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Treebeard, as an elder of Fangorn forest, takes a walk one morning, engaging the wood’s word of mouth network to call a meeting of the Ents.  Some Ents won’t come, too busy with their own thoughts and existence to heed the call of community.  Others will surprise Treebeard, waking and walking as they have not done for decades, to mark the importance of the moment by their presence.  The cause is that which the whole forest has been awaiting to arouse them.

The tree-herders, shepherds of the forest, gather for a moot in the dingle. A moot is a gathering for deliberative purposes.  So the Ents spent three days deliberating.  They took their time getting the facts and feeling the urgency of their participation in the world’s events. At last they made a decision, and the conversation stopped.  Then it erupted in a communal shout, which echoed into a chant as the Ents left their little dell that seemed so remote as to be not part of the real world, and marched.

No more waiting.  No individuals left to ponder whether they were with the group in the action.  All of the tree-people swung themselves over the hills in the gentle descent to their doom.  The decision had been built into their nature, and the making of it at last was only a matter of being clear that the need was legitimate.  So they went, making war on Isengard and breaking down the wicked stronghold that had harried their defensive borders for so long.

Contrast this with the two days the hobbits spent in the House of Tom Bombadil, also in a forest that shares many parallels with Fangorn.  In that house they were protected and refreshed.  The hobbits heard many stories of history and the way of the world in the land where Bombadil is Master.  But when they were sent away, it was a thorough departure, not a continuation of the fellowship begun in the house, or even of the instruction given in the house. And so they surrendered to temptation and deceit, almost losing their lives to the Barrow Wight.  Bombadil was willing to come to their aid, but not to go with them, having, as Gandalf explained, withdrawn into a little land within bounds that he had set.

The nights with Bombadil and Goldberry comprised a vivid experience for the hobbits, opening their hearts to history and destiny in a way that little else could.  But it was disconnected from the rest of the quest.  Frodo and his companions could no more return to the House under hill than they could spend their eternal rest in Valinor before the tale was over.

I think church should be like the Entmoot.  Don’t you ever sit in a gathering of believers, praying, singing, sharing the word of God, and just imagine everyone getting up and rushing the doors to take on the world?  What if we actually did?

References from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien:

p. 467 – Entmoot = an assembly of the people in early England exercising political, administrative, and judicial powers.  Also an argument or discussion, esp. of a hypothetical legal case.  An obsolete definition (therefore the most likely intention of Professor Tolkien), a debate, argument or discussion.

p. 467 – “Entmoot… is a gathering of Ents.”

p. 468-469 – “The Ents were as different from one another as trees from trees… There were a few older Ents… and there were tall strong Ents…”

p. 469 – There were about 48 Ents present (and no young Ents or Entwives, due to the tragic history of the Ents).

p. 469 – “Merry and Pippin were struck chiefly by the variety that they saw: the many shapes, and colours, the differences in girth, and height…”

p. 469 – “standing in a wide circle round Treebeard…”

p. 469 – “a curious and unintelligible conversation began.”

p. 469 – “they were all chanting together”

p. 469 – “gradually his [Pippin’s] attention wavered.”

p. 470 – “But I have an odd feeling about these Ents: somehow I don’t think they are quite as safe and, well funny as they seem.  They seem slow, queer, and patient, almost sad, and yet I believe they could be roused.”

p. 470 – “But they [Ents] don’t like being roused.”

p. 471 – “However, deciding what to do does not take Ents so long as going over all the facts and events that they have to make up their minds about.”

p. 472 – “…but now they seemed deeper and less lesisurely, and every now and again one great voice would rise in a high and quickening music, while all the others died away.”

p. 473 – “…the voices of the Ents at the Moot still rose and fell, sometimes loud and strong, sometimes low and sad, sometimes quickening, sometimes slow and solemn as a dirge.”

p. 473 – “held conclave”

p 473 – “Then with a crash came a great ringing shout…”

p. 473 – “There was another pause, and then a marching music began like solemn drums… before long they saw the marching line approaching…”

p. 475 – “It was not a hasty resolve… we may help the other peoples before we pass away.”

p. 475 – “songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time and their own way: and sometimes they are withered untimely.”

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Ekklesia

The biblical word for Church is the Greek ekklesia, which means “an assembly.” It was used at the time to refer to the deliberative senates in politics.

The word is used 79 times in the New Testament, beginning with Jesus’ promise to Peter in Matthew 16:18, “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This comes on the heels of Peter’s confession in verse 16, “And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because Jesus uses a play on words expressed by Matthew in the Greek, and names Simon in effect “pebble,” while saying on this foundation (big rock), I will build My Church, it is apparent that the foundation on which the Church is built is the truth of what Peter said: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Thus the doctrine of the Church around which all members of the Church congregate is the identity of their Head.  At the time of Jesus’ promise here in Matthew, the expectations of His disciples were for an earthly government led by King Jesus.  In this light, Jesus’ words surrounded by kingdom language would have been taken literally.  “Church” as a political council made a lot of sense.  Perhaps the disciples envisioned a sort of parliament or legislature with Jesus as King and Peter as prime minister.

