Part 7 of What We Should Have Seen, Where We Go From Here (7/8)
Last week I introduced a term—“necessary future”—but supplied little context or explanation. I’ve been using this phrase in my consulting practice over the last few years to help people more accurately frame the mindset needed for the days ahead. The qualifier is important because it invites my clients to subtly, yet measurably upgrade their level of ownership in the process. The generic future is coming, regardless. Nothing you can do. But the idea of a necessary future suggests that there is a particular form of that same future that is still essentially wet cement; therefore, partly shapable.
If a particular set of a, b, c factors were necessary for your business to thrive amidst x, y, z challenges, what might that future look like? While good and bad future are likely matters of chance, a necessary future is something to anticipate. More than goal-setting, the anticipation is paradigmatic. What prophetic aspect makes it necessary? This is about responsibility more than achievement. Who would you be in that future? What would need to change to assure that future?
We lay hold of this future by reaching for it with faith. A rough corollary to this idea can be found in John Piper’s notion of future grace. Exactly what you need is already there, waiting. When an anonymous woman with an issue of blood touched the hem of Jesus’s robe in a throng of people, she placed a demand on His anointing. A reservoir of potential power was there waiting in Him all along. Yet even though others were similarly pressed against Him, Jesus perceived the release of power to her, no one else. He described what had happened, baffling his disciples. How many untapped resources await our intentionality? Does it matter whether others see it?
In many respects, this is the most important message of the series. What I will briefly outline we must greatly lay hold of in Christ. Our necessary future depends on it.
Innovation and Platform Shifts
The dustbin of history is littered with institutions that failed to anticipate the future and adjust for it. It’s not so much that times change, as that thought systems change. Governments ascend or decline. Technology migrates, evolves or leaps, enabling new paradigms and relationships to emerge. Organizational models and products adapt to these new opportunities, risks, environmental factors and economic conditions…or they don’t. Your paradigm will either liberate or limit you in a time of transition. It’s a matter of mindset, data-processing and perspective.
Those that fail to innovate fade or collapse altogether. Kodak did not shift from film to digital and paid a dear price—obsolescence and bankruptcy. Palm and Nokia were caught with their pants down by Apple’s iPhone and never recovered. Blockbuster could have bought Netflix for a paltry $50 million, but didn’t. Blockbuster is gone. Netflix is a behemoth. It’s in everyone’s living room. Sears and Toys-R-Us. Myspace and Yahoo. The list is long.
Meanwhile, in 1997, when Apple was at its lowest, burning through cash and begging for PC market share scraps, Steve Jobs returned to the company he founded and unleashed a flurry of innovation. Before he died in 2011, he had revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing, while dramatically reimagining a seventh, retailing. Microsoft did nothing so drastic, but they didn’t sit still, shifting from DOS to Windows—a game changer for PCs. But they didn’t camp there. When Satya Nadella made his first public appearance as the new CEO in 2014, he announced that mobile and cloud were the future, never once mentioning the many decades of cash-cow Windows OS.
A far more consequential shift, albeit slower, took place in the evolution of democracy among the ancient Athenians during the fifth and sixth centuries BC under the reforms of Solon (594 BC) and Cleisthenes (508/7 BC). What happened? In short, Greek governance dramatically shifted from kings to a ruling assembly made up of regular citizens. In America, we live in a democracy because of the massive political and philosophical experimentation to which the Greeks committed their society.
Why do I bring up the Greeks? Because most people don’t realize that Jesus leveraged their revolutionary form of government to announce His plans to take over the planet. He said He would build something very specific, with a specific meaning as defined by Greek culture for hundreds of years. In that context, He said the Kingdom had drawn near, and that His disciples were to expand it to every corner of the earth. The beauty and power of what He authorized is truly essential to the necessary future, but first we must admit where we’ve missed it. There’s work to do.
