You have to wait until over a hundred years after the NT to start seeing a spiritual or allegorical usage read into the text. The patristics definitely were influenced by Greek philosophy. Philosophy and gnosticism both began having inroads, even as seen in the ante-Nicean fathers. And then the context of those writings could or should lead you to see why they wanted the ekklesia to be bigger than local only. When you read the patristics, you can see the development of allegorical interpretation, and spiritualizing of concepts. They reacted to persecution, the clash with the Roman empire, and a desperation to survive. You have a view of the kingdom that mixes quite nicely with the church to get something bigger, something that might compete with the state, that would be harder to stamp out. I have found some value in the patristics to historical theology and word study, but anyone should ask, "Why did their writings survive and not others?" They did last in a major way because they weren't a problem later to the state church. The winning army often gets to tell the story of the battle. They even get to name the battle. The patristics tell a story that isn't all true.
Doctrine that originates after the completion of the canon can't be true. If the definitions of words weren't established before the NT and then in the NT, then there shouldn't be any redefining that comes conveniently afterward to explain the moves being made by people who had motivation. Men wanted something bigger and more than the ekklesia, so they could get that by spiritualizing. They could even find some verses to read that in. You find that a lot in historical theology, how that error enters into the line of truth.
This article (and maybe a next) will deal with two issues related to what I've written about already. One, in Greek literature previous to the NT, which established the meaning of the word ekklesia before Jesus used it in Matthew 16:18, was an ekklesia an ekklesia even when it was not meeting or adjourned? Put another way, did an ekklesia have to be in session or to be meeting in order to be an ekklesia? Or did the Greek writers previous to the NT only use ekklesia for a gathering or meeting, period?
Universal church defenders seem to think they have something to gain from a pre-NT usage of ekklesia that was only an ekklesia during the time of gathering. The idea, as I attempt to understand it, is that the meaning of ekklesia changed during the NT, because it seems that non-gathered ekklesia in the NT is still an ekklesia. They (men like Charles Ryrie, it seems) take that from usages like Acts 9:31 and 1 Corinthians 10:32. In this continued extrapolation, a non-assembled, non-gathered church is still a church. Therefore, since there is a church in Hebrews 12:23 that is gathered, it is a church when it is not in fact gathered (before the folks gathering have arrived), so those that will gather are a church while they are scattered all over the earth. A church can be a church when it is scattered, even if it has not yet gathered one time, because something of a non-gathered church has been established by Acts 9:31 and 1 Corinthians 10:32. I'm doing my best to represent this argument. Alright, but I'll be dealing with that first. I might not get to part two, because this might take too much time by itself.
To be honest, and without attempting to disrespect those who bring up the above argument, it reads like a major stretch to me. It's a thought about ekklesia, that seems forced. No one would think it, I don't believe, unless they had to think it in order to find something that wasn't there. Really, who would ask, "Is an assembly still an assembly when it isn't assembled?" I'm a curious thinker. I think some strange thoughts that get to the kind of detail equivalent to angels dancing on the heads of needles, but I couldn't get to that idea about assembling. What I've found is that when something seems forced, it most often is, as a general rule. We don't have to have secret code to understand the Bible, no lemon juice required. I'm not saying we don't have to think, but we don't have to get creative. If we were to think about assemblies in what seems obvious to me to be a unique way, it would seem that we would be told something about that sometime in the Bible. If this is new thought, introduced in the Bible, because it wasn't found in Greek literature, it would seem that the Bible would explain it, so that the surprise wouldn't be on us.
Part two will deal with a question I was asked about this, that is related, namely, "Why is the idea of local church only so important? Or, to put it another way, why is the idea of the universal church dangerous?" Before I even answer that question, I think it is important to consider how we come to positions or deal with issues. I never, and I mean never, start with the effects of a particular belief as foundational to the reason for it. You don't start with the results. I'm not saying that results or the effects are meaningless. I believe they are a great motivator for dealing with a doctrine or position or issue. However, it's not where anyone should start.
I'm not at all insulted by the above question, but it doesn't buttress my position on the church, as was the speculation of someone I recently read on the subject, who wrote: "In my experience, arguments for local only are often tied to accountability and authority, as well as tithing and attendance." That is insulting. I would laugh at it, except that it is despicable to me to think that we don't start with "what does the Bible teach about the nature of the church?' We don't start with, "What kind of impact will this teaching have on the most favored status for me and my philosophy?" No way! Starting with results or effects just results in shoddy thinking about almost anything. It's checking to see which way the wind is blowing before announcing what your position is. No. You start with what does the Bible say. And if you are going to start with that, you might then have to move to what the words mean, so how people understood them in the day they were written. I'm still going to answer the original question though (not the offensive later statement, I quoted, though).
