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Ekklesia, Part II Continued

by Robin Ryan, C.P. | July 27, 2012

The word “church” (ekklesia in Greek) is used with different nuances of meaning in the New Testament. Surprisingly, this word is found only in two verses amongst all four of the Gospels, and both of these are in Matthew (Mt. 16:18; 18:17). It is present quite often in the letters of Paul. The Greek word, originally used for a political assembly, refers to those who have been “called out.” In its theological meaning, then, it refers to those who have been called together into community in a special relationship with God. Paul and other New Testament authors use the word “church” with a variety of designations. Sometimes it refers to a local assembly of Christians in a city or province, e.g. “the church of Cenchrae” (Romans 16:1). At other times it can designate a Christian community in a particular house, e.g., the church in the house of Prisca and Aquila (Rom. 16:1-5). Long before there were any buildings for Christian worship, communities of believers met in the houses of members who were able to host them. These were “house churches.” Finally, the term ekklesia can also refer to the Church in a more general or universal sense, e.g., Colossians 1: 18.

This diversity in reference to the “church” suggests to us that the word first of all designates a gathering of God’s holy people. Before it is a place (a building) or an institution, church is an assembly of those called by God in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. For Paul, the local Christian assembly, e.g., the church at Corinth, is really “church,” even though it does not comprise all of those who are followers of Jesus. The church of God is made present by the Spirit in the local assembly of believers.

The New Testament suggests to us that differences in viewpoint and in community structure were present among the various Christian communities that are represented there. Even though we may imagine that the first Christians enjoyed perfect harmony in the Spirit, we know that they, like us, struggled with issues of how to interpret and live the revelation of God given in Christ Jesus. An example of that struggle is found in the account of the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15. Paul gives his report of the same event in the second chapter of his letter to the Galatians. The issue had to do with what was necessary to experience salvation in Christ. Some Christians from Jerusalem went to the recently established Christian community in Antioch (Syria) and insisted that salvation in Christ was impossible without circumcision. In effect, they were saying that Gentiles needed to be converted to Judaism in order to become Christians. This teaching caused serious disruption in the community at Antioch. Paul, Barnabas and some others went down to Jerusalem to meet with leaders of the mother church in order to settle the dispute. In settling this very important dispute, the leaders of the community took a middle path, imposing some basic Jewish observances upon Gentile Christians without demanding circumcision and other more stringent requirements. It seems clear, however, that tensions about the relationship of Jewish practice and Christianity were a source of concern for the Christian churches of the first century and that there was a spectrum of viewpoints on the matter.

Structures of leadership within the Christian communities of the New Testament also exhibit a certain amount of diversity. It took a while for these structures to develop, and not all of the churches approached leadership in the same way. In his letters, Paul speaks of a number of types of leaders within the communities: overseers (episcopoi, later translated “bishop”, though in Paul’s day they did not function like bishops in the way we know today); helpers, apostles (a term that refers to more than just the Twelve in Paul), and leaders. During Paul’s lifetime, there was no single grid of leadership roles within the church. It seems that the communities represented by the Gospel and Letters of John were slow to develop well-defined structures of leadership. We do see, however, in the Letters to Timothy and Titus (often called the “Pastoral Epistles) a more structured notion of pastoral leadership that is charged with guiding the community and ensuring authentic Christian teaching. As the Church moves into the second century, the structure of a bishop, a council of presbyters, and deacons leading Christian communities will spread throughout the Mediterranean world.

What do we have to learn from the developing notion of “Church” that we find in the pages of the New Testament? There are many profound truths to be discovered there; let me just mention four insights that I think are important for Catholic Christians today.
  • First, the Scriptures remind us that following Jesus is meant to be discipleship within community. We already know this, but it is an important to remember in a culture that tends to be so individualistic. While being a Christian always entails a personal relationship with Jesus, it is about more than just “me and Jesus.” Authentic Christianity is always lived out in the community called Church.
  • My second point is the other side of the first (How’s this for theological subtlety?!!). The Church is a communion of people who have been called into an intimate relationship with the crucified and risen Jesus. Paul’s image of the Body of Christ, as well as Jesus’ discourse about the vine and the branches found in the Gospel of John (chapter 15) testify to this. The Church must always be concerned with leading people into a closer bond of love with Christ.
  • Third, these early Christian communities exhibit the conviction that every believer has been gifted by the Holy Spirit. While they sometimes struggled with how to unify these gifts, there was the sense that each person is important for the life of the community. There is no such thing as a purely passive Christianity. I believe that this truth is a significant one for us Catholic Christians to reflect on today.
  • Finally, the fact of tensions and struggles within these early communities can be a source of consolation and encouragement for Catholics today. The Scriptures suggest to us that there were some strong personalities and some vigorous arguments within the New Testament churches. The Catholic Church today grapples with polarization and fragmentation among various groups of believers, who often find it difficult to talk with one another. A deeper familiarity with the New Testament can inspire us to remember that we all belong to one communion of faith and that we are called to work toward reconciliation within the Church.

I suggest that this week you read Paul’s beautiful reflections on the Church as the Body of Christ in First Corinthians, chapters 12 and 13. What are the gifts that God has given you for the building up of Christ’s Body? Do you feel that you have the opportunity to use these gifts in the Church? How might you use them more effectively?

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Image: The traditional site of the tomb of St. John, one of Jesus' twelve apostles in the ancient city of w:Ephesus, an important religious center of early Christianity. Ephesus is today located in Turkey. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Part I - Ekklesiology and Christology

Part II - The Church in the New Testament

Part III - Highlights Through the Ages

Part IV - Vatican II - First Part

Part V - Vatican II - Second Part

Author information Robin Ryan, C.P.

Robin Ryan is a Passionist priest and theologian who serves as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Catholic Theological Union. He received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from The Catholic University of America. He is the author of numerous articles and recordings on theological and spiritual topics. He edited and contributed to the book Catholics on Call: Discerning a Life of Service in the Church (Liturgical Press, 2010). He is the author of God and the Mystery of Human Suffering: A Theological Conversation Across the Ages (Paulist Press, 2011). He is the author of the forthcoming book Jesus and Salvation (Liturgical Press). He is also a contributor to and English-language editor of the forthcoming Diccionario de la Pasión (Madrid, San Pablo) and the founding director of Catholics on Call.

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