveal that the disciples carefully duplicated this approach. Many of us with traditional church backgrounds have vague understandings and anemic expectations of the ekklesia’s purpose and work. A member sharply disagreed with her pastor when he preached that the church was not here primarily just to meet members’ needs. She wondered if she should change churches. She probably is the rule rather than the exception among church members strongly influenced by cultural standards.
However, many who were found by Christ in areas of gospel famine have a clearer vision. Daniel T. Niles grew up as a Hindu in Sri Lanka. In his book, That They May Have Life, he reveals a clear understanding of the ekklesia’s priority. He declared that the ekklesia’s reason for being is missionary and that it is no longer authentic unless this is its priority. He is convinced that the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is given in direct proportion to the ekklesia’s obedience to and practice of this first priority. He further declares that the ekklesia is holy because God has set it apart as his
instrument to reach the world. His shocking assertion is that if it ceases to be missionary it ceases to be holy.
We have been quick to criticize those early Jewish believers for their dullness in not understanding the gospel was for all. Admittedly they struggled through their centuries-old understanding that Jewishness was prerequisite to entering the Kingdom of God. To their credit they were able to grow and expand their understanding that the message was for all people. Acts 15 records their monumental decision in one of the earliest church business
meetings, which kept the Christian faith from remaining a limited, parochial sect rather than becoming a worldwide movement.
The ekklesia at Antioch was the first to act on this truth (Acts 13:1-3). Under the Holy Spirit’s control, they understood and affirmed His guidance to send out their two finest leaders as missionaries.
The ekklesia today must recognize that it finds its identity, power, and purpose in authentic worship. Yet, the majority of believers still “do church”
from our own ethnocentrism as though Christ’s primary purpose in coming is fulfilled when He reaches us. Perhaps our emphasis on local autonomy has caused us to assume that we are responsible only for our locality. In fact, every local expression of ekklesia has global as well as local responsibility.
When an ekklesia gives itself away and focuses on reaching others it is blessed many times over. Northwood Community Church in Keller, Texas has started seventy eight churches since 1992, has been involved in investing members in its own community as well as countries around the world, and has grown beyond capacity for three morning worship services.
The Victory Family Center in Singapore has grown in 25 years to 8000 members in cell groups throughout the city. In one year this church started 430 churches in 50 nations and had 316 members overseas planting more. When an ekklesia focuses on that first priority they are blessed at home as they have become a blessing to others.
The Ekklesia in God’s Secret Plan
Paul defined and demonstrated the ekklesia in teaching and practice. Sprinkled through his writings, particularly in Ephesians and Colossians, he described its place in what he calls the mysterion of God. This mystery, translated “secret plan” in several versions, is something revealed to the insiders but not understood by others. In Ephesians 3:1-10 Paul describes the simplicity of it: In Christ all the promises ever given to the Jews are now available to everyone in the world. In what must have startled the Jews of his day he insists that all Christ followers are to be one body and joint heirs to all spiritual blessings.
The privilege and purpose of the ekklesia is to take that news to everyone on earth. He then declares in Ephesians 3:10 that this body of Christ reveals some of God’s multifaceted truth even to rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm. It implies the ekklesia has been redeemed, but the angels have not had that experience. This secret plan allows all the redeemed to share in reaching the entire world in a glorious work that even angels cannot perform.
Throughout Christian history this secret plan has flourished when the ekklesia has been clear in its understanding and obedient to its calling. When worship has been misdirected and the mission priority has been neglected, reaching a lost world has suffered and local spiritual life has also diminished.
One of the most thrilling, inspiring demonstrations of obeying these basic essentials is found in the House Churches of China. Persecution has refined and purified believers. They have no denominations, conventions nor mission boards. Pastors, seminary teachers and multitudes of members were killed or died in prison. Most of the current leaders describe their seminary training as that which took place behind bars. These groups have virtually nothing in terms of equipment, buildings or organization. Yet they are the ekklesia in an expression that humbles and shames us. A rekindled vision has burst forth in a miraculous way. Their story is told in Paul Hattaway’s book, Back to Jerusalem.
They are committed to complete preaching the gospel to all the earth by taking it back through hostile countries till they reach its beginning point: Jerusalem. Their goal is to send 100,000 missionaries. Many have already gone. Their training differs from our missionary orientation. They are taught how to: earn a living; witness cross culturally; learn a language; escape when captured; suffer and die; and, if necessary, to witness to their executioners. None ever expect to return home.
During this incredible mission outreach the increases in numbers, ministry and blessings at home are described as the most explosive spread of the gospel on earth.
They understand and practice God’s secret plan for his ekklesia. May all Christ’s followers everywhere go and do likewise.
1 The Greek term is ekklesia, usually translated “church,” but “church” is so often misunderstood, I have chosen to use ekklesia.
Keith Parks has degrees from the University of North Texas (BA) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (B.Div. and Th.D.). He has extensive experience as a missionary, particularly in southeast Asia. He was President of the Foreign Mission Board, SBC, 1980-92. As well, he served 1993-99 as Global Missions Director for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.