Assemblies Assemblies Even When They Aren't Assembled
I don't think it is surprising that there is not any discussion in Greek literature, that I know of, about whether assemblies are still assemblies when they are not assembled. Not finding that discussion is not an "aha" moment. However, if one was looking for clues as to whether Greeks thought that the ekklesia was still the ekklesia when it was adjourned, there is plenty of evidence, I believe, to say "yes" to that. I think it's a bit of a no-brainer. Someone in a comment mentioned Congress still being Congress when it was adjourned, and someone argued against that, saying that Congress and ekklesia weren't the same. Actually, Congress is supposed to be very close to ekklesia, because Congress is modeled after it. The Roman Republic modeled its assembly after the Athenian assembly, and Western civilization took its clue from that -- this is common historical knowledge.
However, let's check out what history tells us in order to answer this question. When I'm studying any literature, I look for verbal cues in the language. For instance, in the NT, you get the "power of the Spirit," so that you know that the Holy Spirit isn't a power. He has power, but isn't some impersonal force. If you said, "the meeting of the ecclesia," you would be saying that the ecclesia existed between meetings. And that is how that it is described with the language, the "meeting of the ecclesia" or the "ecclesia met" (here too). This relates to the understanding of the ekklesia. There is a lot in Greek literature about it (see "the assembly" here). The citizens, the men eligible for the ekklesia, were synonymous with the ekklesia. The people (demos) is synonymous with the ekklesia The assembly itself was the people; not the meeting even, but the people (p. 507, The Concepts of Demos, Ekklesia, and Dikasterion). They would "call the ecclesia". The ecclesia consisted of all citizens.
Demosthenes can chide his fellow Athenians for failing to recollect certain events, because they “were present at every assembly, as the state proposed a discussion of policy in which every one might join.” (Dem. 18.273) “Everyone”, in this context, refers to the body of citizens who were registered on the assembly list (πίνακα τὸν ἐκκλησιαστικὸν) for their local district, or deme (Dem. 44.35). Under the Democracy of Aristotle’s time (after 330 BCE), young men were enrolled on this list when they were 18 years old (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1), then spent two years as military cadets, or ephebes (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.4), after which they were members of the citizen body (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.5).
The body of citizens were registered on the assembly list -- this was the ekklesiastikos. They were ekklesiastikos, even when they were not meeting. Sometimes you read the word ecclesiastics or ecclesiasts, the members of the ecclesia, who met.
Richard Trench writes:
Ecclesia, as all know, was the lawful assembly in a free Greek city, of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs. That they were summoned, is expressed in the latter part of the word. That they were summoned out of the whole population, a select portion of it, including neither the populace, nor yet strangers, nor those who had forfeited their civic rights, this is expressed by the first.
The understanding of the Greek writers fits what James Graves wrote, "The assembly being a legal legislative body, duly registered as such, was a permanent body, and at all times an ecclesia, whether in session or adjourned." I see that as plain meaning.
Is this any different than the meaning or usage of ekklesia in the New Testament? I don't see it. Of course, I think it is "churches" in Acts 9:31, making that a moot point. Even if it were "the church," what would that prove? I showed a quote from Plato's dialogue in part one that used the singular noun (he ekklesia) in the generic sense, and wasn't referring to any particular ekklesia, but it was clear that it still had to be local. If "the church," singular, was only in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and "the church" referred to all saved people, then no saved people would be outside of those regions. Where was the Ethiopean eunuch? It doesn't work. 1 Corinthians 10:32 is talking about an individual church, the church at Corinth, so it's hard to see how that works for any argument.
Regarding Hebrews 12:23, I made an argument without interaction. Isn't that assembly of the firstborn, all believers, both OT and NT? If the church "in heaven" is all believers, there are some problems. It would mean that the church existed in the OT, so there wouldn't be anything happening in the Gospels and Acts except for a continuation of what already existed. Ekklesia "in heaven" means "assembly." It's not a NT ekklesia. It's not a legislative body. It's not an ongoing assembly, meeting every week or every forty days in a regular pattern of gathering. It will only be that assembly when everyone is gathered, just like Jesus' assembly wasn't one until He gathered it together. An assembly has to assemble to be an assembly. Here is a passage to give motivation to Jews to be saved, and it is being turned into some kind of unique ecclesiological passage to justify the universal church. If that's going to be a universal church argument, there is not a strong case, actually a very weak if non-existent case, for what universal church advocates call "the truth church.'
It's obvious we should get to part two next time.