According to etymology, the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) comes from the Greek word ἐκ (meaning “out of”) and the Greek καλέω (kaleo – meaning “I call”). These terms are then joined together, along with our modern understanding of “church”, to indicate that the word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) means “those called out by God”. However, as the butterfly can attest, etymologies can often lead us down the wrong road when trying to determine how a word is used in its context.
Sometimes, in our excitement in defining ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), we forget that the word does not carry a religious connotation on its own. In fact, BDAG (the standard Greek lexicon) lists three groups of meanings: 1) a regularly summoned legislative body, assembly, 2) a casual gathering of people, an assemblage, a gathering, and 3) people with a shared belief, community, congregation.
This latter category, of course, is the one that is usually meant when ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) is etymologically referred to as “the called out ones”. However, before we jump to the conclusion that this category points to the ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) as “the called out ones”, we should also observe a usage in this category that is not found in the New Testament. BDAG explains this category as a group with a “common identity, cp. the community of Pythagoras”, and offers this example: “Orpheus forms for himself ἐκκλησίαν (tÄ“n ekklesian), a group of wild animals, who listen to him, in the Thracian mountains where there are no people”. Very few would suggest that these “wild animals” were “called out ones” in the same sense that they might use to describe the ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) of God.
The first two groups of meanings that BDAG lists for ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) are both found in Acts 19, where the other “church” of Ephesus is gathered. In this account, beginning in Acts 19:24, a silversmith named Demetrius gathers the people of Ephesus together in order to deal with the disciples of Jesus because the disciples were disrupting their business. This unruly mob is called an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) on two accounts (Acts 19:32, 40), while the city clerk suggested that the proper context in which to deal with this issues was in a legal (or lawful) ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). Thus, the mob was an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), but it was not the regularly scheduled meeting of the ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). (For more information on this use of ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), see the Wikipedia article on Ecclesia (ancient Athens).)
But, just as we cannot assume an etymological meaning for ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), we also cannot always assume a Greco-Roman meaning as mentioned above. While this meaning is found in the New Testament, it is not the only meaning found there. For example, in several passages, New Testament authors quote the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). In Acts 7:38, Luke (who also used the Greco-Roman meaning above) records Stephen as calling the children of Israel an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) as they gathered in the wilderness. The author of Hebrews also quotes the LXX in calling a group of Jewish people an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). While many times the LXX uses the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) to describe the gathering together of the children of Israel, in some cases this is not as clear. For one interesting example, Judges 20:2 calls men gathered for battle an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). This is interesting because the previous verse (Judges 20:1) calls the same group a συναγωγή (synagoge) – another word that was eventually associated with a group of people meeting together and then the building where they met, all external to Scripture.
So, it is difficult for me to accept “called out ones” as a definition for ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). Are believers called out of the world by God? Yes, but this is not found in the word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). Instead, Scripture specifically says that believers are called by God (Rom 8:30; 1 Cor 1:9; Gal 1:6; etc.).
Even though believers are “called out” by God, it is reading too much from the etymology of the word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) to see being “called out” as the focus of this word when translated “church” in the New Testament. Instead, it seems to indicate an assembly, a gathering, a group, or a community. In the New Testament, this assembly, gathering, group, or community is special because it is made up of the people of God. What makes them special is that they are called by God, not that they are an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). Any group of people gathered together can be an ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), but only one group of people – one community – can be the people of God.