Ekklesia: Why the Model Matters

David A. Holland, Pastor-Teacher

Having grown up in a small Southern Baptist church in hills of rural Oklahoma, I found myself at 19 attending one of America’s first non-denominational, charismatic “mega-churches.” At roughly 3,000 members, it wasn’t “mega” by today’s standards, but in 1979, and coming from a church that attracted 200 souls on a good Sunday, it seemed impossibly large to me. 

This would be my church home for the next 14 years. There I met the girl I would marry, welcomed three daughters into the world, and saw them all dedicated to the Lord there. All the while the church continued to grow, and I served in a variety of lay-leader and staff capacities. 

In 1993 I accepted a staff position at a large charismatic church in Minneapolis with the title of Media Pastor. Soon I found myself in an executive level role with regular pulpit responsibilities and a teaching role in the church’s Bible Institute. After five good years there we moved in 1999 to the DFW area to get fast-growing kids and aging parents into closer proximity to one another. 

At that point we had spent 21 years in leadership in very large churches. With our move to Dallas we were determined to find something smaller and more intimate. We found it in a little start-up only a few months old. A vinyl banner strung up beneath the sign of an existing Southlake church revealed that another church met there on Saturday nights, and provided a web address. 

Our first visit revealed a little flock of about 60 people (kids included) with a mostly volunteer staff who were setting up and tearing down every Saturday evening. We’d finally found our small, intimate little community of believers. We joined the young startup, “Gateway Church,” rolled up our sleeves, and got involved.

Within two years the church was running five services per weekend in one rented location. Within five years, the church had more than ten-thousand members in three locations After another five years, the weekend attendance was north of thirty-thousand souls on a half-dozen campuses. 

By 2015, we had been with the church 15 years and I had collaborated with the founding Senior Pastor on all of his books. This and every other church I had been involved with over the preceding 35 years had been “successful” in many ways. Many precious folks had been saved and baptized. People had encountered God in worship and in His Word. Adults who had been raised in church but drifted away, found their way back to weekly worship. Young families, in particular, found places that could help them steer their children and youth in the right direction. Nevertheless, by that point, I was already hip-deep in a fundamental re-examination of what “church” should be and could be.

I wasn’t mad or offended at anyone. I wasn’t convinced that anyone was necessarily doing it “wrong.” All I knew is that, with each passing year, I had increasingly come to feel like more of a spectator and consumer at church than an active participant—and as I looked around, perceived the same dynamic in others. And that in the deepest part of my being, I longed for something . . . different. 

The Search

Thus, five or six years ago I began a quest to discover, if possible, what Jesus envisioned for community in the New Covenant, and how that manifested itself in the early church communities. I sought to know what the New Testament prescribed, if boiled down to its most basic essence.

I began by trying my best to clear away all of my existing presuppositions and inherited assumptions; and approach the New Covenant scriptures with fresh eyes for light on what a local “church” was intended to be and do.  

I also began reading what others—past and present—had written on the subject. In that process, I came across a remarkably relevant essay by C.S. Lewis that was previously unknown to me, titled “Membership.” (I’ll return to this work before I close.) I re-read 70s-era John Wimber and Jack Hayford—two key figures in the Charismatic Renewal movement of that time. 

Coming to the present, I took a fairly deep dive into the books and sermons of Frank Viola—beginning with his (startlingly titled) collaboration with George Barna, Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Then, moving on to Reimagining Church: Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity

I certainly found things in Viola’s writings and sermons that resonated with my own questionings and spiritual “itches.” Yet I also found myself disagreeing with him on some pretty fundamental premises and conclusions. In other cases, my discomfort with Viola’s ideas was more about style and tone than substance. He sounds angry and offended in much of his writing about the contemporary Western Church. There was and is a chip on his shoulder that I simply do not carry and do not care to pick up. Nevertheless, I found his works immensely useful for helping me frame my questions and highlighting issues I might not have otherwise grappled with. 

However, at the end of the day, the books and writings of others were not my central focus. I went to the scriptures and history on a search for what Viola calls “organic church.” Here is what I found, and how I proceeded, based on those findings.

Ummm . . . What’s a “Church”?

Immediately, I saw that the first mention of the word “church” in our English Bibles is found in Matthew 16:18. This is the familiar and oh-so-important passage wherein Peter, by the Spirit, proclaims that Jesus is the christos, the promised, long-awaited Messiah pointed to by the entirety of the Old Testament scriptures. We all know Jesus’ response to Peter’s epiphany: 

. . . upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

I jokingly used to wonder why, after hearing that pronouncement, one of the disciples didn’t raise his hand and ask, “Ummm, that sounds great but . . . what’s a church?” Of course, the Bible records no such question. Indeed, the disciples don’t seem at all confused by the term. The same is true two chapters later when, in talking to the disciples about how to resolve conflicts and disputes in the coming kingdom era, Jesus says:

If he refuses to listen to them, 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. (Matthew 18:17)

In both instances, the term “church” doesn’t raise a single eyebrow. Of course, we know that Jesus wasn’t speaking English. There’s a Greek word lying beneath that familiar English term. Looking at the original Greek text, what’s most striking is the word Jesus didn’t use. Given that Jesus and His disciples were first century Jews, and given the way we’ve been doing “church” for the last 17 or 18 centuries, the expected word here would be sunagógé—the source of our word synagogue. 

