Ecclesia Is Everyone

The Rise of the Dones

Good people are leaving church. They’re not leaving one church to look for another. They’re ditching the whole institution. It’s easy to write these people off as whiners but it goes deeper than this. 

In his book, Church Refugees, Josh Packard shows that these are not fringe people with petty gripes. They are pastors and staff, deacons and elders, ministry leaders and board members. People who have given their lives to church. They don’t leave easily, but when the do, it’s for good.

Potato Salad

I am an eternal foe of potato salad. But when I tell people I don't like potato salad the response is inevitably, “You haven't tried my potato salad. It’s not like other potato salad.” They don’t understand. I don’t avoid potato salad because I dislike a particular form. I avoid it because I gag on the whole idea.

Similarly, when I tell people that I’ve given up on church, they say, “But you haven’t tried my church. Our pastor is different. Our organization is slicker. Our people are different. It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen.” They don’t understand. I don’t avoid church because I reject a certain form. I am through with the whole idea. I’m a textbook Done.

Being a Done Is Depressing

But being a “Done” is depressing. Okay. I’m done. Now what? Do I just plop down and announce, “I’m Done?” I can’t imagine Jesus doing this. I insist that my life be defined by positive things I am doing, not by what I’m done with. In other words, now that I’ve determined that I’m a “Done,” I must figure out what to do.

Sometimes people think that I left a traditional church to start a newfangled online church. They see me as whipping up a “new and improved” potato salad. To me, this would be like breathing into a CPR dummy and hoping its heart would start to beat. I have no desire to revive the church. Neither do I wish to beat up on church. I’m simply done with church. 

My attention has moved on to something new:  ecclesia.

The Definition of Ecclesia

The meaning of the Greek word ecclesia is straightforward:

  1. A call goes out for people to gather.
  2. They gather.

For example, if a hurricane was threatening and your town and the City Council issued a call for people to meet and discuss the situation, that would be an ecclesia. A biblical example is the meeting called by the silversmiths of Ephesus to decide what to do about Paul (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). 

You can get at the meaning of the word by breaking the word into its parts.

  • Ek (ἐκ) in means “out of.”
  • Klēsis (κλῆσις) means “invitation.”
  • So ecclesia means calling people out, inviting them to gather.

In the New Testament, ecclesia is not a human gathering but to a divine Gathering. The call comes from God. The place of gathering is before our Maker. Ecclesia is God the Father, welcoming every prodigal daughter and son home.

So here’s my definition of ecclesia: 

Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.

This definition as deep as the heart of God and as wide as the heavens. For any group or human organization to claim to be God’s ecclesia is idolatry because it substitutes something infinite and divine and with the work of human hands.

Ecclesia is the Great Commandments

Notice that this definition is the same as the great commandments (Matthew 22:37-40):

Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

and into harmony with each other.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 

Ecclesia is God re-creating the world, calling all things out of fallenness and into fullness. 

Now let’s loot at this definition, one phrase at a time.

The Motive Behind Ecclesia: God’s Love

Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.

God Loves You?

Judging by the billboards along America’s highways, God loves me. But having explored this in great depth, I know these signs don’t tell the whole story. What they really mean is that God is is willing to love me. Presently, I’m likely to be on God’s blacklist. 

God has friends and enemies. I can be God’s friend. How? Well, there’s the trick. Different groups have different formulas. It’s up to me to choose the right one  I’d better not delay because at any moment, God’s offer of friendship will expire and I will be cast into hell.

See what I mean? God’s love isn’t quite as simple as the billboard.

Monotheism + a God Who Takes Sides = War

In his best-selling book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari exposes how destructive the idea of God who loves some but rejects others is. He begins in praise of polytheism.

Actually, most polytheistic religions believe in a single Supreme Being. They just regard this being as so far removed that it is unapproachable. That’s why when ancient people went to war, they made no appeal to the Supreme Being. They called on their local god. They didn’t say “God is our our side.” They said, “Our god is bigger than your god.”

Claiming to worship the one true God raises the stakes. It absolutizes the issue. If the Supreme Being is on our side, it’s not on yours. In the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln pointed out that both the north and the south claimed to have God on their side and appealed to him for victory. The same things is seen at sporting events. I can almost imagine a cheer:

“We got God on, our side!
You team's gonna, get fried!”

If we claim to worship the Supreme Being, and we believe that this being takes our side, we are justified in anything we may choose to do to the others. If God rejects them, why shouldn’t we?

Monotheism + a God of Love = Peace

But God does not take sides. Jesus rejected the idea that anyone falls outside the boundaries of “God’s side.” He shocked people by demonstrating this fact. He embraced lepers, the poor, tax collectors, Roman Centurions, and even a Samaritan woman. Sinners followed him in droves. He chose rough fisherman to be his closest friends. He let prostitutes approach him and touch him scandalously. He viewed women as full equals with men. He announced that God’s love for Israel extended to every other nation as well.