The Coming Ekklesia Revolution
In May, 2020, many American Christians expressed relief and rejoicing as the president and other government officials declared the church to be an “essential service.” The irony of the statement was that, in giving it, the government essentially acknowledged that without the mea culpa, the church would continue to be non-essential. A synonym for non-essential is irrelevant. Sadly, given the right set of circumstances—like, say, 2020—church culture will actually prove quite maladaptive, passive and impotent. A federal endorsement doesn’t shore up our lack so much as expose it. Other than representing a voting bloc, the church as spiritual force has largely been sidelined for months. If we can’t meet on Sunday, oh no! What do we do? One hundred sixty-six hours of the week are largely pointless in our tradition, yet we cling to the notion that Jesus is really energetic about helping us build a world-class Sunday service. 2020 is slowly forcing us to see the folly of this idea, but the fact is, we deviated a long time ago from our Lord’s real construction agenda.
Why would I make such an audacious claim? Do I hate the church? No! I planted a church, pastored a church, and love the church. I grew up in the church. But to make my point, I need to go back and connect the dots to the Greeks. See, in the revolutionary progression that occurred when the government of Athens shifted from kings to a ruling assembly, that ruling assembly had a name: the ekklesia. Ekklesia were the de facto governments of the Greek city-state system. This should radically affect how we read key passages, for Jesus did not say, “Upon this rock I will build your Sunday service,” nor even, “I will build my church.” No, He said, “Upon this rock I will build my ekklesia.”
Read that again as it should be understood. “I will build my government.”
For Jesus to use a secular Greek word laden with centuries of specific cultural assumptions, rather than a Jewish word specifically denoting local religious gatherings (‘synagoge’) is both shocking and instructive, but it makes sense. He was only doing what had been foretold. For countless centuries, the prophetic thread of salvation and rulership woven through Jewish history had firmly set their hope on the Messiah to come. Isaiah 9 promised the Jews that “a son will be given,” and “the government shall be upon his shoulder…and of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (vss. 6-7).
This idea had already been put in motion immediately after Adam forfeited his rulership mandate. In Genesis 3:15, God promised humanity that a member of the human race would crush Satans’ head. Later, Psalm 2, 110 and Daniel 7 promised the convergence of a Son of Man, a Son of David, and Son of God, with a divine right to rule, who would stretch forth a king’s rod out of Zion and shatter rebellious nations like pottery. Slowly, the total picture emerged. Not only would the Messiah be a Savior and Kinsman Redeemer, He would also be Lord of Lord and King of Kings. This thread of governmental authority winds its way through the Old Testament so strongly that the Jews expected a political Messiah and missed the Suffering Servant. Oops!
Thousands of years pass with endless generations longing for the son to be given. Suddenly, He arrives. Twenty centuries ago, a God-Man strode the dust of ancient Palestine, waiting for just the right moment to make His plans known. Leading His disciples to the most vile city possible, butted up against a great cliff, a massive rock slab filled with idol worship, speckled with temples to false gods, He asks a curious question: “Who am I? Do you get it yet?” When Peter recognizes Him by divine revelation—“You’re the promised ruler of nations! You are the Christ!”—Jesus acts without hesitation. And what does He do? In the darkest, most oppressive place a Jew could go (and no good Jew would), He forms a government.
Having followers who finally appreciate the full scope of His mission as eschatological Lord of History and Nations, Jesus announces, in essence: “I want the planet back. Every square inch. Even dark, demonized places like this. Especially places like this.”
Of course, His plan and process isn’t about natural conquest or military might, it’s about a superior kingdom led by a Servant King bankrupting the spiritual power-brokers and thugs who hold humans as chattel slaves in the great, cosmic war. From Matthew 16, Jesus will go to Jerusalem to die, blindsiding principalities and powers in their pride. But first, He installs an ekklesia—not any ekklesia, His ekklesia, His ruling council—to achieve His agenda on earth. In Matthew 16:18-19, we are meant to see nothing less than the inauguration of a new regime, like a president installing his cabinet — a spiritual government with spiritual values, tools, protocols and disciplines, but importantly, real spiritual authority.
By employing this particular word and not another, Jesus authorized His own dynamic, adaptive spiritual governance, able to be formed anywhere and anytime. The problem is that instead of fostering this, we have fostered slickly packaged 60-90 minute Sunday morning services instead. All our eggs have been in that basket for decades, if not centuries. Any wonder we’re non-essential? We’ve strayed, and not just a little.
Why Did Jesus Choose That Word?
