Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ekklesia and Gerousia

As the basis for the following post, I lean heavily on Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill. The book is one of a series which he calls the "Hinges of History" which I recommend to anyone who cares about how the world (mostly the 'western' part) has become what it is. The Irish, the Jews, Jesus, the Greeks, and the Middle Ages, are each scrutinized for their contribution in fascinating detail, each in a separate book.

In Sailing Cahill paints an illuminating contrast between two Greek cities, Athens and Sparta. Athens was ruled by a raucous direct democracy, a town hall meeting which met over forty times a year, which achieved quorum only if at least 6,000 (yes, that's three zeroes) of the citizens were present, but typically were attended by about 10,000 voters. A these meetings, magistrates and war leaders were elected, and laws passed, all in the most noisy, rollicking manner. Culturally, the city flourished. Education, Philosophy etc. Drama as we know it has its origins in Athens. (you get the picture. It's a bit rosy, but it will do for a blog)

Sparta on the other hand was ruled by a council of old men. Citizens, by long custom, had 'better things to do' than participate in the running of the City. The 'privileged' classes (er, the males of the privileged classes) dedicated their austere and colourless lives to military training/service from age 12 all the way to age 60. The helots, i.e. the less privileged half of Sparta, lived in a state of serfdom, feeding the elite and getting stick for it. (every year the council would actually declare ritual war on the helots to forestall any potential revolt by killing off the likely leaders.)

These two forms of government each have a name, Sparta's council was called the gerousia. When Athens gathered together for participatory rule, it was ekklesia. On exposing that bit of historical etymology, Cahill points out the irony that, the original Greek term for what we call church, ekklesia (and could be the word Jesus himself chose... although it's a fair bet that Jesus taught in Aramaic, not Greek, so we don't know that for sure) would have drifted so far from what New Testament Greeks would have understood it to really mean, into something more like gerousia.

Now Cahill is writing from the point of view of an American liberal Catholic, so church for him is more gerousiac than it ever has been for me and he seems to be in despair at the end of the last book The Mysteries of the Middle Ages. (Thomas if you ever read this, there are more options than Catholicism!) But the question remains. Jesus said "I will build my ekklesia." (If he said it in Aramaic instead, then the gospel writers, chose 'ekklesia' by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so whatever he actually said is somewhat moot. The powerful sense of it's original usage still stands.) How can we be so far from that now, and still use the same term -- or the word translated from it, that is church?

There are some functional answers such as they are-- and they are incomplete. One of them has to do with the tutelary nature of the church. In any church one always expects to see a number of the uninitiate, the ones who simply need to be taught what we are about-- ones who need to be guided. I think that was far more the case in the early church, and by constant custom and need for guidance, the permanence of that guidance was simply assumed and the clergy was born. Another force I see pulling us away from an Athenian ekklesia experience, is laziness. We don't want to be bothered with running the church. We lose some ownership thereby, I think. Also there is the need for creating a safe environment for the wounded, the weak and the children. Control becomes a goal.

These are not pernicious forces -- they are merely human. But that doesn't mean we can't inject some of the original meaning back into church and participate again...


  1. you really had me... until the second-last paragraph

    then you fell back a bit into YOUR single-acceptance view - just like cahill and his myopia re the catholic church ...evidenced by the fact you don't see the tutelary "nature" and "control" as pernicious forces (or even acceptable side-effects, if i read you wrong)

    my skin crawled

  2. Just a denouement, not a conclusion. I can't solve all the church's problems with a blog post. And I said functional, not necessary. There must be answers to the issues that give rise to tutelarism and control. Answers that lead us away from those two forces. I just don't know what they are. And I also want to have grace for what is. I am not a slash and burn reformer. If I have nothing to invite my brothers into, I don't want to take away from them what they have...

  3. wow - that sounded harsh didn't it

    didn't mean it to be so much a chiding as an observation

  4. as usual, you help me clarify my thoughts...