The view that church in the New Testament is to be understood primarily as ‘gathering’ is known as the ‘Robinson-Knox’ view named after its chief proponents Donald Robinson and Boughton Knox. It has also been more recently pursued by Peter T. O’Brien. However the ‘Robinson-Knox’ view really refers to an approach, rather than a conclusion as it appears that both Robinson and Knox disagreed over what exactly this meant. The approach was one of looking at the usage of ‘ekklesia’ in the New Testament and drawing conclusions from there. Having said that there are some similarities, and it is these that I want to enagage with. One of these points of agreement is that ekklesia refers to the perpetual gathering of God’s people in heaven and earthly expressions of that in the ‘local church’.

So Knox writes;

“Since Christ is now in heaven, it is there that the New Testament thinks of him as building his church, because the church of Christ is the assembly which he calls into being around himself…”[1]

Church, as an earthly expression is to be understood as the local congregation, i.e. in terms of the people rather than a building according to Robinson.[2] Peter O’Brien clarifies this “…each of the various local churches are manifestations of that heavenly church, tangible expressions in time and space of what is heavenly and eternal.”[3]

This argument places the local church at the centre of what it is to manifest the heavenly church. It helpfully guards against the view that the denomination is the earthly expression of church, as Donald Allister puts forward.

However the question I want to ask is ‘when is the local church not a church?’

There are various nuances of the view briefly outlined about, but it seems at its heart that the local ekklesia is primarily used in relation to the physical gathering as an activity. This gathering, if it is to be more than the ekklesia that we find in Acts 19:32, has to bear certain marks. Clearly God’s word is to be central, just as it was at Sinai and the ekklesia there, so should it be with local ekklesia today (cf. Hebrews 12:22-24). It is the gospel of Christ’s blood that we are to listen to as it speaks. Holiness is also to be a mark (cf. Hebrews 12:14; 13:1-3; 13:16) as is prayer and praise (cf. Hebrews 13:20; 12:22; 13:15).[4]

But when is a local church not a church? When does it cease to do these things and thus cease to be ‘church’?

According to this view church exists when the members all gather together as an activity centred around God’s word. They enact these things together at that gathering and so express what it is to be the heavenly church. I agree with this. I do not think that church is anything less than this.

But is that all the local church is?

As was pointed out above, one mark of the church is holiness. There seems to be great emphasis on this being a mark of the gathered people of God. For instance Paul in his letter to Colossians tells this local church to set their minds on things above where they are in Christ, which is that heavenly gathering, and to stop living self-centred lives and get loving each other! Holiness among the people of God is the very expression of what it is to be gathered around Christ in heaven. But does Paul envisage this only taking place at particular meetings? It seems rather that to set our minds on where we are as part of the heavenly church impacts our whole life as a community beyond the official ‘meeting’.

But a question this raises is, is community something different to ‘church’? Does ‘community’ pick up where ‘church’ leaves off? Can ekklesia only be expressed when the people get together for singing and a ‘preach’?

Or can ‘gathering’ be understood in a more determinative rather than exhaustive way? Are two or three Christians talking about God’s word, loving and serving each other according to God’s word whilst waiting for a bus in a bus shelter or walking in the park ‘doing’ or ‘being’ church?

More to follow…

[1] D B Knox, ‘“The church’ and ‘The denominations’,” Sent by Jesus (Banner of Truth, 1992) p. 57

[2] D W B Robinson, “Church,” New Bible Dictionary (IVP, 1962), p. 228

[3] P. T. O’Brien, Colossians and Philemon, Word Commentary Series (Word 1982), p. 61

[4] M Tinker Refining the Reformers, Churchman, Vol. 116/2 (2002), pp. 141-142