It is quite common these days to buy something that says “Assembly Required” on the box. Some see this as an enjoyable challenge, while others view it as a necessary evil!
The process of assembly can go very smoothly if instructions are followed AND, very importantly, if all the parts are present. However, it can also be very frustrating if there are no instructions or if there are parts missing.
Spiritually, we too “require assembly”. However, when most Christians think of “assembly”, instead of thinking of God putting people together, they almost immediately think of assembling themselves together by attending a church meeting of some description. Assembly, in a church or religious context, is usually assembling in a structure made by man, for man, led by man, and instigated by man. And attending regularly is a requirement (whether voiced or not!) that is imposed on all those who are part of these structures.
In contrast to that, the assembly of God’s people are being gathered and assembled together into an unseen structure, unseen company, and unseen family by our unseen Father – what is spiritual and heavenly is not immediately visible to the earthly. It is very important that all the parts for this assembling are present and accounted for. Every single person/part is essential for this assembly. And there is a Greek word in the New Testament that means “assembly”. This word is: “ekklesia”.
The Greek word “ekklesia” is mistranslated as “church” in most English Bibles. Several years ago I wrote about leaving the word “church” (see Leaving Church). However, I felt at the time that simply replacing the word “church” with the word “ekklesia” was not ideal for a number of reasons:
1. Ekklesia is a Greek word and not an English word, and as such, it needs defining and carries the risk of misunderstanding. Instead of making things clearer, it can make things esoteric, cryptic and unclear.
2. We are already given a number of descriptive words in English without needing a “new” word that is not part of our language.
3. It is already an ecclesiastical word – it is associated with the church and with religion and therefore tainted. See for example:
4. The word has been transliterated into Spanish and French as “iglesia” and “église” and the word means “church” in those languages. Also, in spoken Greek today, the word “ekklesia” means a church. And “Ekalesia” means “church” in a number of Pacific nations (eg Samoa, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, Niue).
On a recent trip to Samoa we saw these churches/ekalesiae everywhere:
There were so many churches/ekalesiae in Samoa, even on the remote island that we were on. They were quite large, ornate buildings in stark contrast to the thatched fales/houses that were often without walls. It was clear that these buildings are important to the people and therefore lots of money is spent on them. As my son wrote, “Fales (Samoan thatched houses) and elaborate churches. That was about all the buildings you would see. Lots of churches, and even more fales. Tourism was a miniscule business compared to religion it appeared…”
Whether we like it or not, the Greek word “ekklesia” is tainted with religion and with the business of religion. Instead of being translated, the word was transliterated into Latin as “ecclesia” and from there became an ecclesiastical word, associated with religion and the church. And although the word “ekklesia” is the Greek translation of the original Hebrew word “qahal”, “ekklesia” is translated in most English Bibles as “church” even though the original word “qahal” is not once translated as “church” in the Old Testament. Instead “qahal” is translated as congregation, assembly and company.
In William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English he translated the word “ekklesia” as “congregation” even though there were churches around when Tyndale was alive.
Tyndale completed his translation in 1525 (86 years before the King James version) and he associated the word “church” with idolatry and pagan religions (some of us would say that this is still the case). Not once did William Tyndale interpret either “qahal” or “ekklesia” as a building or as “church”.
William Tyndale did use the word “church” twice in his translation; in relation to pagans and their places of worship. This is what he wrote (in old English): “Then Iupiters Preste which dwelt before their cite brought oxe and garlondes vnto the churche porche and wolde have done sacrifise with the people.” (Acts 14:13 in modern English reads, “And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds”). The second instance was: “For ye have brought hyther these me whiche are nether robbers of churches nor yet despisers of youre goddes.” (Acts 19:37 now reads, “For you have brought here these men, who are neither robbers of temples, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess”).
Isn’t it interesting that the word “church” was first used for pagan temples – it is NOT a biblical word!