This made the people who thought they had exclusive privileges with God furious. They were in love with their special status, as many religious people are today. Almost every harsh word Jesus ever spoke was aimed at those who assumed they had an inside track with God and marginalized everyone else. This is the exact opposite of the God Jesus embodied.

Jesus taught and demonstrated that there is one God and that the nature of this God is love—not just for a chosen few, for everyone. The whole world stands beneath the banner of God’s love. No one can say “God is on our side” because God does not take sides. 

Monotheism and a God who takes sides is a recipe for war. Monotheism and a God of universal love is the only formula for peace. 

The motive behind ecclesia is the love of God. It is not just that God is willing to love us if we choose his side. It is that God does love us, period. The call is to come home.  

The Scope of Ecclesia: Everything and Everyone

Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.

Ecclesia Is Everything

On that great day when we see the triumph of ecclesia, we will understand that it is not only a victory for human beings, but also for every created thing. Everything God created is good, so everything God created must be redeemed. The call extends to every leaf on every tree, from the tiniest stream to the mightiest river, from every mountain to every valley, from each scruffy dog to every stray cat. God’s salvation is cosmic. (Romans 8:19-21).

The human arrogance that assumes God’s love is limited to our species will be shattered. This means we have no right to treat this world or anything in it with contempt. Like God, our love must extend to all creation. 

Ecclesia Is Everyone

But not only do we wrongly assume that God takes the side of homo sapiens against all other created things. We also wrongly assume that God takes sides with our particular group of homo sapiens. 

There is some perimeter that defines our particular group. It might be the color of our skin, our sexual preference, our nationality, our political leanings, our religious views, or any of a thousand other things. This makes us special and is the reason why God is right to choose us, not them.

Perimeter Groups Creep Me Out

Groups that define themselves by a perimeter are by nature exclusive. These groups may be evangelistic, seeking to draw people in. They may be exclusive, seeking to keep people out. They may be militaristic or elitist or reclusive. But however they behave, the essential thing is the perimeter. To be a part of the group, you must respect the line. If you cross it, you’re out. 

When someone tells me they are a Christian my gut response is, “Oh shit.” Why? Because I’m pretty sure they believe in some sort of perimeter. There is a line I must discover and respect if I want to remain accepted. Probably I already crossed it when I said the word “shit.” 

Attraction Groups Are Awesome

But there is another kind of group, defined not by its perimeter but by its center. Such a group exists by attraction, not exclusion. It does not draw lines because it does not need them. Such a group exists by the magnetism of its center, not the hardness of its edges. 

Julie and I have experienced this in the RV community. The people we meet out here on the road are some of the most accepting people we have ever known. We are drawn to each other by our love of the nomadic lifestyle. We have all kinds of religious views, personal interests, and political opinions but these just add spice to the group; they do not define it. If you like to RV, you're in. We are not bound by a common creed but by a common attraction.

Ecclesia Is an Attraction Group

The church exists by its perimeter, which clearly defines who is in and who is out. God’s ecclesia is defined by its center: Love. There are no insiders and outsiders. There are only those who experience God’s love to greater and lesser degrees. The cry of ecclesia is not, “Join our group. God is on our side.” The cry of ecclesia is, “Come closer!”

The prodigal did not have to sign a statement of faith or promise moral reform to return to the father. He simply had to let the father love him. The gates of hell are no match for this. Let the prodigals wander. Let the tyrants oppress, Let the religions claim exclusive privilege with God. None of this will stand. The love of God will erase all such nonsense. 

The call of ecclesia goes out to the whole world. There is no place where the voice is not heard. It will not stop until all things are gathered together before their Maker.

The Purpose of Ecclesia: Oneness with God

Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.

The Sacred Connection

Because God loves us, God desires intimacy. There is nothing more sacred than the bond between a created thing and its Creator. Though there are many delightful things in this world and many good people with whom to enjoy them, nothing can replace this connection.

To be at peace with God, to feel heaven’s smile, to walk with God in the cool of the day, this is our greatest joy and our deepest purpose. Jesus demonstrated this. John’s gospel is especially clear on this point. 

“He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” (John 8:29)

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3)

Ignoring the Sacred Connection

There are many ways to miss out on this life-giving connection.

We replace the Creator with the creation. We worship sports, sex, drugs, family, cars, clothes, nature, politics… Every created thing is also a potential idol, offering to take the place of God and making us miserable. 

We live in fear of God. You've sinned too much. Your theology is wrong. Whatever it takes to make God happy, you’re not doing it. So you grab a fig leaf and join Adam and Eve hiding in the garden.

We think God is beyond us. Rather than attempt direct contact, we entrust our spiritual life to religious experts who know how to make the connection.

