Ordination Questions, Part 7: Ecclesiology
Please see the introduction to Part 1 for the context of these questions…
i) Describe the nature and mission of the Church. What are its primary tasks today?
The Greek word that we translate as “church” is Ecclesia. It was a term that Jesus and writers of the New Testament used for “church” but it wasn’t invented by them. It was a word that was around long before Jesus, but the followers of Jesus stole it and used it to describe a gathering of believers. The original word wasn’t a gathering, but a particular kind of meeting in the Ancient Near East. When a village got large enough to have livestock and children to corral and keep safe, they would build fences. The entrance to the village was called the “city gate”
In the Ancient Near East, men* in their 40’s would semi-retire and hand over the business to their sons. Retired men in the Ancient Near East would sit at the city gate, drink, eat, and talk. They would debate and scratch their gray beards. It was not idle talk or stupid jokes or gossip; they fulfilled a very important function in the village. Whenever there was a conflict, an ethical dilemma, a struggle, or a challenge that they did not know how to meet, people would go to the city gate and say, “Fathers, there is a problem in the village.” Perhaps there was an argument: two sons fighting over an inheritance, a drought, or a land dispute. The men at the city gate would not answer quickly, but reflect all day and muse with each other before giving a reply.
(Luke 12:13-21 is a good example of a situation in which someone comes to Jesus and this social dynamic of an “elder at the gate” is presumed on Jesus.)
The word in the Ancient Near East (and is still used today in Palestine) that was used to described the elders at the gate was the ecclesia. Paul appropriates this word and uses it to describe what the followers of Jesus will be like. It is a better town that the followers of Jesus live in because of the presence of these wise, good, true, loving, and noble men and women. The followers of Jesus are a gift to a community to which they are a part. The idea is that we would add wisdom, beauty, health, help, and honesty to the city.
Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words this way -- “Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.” (Matthew 5:13; The Message)
The nature and the mission of the church is found in its relationship to its city. The name of the buildings in which we gather on Sunday are very poorly named. The church is not what happens on a Sunday in a particular location, but what the ecclesia does throughout the week across its city.
*—I recognize the obvious gender exclusiveness of this example. I do not mean for the example to be prescriptive of what should be but merely descriptive of the reality of the social dynamics of the Ancient Near East.