The fact that Jesus Himself introduces this word to the New Testament is not trivial. He uses it only twice, in Matthew 16 and 18. Matthew 16 is the founding charter of the ekklesia and should be considered a preamble to the Great Commission of Matthew 28. It contains the mission and the tools: keys of the kingdom, binding and loosing, assaulting the gates of Hades. Matthew 18 contains the method and the team: groups of two or three in prayer, operating together in communities of love and faith, exercising spiritual authority through the power of agreement.
“On this rock I will build my ekklesia, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”Matt 16:18-19, 18:18-20
The details of any new construction are specified by blueprints, then certified by an engineer. Small changes can lead to structurally unsound results. In a similar way, words form the building blocks of ideas, and language creates culture. Words tend to produce according to their intent. The entire theology of the Logos, the Word of God, is that it has full creative power according to the intent of God. The Logos is the agency of creation. Wrongly or rightly, we create with our words, too, Very often, the rightness or wrongness is determined by the appropriateness of the word to its speaker and fidelity to the intended mission. This is why, according to a Chinese proverb, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names. God very specifically applied names all through Scripture—both for Himself and others. He even changed people’s names to signify a change in their nature. What if Abram had been changed to Zigmondo? What if the Marines were called ballerinas, and vice-versa? What if, instead of Semper Fidelis—a motto reflecting the faithfulness, courage and sacrifice of men who are “first to fight”—their motto was Motu Camena, which is “poetry in motion”? Does it matter that a bear is a bear and a lamb is a lamb?
For this reason, it doesn’t really matter how often we say, “The building isn’t the church, the people are!”—it doesn’t stick. The correction never takes root because the word has rightly reproduced itself. We can’t change the culture using the word that produced it in the first place.
Jesus gave us the blueprint, “I will build my ekklesia,” but ‘ekklesia’ and the English word ‘church’ do not mean the same thing. Other than the two instances in the gospels, ekklesia never occurs until after the events of Pentecost. From there, Paul quickly grasped the massive implications of Jesus instituting an ekklesia, and leveraged the word for all of His subsequent instruction. He didn’t form churches, he built ekklesias. Yet like countless pastors through the centuries, I’ve preached sermons on how ekklesia is the root word for church. It isn’t. Virtually every major commentator will readily admit that church actually comes from a different word, but then in the same breath, and with apparently no discomfort, defend the merits of this decision by appealing to the general idea of “assembly,” which both words share. The unfortunate impression left upon both serious and casual Bible students is that the word church is an accurate translation of ekklesia in the Greek text, which is simply not the case.
Once you see it, you will likely wonder how it ever happened to begin.
King James and the Necessary Error
Personally, I remain deeply grateful for the King James Version’s many great contributions to both history and Christianity. I grew up studying and memorizing the KJV, and I cherish its impact on my life. But facts are facts. In 1611, the year of publication of the Authorized King James Version—so named because James 1 had sponsored the translation—Europe remained a powder keg in the wake of the Protestant reformation. England had begun putting a fragile stake into Protestantism when, only a few monarchs prior to James, for dubious reasons, Henry VIII became the first English monarch to split from Rome and establish his own alternative, the Church of England. He did so not as a result of religious differences with Roman Catholicism, but in personal and political opposition to the Pope, who refused to annul his marriage. In doctrine and practice, there was little difference. Nonetheless, the result was a watershed moment in institutional Christianity.
Within the nation, religious loyalties continued to vacillate during subsequent reigns. Mary, Queen of Scots, was raised Catholic, and she saw it as her duty to purge the evil of Protestantism from her country, but the next monarch, Elizabeth I, was another Protestant. Later, the reign of King James I “established a definite victory for Protestantism in England. The King James Bible introduced a new Protestant form of the Bible to church members throughout the country…in a language and dialect-specific to the English people and to their Protestant religion…(a goal) of Protestant reformers who had been supporting the distribution of Bibles in common language for decades.” (wikipedia.org)
Perhaps a little sympathy is in order, as the intense political, religious and social milieu of medieval Europe can help us better appreciate the pressures King James faced, contributing in his mind to the necessary error of the KJV mistranslation (which he actually commanded in two of fifteen official translation edicts, or guidelines). For reasons of great subtlety and complexity well beyond the scope of this article, official matters of state demanded the substitution of the word church, since it had clear implications for the king’s control of the institution in that fragile era of history. Nevertheless, ’Church’ ain’t ‘ekklesia.’ Look it up in any English dictionary. Likely, it derives from the Late Greek word kyriakon (from kuriakos, the possessive form of kurios, “lord”), which then evolved into Anglo-Saxon “kirche” and Scottish “kirk.” This word doesn’t even resemble the Greek ekklesia, though it did come to mean the place of assembly (in the early centuries, believers called the place in which they met, Kuriake Oikia, the Lord’s House).
