In the English Bible the word “church”1 is translated from the Greek ekklēsia, a combination of the preposition ek (“out of”) and a derivative of the verb kaleō (to “call”). In secular Greek the term was used to describe an assembly of persons who had been called out (of their homes) or summoned together by a public herald (cf. Acts 19:39; Josephus, Ant. 12.164; 19.332). Many dispute the “called out” connotation of ekklēsia in the New Testament and insist that “assembly” or “gathering” is the sole meaning.2 But let us not be too hasty to climb aboard the scholarly bandwagon. While etymology does not necessarily determine a word’s practical sense, to exclude it from the conversation is to miss out on helpful information about language development and usage.
We acknowledge that the term ekklēsia is not inherently endowed with spiritual significance and can readily apply to any gathering of people, whether secular (Acts 19:32) or religious (1 Corinthians 14:23). However, we must not overlook the concept of word play in the New Testament and the fact that certain expressions did acquire special meaning within the context of the Christian movement.
There are numerous occurrences of ekklēsia in the New Testament where the idea of “assembly” or “gathering” is just too restrictive (cf. Matthew 16:18; Acts 8:1, 3; 12:1; 15:3; 1 Corinthians 10:32; 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23, 25, 29, 32; Philippians 3:6; Colossians 1:18, 24; 1 Timothy 3:15). Moreover, when a prepositional phrase like “of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16) or “of Christ” (Romans 16:16) or “of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:22) is appended, the expression has a special Christian flavoring that is clearly distinguished from customary usage (cf. BAGD 240-41). While the idea of assembling cannot be discounted, neither can it be regarded as the word’s exclusive function. God’s universal ekklēsia does not and cannot assemble together, and God’s local ekklēsia does not cease to exist in between corporate meetings.
Paul employs the word ekklēsia to designate the recipients of five of his epistles,3 whereas four are addressed to hagioi (“saints” or “set-apart ones”).4 Although the former alludes to the collectivity of individuals and the latter references the individuals themselves, for all practical purposes the Lord’s ekklēsia is inseparable from the Lord’s hagioi (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 14:22; 2 Corinthians 1:1). This further underscores the unique function in the New Testament of otherwise conventional terminology and the distinctiveness of God's people.
The fact remains that Christians (who comprise the ekklēsia of Christ) have been called out of the world of darkness into the community of the saved (Acts 2:39, 47; Ephesians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; etc.). The word ekklēsia, all by itself, has no theological implications, but the way in which it is consistently used in the New Testament certainly does.--Kevin L. Moore
1 The English word “church” can be traced back to the Greek kurios (“Lord”). The adjective kuriakos (“of the Lord”) was used in the phrase “house of the Lord,” which led to its application as a noun, kurikon. The medieval Greek form kurkon (“house of worship”) was borrowed into West Germanic as kirika, eventually producing the German kirche and the English “church” (J. Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins 113-14).
2 See Rob Redden, “Ekklesia and Etymology,” Gospel Advocate 152 (April 2010): 30; also Nicholas McDonald, “7 Ways to Do a Bad Word Study,” <link>; contra Wayne Jackson’s “Ekklesia Revisited,” <link>.
3 The Corinthian and Thessalonian letters and Galatians. In the LXX the term ekklēsia is regularly used to translate qahal in reference to the assembly of the Israelites, especially when gathered for religious purposes (Deuteronomy 31:30; Judges 20:2; cf. Hebrews 2:12; Acts 7:38; Josephus, Ant. 4.309). Gordon Fee suggests that the word was ready-made for the Christian communities because “Paul saw the church not only as in continuity with the old covenant people of God, but as in the true succession of that people” (First Corinthians 31-32; cf. Paul, the Spirit 65).
4 Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. This terminology may have been drawn from Israel’s description as a “holy people” (e.g. Exodus 19:6; Psalm 16:3; 34:9; 74:3; Isaiah 4:3; Daniel 7:18, 21-22), perhaps indicating Paul’s belief in the continuity between the “saints” of Israel in the past and the Christian “saints” (cf. J. Dunn, Theology of Paul 44 n. 90, 330, 502, 708).
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