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The referents for ekklesia in the New Testament

Posted by on Jan 14, 2010 in NT Greek | 4 comments

In my previous three posts (“Greek Vocabulary – Definitions“, “Greek Vocabulary – Glosses“, and “Greek Vocabulary – Referents“), I discussed the differences between definitions, glosses, and referents. If someone is learning Greek vocabulary (or the vocabulary of any new language), it is important for that person to understand the difference in these terms.

Our goal is to translate/interpret the New Testament Greek text in a manner that our translation/understanding matches as close as possible to the author’s intentions. Yes, I understand that we will never know exactly what the author’s intended meaning was. However, there are certainly tools and methods that can help us approach the author’s meaning.

A Greek term’s definitions can help us limit the possible meanings, but the definitions alone cannot tell us what a word or phrase means. Similarly, a gloss simply gives us a possible (or several possible) English words that overlap in meanings in some contexts. However, glosses often add ambiguity instead of helping fine tune the meaning of a word in context.

Thus, I concluded that we should seek the referents for a Greek word or phrase, and translate/interpret in such a way that the referent is clearly communicated. Let’s look at some examples with the Greek term ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia).

We have already looked at the three usages of ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in Acts 19:32, Acts 19:39, and Acts 19:41. (For the context, see Acts 19:29-41.) From the context, it is clear that the use of ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in Acts 19:32 and Acts 19:41 refer to the same group that was filled with confusion and rushed into the theater in Acts 19:29, and it refers to the same “crowd” that Paul wish to see in Acts 19:30. Thus, if we want to make sure that people understand the common references, we could translate ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in the same way that we translate “crowd” in Acts 19:30.

However, from the near context, it is also clear that the use of the term ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in Acts 19:39 refers to a different group. We would have to know the historical and even governmental background to identify the group in Acts 19:39, but we could probably interpret this usage as “governmental body” or even “legislative body” or “regular assembly” (which is how the ESV translates it).

Most of the usages of ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in the New Testament are similar to the one found in 1 Corinthians 1:2. (I’ll use 1 Corinthians as a test case.) In this instance, the author makes the referent to the term clear by using modifiers like “of God”, “in Corinth”, “sanctified in Christ Jesus”, and “called to be saints”. These phrases tell us that Paul is not addressing any group or assembly, but all the followers of Jesus Christ who live in Corinth.

The question is, unless specified in context, is there any reason to understand ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia) in any other way in the same letter (that is, once the author has defined what he means by the term). For example, in 1 Corinthians 4:17, the author makes it clear that he is referring to a different group (although that group may include the previous group). Similar arguments could be made for the usages of ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia) in 1 Corinthians 7:17, 1 Corinthians 11:16, 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, 1 Corinthians 16:1, and 1 Corinthians 16:19.

But, what about the usages of ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia) in other passages in 1 Corinthians 6:4, 1 Corinthians 10:32, 1 Corinthians 11:18, 1 Corinthians 11:22, 1 Corinthians 12:28, 1 Corinthians 14:4-5, 1 Corinthians 14:12, 1 Corinthians 14:19, 1 Corinthians 14:23, 1 Corinthians 14:28. Is there any reason to find a different referent in these verses than the referent described specifically in 1 Corinthians 1:2?

Of course, once we determine referents in the various usages of ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) in 1 Corinthians, we then have one more important step… apply that referent to today. For example, if we determine that ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia) refers to all the believers in a certain city, is it then valid to apply that passage to a subgroup of all the believers in a city today?

Obviously, there is much work left. But, notice what has changed… by beginning our interpretation by determining the referent for each use of ἐκκλησια (ekklÄ“sia), we are no longer arguing or considering the various meanings of the English term “church.”


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-18-2010

    I’ve wondered if a subgroup in a locality isn’t pointed to in phrases such as “the church that meets in (someone’s) house?” Even if it is, I’m not sure Paul or God would think of it as independent and unconnected to the church in that locality, “the church in (some) city.”

    Our common practice today is to make the local church based on topics. We choose certain doctrines and practices (“distinctives”) and these define the boundaries of a church for us. It doesn’t matter that people must drive to different towns and geographies 10 to 60 miles away to meet in this topically defined congregation.

    I think God’s intent was that we were “localized” based on geographical limitations of being connected, so that our locality was not expressing an unnatural division of the Body, but a practical expression of it in a place. In the NT, this idea of a “local” church was not about division, but about a local area of connectability and interaction in relationship.

    I think we have lost the fundamental identity of the church as those who are His being One in Christ. My guess is God allows for our rebellious arrogance just as He allowed Israel to reject Him as King and desired to use the organizational methods of the world around them instead. God still works with us in these little divisive forts we call churches, but it greatly divides us and weakens our message and impact to the world (just as Israel was divided and conquered by the world she was to reach by her testimony and example). How tragic that we have exactly followed Israel’s mistakes!

  2. 1-18-2010


    I agree that in the passages that talk about “the church in so-and-so’s house” ekklesia refers to a subgroup. However, that is made clear in the context. I completely agree with the rest of your comment too!


  3. 1-18-2010

    I wonder if it is fair to think of the word “ekklesia” as the plural-communal form of “saint.” So that “the church in Ephesus” is similar to saying the “saints-communally in Ephesus.”

    We have difficulty thinking in terms of collectiveness.

    We tend to focus on the individual, and attempt to interpret what the scriptures say “to me” (how does this apply to me? is the common instruction on bible study) rather than “to us, together.” I think the NT tends to focus on the community, and that has a very different way of thinking about how we together align ourselves with what God is doing, what He values, etc.

  4. 1-18-2010


    Yes, I think ekklesia often refers to “saints” communally in such a way that the two terms almost become synonymous in many contexts. Of course, we also have to ask what Paul means by “saints”. 🙂