We think God is a cosmic buzz kill, the kind of God who turns wine into water. He scowls down from heaven the moment anyone starts having too much fun.

Sweet Jesus

But one word from Christ, spoken clearly to our own soul, wakes from these spells and scatters their idols and ideas. We come to God and and find rest for our souls. We make the sacred connection. This is true ecclesia. 

The Result of Ecclesia: Harmony

Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.

Harmony, Not Unity

Harmony is the natural order of things. A duck is nothing like the sky, or a leaf, or the wind, or an ant, or a frog, or a flower. Creation is extraordinarily diverse, but it is not chaos. When everything is fully itself, the result is euphony. We cannot describe this. We can only feel it. There are no words, but the Voice is heard. 

The gathering to which we are called is not to be Nazis, clothed identical uniforms, marching in goose step, spouting dogma. The call to ecclesia is the call to the mystery of harmony and diversity. Dogs bark. Cats meow. Birds tweet. Trees sway. And each person expresses God uniquely. When we each sing our own song, the result is symphonic because, like nature, it is divinely orchestrated.

I Want to Be a Clone

Uniformity is the product of small human minds and has all the charm of a strip mall. One of my friends says his experience in church was like being shoved through a Play-Doh extruder. The process didn’t create a unique person, known by his love. It manufactured a cookie-cutter Christian, remarkable for being exactly like every other cookie-cutter Christian. 

Love at the Expense of Truth?

But what about truth? Doesn’t all this focus on love weaken truth?

To begin with, truth cannot be weakened. It needs no defenders. We conform to it. It cannot conform to us. 

God is truth, so the closer we draw to God the closer we draw to truth. But truth does not turn us into copies of each other. Truth is manifold. What is truth to a tree? To a river? To a worm? To my dog? To you? To me? Truth is as vast as God. Truth produces individuals, not clones.

Harmony is not created by forcing everyone to agree to a particular snapshot of truth, however ancient or carefully constructed. 

Love is the path to truth. That’s why the great Commandments tell us to love God and one another, not to define God and agree on the definition. Where there is love, truth will follow. When we insist on uniformity, war is the result. 

Celebrate Diversity

When I studying for my Ph.D., I had to face many ideas that shattered my evangelical assumptions. One of these was the fact that there is no such thing as a single New Testament theology. 

Paul’s understanding of God differs from James,’ differs from John’s, differs from Luke’s, differs from Peter’s. There is no way to reconcile these without destroying them.  

My evangelical mind couldn’t live with this. The Bible was the basis of my creed and my creed was the basis of my faith. I didn’t want a bunch of guys singing in harmony. I wanted them singing in unison, and the fewer notes the better. 

I now rejoice that the Scriptures are so wide. This rings far more true than if they all said the same thing. Their experience of God was uniquely theirs. Their faith was living. They sang their own song. This would have been destroyed if they had insisting on conforming with each other or to some external creed.

Ecclesia is the love of God, calling all things to oneness with Himself and harmony with each other.

What Shape Does Ecclesia Take?

All of this may sound pretty up-in-the-clouds to you. What does ecclesia look like in every day life? 

Fireflies

As a westerner, the magic of fireflies is new to me. Every time I see one I want to poke people and say, “Did you see that?” I restrain myself. Fireflies are old hat to easterners. But watching fireflies sparkle in the grass and trees calls to mind something Jesus said to a rag tag crowd of peasants on the hills of Galilee. “You are the light of the world.” 

Ecclesia is the spark that ignites when we love God and love one another. We experience genuine connection. The love of God flows to us and through us. We light up. These little upward thrusts of love may not seem like much but they are everything. They are ecclesia. And ecclesia is the hope of the world. 

Ecclesia Is Two, Maybe Three

Ecclesia rarely takes place in large groups. If you doubt this, look around the next time you’re in one. You’ll see a bunch of people with blank faces, trying to light up but struggling to do so, feeling a little guilty that they can’t. Every now and then, if the music is just right or the speaker is on fire, there is a faint glow. This is not the light of the world.

Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered, I am in their midst.” I once thought of two or three as a minimum for church. I now regard two or three as a maximum for ecclesia. We experience our deepest connection with others one-on-one. Groups of three can experience this too, though it is harder. When we get to four, we start forming committees. 

Ecclesia with a Muslim? Yep.

Here is an example of ecclesia.

I was seated next to a Muslim young lady on a flight from Washington D.C. to Seattle. In the cramped seats, I couldn't help but see that she was reading a religious book, something about Noah. 

At this point, if you grew up as an evangelical like I did, your palms would begin to sweat. You would feel the pressure to “witness.” It was time to pull out a religious tract and try to convert her.

Instead, I asked her what she was reading. She was happy to explain. I told her I had never known a Muslim personally, that everything I had learned about Islam was either from television or from things I had heard in church explaining why Islam was crazy. I told her I would love to hear firsthand from her what her faith meant to her. I was genuinely interested. She sensed this and gladly shared her life with me.

