Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Athenian Democracy

Kenny Pearce has written in his blog from Greece,

    Furthermore, although the idea of the Church being governed democratically is a post-Reformation invention and does not seem to have occurred in the early Church, there is something inherently democratic, as the Greeks understood democracy, about the Church: everyone is invited. Now the Athenians and the other Greek democracies invited a very limited 'everyone' to their Assemblies - excluding women, children, slaves, and foreigners - but they nevertheless considered it to be everyone, and were very proud of this. They were especially proud of their inclusion of the poor, since these were the ones the oligarchic city-states excluded. The early Church was inclusive to a degree never seen before, including also slaves, women, children and even 'barbarians' (in this time period, this meant those who lived outside the realm of civilization, where civilization is synonymous with the Roman Empire).
Read the whole post here. This post emphasizes the democratic nature of the early church. Certainly the use of he term 'ekklesia' implies a democratic institution rather than a hierarchic one. What does God intend us to understand about the nature of his church from the use of this term?

This is the understanding that the early Brethren had as they expressly refused to name elders.


Carl W. Conrad said...

I've read the whole Kenny Pearce article but I am rather skeptical of its arguments; I doubt that usage of the term ἐκκλησία bears much relationship to the institution of Athenian democracy; I think it more likely that it derives from LXX usage where ἐκκλησία represents Hebrew QAHAL; the word appears 100x in the LXX (Rahlfs). There is a question of Luke's understanding of the "constitution" of the church in the early chapters of Acts (I'm inclined to think Luke's account there is more or less idealized rather than reflecting what actually happened. I would like to see more actual evidence for the proposition that the early congregation was democratic, although I must say it's an attractive idea.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Maybe this was just a bit of Brethren mythology in that case. Of course, the Brethren too were deeply influenced by the class system. They 'thought' that they were democratic, but money and class was a very important part of how people related to each other.

I shall look up QAHAL. Thanks for mentioning this.

Kenny said...

Thanks for the links, Suzanne. I'm not very familiar with the Septuagint, and it is certainly possible (perhaps even likely) that the primarily Jewish Christians of the first century understood their usage of ekklesia in terms of the Septuagint's usage of it for the Assembly of the people of Israel. However, I think it is safe to say that their Greek converts would have understood it in democratic terms. So, I suppose the question is, who first started to use this term to refer to the Church, and why? If it first appeared in the Gospels, then it is probably a translation of the Aramaic which Jesus would actually have taught in, and the Hebrew parallel is probably more relevant. If, on the other hand, it was Paul who first began to use this term when bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles, it should be understood primarily in its Greek context. This is a subject for further research.

Also, just to clarify, I don't think that the New Testament supports a democratic form of Church government as we understand democracy today - in fact I think the New Testament is opposed to that kind of idea. However, the Greeks didn't necessarily understand democracy as we do; democracy wasn't really about voting, it was more about concepts like isonomia and eleutheria. The New Testament is profoundly 'democratic' in this sense, in that we are all equal before the law (equally guilty!) and no one is above its condemnation, but we are all free in Christ. The early Christian teachers were deeply troubled wherever they saw wordly status affecting interactions within the Church, because while one may have a higher position in the world than another, in Christ we are all equal. This, like the other things I commented on in the post, I take to be very democratic in the Greek sense, but I don't think that it would be exegetically correct to apply these democratic concepts to matters of Church government. After all, even in New Testament times the Church had already begun to appoint elders and develop a sort of loose hierarchy, and this does not seem, in general, to be viewed as a bad thing.