Just recently, while participating in a Zoom call with various clergy, one of the guest speakers referred to the effects of Covid19 on the church, and how we are accustomed to "doing church". His comments were that we all are being forced to do church differently, and as restrictions are gradually lifted, we would have to continue to find new ways of doing church. It made me think about what the church is and what it isn't, and what it has the potential to be.
At the inception of the church, the word used most to describe it was "ecclesia" or "ekklesia", meaning a called out gathering, or assembly of people. It was not a word that meant a strictly religious gathering, as we know it today, but simply a gathering of people, usually for a purpose.
Strong's Concordance defines it as a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly.
In most instances in the New Testament, the Greek word ekklesia is translated church, and in a couple of places, as an assembly of people, such as in Ephesus when a crowd gathered to protest Paul and his companions damaging their idol selling business by telling people that there was only one true God. The mayor calmed the crowd by insisting on a legal assembly (ekklesia) to settle the matter if needed.
Ekklesia, when translated as "church", never referred to a building or religious service, but to a gathering of people for a purpose. So the first way to understand what church is would be in that context, a gathering, or a coming together of people. Secondly, it was not simply a crowd, but a gathering with purpose. Now in Acts 19, at Ephesus, the purpose was violence and frustration, in essence, an angry mob, but in most uses of the word, it refers to those who are gathering as followers of Christ, believers, those who first were called Christians in Acts 11, in Antioch. So at its core basic level, the word church referred to a gathering of people who were Christian. The term "assembly" could easily and correctly have been used instead of church and is used as part of many church names, including our own. The "church", however, is not and never was about buildings or institutions, or political entities, even though in many ways, we have become synonymous with those very things. Our history is rooted in organizational structures and traditions that have little to do with the essential meaning and purpose of ekklesia. Our present is far from the origins of Christianity, and our potential has in many ways been limited by the very institution that we have become. The following article, copied from Brad Noel, who in turn borrowed it from a post by an American pastor named Jonathan Dierdorff, addresses the topic well:
"Constantine was the greatest catalyst for the growth of Christianity. It was under his leadership that Christianity became the primary religion of the state. Beautiful and massive cathedrals were erected under his leadership and influence. The missionary expanse of the Church was unstoppable.
Constantine began his reign near the beginning of the fourth century (ca 306 C.E.). Up to that point Christianity had a good representation but it was a vastly different kind of movement. Before Constantine, Christians were minorities in the world. They lived peacefully and quietly caring for the poor and the sick.
The Church was also a persecuted group. They were considered politically subversive because they called Jesus “Lord,” rather than the emperor. The ancient Roman context was pluralistic: in other words, it was okay to practice any religion, as long as one also paid obeisance to the emperor by lighting incense in his name and acknowledging his lordship.
Christians who refused to participate in imperial worship (the imperial cult) were persecuted—sometimes to the point of execution. Christians willingly laid down their lives because they refused to say or indicate in any way that “Caesar is Lord.” After all, the kingdom of Caesar was vastly different than the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom was marked by peace, servitude, justice, and love; however, the emperor ruled by the use of force, violence, and power. Therefore, it was antithetical for Christians, whose leader had been executed by the force of the Roman state, to pay tribute to Caesar—the lord of death.
When Constantine became ruler of the Byzantine empire, he continued to be a traditional pagan in the sense that he worshipped multiple deities, but he was also drawn to Jesus (for reasons we cannot discuss here). Needless to say, Christianity was no longer persecuted and was finally made legal to practice as an independent religion. Eventually, Christianity became the religion of the state. Through Constantine’s influence, Christendom was born.
Yes, Constantine helped build big buildings for the Church. Christians were finally safe, and the expanse of the Church was unstoppable, because Christianity got in the bed with the emperor. It is easy to see all the good things that came out of Christendom, but sometimes we forget the other side of the coin because we simply assume it has always been that way.
Eusebius, the historian who wrote the biography of Constantine’s life, claims that in 311 C.E. when Constantine and his army were getting ready to go into battle, he had a vision where he saw a cross and heard the words “In this sign conquer.” In other words, Constantine believed that by the power of the cross he would be able to defeat his enemies. If that does not alarm you, it should. This is the first known instance that Christianity used force and violence in the name of Christ.