It turns out that she was part of a persecuted sect of Muslims from northern India. She and her sister had fled to the United States, leaving behind her parents and family. She was moving to Seattle and was feeling scared about it. The book she was reading emphasized the importance of trusting God and of treating all people with kindness, no matter what. 

I shared my own struggle to trust God and love others. She listened with interest. A flash went up from seats 28b and c. 

But what about the fact that she had never “accepted Jesus as your personal Savior?” What about the differences between Islam and Christianity? 

If I believe in a God who takes my side, not hers, then my job is convert her to my way of thinking so she will be on God’s side too. But if I believe in a God who doesn’t take sides, who is calling every created thing home, who loves and accepts her just as much as he loves and accepts me, I can relax. The greatest thing I can do is to love her, because love draws us near to God. And when we draw near to God, we discover the truth. 

Whatever the answers to the religious questions may be, there is no denying the love that drew us together. I also have no doubt that in the end, love will reveal to each of us the truth that will set us free. 

It wasn’t church. It was ecclesia. 

3 Comments

  1. Dennis on July 15, 2018 at 11:19 pm

    Hi Maury
    Boy! Would I love to sit and talk to you. I think this article strikes at the heart of the matter. We all certainly love to use the word “truth”. Truth about this, truth about that. We want the truth. We pursue the truth. We know the truth. We are afraid of the truth. It goes on.
    What specific truth are you referring to regarding God? Who He is? What He does? What are His motives? I’ve come to believe that this type of pursuit is certain to fail. I may find “my truth” but it will be different than “your truth”.
    I love your telling of the plane trip to Seattle. While I embrace your attitude and reaction to that experience, I can’t help but wonder if “(God) loves and accepts her just as much as he loves and accepts me” is true, then how is that reconciled with John 14.6? Is God an expansive, inclusive God or one that only accepts those who navigate a narrow passage way of belief. It is stuff like this that has led me to question the validity of important pieces of scripture.
    Thank you for your insight and thoughts and laying bare your struggles. I’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. I always remembered a line from “East of Eden”. Paraphrasing, “it takes great courage to tell a truth that is unpopular in it’s time. The punishment is usually crucifixion.” Hopefully, someday we can have that conversation.

    • Maury Robertson on July 16, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      You’re on for that sit-down! I’ll be through NorCal in late October or early November. I’ll be sure to let you know. I’d love that too.

      I agree that “the truth” is a personal matter of discovery. We can share our discoveries and enlighten and encourage each other. But no one has a final grip on God or truth. It’s a journey we must all take for ourselves. The joy is in the journey!

      Ah… John 14:6. I will write a blog post on it. It deserves a full treatment. But here are a few scattered thoughts.

      When Jesus says he is the way, what does he mean? We usually read this as “having all the right ideas about Jesus” is the way. Or, as it is sometimes put, “You gotta believe in the real Jesus.” But there’s the problem. Who IS the real Jesus? There have been tens of thousands of representations. Does anyone really have a handle on the “real” Jesus?

      Also, notice that “the way” is not to heaven when we die, but to the Father. No one comes to THE FATHER except by me. This is about connecting with God.

      How do we connect with God? By right doctrine? When he told the disciples that they already already knew the way, Thomas said what I would have been thinking: “Huh?”

      Jesus says, if you understand ME, you understand GOD. I am the way. It is not a doctrine but Jesus himself that leads us to God. But this brings us back to “Who is Jesus?” What is his way?

      Jesus is the revelation of God. And God is love. Jesus never got in trouble for being too narrow, for excluding people. His conflict was the result of being too inclusive. Paradoxically, if you insist on loving everyone, people reject you—the ones who insist that God takes sides.

      So when Jesus tells the disciples that He is the way, he’s not saying you have to “navigate a narrow passageway of belief” (I love your phrase). He’s saying love is the way. God is not divided. God loves all people and is drawing them in. Jesus reveals this love. Love is the only way. If you replace “Jesus” with “love” in the verse, I think you get at the heart of what Jesus was saying.

      “LOVE is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through LOVE.”

      We tend to hear this as:

      “BELIEVING ALL THE RIGHT DOCTRINES ABOUT ME” is the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by “BELIEVING ALL THE RIGHT DOCTRINES ABOUT ME.”

      Jesus demonstrated “the way.” The way is not doctrine. It is love. As you read on in John, you find this emphasis. Here’s a great example.

      John 15 (NASB)
      8“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.
      9“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.
      10“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.
      11“These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
      12“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.
      13“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
      14“You are My friends if you do what I command you.
      15“No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.
      16“You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.
      17“This I command you, that you love one another.”

  2. Dennis on July 16, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks Maury for giving me points to think about. I have some follow-up questions but I will save those for this fall.

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