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City Wide and House-to-House: Why the Church Needs Both

Oikos and Ekklesia: Every Church Needs Both

In Gregory Dix’s monumental book, The Shape of the Liturgy, he describes how the early gathering of the Christians took on a double character. There were private meetings in homes where an intimate fellowship around the Table happened weekly. This was called oikos (the household). And there were meetings that were larger and public that gave witness to the reality that Jesus is Lord over the wider polis/city. This became called the ekklesia, a Greek term used to refer to the political gathering of the city to discuss the affairs of the city (although the Christian use of this word took from Hebrew/Jewish connotations). Dix says that public worship (ekklesia) happened in the synagogue where Scripture was read, the gospel proclaimed and celebrated and open to the public. But there was no Eucharist. Dix says private worship took place in private homes where they gathered to share a meal, apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Table and the sending (oikos Dix p. 36). Here, the gathering was centered in the Eucharist. Dix says this private/public distinction was maintained until Constantine, where a shift happened “from private to public worship” (p. 304ff). As Roman society became officially Christian, and there was no need to discern who was “present” as a Body-member around the Table, the private function and the public function melded. Huge public buildings were built or taken over. The tension between private and public was lost. (*Note: This is my read on Dix. There is some dispute as to how to interpret all this. See Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship, ch. 6).

In my opinion, all of the above speaks loud and clear that the church must necessarily be both private and public. Every church must hold these two social dynamics together or it can no longer be church. We are called to both gather in intimate fellowship in the Spirit around the presence of Christ (and in this we are formed and shaped into His Kingdom as His body in the world) and we are also called to give public witness socially to the new political reality coming into being, the Kingdom of God. The two dynamics feed off one another and make each possible. Either one on its own shrinks and eventually loses its integrity.

We Need Both or Else Bad Things Happen

In a culture where we no longer can assume people are Christians, I contend we once again need to separate oikos and ekklesia in the local church. Perhaps in a Christianized world, say the 1950s, we could afford to do both at the same time. We could hold large gatherings open to the public where we do the Eucharist and not lose its meaning and central forming force. But today, in many places, we can no longer assume everybody knows what it means to surrender and be present to the very presence of Christ, his forgiveness, reconciliation and new life, in the bread and the cup. If we don’t maintain the oikos/ekkelsia distinction, bad things happen.

For instance, when we emphasize ekklesia to the exclusion of oikos, our life loses the intimacy of life in His presence and in the presence of one another. We lose the space in which we are nurtured and formed into His reign and transformation through all the gifts and the Lord’s Table etc. Megachurches have long recognized the need for oikos. Amidst the huge gathering open to seekers, the small places got lost where true discipleship takes place. They tried their hardest to have small groups or local community house gatherings. Yet still, I contend, when the Sunday morning attractional event is so central, it determines the other smaller social spaces. People get trained into consumerist events as the basis of their Christianity. The ability to be present, open and vulnerable to one another around a Table is lost. The inbreaking life of Kingdom that shatters the hold of society’s sins is lost and the church becomes more and more accommodative and consumerist the longer it is detached from oikos.

On the other hand, when we emphasize oikos to the exclusion of ekklesia, we become isolated from the life of the broader context in which we live. Indeed, we become cultish. We gather in homes in such intimacy, and drink of the blessing of that life until we are full. We are involved in the neighborhood relationally, engaging the hurting and lost. But when someone wants to become part of this social body where together we all can make sense of Christ and in the encounter around the Table, outsiders can’t enter. It’s too intimidating. Years later, we have become isolated unable to speak the language of those outside us. The little community becomes more ingrown as the years go by. Amish? Exclusive? Even cultish?

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David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary.