Ecclesia semper reformanda est

ML95The German theologian, Karl Barth, first declared “the church is always to be reformed” in 1947, but the idea goes back to the great Reformers; The Wesleys in the middle 1700s… Luther and others in the 1500s following the availability of printed Bibles. I, too, believe the Church needs to be constantly reforming itself back to First Principles and constantly adjusting itself to the dynamic world. Semper Reformanda Est.

That statement begs for definitions of terms. “Church” is a Northern European word and the idea came to us from Norse religion. The Ecclesia in Biblical times was nothing like the modern organized institutions we call “The Church” today. The difference is important. Reformations don’t work the way we were taught in history classes either. And “First Principles” have been hidden behind socio-political agendas and issues of translation and interpretation.

What is Church?

About a thousand years ago, climate and technology and disease immunity allowed one tribe of people to spread from their home territory and establish settlements and communities in the surrounding lands. They were organized and armed and strong. Their settlements prospered and sent more of these people further away from their ancestral homeland. They discovered America in fact and interacted with the Native Americans. They traded in Baghdad, Kiev, and Jerusalem. They built York and Dublin, sailed the Mediterranean, and established themselves along the coasts of Northern Europe; Germany, France, Spain. They were the Vikings.

The central organization of each of their settlements was a Kirk. That was basically a modified barn, a fancy building where the community met weekly to honor Wotan (Odin) and hear messages from their leadership. I imagine a potluck followed (fish soup again?).

st-magnus-church-egilsayWe get “church” from them. The tribal idea of a building in which to gather for spiritual activity and to get instructions from leaders is much older than the Vikings Era. Primitive people worldwide had structures; monoliths, lodges, caves, special tents and so forth for religious purposes. They fall into two categories. Some believed the Divine meet the tribe there, inspired the shaman, took tribal members on spiritual vision journeys, healed the sick, and gave sexual ecstasy sufficient to provide new babies for the tribe. Truth or oracles of future predictions were pronounced there. It was thought of as a holy gateway between this world and the invisible spirit world. Other tribes understood themselves to be a divine manifestation living in the here and now, honoring ancestors and preparing for family members to come. They also met in special places to celebrate with music and dance and to teach and learn what it meant to be one of The People. Mythologists try to divide these into Agrarians and Hunters or perhaps Equatorial and Arctic peoples. For our purposes, they all attended “church” and for most that included singing and hearing the spoken word, sometimes in included healings, visions, moral instructions, predictions of the future, eating together, and for some, baby-making.

Most of the great European cathedrals were built on top of and around Norse Kirks.

What is Ecclesia?

Technologies like Agriculture, Mathematics, and Writing enabled the human population to expand in the Middle East and Egypt. Those inventions also let us learn about those city-states. Competition for resources (and male-dominance) led to nearly constant wars and chaos. Except in places where one strong leader was able to control gangs and bullies and thugs to allow the people to prosper in peace. It didn’t take long until that strong leader (or that family) took on divine dimensions. The Pharaohs were considered sun gods symbolized by sun-like wafers of wheat. Their armies handled threats to Empire, internal and external, but left the day-to-day functioning of villages and cities to Councils.

The Sumerians, the Persians and the Medes, and the Greeks also left micro-management in the hands of local Councils. The Romans were more hands-on. They installed puppet kings and governors in the bigger cities, but the old Councils remained, too. The New Testament is from Roman times, when the Caesar made the sign of the cross in front of himself to indicate he controlled and therefore brought Peace (Pax Romana) in all four directions, N-S-E-W. He was the Savior of the people because without war and with the resulting legal foundation for commerce and trade, they were a lot better off.* In fact, anyone who didn’t publically declare Caesar is Lord could be killed or severely punished as a threat to the Empire.

“Caesar is Lord” spoken aloud in gatherings, parades, holidays, meals; this was how a person showed submission and cooperation with the fundamental system by which that complex world functioned. Think of standing and putting your hand over your heart and singing God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch; but a small group of religious zealots remain seated in their own section.

That’s how things were, basically, the small group then was one Jewish cult, The Way. They totally refused to participate in Caesar’s economy. They took care of their own, they followed Jewish food laws. They shared; they held all things in common. That group said “Jesus is Lord” and considered themselves to actually be the Body of The Risen Christ. They had their own not-in-the-Roman system Councils. All the local governing Councils were called the Ecclesia. That word was translated “church” by the King James translators.

Not everyone in the 1st Century agreed on who should be on the Christian Ecclesia or for how long. Peter felt it was a job for trustworthy Jews, designated somehow by God (rolling dice?) and once picked it was a job for life. Others felt God would provide as the need arose. Paul wanted to include Gentiles and stop following Jewish Kosher food practices. That dispute broke relationships and was a stress on the first small communities of Christians. The group in Antioch (Matthew’s group) clearly felt every believer was a living stone in the new Temple and that Jesus was with every believer: “Lo, I am with you always.”

We don’t know the role of women in their Ecclesia, but can infer it was significant. If Paul was telling the ladies in Corinth to be quiet in meetings or if that was inserted much later, no matter, they were part of the governing meetings, and we know some meetings took place at women’s homes. (When we read Paul’s letters, we forget those were addressed to specific communes of perhaps 25-40 people.)

Ok, so the “Jesus is Lord” people governed their communities with an Ecclesia. If we went back to that system, we would still face disputes over authority, roles, and rules of participation. I’ve been in various “councils” and know how egos, feelings, and hidden agendas can ruin everything.

We need a good definition of “The Church” that lays out leadership and authority and relationship to the dominant economic and political system before we can explore First Principles and discuss Reformation. **


*Better off than what? The way reality works, once you do something you’ve eliminated all other paths. We can’t know if people living under Roman control were better off than under some other system of organization. We know they required to believe they were is my point.


** A friend just reminded me that Reforming Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy might as well include Judaism and the other major religion from that culture, Islam. Perhaps we should just make a new religion that welcomes them all.

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