History shows that the growth of who followed Jesus was faster during the first three centuries after His death than any other period. Of course, since that time a larger number of people have claimed Jesus as their Savior, but even though the total numbers are bigger, the rate of growth has never been the same. It is worth asking why.
Something happened in the beginning of the 4th Century AD that altered the “church”. Any historian can tell you immediately what that event was. Christianity became official. Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church was converted from clandestine small groups meeting secretly in homes to a powerful spiritual and political force in the public realm. It has been that way ever since. Maybe it’s time that we took a hard look at what that change really meant. Maybe it’s time we realized that an element of this change might have been more damaging to followers of Jesus than any persecution ever was.
In spite of the fact that ekklesia never meant the building we call “church”, the “church” today is almost universally associated with a place. Believers and non-believers are admonished to join the local “church”, an exhortation that nearly always means an association with some building and hierarchy. Churches are recognized as legitimate tax-exempt businesses and as such operate under the general principles of accounting guidelines no different than any other business. Churches have boards, officers, reports, budgets and mission statements not much different (expect for an occasionally word) than any other business. In fact, the Church worldwide is very big business.
Whether we call the leaders of our churches ministers, pastors, priests, presidents or some other liturgical title, they are really employees of the business, running a voluntary corporation with usually inadequate resources and a constant appeal for money to keep everything going. As a result of this pressure, many churches have annual membership drives (called revivals or renewals or evangelism) and every church I have ever heard about has some annual push for more money. Bigger is always better and today’s super-churches are more like multi-national companies than ever before.
But four walls do not make a church. Ekklesia was never about walls, committees, boards, worship service management, buildings funds and twenty-minute three-point sermons. Ekklesia means “the called out ones”. The primary meaning of this Greek word, the word that designates the concept of a New Testament “church” is about begin called by Christ into His fellowship. There is no brick and mortar church. A building cannot be called out. There are only the lives of those people who experience God’s irresistible pull toward community. But this is a very special kind of community. It is characterized by some words that we don’t hear very often within the walls of “church”.
If your four-walled-framework version of “church” doesn’t live, breath and act out these things, then you are not among the ekklesia. Those who are called out are called out to reflect Jesus, His thoughts, His words and His deeds. Anything else is not ekklesia, it is polis (corporation).
Why don’t we stop pretending? Within every “church” are the ekkletoi. They are God’s church. All the rest are observers, outsiders, pretenders or simply confused. The streets have a slang term that covers it – “players”. There are a lot of people who pretend to be players. They go to the four-walled substitutes for ekklesia, but their lives are anything but descriptions of Jesus. They are probably members of the four-walled version, but they do not hear Jesus’ call and they do not acknowledge Him as Lord. Why don’t we politely ask them to leave? Because we think we need the masses. Because we have a payroll. Because we want to appear successful. God does more with one ekkletos than with 10,000 pretenders.
Where is your “church”? Mine is among the twelve or fifteen believers who share my home, my meals, my life, my troubles and my triumphs. They are the family of God. The rest are just too busy.
From the death of Jesus to the proclamation of Constantine, followers of Christ made commitments that mattered. They were literally life and death decisions. If you were following Jesus, you were at risk. There was no room for pretenders because there was no advantage to pretending. We have lost that essential ingredient. Are we ready to ask God to give it back to us? Are we willing to let God strip away our shallow imitation of His ekklesia? Does that list of adjectives matter to you?