Yet that is not the word Jesus used. He used ekklesia. To understand the significance of this choice, requires going back a little farther in Jewish history.

Alexandria and Athens  

One legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquest of much of the known world around 330 B.C., was making Greek the lingua franca of lands eventually conquered by the Roman Empire. By the New Testament era, Greek had been the unifying language of the Mediterranean and Middle East for several centuries. This resulted in a state of affairs in which much of the Jewish Diaspora spoke Greek and many could not read their own ancient scriptures in their original Hebrew. This prompted the creation of a Greek version of the Law, Prophets, and Writings in the hopes of preserving the scattered Jews’ affinity for their ancestral religion.

So roughly 250 years before the insertion of Jesus into the timeline of history, the seventy Jewish translators in Alexandria tasked with translating the Hebrew scriptures into Greek faced a challenge. Namely, what Greek word to use when translating the Hebrew word, qahal—denoting a holy convocation of the Israelite tribes (or their representatives for the purpose of (1) hearing from God, (2) adjudicating a legal/civil matter, or (3) planning strategy for war. They needed a Greek word that would distinguish this type of a gathering from the other Hebrew words denoting gatherings and assemblies of the whole congregation of Israel, including edah and q@hillah.

The translators of the Septuagint had only to look across the Mediterranean to find their Greek corollary in the ekklesia. Directly across the sea from Alexandria, the Greek city-states, the first democracies, had developed the ekklesia, an assembly of the free citizenry. 

The Athenian ekklesia was responsible for declaring war, crafting military strategy, electing officials (the strategoi), and handling criminal cases and civil disputes.  It originally met once every month, but later met three or four times per month.

In other words, ekklesia was a pretty good fit for qahal.

Over the next two centuries, the Septuagint became the most widely read and studied version of the scriptures in Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire. Indeed, the writers of the New Testament, when quoting Old Testament scripture seem to quote the Septuagint far more often than the more ancient Hebrew version.

It’s also important to note that, at the time of the Christ’s arrival, Judaism was already well down the path of becoming a religion centered around study rather than sacrifice-centered worship. This trend had begun during the Babylonian captivity. And that study was conducted at a specific place (a sunagógé) and led by an elite, professional class of experts in the scriptures (rabbis). Thus, the rabbinical-synagogal form of faith community—one centered around accumulating knowledge about the scriptures and rule-following—was very much a legacy of the Babylonian captivity.  The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70 made the full transformation to Rabbinic Judaism complete and irreversible.

Why Not a Sunagoge?

With this in mind, we can now return to the matter of Jesus’ use of the word ekklesia rather than sunagógé. His disciples didn’t blink when He used that word because they were familiar with it in its connotations and denotations. They had seen and heard it repeatedly in their reading and hearing of the Torah as the corollary to the Hebrew qahal—the holy convocation of the people endued with judicial authority. 

Jesus revealed to them that this Spirit-sparked revelation that He was indeed God’s Christ would become the rock-solid assembly ground upon which He would begin to gather His qahal of the new Israel. And in the same breath, He prophesied that the battle strategies of this Body would be superior to the strategies of God’s enemies. “…and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” “Gates” being an established biblical metaphor for the leadership council of a city, who typically met at the main gate of the walled city to hold court, share news, or plan strategy. (See: Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Ruth 4:1-11; II Samuel 15:2; II Samuel 18:1-5; II Samuel 19:1-8; II Chronicles 31:2; Esther 2:5-8; Esther 3:3; Proverbs 1:21; Proverbs 31:23; Proverbs 31:31)

As I studied and pondered these findings, it became increasingly clear to me that we had missed a lot of nuance and meaning concerning what it was that Jesus intended to leave behind. What’s more, it seemed we had, to a significant degree, actually adopted the synagogue model that Jesus pointedly avoided mentioning. Namely, a faith focused on study and learning at the feet of an elite, professional class of experts, and centered almost exclusively in a sacred “house”—a gathering of individuals in a place, and with no sense that the whole is any greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Upon further exploration, I found that this truth was further obscured by the first translators of the Bible into English. When Wycliffe and others—in defiance of the Roman Catholic Church—set about the task of putting the Bible into the common language of their respective nations, most chose the word “church” for the word ekklesia. The translators of the 1611 King James Version followed their lead. (To be fair, William Tyndale’s translation chose the word “congregation” instead of “church.” Better!)

