Sitting in a Birmingham, Alabama jail in 1963, Martin Luther King penned a poignant letter to the religious leaders who felt the timing of his current boycott was inappropriate. He challenged them for their views, which are eerily similar to opinions being voiced today. Generally, it seems as though those in the class of people being boycotted, feel it is their right to dictate the terms of engagement for the boycotter.
This blog however is not about boycotts. It’s about what we have known as ‘the church’. As you will see in Dr. Kings’ letter, the church and ekklesia are inexplicably connected.
Over the past several weeks I have been teaching a series relating to the mistranslation of the Greek word ekklesia, into the English word church. The effects of this switch have had enormous impact on the Body of Christ. Sadly, because ‘church’, and all it we have come to believe it is, has been so deeply engrained into us, that we have been blinded to the damage it has caused.
The historical truth relating to ekklesia is beginning to rise to the surface. Numerous books, including my own, have been written on the subject. Several prophets have been declaring that ekklesia will arise in this season. There are numerous Facebook groups centered solely on ekklesia. It is becoming easier to find literature on the subject. What has all this to do with Dr. King’s letter from 1963?
A friend recently recommended that I read the entire Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I was amazed to see that Dr. King apparently had some insight into the difference between ‘church’ and ekklesia. This became evident in the following excerpt.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world.
There are 3 themes in these two paragraphs that resemble the state of the ‘church as we know it’ today.
The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. The millennials are abandoning the ‘church system’ in record numbers. If this was true in 1963, it is more so today. We live in a politically dysfunctional, racially charged, socially inept and morally deficient world. Rather than being a voice of righteousness, the contemporary ‘church’ has taken sides with world groups on critical issues. As Dr. King concluded then, today it is considered as an irrelevant social club, with no meaning for the 21st century.
…organized religion [is] too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world…, wrote Dr. King. The church is more focused on survival than it is serving. They fight each other to preserve their doctrinal distinctions. They invest in huge buildings, that only serve to contain people. What is considered evangelism has the unspoken goal of filling the pews more than empowering God’s people. Even the modern catch phrase of ‘equipping the saints’ is little more than training people to serve within the system.
…the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. Even though he seemed to equate ekklesia as ‘the inner spiritual church, and, the church within the church’, it was clear that he recognized a different level of power resident in it. He wrote of the true ekklesia being the hope of the world. As the Holy Spirit is bringing more insight into the Lord’s ekklesia, I too believe that He will use the ekklesia to bring hope to the world.
We are learning that the Lord’s ekklesia and the ‘church’ are not the same thing. History proves that the word church is a mistranslation of the word ekklesia. The concept of church, from its inception was to reinforce a system of controlling people through an intricate hierarchal religious government. Nothing Jesus declared at Caesarea Philippi was intended for what we now call ‘church’
The ekklesia, not the church, is built upon the revelation that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the Living God. It was to the ekklesia, not church, that Jesus declared that the Gates of Hades would not be able to prevail against it. It was to the ekklesia, not the church, that Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the ekklesia, not the church, that has been given divine legislative authority to bind and loose on earth, those things that have been bound and loosed in Heaven (Matthew 16:16-19).
The ekklesia, not the church, is the ‘pillar and ground of truth’ (1Timothy 3:15). Yes, it is called to provide the moral foundation for society. The ekklesia, not the church, is commissioned make known the wisdom of God to principalities and powers in heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10). It is the believers that make up the ekklesia that carries and demonstrates the authority of the Kingdom of God in the earth (Matthew 24:14). Five years and eight days after writing this letter, Dr. Martin Luther King would be assassinated while standing on the balcony at the Lorrain Hotel in Montgomery, Alabama. His letter from the Birmingham jail was in many ways prophetic. His insight regarding ekklesia was appropriate for the time, but it serves to alert us that there was, and is a difference between ekklesia and church.
The world today is in trouble. It will take courageous believers who are willing to swim against the current, to proclaim that the ekklesia that Jesus said He would build, and that Dr. King wrote about is rising. Jesus is poised to demonstrate solutions to the political, racial, social and economic woes in the earth. The first challenge will not be those things, but rather finding the courage to walk away from the religious system – church – that Jesus never intended. Maybe the following quote from Dr. King is appropriate to consider:
Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular? But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of this great civil rights hero, let us also take note of the seed he left us. The seed of ekklesia, the hope of the world.
Tim Kurtz is the founder of The Ekklesia Center developed to help believers desiring to pursue New Testament values and structure. He teaches extensively on what the impact the mistranslation of the Greek word ekklesia to the English word church has had on the Body of Christ. He has served in numerous capacities in the 'church system' including being a Pastor for over 25 years. He is the author of several books and the primary contributor to the EKKLESIAInsights Blog. Tim is also the host of Good Morning Ekklesia, broadcast live on Facebook. In these daily Study Starters he provides key information that believers can use to study ekklesia deeper. He and his wife Carolyn have been married 46 years and live in Michigan. They have two adult children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.