Ekklesia as Escapism

Most “-isms” in the Body of Christ are little more than an attempt to push some limited image of Christ on everyone else.

Some -isms today that threaten to rob us of the fulness of Christ are pietism and post-modernism.

“Pietism” is a theology of personal retreat, defeat and escape.

It believes that I am God’s highest purpose, thus making everything about me (or us), and about our purely subjective and often self-focused relationship with Jesus – but not much more.

“Post Modernism” is a philosophy that defines reality solely in terms of me, myself and I – because everything is determined by my own perceptions, experiences and sensibilities.

Christian post-modernism teaches that we should disengage from the world because it is irrelevant and is a distraction from God’s ultimate purpose – which is a relationship with me and those like me.

Building on one or more of those “isms”, in some circles “ekklesia” is now becoming a theology of ecclesiastical self-absorption.

Under the banner of “ekklesia” (the Greek word for “church”), some want to deny or explain away the Kingdom of God and the Great Commission and promote ekklesia – built on their own pietistic post-modern sensibilities – to the exclusion of all else.

Jesus, in turn, becomes only about me and those like me among post-modern pietists, as they create Him in their own image. Some even promote the view in blogs and upcoming books that they are now “beyond” all other parts of the Body of Christ.

My Jesus, however, is bigger than their Jesus!

Vision and Mission

This latest theological fad is a reaction to a “mission” mentality that has, I agree, wounded many people by pushing the centrality of Jesus out of too many churches. Everything, including Jesus and His people, becomes secondary to some vision or mission, and many Christians have been deeply offended and hurt as a result.

But an extreme reaction to a problem can often be just as problematic as the original wrong.

Creating Jesus in Our Own Image

As I read some bloggers who are trying to promote “ekklesia” (the latest buzz word for “organic” or “simple” church), my spirit has become troubled as I see them create new problems in reaction to old problems.

Often, in their zeal to promote their vision of ekklesia as against everything else, they say it’s all about Jesus because true ekklesia – to use a New Testament metaphor – is the Body of Christ.

But the Jesus they see is really a Jesus created in their own image – shaped by the hurts they’ve suffered or their reaction to the wrongs they’ve witnessed or just simply their own post-modern sensibilities – in order to promote some concept of the Body of Christ which is little more than a justification for their safely-ensconced retreat into self-constructed cocoons.

Like any truth out of balance, the irony is that those who most loudly protest that ekklesia should be only about Jesus have, in fact, created a false and emasculated Jesus to justify their own personal and reactionary theology.

Yes, ekklesia is about Jesus …

… but Jesus is about more than just ekklesia – and thus, is about more than just me and “us”.

Boxing God In?

I am not going to box God in by telling Him – or you – what His life must look like in you or in your church. Sure, there are basic components for authentically biblical church, and for the most part institutional churches fall far short.

But apart from those basic components, neither will I box God in, and thus limit His people, by proclaiming what church can’t look like – because what Jesus in me and my fellowship looks like often will be different than what Jesus in you and your fellowship will look like.

We each have different gifts and callings, with different graces, and thus should expect there to be different expressions of Jesus within the Church, within the larger Kingdom of God, and within our fulfillment of the Great Commission.

There also are different seasons, and different cultures, and different stages of growth and maturity, and so the life of Jesus in each of us also will look and be expressed differently – individually, collectively as the church, and culturally as salt and light to a desperate world – for those reasons.

It is immaturity to say – apart from some biblical basics that I fully affirm – that because my experience of Jesus is such and such, then your experience of Jesus must look the same. It is even greater immaturity to say that because my experience of Jesus is NOT such and such, then Jesus himself is NOT about such and such.

And it is pure, unmitigated gall to tell everyone how your tribe (i.e., those who share your own post-modern, pietisitc sensibilities) is “beyond” all the rest of the Body of Christ – especially when the fruit of your tribe has been little more than ingrown, anemic Christianity that can’t seem to gain traction outside your own post-modern, pietistic circles.

It is time for some fruit inspection!

The Grand Epic

If Jesus in me does not result in Jesus among us, there is a problem. On this, I agree with those who have reacted against “mission” or “discipleship” or whatever else might become more important than the life of Jesus in us and among us.

