(Post by Nathan Justice)

I was in kindergarten when 9/11 happened. I vaguely remember being pulled out of school early in the day, coming home to my father sitting in the living room in his suit and tie. His eyes were glued to the television screen. I couldn’t comprehend the events I saw; for all I knew, there were some smoky buildings on the screen. I don’t remember SARS being in the news. H1N1 (i.e., swine flu) and Ebola were national headlines, but they never had a material effect on my life. At the beginning of this year, I heard about some virus that was spreading rapidly in China, but I didn’t think it would spread to the United States.

Then I heard that China quarantined the entire nation and restricted citizens to their homes. Then Italy was experiencing a pandemic that resulted in dozens of deaths. Then Seattle had its first case. Then I woke up last Thursday and all my residential classes at Southern Seminary were transferred to an online format and all students living on campus had to leave by Sunday. Then my church had to cancel its Sunday morning service.

A deluge of news updates floods my computer screen. As I write this, Kentucky has 63 positive cases of COVID-19, and two cases were just identified in my hometown of Troy, Ohio. At least 11,000 deaths have occurred worldwide, largely among the elderly. Schools and churches have closed their doors for the foreseeable future. There is talk of the National Guard possibly enforcing a “shelter in place” policy, where people would only be able to leave their homes to acquire food and medicine. Information spreads so quickly that it’s hard to distinguish truth from falsehood.

This is the first time in my life that I have been cognizant of a worldwide pandemic like this one. It is hard to comprehend the number of people who are simultaneously affected by this virus. In trying to comprehend the scale of this event, I have turned to wise people from the past and the present. Many thoughtful and insightful commentators have worked through the current data about COVID-19 and offered both theological reflections and practical suggestions for loving God and loving our neighbors during this time. I simply want to offer here a short reflection on one biblical word, ἐκκλησία or ekklesia, and its implications for our lives in light of this unusual time.

In its various uses, ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) can refer to an assembly, a meeting, a congregation, or a church.[1] It most likely derives from ἐκκαλέω, a verb referring to calling out to someone or summoning a person. Ancient Greeks used the term to designate a group of competent citizens who gathered together to suggest changes in law, to appoint officials to local government, to discuss internal and external government policy, and to judge cases of treason in special circumstances. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (commonly known as the LXX or Septuagint), Jewish scribes used ekklesia to translate the Hebrew word קָהָל (qahal), although other Greek words (such as συναγωγή, from which we get the English synagogue) were used to translate the same Hebrew word in other passages. Whenever translators used ekklesia, it could indicate a judicial assembly (Deut 9:10; 23:3–8; Judg 21:5, 8; Mic 2:5), a political body (the returned exiles in Ezra 10:8, 12; Neh 8:2, 17), or a group of people gathered for worship (2 Chr 6:3 [at the consecration of the temple]; 30:2, 4, 13, 17 [at Hezekiah’s Passover]; see also Ps 21:22, Joel 2:16, and others). Whichever sense the term carries, it was used to specifically refer to groups of people gathered together by God and who answered Yahweh’s call (Yahweh is Israel’s personal name for God).

The New Testament authors use ekklesia 115 times in their writings, and they all solely used the term to refer to fellowships of Jesus’ followers after his crucifixion and resurrection. It is most often used to designate specific local assemblies of Christians (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1, 4; 2:14; Gal 1:2; 1 Cor 7:17; 11:16; 14:33-34; 2 Cor 8:19, 23-24; 11:8, 28; 12:13; Rom 16:4, 16). In the singular, it refers to a local assembly in one city; in the plural, it refers to all the local assemblies in a given region or province, such as the “churches of Galatia” in Gal. 1:2. The book of Acts primarily uses the word to designate different geographical gatherings of Christians.

However, Paul expands its meaning in his letters to different churches. He refers to the church as a universal entity that has been called to assemble by God (Rom. 1:6-7; 1 Cor. 1:2) and finds its source in God the Father and Christ the Son (1 Cor 1:2; 11:16, 22; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:13; 1 Thess 2:14; 2 Thess 1:4; Rom. 16:16; Gal. 1:22.) He metaphorically refers to the church as the body of Christ (Rom. 12:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Col. 1:18) and as God’s building (1 Cor. 3:9). Paul suffers on behalf of Christ’s body, the church (Col 1:24). The wisdom of God is now made known through the church (Eph. 3:10). The letter to the Hebrews expands it even further by comparing the church to the Israelites assembled around Mount Sinai. Yahweh called them to hear his voice, by they trembled at the sight of smoke, blazing fire, and darkness surrounding the mountaintop. By contrast, Christians come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and join in a festive gathering of God and his myriad angels as “the assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven” (Heb. 12:18-24). This is a picture of Christ’s second coming, the end-times ekklesia in fellowship with him. We can look forward to that as our goal, but we can also remember that enjoy fellowship with him by the Spirit in this present moment.

So, what does this all mean for us? Why talk about the word ekklesia? I mentioned earlier that my church had to close its Sunday service for the foreseeable future. When I grew up in my parents’ home, we never missed a Sunday morning service unless we were on vacation. I remember when one my friends was planning a sleepover birthday party when I was in junior high, and I really wanted to go, but it was going to conflict with church. I pleaded with my parents to let me attend this party, but they staunchly refused. I was upset at the time, but I realize now that they were inculcating a habit into my life. Even after I moved out for college and now live on my own, I still never miss a Sunday morning service. I don’t know what life is like without going to church regularly. Now, I won’t be able to attend a Sunday service for the next several weeks, if not months, because my church has closed its doors to public worship. I know many churches are doing the same to protect their members. Many are live streaming their services or pre-recording messages from the pastor that members can watch at home. Given these strange circumstances, what does it mean to be God’s assembly when we can’t physically assemble as a local church?