As a result of Christendom, Christianity began to flourish and represent power and privilege. If you think that is a good thing or think that it was all part of God’s plan, please go back to the beginning of the story and read about how their leader (Jesus) was executed by the Roman state. The story of Jesus is narrated as the one who humbled himself and emptied himself to take on the form of a servant. Power was never supposed to be a part of the equation. However, the crusades, and countless other acts of violence, have been carried out in Jesus’ name because of Christendom.
Christendom still exists in America, although it is only holding on by a thread. Politicians and evangelical Christians are desperately trying to keep it alive as the dominating narrative, but my dear Christian friends, please do not confuse Christendom with Christianity. Although there are many similarities between the two (Christendom and Christianity both share all the same symbols), ultimately, they tell two vastly different stories about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
So here is a test:
If you care whether Americans say, “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” you might be more concerned more about Christendom than Christianity.
If you think that one political party represents Christian values and another one does not, you might be more concerned about Christendom than Christianity.
If you think that America is a Christian nation, you might be more concerned about Christendom than Christianity.
If you think it is okay to use force and violence to maintain the status quo, you are more concerned about Christendom than Christianity. (think about this one for a while before you answer)
If you think it is imperative for Judeo-Christian symbols to remain public symbols (e.g. “In God We Trust), you might be more concerned about Christendom than Christianity.
If you are offended by inclusive attitudes that are deemed “politically correct,” you might be more concerned about Christendom than Christianity.
If offering equality to others feels like an infringement of your “rights,” you might be more concerned about Christendom than Christianity.
If you tend to side with power and authority in matters of injustice and oppression, you might be more concerned about Christendom than Christianity.
Now some things to ponder:
When people say they love Jesus but not the Church, it is because they are tired of Christendom and long for Christianity.
When people say they are spiritual but do not like organized religion, it is because they are tired of Christendom and long for Christianity.
Here is the cold hard truth: after 1,600 years, Christendom is on its way out. Our big buildings built in the tradition of Constantine are becoming empty. America is following closely behind Europe in this trend, and Christians tend to bemoan this truth; however, I am convinced that in order for Christianity to survive in the western world, Christendom is going to have to die. And the death of Christendom will feel like an affront on the person of Jesus and his people when it is not. It will feel like persecution when it is not. It will feel like inequality when it is not.
The death of Christendom means that Christianity may no longer be the majority. It means we must learn to co-exist with our neighbor who looks, thinks, believes, and loves differently than us. It means that we acknowledge that America belongs to Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people without faith. It means that we are no longer first, but last (Matt. 20:16). It means that instead of finding our lives, we lose them (Matt. 10:39). It means instead of being ruler of all we become servant of all.
If we get back to the story of Jesus, we discover that it was never about exclusion or power or force or privilege. In fact, all of those values are antithetical to the way of Jesus. So when you see a political leader holding onto or alluding to a sacred symbol in the context of justifying excessive force, I hope you remember that it all began with Constantine’s vision (“By this sign conquer”). This kind of behavior might seem “Christian,” but it is not about Jesus and it is not about Christianity, it is using Christian symbols to perpetuate a political ideology.
Scripture reminds us that we are “resident aliens” (1 Peter 2:11) and “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Our allegiance should not be to any nation, leader, or ideology other than Jesus and his kingdom. That is what it means to be a Christian.
I have hope for the future. I have hope for the Church.
Jesus is Lord.
Caesar is Not."
Sometimes the church can be its own worst enemy. We do not live in a Christian culture but we are to be a Christian presence and influence in the culture, not by complaining against the "ungodliness" or "worldliness" that we see around us, and not by watering down and compromising our beliefs and convictions to better fit in, but by being salt and light. Jesus said, "You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor?" We must be more than a building or an institution, more than a place that people go. We must be in the world we live in while maintaining the distinction of being Christian and being the ekklesia. Jesus went on to say, “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
Christians are salt and light, and the encouragement of Christ is to keep being the flavor of Christ, to let our light shine, to be known not as a building, an organization, or a religion, but as people who have been changed by the power and love of Jesus Christ.