If all of that makes your head spin, let me boil it down. Kings and Caesars control land, buildings and institutions. Furthermore, religious notions of law, punishment, blessing and divine endorsement form an enormous power base to help consolidate royal interests. Under the notion of the divine right of kings, Kuriake Oikia easily morphed to solidify the king’s royal provenance over the church, especially in the sense of properties and hierarchies of authority. Sure enough, over time, this has become the common meaning. Even Geoffrey Chaucer in 1390 employ “chirche” as denoting the building.
On other words, King James had a vested, material interest in controlling the church, and defending the church. Yet if Jesus is King of Kings, His ekklesia supersedes every other empire, administration and monarchy. An assembly convened and governed directly by Christ exists outside of state control. If this is so, how do we justify how often the Kuriake Oikia (church) has been co-opted as an extension of the empire throughout history? Could it be because the institution of the church comes from a different blueprint than that of the Christ?
Am I making much ado out of nothing? Before answering, remember, ekklesia is introduced to the New Testament in red letters. Also remember that a frustrated Roman Catholic priest, Martin Luther, recovered the central doctrine of grace through faith after this truth had fallen into serious disrepair for over 1000 years. Sometimes recovery is measured in millennia. You have to see the problem before you can fix it.
Some will conclude the relative meanings of the two words are close enough. Indeed, ‘church’ has been the accepted translation for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, I can’t shake something: “The words of the Lord are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times” (Psa. 12:6); “Every word of God proves true…do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6); “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it” (Deut. 4:2).
Instead of correcting the problem, every generation subsequent to the publication of the King James Authorized Version has defended the mistranslation. The problem is not one of mere semantics, but of meaning and intent…and influence. With the growth of English as the world’s official language, and English missionaries carrying the English Bible to every nation, the English Bible has defined the modern world’s paradigm of “church life” rather than the decidedly more noble, aggressive, and rigorous mission of establishing spiritual embassies under the Lordship of Jesus in every neighborhood, city, region and nation. Can we afford to be be casual about this? Does our cherished traditional word mean more to us than we value His word? A church produces what a church produces. Church is historically rooted in the place of assembly. Ekklesia is focused on the purpose and authority of the assembly. When Covid-19 took our place away, we were lost. Ekklesia suffers no such lack of purpose, regardless of geographical limitations. We have not yet seen what a global ekklesia would produce.
Forging the Necessary Future
In our zeal and irritation—some, perhaps, that is righteous; some derived from misspent nationalism; some pent-up frustration; and some that is fleshly—the Body of Christ increasingly seems ready to assert ourselves again. Good! That can be a step in the right direction. Bad! It can also lead us right into another ditch. You see, realignment is a perilous path. There are many good ideas, many missteps, but only a few essential pursuits. The necessary future actually demands an ancient solution. I don’t want a fad, I want a course correction, with a mission that cannot be stopped. Recalibrating the Body of Christ to an ekklesia paradigm gives us solid footing. Why? Because it is what Jesus committed to build. It’s more than a good idea, more than a “high quality target.” It is vital to our future. We must begin to steward the mission of God entrusted to us. Our mission is to be the ekklesia, not the church. In HIs kindness and sovereignty, God is allowing Covid-19 to expose the centuries of deficit in our spiritual paradigm, and to agitate for change.
With this in mind, do you think human government has to authorize the ekklesia of Christ? Do you see any difference between a governmental assembly formed by Jesus in every locale, and your understanding of the average church service? Has hundreds of years of church culture produced a mindset for territorial governance with an unyielding clarity of mission and energy for intercession?
Maybe we should have stuck with the word Jesus used.
With the streets aflame, the nation tearing apart, and our Sunday Service challenged, it’s time for a deeply sober assessment of how we got here. We know what church culture is capable of. Much of it is good, but much of it is lacking. The good news is that the ancient blueprint remains timeless. The necessary future awaits.
It is time for the ekklesia to arise.