A Further Conversation About "Church"

A dear friend of mine replied to this post and offered up some really good questions! With her permission, I’ve addressed them here.

Jack – I enjoyed [your post] and it is very thought provoking. However, as I was reading it, these verses ran through my mind. Perhaps it’s my Catholic-ness (is that a word? :) coming out, but how would you address the following:

Matthew 16:18–19: Christ tells Peter, after he answered Jesus when He asked Peter who he is, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Why would Jesus say that if he never intended for a church to be built? Also – why would he make the statement that hell would not prevail against it? If there was to be no church, then there would be no entity for hell to attack. Individually, we are weak and easily distracted by Satan, but bound together by a Church, we become strong and more easily defended.

Additionally, Matthew 18:17 says that if someone who has sinned against you refuses to listen to you and to one or two others, you are to “tell it to the Church; and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” in other words, outside of the church. If there is no church, then what entity was Christ referring to when saying this?
St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians: (Eph. 5:23) “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” St. Paul continues in Eph. 5:25 when he writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” If Christ truly meant that a Church was not to be built, developed, started, etc., then why would St. Paul compare a husband’s love of his wife to the love of Christ for His Church?

You also wrote that Christ never talked about forming a new religious system. I disagree. He was putting his system in place while he did his ministry. Baptism, the Eucharist, the Church, all components of a new system and one “that the gates of Hades will not prevail against.”

As always – you make me think and that, my friend, is wonderful. It’s late and I apologize for any confusion in what I may have written. If there is some, I will be happy to clarify it, once I get some sleep. Take care and I look forward to your response.

Thank you so much for the great questions! I appreciate the opportunity to respond. I think, the thing that is most obvious to me, is the word “church” and how it’s used and understood. This is important. As another good friend of mine once said, “Words mean something, dammit!” So there are a few questions for us here. What did Jesus and Paul mean by the word “church?” What is our understanding of the word “church?” Does our understanding match up with that of Jesus and Paul?

The word translated “church” is the Greek word ἐκκλησίᾳ (ekklēsia - ek-klay-see'-ah) and it simply means, “called out.” Properly understood it’s a word used for a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly (see Acts 19.32). In the Septuagint, the Greek text of the Jewish Scriptures, it is often used when referring to the assembly of the Jewish people (see Judges 21.8; 1Chronicles 29.1; etc.). While ἐκκλησίᾳ doesn’t necessarily have any religious connotations in and of itself, the writers of the New Testament often used it when referring to the people who follow The Way (see the passages you suggested and scores more). In that context, ἐκκλησίᾳ is applied in a couple of different ways. First, it’s used when referring to local assemblies in different places - Galatia (Galatians 1.2; notices that there are many local ἐκκλησίᾳ there), Corinth (1Corinthians 1.2), and the group that met in the home of Prisca and Aquila (Romans 16.3-5).

Second, ἐκκλησίᾳ also refers all the people throughout all time and space who make up the mystical “body of Christ” and follow The Way. These are the people through whom god implements the Realm of god and uses them to expose the reconciliation of the world (see 2Corinthians 5.16-19).1

By way of contrast, the word “church” is now understood to mean both the religious institution known as “Christianity,” in general, and of a specific tradition (in your case, Catholic), in particular. This is similar to the word “gay.” In its classical understanding, the word “gay” meant “lighthearted” or “carefree.” But today, its primary meaning refers to homosexuals. In today’s context, therefore, when we see someone who’s happy or lighthearted, our first word choice wouldn’t be “gay.”

Therefore, it seems to me (at least) that from this comparison the word ἐκκλησίᾳ as it’s used in the Bible doesn’t mean how we understand it today. It appears that we are taking our understanding of the word ἐκκλησίᾳ and reading that back into the text (this is known as eisegesis). As I noted above, there are plenty of places where ἐκκλησίᾳ wouldn’t make sense in the way we use it today. For example, we wouldn’t consider the gathering of the first century Jewish people or the Roman government to be the “church.”

What I’m suggesting is that we see ἐκκλησίᾳ to mean one of two things (depending on the context): a local gathering of reconciled people through whom god is implementing the Realm of god; or the totality of said people throughout all time and space. It’s not referring to a particular religious tradition. No religious tradition has the market on god. They aren’t the reality. They were signs that pointed us to the reality. The “badge” or “label” by which the world would recognize god’s followers is not “Anglican,”or “Baptist,” or “Orthodox,” or “Reformed,” or “Roman Catholic,” or any other tradition. It’s not even “christian2.” It’s Love:

John 13.34-35; CEB: “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

So, with this in mind, how would we view those passages you mentioned? While most of them could be understood to be either one (or both) of my proposals (Matthew 16 and Ephesians 5 - universal; Matthew 18 - local), I would like to specifically address one passage.

Matthew 16.18; NIV:3 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

There are two things that I want to address here - the understanding of “my church” and “Hades.” I’ll start with “Hades.”

I specifically chose the NIV because it transliterated the word from the Greek text. The word here, ᾅδου (hádēs, hah’-dace), means the “unseen realm” and refers to the realm of the dead. To the surprise of a lot of people, Hades consisted of both the “unrighteous” and the “righteous.” This means that Jesus wasn’t referring to the doctrine of “hell. 4 ” This is very telling to me for other reasons that are beyond this response.

Furthermore, when Jesus said “my church,” he was not talking about a religious tradition. As was noted above, his meaning of the word ἐκκλησίᾳ should be understood in the universal sense of all the people who follow The Way.

Therefore, Jesus’ meaning is that god’s realm being fully established “on earth as in heaven” and not even death would stop it. And that’s exactly what we see on Resurrection Sunday (which, in John’s Gospel, takes place the first day of New Creation).

Concerning our disagreement about Jesus “forming a new religious system”: Good! I’m glad you disagree! I wouldn’t want anyone to just agree with me because I’m a priest. These are weighty issues that each of us need to wrestle with. We can’t simply follow what someone else tells us. Whether that’s a friend, or teacher, or pastor, or priest, or Pope (and that last one can be very troubling for some people). Although the things you mentioned were also available within other religious traditions, not least Judaism, perhaps they were meant to start a new religious system. And while I’m convinced that this was flatly not the case, and becoming more convinced with each reading, I know that we’re not all at the same place in our journeys along The Way. So, let’s keep reading. Let’s keep asking great questions. But, more than anything else, let’s keep loving each other. Because “if [we] know all the mysteries and everything else, and if [we] have such complete faith that [we] can move mountains but [we] don’t have love, [we’re] nothing” (1Corinthians 13.2; CEB).

In the Love of the Three in One,

Br Jack+, LC

1. This information was gathered from Biblos.com. This is a fantastic site for people who are interested in getting into the Greek (and Aramaic/Hebrew) text of the Bible.

2. “Christian” means “follower of Jesus,” I purposely didn’t use it this way in this context. Too often, the word “Christian” is associated with actions that are not at all like Jesus.

3. THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

4. Even if Jesus was referring to the doctrine of hell, his point in Matthew 16 would be the same - nothing can stop the spread of god’s realm.


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