I wrote in my last post about viewing the Kingdom of God as a growing body or expanding temple (cathedral) that fills the earth. From beginning to end, scripture holds forth a vision of a world filled with God’s eikons living in community with God as co-creative stewards. So how do we order ourselves for ministry? (By “order” I am not speaking of hierarchy. I am speaking of “arrangement” or “organization.”) Where are the job descriptions? We must first begin with Jesus the Christ.
The word “Christ” means anointed. There were three anointed offices in the Old Testament: priest, prophet, and king. With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all three offices have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. (This idea is called munus triplex by John Calvin.) Consequently, anointing people to these offices has ceased. There is only one Priest, Prophet and King who is our high priest, the prophet of prophets, and the King of Kings: Jesus the anointed.
Jesus Christ exercises his offices of priest, prophet and king through his body, the Church. However, “church” is a tricky word because we use it to mean so many different things: a) the elect of God throughout all the ages, b) people living today who are Christians, c) a denomination, d) a building used for Christian worship services, or e) a group of people who meet regularly for Christian worship. The word “church” is from the Greek ecclesia and literally means “the gathering.” It was used to refer to any assembly of people long before it became associated with religious connotations. Consequently, when we read “church” in the New Testament, we need to be cautious about reading 2,000 years of “Church” history back into the word. It was not yet infused with images of specific practices, leadership hierarchies and physical plants. I suspect when early Christians said “church,” thy used the term in much the same way might talk about “the group meeting.”
Still, the idea of the “gathered Christians” had some unique qualities. First, there is and eschatological implication. The idea of “the gathered” is aspirational. New Testament writers repeatedly raised the theme of being “aliens” in a foreign land. Only at Christ’s return will we be truly gathered as “the Church.”
Second, while the Church has an aspirational quality, the Kingdom of God is very much in the present. Paul repeatedly uses the idea of the body of Christ, signifying that all believers in Jesus Christ are one unit, one body, or one society, no matter how dispersed we may be across the earth. This was truly radical.
In the New Testament era, the Roman Empire was the only institution that was allowed to have more than a local influence. Gatherings of more than a few of people were forbidden by the empire. If you wanted to have a meeting you had to form a society and submit a list of members for approval to the magistrates. The four basic voluntary societies were:
- Household – societies organized around the operations of a particular household.
- Professional – societies organized around a trade.
- Religious – societies organized for worship of one of the approved gods.
- Burial – societies organized usually by the poor to mutually assure a proper funeral and burial for family members.
By special dispensation from the Romans, the Jews had been allowed to gather and even build synagogues in Roman cities. For the first thirty years after Jesus accession, Christianity was viewed as a Jewish sect. They frequently met in synagogues. Some did not have this option and Christians had to meet under other auspices, particularly after a falling out with the Jews in the 60s C.E. Those with at least one wealthy patron might form as household society but many formed as burial societies. They were the least restricted and monitored.
Whether household, professional, religious or burial societies, none of these societies saw themselves as having any organic connection with any other society. The concept of having local chapters of a larger organization would have been largely unthinkable and almost certainly repressed. Yet Paul repeatedly refers to the gatherings collectively as the “body of Christ” and does things like take up an offering from one group of gatherings to help with the needs of another group of gatherings. Paul and the New Testament writers actively encouraged the idea of Christians seeing themselves as part of a vast network, all with the triune God as their connecting point. It was international both in that it covered vast geographic areas and in the fact that, in a great many local gatherings, there were people of different nationalities and social status. Indeed, it was this diversity that the Romans found “unnatural” and made them suspicious of Christians. The interconnected and international nature of the Church was unparalleled in human history.
I will turn to structure in a the next post but I think it is important that we first recognize some often overlooked aspects of how the Kingdom of God exists in the world. We are not yet the gathered people (ecclesia) in the eschatological sense of the word. We are the people of God in dispersion (diaspora) throughout an alien world. It is absolutely essential that we meet and worship together. Corporate worship is desired by God but it also has an eschatological and evangelistic significance. When we worship together, we are giving a shadowy example of what life will be like in the age to come. It is a sign to this age of a future that is yet to come. And when we say those words together “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we are both calling for divine intervention and committing ourselves to the realization of the Kingdom. This activity of worshiping and being Christians in ecclesia is essential.
However, what we have all but lost and forgotten is that the primary work of the church does not take place in ecclesia. The primary locus and focus of the Church’s mission in the world is as the diaspora not the ecclesia! God’s vision is of his eikons dispersed throughout creation during the week, offering up daily sacrifices and fragrant offerings of obedient service as co-creative stewards and messengers of the good news, employing the gifts the Spirit has apportioned to them. If we conceive of the Kingdom of God in this way, it has radical implications for how we understand the Church. Each eikon becomes a priestly, prophetic and royal image of the priest, prophet and king, Jesus Christ. So what does it mean to be priest, prophet and king to the world as the diaspora ?