I don’t plan to fully unpack a doctrine of the church here, since that has been done at introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels by capable scholars. These are just some general things to keep in mind during our government-imposed isolation.

  1. The church is both local and universal: As Herman Bavinck notes, “Every local church is the people of God, the body of Christ, built upon the foundation of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11, 16; 12:27), because in that location it is the same as what the church is in its entirety, and Christ is for that local church what he is for the universal church.”[2] Even when we can’t gather as our physical, embodied outpost of the kingdom of heaven, we are all still citizens of the heavenly kingdom and have our names written in heaven. We should still pray for one another, encourage one another, and accomplish all the other “one another” commands found in Scripture to the best of our ability.
  2. The church is doxological: it is completely oriented towards God’s glory.[3] When members of a local assembly gather together to worship God, they are (hopefully) not seeking to exalt their own egos. The point of gathering for worship is to forsake false idols and fix our gaze on the true and living God who redeemed us from bondage to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Even in our isolation, we should still seek to orient our lives to God’s honor and glory.
  3. The church is logocentric: it is focused on the Word (Gk. logos) of God, understood to refer to Jesus Christ the incarnate Word and Scripture the inspired Word. Jesus Christ, God the Son incarnate, should be the center of every Christian’s life. We are his disciples, ambassadors of his kingdom, brothers and sisters adopted into his family. The reason these blessings are applied to us is due to our covenantal union with Christ in his sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father. By glorifying Christ we glorify our Father in heaven, so we should seek to conform ourselves to the image of the Son. This is best accomplished by using the ordinary means of grace Christ has provided through the Spirit, including prayer and meditation on Scripture. Since Jesus is the Word who spoke authoritative words to his disciples and fully attested to the Old Testament’s veracity and authority, we should seek to know him by understanding his written words. Since many are unable to go to work outside the home, this is the perfect opportunity to dedicate your time and energy to studying Scripture.
  4. The church is pneumadynamic: it is created, gathered, gifted, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Christians are made into new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) by the power of the Spirit. People from a variety of different ethic, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds gather together as a local assembly because they have been united together as one body by the Spirit. Each person has a unique gift to contribute to that assembly because the Spirit gave it to him or her. Everyone is able to accomplish the Father’s will because they are empowered by the Spirit. Now more than ever—when people are sick, afraid, and lonely—we need to rely upon the Spirit for every task.
  5. The church is covenantal: it is gathered as members in (new) covenant relationship with God and in covenant relationship with each other. When Jesus conducted the Last Supper, he offered bread and wine to his disciples and declared that he was inaugurating a new covenant in his blood, blood that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:26-30). Whenever we become a member of a local church, we covenant together with them as fellow believers in Christ (my church had me agree to a formal church covenant before I became a member). We are no longer mere acquaintances or even friends; we are brothers and sisters. During this time of physical and economic uncertainty, we should come alongside our fellow believers and serve them in any way that we can. By loving one another well we display the love that the Father has shown us in the Son.
  6. The church is missional: it is the body of divinely called and divinely sent ministers proclaiming the gospel and advancing the kingdom of God. During normal worship gatherings, pastors equip believers through teaching and preaching to minister to their neighbors for the sake of the gospel. This involves evangelism, service, and other forms of neighborly love. Even though people can’t gather as they normally would, I have already seen posts on social media of people’s neighbors coming to Christ through live stream messages and pre-recorded devotionals. This is the time to fully live out the kingdom mission and display God’s glory to the surrounding world. Check in on your neighbors, ask how you might be able to assist them, and offer your prayers on behalf of them and their family who might be affected by COVID-19.
  7. The church is spatio-temporal and eschatological: it is assembled as a historical reality (located in space and time) and possessing a certain hope and clear destiny while it lives the strangeness of ecclesial existence in the here-and-now. Over the past few years, the exponential growth of social media and other forms of technology have removed barriers to communication and travel previously thought impossible. I can talk with someone in another country over the phone and even see them face-to-face through FaceTime, Skype, or other applications. I can still have class with my professors through video conferencing software like Zoom. If I need anything, I can order it online and have it shipped to my apartment. But this pandemic has forced people to recognize their physical limitations. The lack of food on grocery store shelves has forced young Americans like myself to confront a scarcity mindset for the first time in our lives. There is only so much Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other forms of entertainment that one can mindlessly consume before cabin fever sets in. Yet these changes force us to realize how Christ’s coming kingdom is our end goal and not our contemporary existence. The new heavens and new earth, with glorified bodies and direct experience of God’s presence, are another day closer. Let us work even harder to bear God’s name in holiness and purity as we await his coming.

In this situation, where Christians may be unable to gather as an ekklesia for some time, these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer ring true:

“It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”[4]

[1] All of the lexicographic information on ekklesia comes from an entry about it in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, edited by Moisés Silva.

[2] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 281.

[3] This and the following principles are taken from chapters three and four of Gregg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

[4] Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1954), 20.

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