Biblical Ecclesia, 2 Temple Court Gatherings, & Online Church
The idea of church is ingrained into our membranes for better or for worse. I hope this word is a positive word for you. I grew up with very little expectations around what church was. It was something I went to every once in a while and usually only around Christmas and Easter when we attended a Catholic mass with my grandparents. I never disliked church because it was the thing I did before better things happened. I knew if church was happening something fun was occurring afterward. Unfortunately, the word church can be linked to unsettling memories or cultural judgments for many. With fewer people going to church the idea of church is becoming less of a thing someone actually has first-hand experience about. It’s like how I know about the Civil War. My knowledge of those troubling years is based off my US History classes, a Doris Kearns Goodwin book, and Daniel Day-Lewis’s take on Lincoln.
The origin of the church is interesting. Starting with the word that appears in the New Testament. The Greek word used is ecclesia. The word just means gathering. The Bible uses the word ecclesia in a few different ways. It’s used to refer to the people of God gathering, Greek cities, and even the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) used the word a few times to reference Israel (F. F. Bruce). Here’s the deal. The church highjacked the word. Over the years these people who were followers of Jesus gathered regularly, with different types of people (races, genders, & classes) that ecclesia became identified as not a normal type of gathering, but a very special type of gathering.
We say church today, but in the early days, that didn’t have so much meaning. Ecclesia was a common secular word. You see the evolution of the word in the book of Acts. Writings and visits by the apostles started off as a singular gathering in Jerusalem (Acts 5:11) and over the course of years and decades plural gatherings (example in Galatians 1:2) started to pop up in Antioch, Galatia, Ephesus, Corthin, Philip, Colossae, Thessalonica, and Rome. The word became a Christian word for many reasons but ecclesia gatherings had certain unique attributes.
One of the earliest examples of this new ecclesia was in Acts: 2:42-47:
"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Again Acts 4:32-37 shows what these ecclesias were like:
"Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet."
A few chapters later repeated again Acts 5:42 routines start to emerge of biblical ecclesia:
"And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”
We see these routines throughout the whole book of Acts. Peter, Paul, and the rest of the apostles visited the Temple and then connected in homes of local believers. The reason the Temple was a focal point of gatherings was because early on the apostles saw Jesus’s teaching as a fulfillment of their childhood faith. They weren’t trying to create a new thing. A few decades later "Temple Courts" gets changed to the first day of the week, which is Sunday.
You see this in Acts 20:7 starting to be formed:
"On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.”
Sunday wouldn’t become a cultural church thing fully for a few more decades. It’s not till the end of the book of Acts that the Temple stops to be a focal point with Paul’s words in Acts 28:28 about the Jews having a hardened heart, but the Gentiles would listen and the fall of the Temple in 70 AD cement this years later.
So what does this all mean for you the online church leader?
If you want to consider something as a biblical ecclesia then it needs the following from Acts 2, 4, & 5:
"devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship” / "giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” / "they did not cease teaching and preaching"
"breaking of bread and the prayers"
"And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done"
"all who believed were together and had all things in common” / "had everything in common"
"selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all” / "here was not a needy person among them”
"attending the temple together” / "in the temple"
"breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” / "house to house"
"praising God and having favor with all the people"
"added to their number day by day those who were being saved"
Additionally, things that biblical ecclesia facilitated:
Communion (1 Corinthians 11 / Luke 22)
Baptism (Acts 2:41; 9:18; 16:15; 16:33, Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:12)
Over the centuries what developed from these early routines were weekend gatherings and weekday gatherings. Many churches still practice this pattern by having a Sunday service ("Temple Courts") and a midweek service ("house to house”). Some churches have decentralized the midweek programming into houses through small groups or Bible studies. Biblical ecclesia is more than just “apostle teaching” as a surprise to most people. Read through those verses again and ask if your church hits all those things. Is your gathering actually a biblical ecclesia?
I started in Acts and dug into the word for “church” because you can’t look at online church unless you actually know what biblical church is. What could biblical online ecclesia look like? For starters, there are two types of “Temple Court” gatherings with online ministry:
Digital ecclesia happens on your streaming page, Facebook, YouTube, and anywhere else weekly in real-time through live streaming
In-person ecclesia happens in homes hosted by members in cities anywhere (think house church)
These two types of “Temple Court” gatherings are supported by weekday “house to house” gatherings which live out locally all the things a biblical ecclesia is supposed to do as Acts describes. Next time someone says “church” to you think less about the modern day experience that you consider as “church” and think more about biblical ecclesia.
I want to encourage you the online church leader to make sure you have a pathway to encourage both “Temple Court” expressions.