Many of us believe that this word “ekklesia” means “called out ones”. It is true that the word “ekklesia” is a composite noun made up of two Greek words: “ek” meaning “out of” or “away from”, and “kaleo” meaning “called”, and as a result, many conclude that “ekklesia” means “called out ones”. However, I’ve had a niggling sense for some time that this was not entirely correct; language is more complicated than simply seeing the root words and thinking that is what a composite word means. Just as composite nouns in English cannot be broken apart but instead make up a new word with a new meaning, so it is in the Greek.
The meaning of a composite word is changed from the individual parts of the word, into a new composite word with a new meaning and definition. Some assembly is required in order to become a new word! You cannot take apart the new word. For instance, we can’t take the word “outcome” in English and take it to mean “come out” – the composite word does not mean that. In the same way we can’t take “ekklesia” – out called – and say that it means “called out” because it did not mean that in the Greek, so it is rather disingenuous for us to suggest that it did.
The words ek and kaleo were used separately in Greek, but the composite word ekklesia meant a gathering of people called together for a purpose. It was not a religious word, it was an every day word used in ancient Greece; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesia_(ancient_Athens). The closest words we have in English for “ekklesia” are assembly, gathering, company.
In 1889 a Greek scholar wrote the following:
“The reason why I have chosen the term Ecclesia is simply to avoid ambiguity. The English term church, now the most familiar representative of ecclesia to most of us, carries with it associations derived from the institutions and doctrines of later times, and thus cannot at present without a constant mental effort be made to convey the full and exact force which originally belonged to ecclesia…
“There is no foundation for the widely spread notion that ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) means a people or a number of individual men called out of the world or mankind. In itself the idea is of course entirely Scriptural, and moreover it is associated with the word and idea ‘called,’ ‘calling,’ ‘call.’ But the compound verb ἐκκαλέω (ekkaleo) is never so used, and ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) never occurs in a context which suggests this supposed sense to have been present to the writer’s mind. Again, it would not have been unnatural if this sense of calling out from a larger body had been as it were put into the word in later times, when it had acquired religious associations. But as a matter of fact we do not find that it was so. The original calling out is simply the calling of the citizens of a Greek town out of their houses by the herald’s trumpet to summon them to the assembly and Numb. 10 shews that the summons to the Jewish assembly was made in the same way.” (Pages 1, 5, “The Christian Ecclesia” by Fenton J A Hort, 1889).
If we say that “ekklesia” means “called out ones”, it loses some of its emphasis because it is not just a matter of being called out (although that is a very important aspect) but it is also vital to recognize that we are called into being gathered together. We are not called out to be individual “ones” isolated and alone; we are called out to be together in a heavenly company and community that is being assembled and gathered together in Christ.
Being Assembled Together
At this point you may be remembering the “not forsaking assembling together” verse. This verse is usually completely misunderstood and is often misused for trying to convince people that attending church meetings is essential and Biblical: “Let us consider and give attentive, continuous care to watching over one another, studying how we may stir up to love and helpful deeds, not forsaking or neglecting to assemble together as is the habit of some people, but admonishing, warning, urging and encouraging one another, and all the more faithfully as you see the day approaching“(Heb. 10:24,25 TAB).
Firstly, the word commonly translated as “church” is not even in this verse, even though some Bibles would have us believe that it is. For instance The Living Bible interprets this verse as: “Let us not neglect our church meetings, as some people do…” But that is nothing like what the original Greek says.
The Greek word used in this verse for “assemble together” is not “ekklesia”, but “episynagoge”. This word means “gathering together in one place”, “gathered with others already assembled”, “a complete collection”. The word is used only in one other verse in the Bible: “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to Him” (2 Thess. 2:1). We need to see that Christ IS the one Place where we are gathered together with those who are already assembled – both in the context of 2 Thessalonians, AND in the context of Hebrews 10!
If, as many people do, you take those verses in Hebrews to apply to a literal, physical assembly or church meeting, then how is it possible for us all to be physically episynogoge – gathered together in one place – when we are scattered all over the world? The answer is that it is very clearly NOT speaking physically, but spiritually: we ARE being gathered and assembled together in One Place: CHRIST! This is not about attending a place physically here on earth, but being gathered in One Place (Christ) spiritually. This is the “new and living Way” that the writer of Hebrews had just mentioned.