But we need to take it further. Colossians chapter 1 is a great exposition on this. If Jesus living in us and among us does not result in Jesus living through us – for the transformation of our culture and even history itself as “all things, whether on earth or in heaven,” are “reconciled to Christ” (Col. 1:20) – then we serve a false Jesus.

Some say ekklesia is all about Jesus, and I agree. But we nonetheless need to ask whether they are touting a Jesus created in their own image to justify some reactive retreat. It could be a negative reaction to a totalitarian and thus abusive affirmation of Christ’s preeminence over all things. Or it could be a negative reaction to hierarchical and thus controlling forms of discipleship. Or it could be a negative reaction to any number of wrongs.

But in doing so, they risk throwing out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bath water. If we buy into any reactive and thus false concept of “ekklesia”, by pursuing a false and emasculated Jesus, then we concede defeat, deny the Great Commission, limit the Kingdom of God, and are left with only one option: to escape into ever more introspective and introverted cocoons.

My Appeal

Let’s deal with legitimate wrongs, but without limiting Jesus or His sovereign Lordship over all things!

Let’s stop dissing other segments and “tribes” within the larger Body of Christ – whether they be Charismatic, fundamentalist, evangelical, neo-Calvinist, politically engaged, or whatever – by mis-characterizing them through negative stereotypes in order to claim we are somehow better than them.

I am not better than the the rest of the Body of Christ, because they have things that I need, and I have things they need.

In our own fellowships, we have worked hard to develop resources and ministries to help people get to an authentic Jesus, by finding healing and wholeness. This frees them to experience true ekklesia, because they have the life of Jesus where before there was only hurt or reaction. And in that freedom, they are doing wonderful things to advance the will of the Father in all spheres of human endeavor.

It is wonderful when people come into fellowship hurting or wounded, and find healing. But those who want to be national influences or insist on publishing public blogs to promote a crippled vision of ekklesia – out of negative reactions to admittedly real problems – are doing a great disservice to the Body of Christ.

Let’s guard against “ekklesia” becoming just another name for reactive, self-imposed cocoons built around our own sensibilities.

Let’s stop with the “beyond” stuff, which is really just an ill-considered attempt to say that the sensibilities of one’s own “tribe” should be normative for everyone else.

Let’s truly be all about Jesus, but let’s make sure He’s the Jesus He Himself reveals to us in the Great Commission: Jesus, Lord of all who is over all – in heaven and on earth!

~ Jim

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For a follow-up series of blogs, see Beyond Evangelical, Parts 1 through 3.

14 responses

  1. interesting read brother, I guess I just can’t quite get my arms around your thought “The Kingdom of God – which is the Father’s will being done where ever and whenever Jesus places us or sends us – is not limited to ekklesia.” Christ is the Kingdom of God and it is He whose life spread and grew in and to and through His people, His ekklesia, which means “assembly,” incorrectly translated “church.” The spread and growth, the increase of Christ is the increase of His life in His ekklesia. From the first couple chapters of Genesis to the last couple chapters of Revelation, it’s all about Christ and His Bride. The kingdom cannot be separated from the ekklesia, because Christ is our life. Christ desires to be expressed corporately through His people, love, grace, and truth. When we live by His life by His Spirit His glory, His life, His kingdom is expressed. The problem is that learning to live by His life has all but been forgotten because of the institutional church, its religion, its programs, its hierarchies of control, etc, but thankfully there are those, like Paul, who have counted the cost and have paid the price to help the body of Christ learn to live organically by the life of Christ, to hear Him, believe Him, and follow Him, expressing His life of love, grace, and truth together with brothers and sisters and to family, friends, and neighbors. Just some thoughts.

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    • John, I understand what you are saying. I respect that view, and I use to hold similar views by equating the Kingdom of God with the Church (as we both properly agree in understanding the church!).

      My study of church history and my realization that the Kingdom of God is defined – in its most basic terms – in the Lord’s Prayer (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven), made me start moving way from the Kingdom = Church theology about six years ago.

