the weblog of Alan Knox

The ekklesia and clothing

Posted by on Jul 29, 2007 in definition, gathering | 6 comments

A couple of days ago, after I posted the article called “The ekklesia in context“, I had a great conversation with my good friend Lew from “The Pursuit“. I stated my point in that post as follows:

We will only learn to whom a specific instance of ἐκκλησία (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 ἐκκλησία (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 ἐκκλησία (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 ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) in context.


6 Comments

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  1. 7-30-2007

    Great analogy.

    Lew

  2. 7-30-2007

    Alan,

    Great post!

    Problems arise when the context won’t allow the word to fit preconceived ideas often gleaned from men of the past, who were no doubt godly men, but fallible and not inspired men!

  3. 7-30-2007

    Alan,

    In light of all that you have said about “ekklesia,” what does it mean for hermeneutics, preaching, understanding the message of the New Testament, etc. It seems that you are well-researched and are on to something. But, for 21st century Christians, what is its effect?

    In Christ Jesus,
    Alan

  4. 7-30-2007

    Alan,

    Just came across your blog and really enjoy reading the posts. You may find these links interesting:

    http://www.keyspace.org/dati.html

    along with

    http://www.imitatingjesus.org

    This may give you thoughts to “church” and “assembling”.

    I believe the institutional church has missed the target on discipleship and tried to turn it into a program.

    If we were to make disciples as Jesus did, would our blogs be filled with discussions on “why isn’t church working”?

    Sorry if I’ve wandered off subject.

  5. 7-30-2007

    I see that context is always going to determine the proper understanding of ekklesia. It is also clear that not every use of ekklesia carries the same exact meaning. It has occurred to me that it might be good to determine the full range of the word ekklesia. That would limit the possible mistakes in understanding to only that range. So the question is can that be determined.

    I understand that some will state that the word ekklesia only conveys the idea of a gathering or assembly that actually gathers(consistent with Josephus). Others seem to indicate that the ekklesia is a community that is understood as all the believers from all time down to the community of believers that meet in so and so’s house. That is were I feel some tension in my understanding. It’s the whole/universal church, city wide-church, house-church distinctions that seem to be disputed and effect how we view “church”.

  6. 7-30-2007

    Lew,

    Thank you for the suggestion!

    Aussie John,

    “Preconceived ideas”… that seems to be the root of many of our understandings of the church.

    Alan,

    That is a huge question. It would probably take a volume to answer the question. For one thing, I don’t think we should equate “ekklesia” in Scripture with ABC Church every time we come across it. I think that would be a step in the right direction.

    Chris,

    Thank you for the links. I have skimmed them, and they look very good. I hope to read them in more detail soon.

    Jason,

    I think it would be good to examine the full range of meanings of ekklesia, as long as we don’t try to read back the entire range of meanings into each instance of ekklesia that we run across. I think we have used the word ekklesia to put extra emphasis on certain activities that believers do together (Sunday morning worship services?) while down-playing other times when believers gather together.

    -Alan