The choice of “church” seems to be a carryover from a thousand-plus years of preceding Catholic tradition. The Roman Catholic Church had long since adopted the form of the synagogue (although instead of assembling the faithful to a specific building to study the scriptures, assembled them to hear be reminded of doctrines of the Church and remain tenuously tethered to eternal life through the Eucharist). Like the synagogue, it was about the place and its professionals, rather than about the people, their respective gifts, and the assembly’s mystical, collective authority.

Our English word “church”; the Scottish “kirk”; and the German “kirche” are all rooted in the Middle English word chirche, which in turn came down from the Old English word cirche. Traveling farther up the linguistic stream, we find that the origins of cirche can be traced back to the Greek word kurikion, a compound word that essentially means “house of the Lord” or “the Lord’s house.” 

In other words, “church,” and it’s linguistic ancestor kurikion, describe a place not a people. A location. And that makes it a very appropriate English corollary to sunagógé, but not to ekklesia

As I began to process these truths in the context of my search for an alternative expression of New Covenant community, I began to see that a major key was the understanding that an ekklesia of believers should operate in a level of authority and power collectively that none of individual members held individually. That is, the whole was something greater than the sum of the parts. 

One can liken this to a jury. If I’m summoned for jury duty, neither I nor any of my fellow jurors ordinarily possess the authority to determine whether a man goes to prison or goes free. But the moment that jury is convened (convoked), suddenly we possess a collective authority, as a body, that none of us previously possessed. And none of us possesses that authority as individuals—but only as a collective. Nor will we possess it once that jury is disbanded. 

The metaphor is relevant because both the qahal and the ekklesia held the authority to adjudicate disputes. Is it merely a coincidence that Jesus’ second mention of the word ekklesia was in the context of how to resolve a conflict between two members of the Kingdom community? 

And is it coincidental that, given that ancient qahals and ekklesias also assembled to determine the best way to take ground from the enemy, that Jesus first mention alluded to overcoming the “gates of hell?” 

Nor should we overlook the fact that in both passages, Jesus follows His references to the coming ekklesia with a somewhat cryptic comment about binding and loosing, on earth and in heaven. 

“. . . and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

“If he refuses to listen to them, 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. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:17-20)

Through the centuries, many have speculated as to the meaning of these words. But this binding and loosing language snaps into sharp focus in the light of how an ekklesia and qahal actually functioned. Jesus is describing judicial authority, that is, the authority to adjudicate earthly matters (and the spiritual elements producing those matters) and that “verdicts” will be validated and endorsed in the higher court of heaven. And that as few as three, or even two believers could constitute an ekklesia because He, seated on His throne in heaven is also represented on earth in them, His body, bearing His name.

This also illuminates Paul’s outrage and lengthy rebuke after hearing that the Corinthian believers were taking each other to secular courts to resolve conflicts. (I Corinthians 6:1-7) 

The implications of the full meaning of ekklesia extend to numerous and diverse areas of community life, including church discipline, spiritual warfare, corporate prayer, outreach, discipleship, and societal transformation. 

Creating Ministers, Not Consumers

In the interest of brevity, let me say that all of the above insights, and quite a few others unmentioned, resulted in significant changes to the way I viewed local, New Covenant community. 

For example, I reached the somewhat painful conclusion that ekklesia wasn’t primarily about attracting a group of believers so they can hear sound Bible teaching and thereby increase the scope of their knowledge. Painful, because I am called and spiritually gifted as a teacher, and like anyone doing what they are called and gifted to do, I find great joy in doing it. 

Painful also because it is clear that size isn’t the principal measure of success in this paradigm. And like many teachers and preachers, I’m convinced that when it comes to the numbers of people hearing my pearls of wisdom and brilliant insights, more is definitely better. 

Certainly, communicating sound doctrine and proclaiming the good news—a.k.a. teaching and preaching—are absolutely vital elements in the life of a New Covenant ekklesia, but as we’ve seen, they are far from the only ones. And yet the sunagógé model leaves room for little else other than some singing, (and even that has drifted steadily toward being a spectator sport)

With these insights in view, we launched the Cup & Table Co. in October of 2016 in the living room of a friend. In fact, on that first night I shared many of the very things about ekklesia that comprise this paper.

It was launched with the express intention of always being a house church. As un-American as this might sound, the objective was not to get big and still isn’t. 

I’m aware that many American church founders are wired the same way as are entrepreneurs who start businesses. They are driven and dream big. Few small business founders dream of remaining small. The objective is always to “scale up” the business as large as possible. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, by the way. My “day job” is helping churches and para-church ministries grow in size and reach. 

