23 June 2010

THOUGHT - What is a church?

I've been reading Neil Cole's book 'Organic Church' and enjoying it enormously. It was published way back in 2005 but has lasting value. In it, Neil poses a question. He tells us that when he was a seminary student he was given the following five characteristics of church.He often asks groups what is missing from the definition.
  • A group of believers gathered together regularly...
  • That considers itself a church...
  • That has qualified elders present...
  • That regularly practices the ordinances of baptism and communion as well as church discipline...
  • And that has an agreed-on set of doctrinal beliefs.
Neil agrees that these are good qualities for any church to have and that most would meet these standards. A lamp distributing lightBut his answer is that Jesus is missing!

The New Testament Greek word usually translated church is 'ekklesia'. What does this word really mean? Literally, 'ekklesia' means 'called out' and this is probably how the early church would have thought of themselves - those called out from the world, called by Jesus.

If we scrapped the term 'church' and replaced it with the literal translation our view of what church is might change. For example, when Peter recognises Jesus as the Son he is told, 'on this rock I will build those I call out' (Matthew 16:16-18). In other words, if you understand who he is you will also be built by him as part of his called-out community.

If we habitually thought in terms of 'called out' or 'called ones', maybe we'd live more closely in the way Jesus really wanted! Because the English word 'church' has no real underlying meaning for me, I can effectively make it mean whatever I wish. But if I have in mind the true sense of the Greek I see that I'm called along with others and that we are together built by the Messiah himself on the basis of knowing who he is.

Revelation uses the term 'lampstand' for the seven 'called-out communities' (Revelation 1:20). 'To the messenger of the called in Ephesus write...' and so on for all seven 'lampstands'. (The messenger would have been the courier who carried the letter to the called out community. The word 'angel' means, literally, messenger.)

Each called-out community is referred to as a lampstand. What is the function of a lampstand? To hold the Lamp! Can a lampstand provide light? No! But if the Lamp, the Light of the World, is held in his rightful place he will provide light - it's what he came to do.

So each of these communities of people called-out from the world has the function of holding the Light in a place where he can illuminate the area all around. So where there is a called-out community there will be a pool of brightness in which the world can see.

Read the letters to the called-out in Revelation 2 and 3 and understand that a lampstand can be removed if it does not perform its task (holding up the Light so that he shines out). And remember that a lampstand is a 'church'. A removed lampstand is a removed church! We have a function and there's a cost associated with failure. I live in a town called St Neots, if the called-out in St Neots fail to display the Light we may lose our place!

This isn't some sort of angry threat from the Lord, it's the inevitable effect of failure to be a lampstand. It has happened historically on a large scale, think of all the lands in the Middle East and in North Africa where Islam swept away the Roman and Greek churches in the later centuries of the first millenium. It will happen everywhere the Light of the World is not held high by his called-out people. It can happen where I live. It can happen where you live.

But the Light has overcome the darkness. So live your life as a called-out member of your local called-out community and let the Light of the world shine around. Then the place where you live will have a future and your called-out community will truly be a lampstand. See Isaiah 9:2, John 1:5, Ephesians 5:8.

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