Another interesting thing in this verse is the word translated as “manner” or “habit”: “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is” or “as is the habit of some people”. That word in the Greek is “ethos” and it means “a custom, rite, or institute that is prescribed by law”. Now, does that sound like what God is building, or what man is building? Does that sound like something spiritual, or something religious? Could it be that this verse has been interpreted as the exact opposite of what it really means? Perhaps the author was saying, “We are not abandoning our being gathered together in one Place (Christ) even as is the custom and rite of some (in their institutions and religions that take the place of Christ) but…” and then there is another interesting word: parakaleo, translated in the KJV as “exhorting”.
Remember how “ekklesia” is made of two Greek words: ek and kaleo, this word is also made of two words: para (near, beside) and kaleo. The first meaning of the word is “to call to your side, to summons”. The secondary meaning is “to call upon in entreaty, comfort, and instruction”. Remember that the author of the book to the Hebrews was challenging everything that the Hebrews had known and believed was right in their religion and was instead emphasising the spiritual and not the physical; just reading chapter 9 brings all that is in chapter 10 into this spiritual context. In that context, it makes sense that this verse could be interpreted as: “We are not abandoning our being gathered together in one Place (Christ) even as is the custom and rite of some (in their institutions and religions here on earth) but instead we’re calling one another alongside us (with Christ in the heavenly places) and encouraging others even more as we see the Day approaching”.
So, all those who are being assembled together in Jesus Christ in the heavenlies, regardless of whether they go to any meetings on earth or not, are the ones who are truly “not forsaking the assembly”!
What Are We Called?
From the very beginning, God’s intention has been a collective, a family, a company of people. He promised Jacob, “A nation and a community (qahal/ekklesia) of nations will come from you” (Gen. 35:11). In Isaac’s blessing to Jacob he said, “May God Almighty bless you, make you fertile, and increase the number of your descendants so that you will become a community (qahal/ekklesia) of people” (Gen. 28:3). Most of us have an innate desire for community, family, friendship, fellowship, but most of us fulfill that desire through going to one another instead of gathering in One Place: Christ.
It is a fact that when we are being assembled in Him, we are also being assembled together with all the others who are in Him. Will that be expressed through us physically on this earth? Yes! But it must be an assembling, a gathering together that is brought about by, and for, Christ and as such may not look like what we would expect.
We have already been given quite a number of word pictures of what God is assembling that express and explain who we are and what we are called without needing to use a Hebrew, Greek, or Latin word. The danger with using a foreign word that is not part of our language is not only of misunderstanding the word, but also of creating a “special” religious and ecclesiastical term that is exclusive and used only by those “in the know”; in short, it becomes a thing of pride and is a religious buzzword.
Some of the word pictures that have already been given to us in the Scriptures, besides an Assembly, are: Christ’s Body, Kingdom, Family, Wife/Bride, Household, Temple, Grapevine, Light, Salt, Bread, a City, and Nation. Each of these express an element of truth about this unseen construction that Christ is building/assembling and we can use any one of them to describe who we are.
Word pictures are packed full of meaning… and while not one image contains the whole picture, and in some ways may even be a paradox when compared with the other images, if we take the primary elements of each, we begin to see what this Community of God’s people is about. What I have extracted and shared here is obviously incomplete, there is so much more to be gleaned from these examples…
As Christ’s Body (1 Cor. 12:12-27) we are intimately part of one another and Him – we simply cannot be separate units. My fingers are either part of my body, or they are not; if they are no longer joined to my body, then they are no longer part of me and do not function as part of me. All of my body works together being directed by my head without even realizing it or thinking about it; we are one. So it is with Christ! It does not matter whether you are physically with another part of Him here on earth, because IN Christ you simply are joined inseparably with every other part of Him, whether you are with them physically or not, because this is a spiritual and heavenly Body!