      As I say in my blog, the will of the Father is not limited to the Church. Thus the Kingdom of God is more than just the Church. That is most fundamental to my understanding.

      Regarding church history, whenever Kingdom = Church has been applied, it has been a disaster. There are only two logical extensions of that linkage. Fortunately, most do not go this far themselves, but ideas have consequences and eventually an idea is going to fully express itself.

      One of those two logical extensions is that the church should run everything, because we are God’s Kingdom and after all, God’s rule is comprehensive. This gives the Church, in effect, jurisdiction over everything. It resulted in some of the worse repression and atrocities in human history. Again, men of good faith did not start out that way, but that was the eventual result.

      The second extension by others was total retreat – after all, they reasoned, if the Church is the Kingdom we should not pollute ourselves with the evils of this world. That, too, resulted in great atrocities as Christians surrendered their culture to evil people with evil motives.

      If, however, the Church is simply part of the Kingdom of God because it has a proper domain of jurisdiction within God’s overall intended order, and if we as believers are called into those other jurisdictions under the Great Commission to express God’s will in all spheres of life and as we are equipped to do so within the Church (and elsewhere), then I think we have a more comprehensive, balanced, and fruitful view of God’s redemptive plan.

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      • “If we buy into…then we concede defeat…limit the Kingdom of God….”
        Sometime I wish you would expand on the Kingdom of God. I grew up believing that Calvin, etal were mistaken in trying to impose a physical kingdom on the world and that Jesus Christ would usher in His kingdom at the end of the age…a premillennial position, I suppose. Since then I’ve heard Christians who say that kingdom has already come…some saying it is the rule and reign of Christ (the Holy Spirit) in our hearts and others saying it is the gradual increase of Christian influence in the world (“Step by step we’re marching upward; little by little we’re gaining ground…”). Needless to say, I am still confused and wonder what the fight is about between Christians. Can you explain why or how it is so important?

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  2. Dears friend, I wish you were a bit more clear about who these Christians are and give me a more clear example about what they teach. Are you telling me that there is something wrong with what the Desert Fathers practiced? Is there something wrong with silence and solitude, something that we evangelicals do miss in our ministry, although it was practiced both by Jesus and commanded in the Bible, “be still and know…”? I do agree that so many so called “emergent churches” are constantly redefining what it means to follow Christ, but let’s be careful and not throw the baby out with bathwater. By the way, we all theologys through our culture, race, gender, experience, pain and understanding of “reality” the way we know it. None of us has a corner on “Reality”. Only God has that understanding.

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  3. Hey Jim

    This was a good read. I agree that Organic Church is not an excuse to be lazy, just like Grace is not a license to sin.

    It’s actually a privilege to live from our true identity and advance the kingdom of God outside of the contraints of organized religion.

    Bless you bro!
    Andre

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  4. The ekklesia I recognize in God’s word is nothing like the ekklesia you are addressing above. I see no rejecting of the great commission nor rejection of discipleship. the only rejection I see is rejection of a religious SYSTEM that has grown top heavy with more and more “leaders” building bigger and bigger auditoriums for their religious side shows.

    Our participation in ekklesia is discipleship face to face, not throwing some money at a SYSTEM that we HOPE will use it for the purpose of evangelism and discipleship. Upwards of over 80% of financial resources go toward the upkeep of a building and staff. What’s left for evangelism?

    We give; just not the way the establishment has coerced many Christians to do. We see a need, and we use our resources to try and help. We disciple people through friendship, not programs or curricula. We recognize leadership through practical application of the Word of God, not degrees or diplomas.

    I am not in a cocoon, nor am I retreating. I am shouting from the roof tops, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Then to those that have an ear to hear, we befriend and disciple them by example.

    What I see in what you have written is another justification of the status quo. “Don’t rock the boat,” – “So what, we are splintered and hovel-ling in our denominational circles, that’s what WE HAVE BUILT through our ‘different expressions of Jesus’.” – “How dare you take the red pill!”

