We will only learn to whom a specific instance of á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·Ïƒá½·Î± (ekklÄ“sia) refers by studying the word in its context. Only then can we tell if we are using the word “church” in a manner comparable to the way á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·Ïƒá½·Î± (ekklÄ“sia) is used in that particular passage.
Lew suggested that it might be helpful if I could provide an example of an English word that has a general meaning, but differs in reference and scope based on the context. I thought this was an excellent suggestion, so I tried to think of an English word.
The first word that I thought of was the English word “family”. We know that “family” refers to people who are related in some fashion. A “family” can refer to two people (husband and wife, for example), a small group of related people, a large group of related people, and even related people stretching back into history. Only by studying the use of the word “family” in context are we able to determine what type of relationship is in view. However, since both á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·Ïƒá½·Î± (ekklÄ“sia) and “family” refer to people, and since the “church” is often referred to as a family, I was afraid that these two terms would be confused. Therefore, I tried to think of a different English word.
That’s when I thought of the English word “clothing”. Once again, we know what the word “clothing” “means”. But, to what does the word “clothing” refer? Consider the following sentence:
The clothing was ruined.
From this sentence we cannot tell if “clothing” refers to a single item such as a shirt, or if it refers to all the clothing that a person is wearing (i.e. a “suit of clothing”), or if it refers to more items of clothing.
For example, by adding context to the sentence above, we can see how the reference for the word “clothing” changes:
The woman bought a new blouse during her lunch break. As she walked back to her office, it began to rain. The clothing was ruined.
A man picked up his suits from the cleaners. On his way home, his trunk opened and the suits blew into the street. The clothing was ruined.
The fire did not spread to the bedroom closets, but because of water damage, the clothing was ruined.
The indigenous people customarily wore clothing made of woven grass. When the first Western explorers unknowingly introduced a new insect, the clothing was ruined.
In each instance above, the same word “clothing” is used. The word carries approximately the same meaning in each case also. However, the referent is different, and this can only be determined through context.
It would be incorrect to suggest that all types of clothing are ruined by rain, a trunk opening, water from a fire hose, or insects. Similarly, an entire wardrobe was not damaged by the rain, nor were the clothes the driver was wearing ruined when his trunk opened. These types of damage apply only in the specific instances mentioned above.
However, this is what we do with the word “church”. We take each instance of the word “church” in Scripture, mix them all together, and come up with a conglomeration of what it means to be the “church”, without considering the context each instance of the word.
I hope this example helps explain why it is important to study the Greek word á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·Ïƒá½·Î± (ekklÄ“sia) in context.