Like many other kingdom things, the Church did not turn out to be what everyone expected.  The same has been true for me.  I am conditioned to envision a certain setting when I read the word Church.

I, like most Protestants, have been taught the doctrine of the Church.  There is the Universal Church, consisting of all believers since the resurrection of Jesus (or Pentecost) through the present time.  This Universal Church is the Bride of Christ, and might be compared to the “cloud of witnesses” assembled as examples to believers (Hebrews 12:1).

Secondly, the Local Church is usually defined as a specific group of believers who meet regularly.  Most frequently this local church has a name, a set group of leaders responsible for only their congregation, and independent budgets and ministries.

For centuries the Roman Catholic Church dominated the definition of Church.  “The Church” at that time encompassed the doctrines, authorities, and activities of the priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes.  Today also Church is often understood as a denomination or a religion.  We have for example the Lutheran Church, the Baptist Church, and the Pentecostal Church.

On a similar level, because local congregations usually meet in a special building for church, those chapels, cathedrals, sanctuaries, and halls come to mind when one hears church.

Finally, one might refer to the weekly meeting hosted by most congregations as the “church service.”

Are these definitions accurate?  How does the Bible use the word church?  What is the purpose of the church?  Who is included in the word?  When people are “at church,” what does the Bible say should be happening?

Back to the word ekklesia.

The church is accurately defined as the gathering of all believers. It consists of all who have died in the faith, but obviously those members are not presently contributing their gifts and fellowship to the meetings of the Church (though the Church may be edified by the foundation these former Christians laid).  Another obvious fact is that all the believers alive in the world right now are not able to meet at once in one place.  This was the case even in the New Testament at the beginning of the Church, so the Bible includes instructions and descriptions for what different smaller gatherings of believers were to look like.

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“Moot” is so old that we hardly use it.  Tolkien used it because it was old and English.  When I write about the Church so much, and am trying to emphasize original meaning instead of what the word has come to mean in our culture (I despise redefinitioning), I resort to long explanations each time I describe what happens when the people of God get together.

One can use Greek, ekklesia, or start by defining the English word, church (which has so many uses now that it is about as ineffective as love), or say assembly, meeting, gathering, or fellowship.  Assembly reminds people either of six grades of public school children seated in the cafeteria, or when speaking of religion, the semi-charismatic Assembly of God denomination.  Meeting was actually used in its common sense (I have a meeting to attend) by nonconformist religious groups, and continues to be used by the Quakers.  Gathering tells you nothing about what is going on.  And fellowship indicates that people are getting together for chit-chat.

See how inadequate these words are to express the potent prescription described in the New Testament for the followers of Jesus.

The first occurrence of “church” in the Bible is Matthew 16:18, where Jesus promises that on the truth Peter confessed 2 verses prior, the Church would be built, and even the gates of hell would not prevail against it.  The context is, like much of Matthew, very kingdom-focused.  As usual, the disciples were hearing Jesus to speak of an earthly kingdom.  No doubt they had in mind governments (like that described in detail in 1 Chronicles), armies, governors, judges, and councils. The word ekklesia (translated church) was the word for the political assemblies at which the citizens would deliberate.  We might think of parliament or legislatures, or even a townhall meeting.  It could refer to any gathering of people, and was applied to religious gatherings.

Matthew 18:17, in the passage used for church discipline, Jesus indicates the church is a judicial body.  Paul goes along with this in 1 Corinthians (a great textbook on church structure, life, and leadership), when he suggests that rather than bringing “brothers” to court, they should submit to the judgment of the Church.

All this to set up my new synonym for church, a word so out of fashion that it is very unlikely you will think of it meaning anything else.  The word is moot.  You have heard it, but you didn’t know what it meant.  It was used colloquially in the phrase “moot point,” or “moot case.”  The common use is a perversion of the original use.  A moot was a deliberative gathering, often for discussing hypothetical cases (this is the sense in which the word does not apply to church).  If something was hypothetical, it was debatable, in that there was no final word to be said on the matter.  But a culture that does not appreciate the hypothetical has transferred the phrase “moot point” to mean not worth discussing.

JRR Tolkien used moot in his chapter on the Ents.  Their gathering was called a moot.  In this case, he blended two meanings: the newer one applied to deliberation, and the etymological one in which the word simply meant assembly. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines moot as “a meeting, especially of freemen to discuss community affairs or mete justice.”  Its root is in a word for “encounter.”

So a church, which is a gathering of disciples to manage the affairs of their community, to build each other up in unity and provide accountability towards godliness, could be described as a moot.  That’s just what I’m going to do.

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