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    • Frank, if you read my other blogs, you will see how direct I have been in addressing the unblibical evolution of the institutional church. I am actively involved in planting organic fellowships with some other believers in my area, and we are seeing great fruit. But even the organic church community can have our own blind spots. Many in the organic community are not trapped by the mentality I am addressing in this particular post. But there is a growing trend towards this unhealthy introspective concept of “ekklesia” that is unbalanced. Trust me, I am NOT defending the institutional church! Anyone who reads my blogs would find that funny. I made some minor changes in this blog to clear up any confusion, so thanks for your comment!

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  5. JIM WRIGHT, thanks for speaking your mind. You articulated what I was thinking but my reaction was different. Exit stage right. I appreciate your desire to share this, as others are thinking it too, I guar-on-tee. The Great Commission is over, I think not. Disciples, are born out of relationship. And it is the job of every Christian, not the clergy, we are all priests as part of the new Kingdom, which is now, and later. I was just shocked at the rhetoric, and the only thought that crossed my mind was not how can I change this, but: Here we go again. The body of Christ can only schism over so many things. Where is the great coming unity? A lot has to die, for sure, but we absolutely don’t need any flakey new theology, that’s only half-baked. You rock, I take back every thing I said about you. Ha ha. I’m kidding.

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  6. “The idea that ‘ekklesia’ and the Great Commission are at odds is itself odd.” I kept thinking, Jim, that I was misunderstanding what some of the ekklesia-type blogs were asserting. I’m a work-in-the-trenches kind of person, and while I have received affirmation and support in the local organic body I’m a part of, it does seem like there is a brand of theological esoterica that is springing up in ‘organic-type movements/enclaves.’ The Love of Christ is FOR something, for expressing, for receiving, for enjoying, for getting inside other lives in mercy and service and understanding and encouraging and the declaration of the Good News, for repentance and redemption and reconciliation. It worries me a bit when I see what looks for all the world like an enclave mentality spring up on a frontier where most say they are seeking freedom from that very thing. Sometimes, I think it’s part of our human DNA — some protective default setting and not our best one — that draws us back to ‘trying to get the thing properly expressed and organized’ so that somehow we can ‘objectively’ prove our rightness. The intense vulnerability required of the person choosing life in Christ alone is, I’ll admit, a discomfiting thing sometimes, but surely the joy of the vulnerable state has its greatest reward in the possibility of love shared and the family of God broadened.

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    • Thanks, Georgia Ana. Your’s is a voice I listen closely to, because I know you too are on the front lines for the Kingdom of God. Be encouraged. This too shall pass, and the Lord will continue to build His church – the ekklesia.

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  7. This is a needed caveat to many who possess a “holy dissatisfaction” with catatonic conventional MO. My use of “Ekklasia” comes from my understanding of the “Ek” part and its correlation to Commission. “Go, therefore…” (πορεύω) – is not gathering on one day a week and hoping that all etnos will attend. This cannot be understood “pietistically” since Jesus said to “them.”

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  8. Cocooning is a real phenomena in many churches; I see this more a risk of starting new churches within the body of Christ and gathering spread out Christians from far away places, as opposed to starting churches with new believers where they are. At the same time, I think there is one premise that you assert that could use refinement.

    Pietism, theologically and historically, differs greatly from what Beyond Evangelical is preaching. Pietism at its core asserts that a higher Christian life can be earned or attained through more bible study, more obedience, more prayer, more consecration, etc, etc. Early Methodism would be an example of pietism. Beyond distinguishes itself from Pietism (see http://frankviola.org/2012/03/13/evangelicalism7/) and any effort toward living a better Christian life and instead greatly emphasizes what Christ has already done for the believer.

    Escapism can happen within mysticism, monasticism, and many other forms of Christianity to varying degrees, and when we see it, it is a wake-up call that being a Kingdom of Priests means revealing Christ to those who do not have Him in all ways that He calls us to.

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    • I define pietism a little differently, and view it as more focused on a primarily subjective relationship with God. See my blog “Beyond Evanglical?” at http://crossroadjunction.com/2012/02/20/beyond-evangelical-1/.

      Nonetheless, I like your perspective in seeing some of the more recent trends coming from the Beyond “tribe” (to use their word) as heading more and more into mysticism. That may have been a better tag than my use of “pietism”.

      Thanks for the input!

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