We’ve looked at a recent bit of church history through my highly selective and biased eyes, and now we’ve begun to explore some of the biblical pictures with which the church is described. Today I want to look at the predominant NT word, ekklesia the word from which we get terms such as ‘ecclesiastical’ and indeed ‘ecclesiology’ which is what we’re doing right now. What does this word tell us about what Church is for?
Word studies are, of course, highly dangerous. In my Liturgy and Liberty (MARC, 1986) I attempt to use the word ‘green’ to explain to alien readers what the English word really means, which is that it describes jealous, inexperienced and nauseous ETs who live in houses made of glass. We know this is nonsense, but it is no worse than many sermons we’ve all heard which explain what the Greek and Hebrew terms really mean. But I don’t think we’ll be committing hermeneutical murder if we think of the word’s root meaning of ‘calling out’, not in the sense of heckling but of being called to leave one place or lifestyle and go to another. I find it helpful to think of the church as a bunch of people who have heard God’s call to leave and to travel.
This picture has good OT precedent, as far back as Abraham, who was called in Gen 12:1 to ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’. Since then God’s people have been people on the move, and a static church seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. But there are two different but complementary interpretations of this journey, both of which are important for the Church to take seriously.
The first is more to do with leaving, in the sense of repentance. Again and again the NT calls Christians out of previous lifestyles and standards of behaviour and into something better. Jesus launched himself into ministry in Mk 1:14 with the word ‘Repent!’ and it became a constant refrain of his teaching. ‘Unless you change’, he told his would-be followers, ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The epistles are full of this stuff, and the most notable example is where the author of Ephesians insists in 4:17 that his readers ‘no longer live as the Gentiles do’, a phrase all the more telling, of course, as those to whom he was writing were Gentiles. So 21st century British disciples must no longer live as 21st century British people do. A church which seems constantly to be accommodating itself to the spirit and the behaviour of the age, in order that it might appeal more to those outside its walls, has lost the plot big-time. The Liberal movement of the last century had this explicit aim, to make the gospel more believable and the church more accessible. I’m not convinced it hasn’t been counter-productive.
But the second application of the meaning of being ‘called out’ has more to do with destination than life-style. In Gen 12 God was highly specific about what Abraham had to leave (his country, his people, his father’s household) but gloriously vague about where he was headed (‘to the land I will show you’). We are not called from sitting in one place to sitting in a different place: we’re called to pilgrimage, journey, uncertainty and insecurity. The call of God to Abraham comes more than once, and the call of God to his church is a constant one. Whenever we think we’ve made it and can settle, that call comes again. All we know is that will be a final destination, and a rest for those who have travelled long and hard. But in the meantime we keep on walking.