As loyal subjects of the King and His Kingdom (Col. 1:13) we know and love our King and we live for Him in a community known as a kingdom. He is the One we worship and serve, not ourselves. He is the One who rules, not us. He is the One who governs, not us.
As a member of God’s Family (1 John 3:9) we are conceived and born into this very large Family. We are born from above, of heaven, and as such, we do not belong down here on this earth, our real life is above: with Christ, seated in the heavenlies. We have only one Father and many, many siblings. No matter how large a family gets, each child is unique and part of the whole. As children, we trust our Father and know Him as our Provider, Protector, Comforter, Teacher and so much more. As children we carry our Father’s Name, character, and likeness wherever we go. We are also His heirs and we treasure our inheritance…
As the Wife and Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9) the imagery is of two becoming one unit. Christ is, and always will be, separate from us in His Deity just as a husband retains his identity and personality apart from his wife, and vice versa. But we are joined with Him through choosing to be married, the two becoming One in love and commitment to one another. Companionship and friendship is an important part of this relationship. And the ultimate goal of marriage in God’s plan was reproduction, and it is the same in His spiritual plan also. He desires to see His Son reproduced through us and others…
As the Household of God (1 Pet. 4:17) we live in His House. The House and its occupants are one unit. The House protects and contains all that is needed for the inhabitants. The people living there are viewed as one household. This is where they eat, work, rest, sleep and live…
As the Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16,17) we are being built and joined together as living stones; not bricks (for conformity) but individual stones formed and fitted together with one another by the Architect/Builder. A temple is a place of worship, and historically was a place made for God to live in. He now lives in us as His Temple and we worship Him in our spirit, in the holiest place…
As branches of the Grapevine (John 15:5) we bear fruit without even trying, simply because of the Life that flows through us. As the Light of the world (Matt. 5:14) we are joined with the One Fire that illuminates, exposes, and cannot be hidden. As He is, so are we in this world. Our flame is fed by the oil of the Spirit. As Salt (Matt. 5:13) we are used to preserve, purify and add flavour in this world. As Bread (1 Cor. 10:17) we are part of one Loaf (Christ) for others to feed from and gain strength and energy for their journey.
As the City of God (Heb. 12:22) we are many houses united as one City. Houses in a city are there permanently; they don’t suddenly lift themselves off their foundations and move to another city! A thriving city is constantly being built, constantly expanding. It is also a place that visitors will come to and either choose to remain, or leave.
As citizens of God’s Nation (1 Pet. 2:9) we are literally: “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” and I am not for one moment thinking of the USA – I am not an American citizen. As citizens of this new Israel, this new Nation, we leave behind all other national loyalties and citizenship. We defend and fight for this Nation. We are patriots of this Nation. We are many individuals who have left our countries and loyalties and are now formed into a new Nation, but not one that can be seen on this earth….
Jesus said, “On this rock I will build and establish My Household…”
“Here there is no question of a partial or narrowly local Ecclesia. The congregation of God, which held so conspicuous a place in the ancient Scriptures, is assuredly what the disciples could not fail to understand as the foundation of the meaning of a sentence which was indeed for the present mysterious. If we may venture for a moment to substitute the name Israel, and read the words as ‘on this rock I will build my Israel,’ we gain an impression which supplies at least an approximation to the probable sense. The Ecclesia of the ancient Israel was the Ecclesia of God; and now, having been confessed to be God’s Messiah, nay His Son, He could to such hearers without risk of grave misunderstanding claim that Ecclesia as His own.” (Page 10, “The Christian Ecclesia” by Fenton J A Hort, 1889).
We do require assembling, we are part of one another, and we are being assembled into the City and Nation that God as our Architect is building and assembling. Regardless of those we see or do not see physically around us, we are being gathered together and assembled in Christ – we are placed in Him and we are seated with Him in heavenly places! Let’s endeavour to recognize this assembling work of God among us, and co-operate with Him in it, and delight in our being gathered together into Him!
You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. (Heb. 12:22,23 NLT)