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The ekklesia in context

Posted by on Jul 24, 2009 in definition, gathering | Comments Off

Two years ago, I wrote a post called “The ekklesia in context.” In English translations, it is easy to assume that the word “church” always refers to the same group. However, if we study the word ekklesia (which is usually translated “church”), we find that the term is often used of different groups and different types of groups. Studying these various uses of ekklesia in context can help us understand the church.

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The ekklesia in context

During this last week, I’ve published two posts discussing the meaning of the Greek noun ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia), usually translated “church” in English translations of the New Testament. In these two posts, I’ve discussed how the English word “church” developed separately from the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) (see “The ekklesia and the kuriakon“), and I’ve discussed how a Jewish writer contemporary to the New Testament authors used the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) to indicate an occasional assembly of people (see “The ekklesia of Josephus“).

However, a very important question remains: “How do we interpret the term ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) in the New Testament?” As far as I can tell, the answer is both simple and complex. He must interpret this term (as with all terms in any language) in context.

There are many attributes of the group of people that we call “the church of God”. For example, Paul used terms such as “saints”, “faithful”, “brothers and sisters”, “in Christ”, “beloved of God”, and “sanctified” to describe the recipients of his letters – the same recipients that he called ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia). All of these descriptions are true of “the church”. However, this information is not intrinsic to the term ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia), but is instead found in the context.

Thus, when we read “church” in Scripture, we must be careful not to read into the “meaning” of the word itself everything that we know about the people of God elsewhere in the New Testament. The people of God are described in many ways in Scripture. One way that they are described is as the ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) of God. Whether this means an occasional assembly of a few believers, a permanent assembly of all believers, an eschatological assembly of all believers, or something in between must be determined from the context of each usage of the term ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia).

For example, when Jesus says, “I will build my church,” (Matt. 16:18) what does ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) mean in this context? Is Jesus talking about each occasional assembly, the permanent assemblies in certain houses, the permanent assemblies in a city, the entire eschatological assembly of God’s people, or something else? As we determine what ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) means in this context, we can better understand what Jesus promises to build. If we take Matt. 16:18 as a promise that Jesus will build our “local church”, but Jesus is using the term ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) differently than we are using the term “church”, then we have misinterpreted and misapplied Jesus’ statement. Is the “church” in Matt.16:18 the same ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) before whom Jesus later instructs his followers to take an unrepentant brother (Matt. 18:17)? Only context can tell us.

Similarly, when Luke reports that “Saul was ravaging the church,” (Acts 8:3) which ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) was Saul attempting to destroy? Which ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) prayed for Peter while he was in prison (Acts 12:5)? Who are included in the ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) who agreed with the apostles and elders that Gentiles are part of the people of God without keeping the law (Acts 15:22)? Who are included in the ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) that met in Prisca’s and Aquila’s house (Rom. 16:3)? Who were divided when they came together as an ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) in Corinth (1 Cor. 11:18)? Questions such as these could be asked of every instance of the word ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia) in the New Testament. Many times, we may find that two instances of the term refer to two different groups of people.

We will not answer questions concerning reference from the inherent meaning in the word ἐκκλησία (ekklÄ“sia). 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.

So far, as I’ve studied these various passages, I’ve found it is worth it to spend the time that it takes to examine the term “church” in context. Many times, my understanding of “church” has changed because of this extra study. Hopefully, my understanding has changed to become more scriptural.