Friday, August 4, 2006

Why Do We Park on a Driveway but Drive on a Parkway? First Response to Reisinger, Ekklesia

John G. Reisinger's theological series on the New Testament ekklesia has won some renown this year, having been commended to Baptist thinkers by none other than Wade Burleson, who has dared to go so far as to call it The Best Modern Study on the Ekklesia (Church). All of you will, no doubt, be shocked to discover that I disagree.

I will say that it thrills me to know that Southern Baptists are discussion the nature of the church. I thank Bro. Reisinger for his obvious love for the doctrine of the church. I also thank him for writing material that has achieved widespread enough distribution to provoke much-needed debate. Nevertheless, Reisinger's thoughts are not nearly as bulletproof as he suggests. I believe that there are some serious flaws embedded in this series.

Exegeting Ekklesia

And we might as well start at the top. How do you have a five-part study entitled Ekklesia that never bothers to do any exegesis of the actual use of the word ekklesia in the New Testament? I can such a study even qualify as a serious study on the nature of the church, much less "the best modern study" on the subject?

There is a brief exegetical study of the use of kaleo in the New Testament, but ekklesia is completely ignored. Why? Because Reisinger is a Calvinist, and he has chosen to develop his ecclesiology as a philosophical extension of his soteriology. So, we exegete the word for election and then use that to define ekklesia without bothering to mention any of the occurrances of ekklesia in the New Testament.

If Reisinger had bothered to look at how the New Testament uses the word ekklesia, he would have discovered:
  • The word ekklesia appears in the New Testament an awful lot in the plural form. Reisinger makes a really big deal of the fact that the phrase "body of Christ" never appears in the New Testament in the plural. Why won't he give his readers the full story and let them know that the New Testament is chock full of instances of ekklesia in the plural. Here are a few:
    • Acts 15:41
    • Acts 16:5
    • Romans 16:4
    • Romans 16:16
    • 1 Corinthians 7:17
    • 1 Corinthians 11:16
    • 1 Corinthians 14:33
    • 1 Corinthians 14:34
    • 1 Corinthians 16:1
    • 1 Corinthians 16:19
    • 2 Corinthians 8:1
    • 2 Corinthians 8:18
    • 2 Corinthians 8:19
    • 2 Corinthians 8:23
    • 2 Corinthians 8:24
    • 2 Corinthians 11:8
    • 2 Corinthians 8:28
    • 2 Corinthians 12:13
    • Galatians 1:2
    • Galatians 1:22
    • 1 Thessalonians 2:14
    • 2 Thessalonians 1:4
    • Revelation 1:4
    • Revelation 1:11
    • Revelation 1:20
    • Revelation 2:7
    • Revelation 2:11
    • Revelation 2:17
    • Revelation 2:23
    • Revelation 2:29
    • Revelation 3:6
    • Revelation 3:13
    • Revelation 3:22
    • Revelation 22:16
  • When Jesus first announced his intention to build an ekklesia, He said that he was building it upon the basis of a human response, not a divine choice. Really, how do you write what is purportedly "the best modern study of the church" without even interacting at all with Matthew 16:18? Reisinger claims that the basis of the church is election. I would not completely dissociate election from the meaning of the church, but Reisinger has made it the basis of the church to the exclusion of all else. Reisinger emphasizes that addition to the church is the action of Christ, not the result of human action. Yet Jesus explicitly stated that He would build His church around something related to his episode with Peter at Caesarea Philippi. Unless you are Roman Catholic, most interpreters connect Jesus' statement with Peter's public profession of faith in Christ, as do I.
  • The majority of references to ekklesia in the New Testament are clearly references to an entity associated with geographic space. Reisinger acknowledges that such references sometimes occur in the New Testament, but he leaves the impression that they are the exception rather than the rule. Numerically, the overwhelming evidence reveals that the universal use of ekklesia—the basis of Reisinger's entire theory of the church—is the exception while the local use is the predominant use in the New Testament.

Defining Ekklesia

Reisinger labors hard to suggest that he is breaking away from the old debates between those who emphasize the invisible/universal church and those who emphasize the local/visible church—Reisinger suggests that he is offering some sort of a third way to think of church. Actually, he winds up simply affirming the invisible/universal church as the primary meaning of the New Testament term ekklesia, although in other words.

Reisinger indicates that he has arrived at his view because he, unlike the rest of us, is willing to deal plainly and simply with what the Greek noun ekklesia undisputably means. And what is that? Why, ekklesia means "called out ones," and the "calling" in view there is none other than the "effectual calling" proclaimed by Calvinism, ergo the ekklesia virtually always refers to the complete body of the elect. The logic, to hear Reisinger deliver it, seems invincible.