For a pastor, this typically means starting in a living room or hotel meeting room with the earnest hope of getting into a permanent brick-and-mortar site as rapidly as possible. It also means the hope of ending the “tent-making” phase of the startup at some point and drawing a salary from the church. Again, you’ll find no judgment or disapproval here of that pathway.

Nevertheless, these were not part of the vision. Instead, the hope was to grow other small fellowships; to inspire others to replicate what we’re doing. And this has happened. Over the last four years, a number of prospective house church pastors have sat in with us for a season and then gone out to launch an ekklesia where they live. We offer them support, advice, encouragement, and, if desired, something akin to apostolic oversight. 

We’ve remained small for another reason. What we’re doing is not everyone’s cup of tea. Moving from being a spectator/consumer in a large sunagógé model church to an active, participating “member” of an ekklesia is a significant, occasionally shocking, transition for many. It compels them to provide their gift. There’s nowhere to hide and fly under the radar. It inherently demands being active rather than passive. It invites transparency, as you come to know others and are known by them. It’s a shift some simply don’t care to make.  (The spectator/consumer form of church membership is popular for a reason.)

What about “Small Groups”

I should mention that every megachurch I’ve ever been involved in or consulted with—and between those two categories, we’re talking about many of the largest and fastest growing churches in North America—has frantically emphasized “small groups” in a valiant, well-intentioned effort to mitigate the worst of the sunagógé model’s effects—to foster closer relationships and move toward a more participatory dynamic. That’s wise and good. But I have rarely seen it produce anything remotely resembling what I’m increasingly convinced New Covenant ekklesia was meant to be.

Why? Because, as I now comprehend it, it’s not just about forming close relationships, although that is certainly a feature. Nor is it only about making space for each believer to contribute with his or her natural and spiritual gifts, although that is a powerful effect that makes an ekklesia organically and naturally a “healing community.” Above all, it means deeply understanding that to be a “member” is to be a vital, distinct part of something unspeakably sacred, strong, and important in this broken world. It’s an identity thing. (And it’s a shared-life-of Christ thing.)

Restoring Balance in a Hyper-Individualistic Culture

Thus, in closing, I should write a few words about individualism verses collective identity, another difficult but important subject I wrestled with on my way to launching the Cup & Table Co.. 

We may be living in the most individualistic culture the planet has ever seen. Not surprisingly, we’ve produced a form of Christianity that allows us, even encourages us, to think of ourselves always and only as individuals before God. “It’s me and Jesus against the world.” In business terms, it’s as if we’re all spiritual “sole proprietors” in the economy of God. 

To be sure, there are cultures in the ditch on the other side of the road. Just this day, I came across an online article about the collectivist mindset of Chinese culture titled, “Why the Chinese Don’t Have Opinions.” The piece included the following Cold War-era joke by way of illustration.

An international poll that asks the same question in every country: “Excuse me, what’s your opinion of the meat shortage?”

The Poles say, “What’s meat?”

The Americans say, “What’s a shortage?”

The Israelis say, “What’s ‘excuse me’?” 

The Chinese say, “What’s an opinion?”

To be a part of the ekklesia of Jesus requires balancing individuality and collectivity. It means being a unique, contributing “member” of a whole body. I mentioned previously that an address by C.S. Lewis helped me immensely as I grappled with the question of church and community.

In the late 1950s, Lewis addressed an organization of Christian scholars with a talk he titled, “Membership.” In it he deals at length with the tension between individualism and collectivism inherent in being a part of the Body of Christ. Speaking near the peak of the Cold War and the threat of Soviet expansion, Lewis was well aware of the appeals and dangers of collectivist thinking. Thus he wrote: 

It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men. In that sense Christianity must seem to secular collectivists to involve an almost frantic assertion of individuality. But then it is not the individual as such who will share Christ’s victory over death. We shall share the victory by being in the Victor. A rejection, or in Scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected. That is just how Christianity cuts across the antithesis between individualism and collectivism. There lies the maddening ambiguity of our faith as it must appear to outsiders. It sets its face relentlessly against our natural individualism; on the other hand, it gives back to those who abandon individualism an eternal possession of their own personal being, even of their bodies.[1]

C. S. Lewis. “Membership”. An address to the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius.

As with almost anything Lewis wrote or said, the entire work is well-worth some time and reflection. As are these words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together, which identify another aspect of this individuality paradox and tension:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.[2]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 57.

We are very much a work in progress, but the Cup & Table Co. is a flawed, faltering, but sincere effort to live out what Jesus said He would leave behind. We are unique individual believers who, collectively convoked, are something much more authoritative, powerful, redemptive, and restorative. We are, I hope, an ekklesia

[1] C. S. Lewis. “Membership”. An address to the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 57.