What does the title of my essay have to do with Reisinger's treatise? No doubt you are familiar with the little riddle that I have posed: "Why do we park on a driveway but drive in a parkway?" It is one of those clever little observations designed to poke fun at the English language. But actually, this humorous question highlights a feature not just of English, but of all languages. It is an important principle to keep in mind while translating: A word is more than the sum of its parts.

Words are the basic units of language. They are entities unto themselves. Sub-parts of words are often important clues to the meaning of a word, but a word is never under obligation to mean exactly what its parts "add up to." Studying roots and learning the meaning of component parts can often be helpful. Sometimes the components of a word will lead you directly and simply to the word's meaning. Sometimes they will mislead you to a wrong meaning. Usually, they will sort of point you in the right direction, but you have to learn from context or a definition what the word actually means. For example, what is a keyboard? Is it that board on the wall with the pegs for hanging pieces of metal that will unlock locks? Or is it the set of buttons on a computer that allow you to type? The component parts could point you in either direction. You know what a keyboard is because...well...because you know what a keyboard is.

For a translator, identifying the component parts of a word are a helpful clue to knowing what that word means, but it is far more helpful to know how actual people alive at the time employed the word in everyday speech.

And that bring us back to ekklesia.

The component parts of ekklesia are indeed, as Reisinger asserts, ek meaning "out" and klesia ultimately from a word meaning "to call" (kaleo).

But in the moment when Jesus employed this word to describe the institution that he was founding, not a single person in the Greek-speaking universe would have associated this word with the idea of "calling out." Jesus didn't coin a new term; He borrowed one that was already in prominent use.

There is room for debate about how to translate the word ekklesia in the New Testament, but outside the New Testament the best translation clearly would be something like "town hall meeting." Ekklesia was a political term. The ekklesia was a foundational part of every Greek city. It was the meeting at which every citizen of the city got to vote on matters of civic governance. If you really want to know what the word means, step out of the theological world, where (as Reisinger correctly observes) people try to bend the terminology to fit their favorite ideology, and take a look at what secular historians and linguists, people with no theological axe to grind, say about the meaning of the word. Here is one example, but there are others. Google Demos and ekklesia and see what you get.

I think that "called out ones" probably leads us generally in the right direction, but as with the vast majority of words in any language, the meaning of the component parts is a starting point that leads us in the right direction, not a destination that secures our arrival there. Citizenship in a city was not easy to come by in the Greco-Roman world. The Greek citizens who could vote in the assembly certainly were the chosen few. Ekklesia communicated clearly that citizenship in the Greek city was selective, and only the citizens were chosen to attend the assembly. The components of the word are clearly related to its meaning.

But, contra Reisinger, the word ekklesia clearly had a very heavily institutional meaning when Jesus chose it to describe what He was founding. Reisinger has tied the meaning of the term strictly to the doctrine of election. Yet, if Jesus had merely intended to refer to the elect, he could simply have employed the word eklektos, the actual word translated "the elect" in the New Testament. But Jesus did not use this term, choosing instead to borrow the political term ekklesia from the voting assembly of the Greek city.

But Reisinger doesn't address these facts. Therefore his definition of ekklesia is not fully-orbed.


In this much, Reisinger is absolutely correct: How you define the church could affect your position on a whole range of issues. Yet Reisinger's actual ecclesiological practice, to the degree that I can ascertain it, is pretty similar to mine. The practical difference between the two of us is that he relegates almost all practical ecclesiology to the whim of personal preference, while I believe that the New Testament actually has something to say about the organization and operation of local churches. In a culture that loves to follow the whims of personal preference, his views are likely to appeal to many. Nevertheless, I trust that many others will dare to search the New Testament for some instruction regarding how we are to organize and function, confident that the founder of the Church would not leave us completely bereft of any leadership as to what it should look like and what it ought to do.


I've been pretty straightforward in this article. Let me make something clear: Reisinger has every freedom to hold his own views about the nature of the church. Life is far too short for me to go about trying to "refute" everyone who holds a different ecclesiology than I hold. But Reisinger has chosen to put his views up on the Internet, and people have chosen to read his views. At least one of those people has asked me to respond to Reisinger. This was not a critic of his, but someone significantly persuaded by his views. The church (however you define it) will benefit from a free and open discussion of these matters. If I have spoken stridently, please take it not as disrespect of my brother in Christ but as passion for these ideas.

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