the weblog of Alan Knox

Definition: Ecclesiology

Posted by on Apr 27, 2011 in definition | 21 comments

Definition: Ecclesiology

What does ecclesiology mean? What does it include and what does it not include? Why should I (or you) care?

In the simplest of terms, ecclesiology is the study of the church.

But, if you are like me, this definition is not satisfactory. First, what does “church” mean? And second, what exactly does it mean to “study” the church? The way a person answers these two questions will direct what the outcome of their ecclesiology will be.

For example, if you peruse any dictionary (or do an online search), you’ll find many different definitions of the word church. Some of the definitions will be related to one another, and some of the definitions will be drastically different. The definition and designation used for the word “church” will certainly affect the outcome of any ecclesiology.

(I plan to write another post defining “church” soon. Since it will be a blog post, the definition will not be complete, but it will help my readers understand the direction of my own ecclesiology.)

Similarly, there are many ways to “study” the church. All studies begin with a set of sources, and the limitations or boundaries set around those sources will also affect the outcome of any ecclesiology. An ecclesiology that is built on the 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament (Protestant canon) will look differently than one that is also formed from apochryphal or later Christian writings. Similarly, an ecclesiology that begins with the writings of the middle ages or the reformation will likewise be different than the others.

To add another “kink” in the ecclesiological plan, we should also recognize that even authors who use the same sources may end up with different ecclesiologies because of their interpretative presuppositions. (All of us bring presuppositions to any sources that we use in any study, including a study of the church.)

Finally, there is one other point that I need to make about ecclesiology. A person’s professed ecclesiology is often different from that person’s actual eccesiology. The best way to determine what someone actually believes about the church is to observe how they live as part of the church.

So, what about my own personal ecclesiology? Well, to begin, I believe that “church” (in Scripture) refers to a group of people (assembly, gathering). Specifically, the uses of “church” that I’m interested in refer to gatherings of God’s people (saints, believers, disciples, etc.).

Thus, my ecclesiology – a study of the church – would be a study of gatherings or groups of God’s people. Since I believe the church is people, then I also believe that a study of the church would be a study of the relationships between those people.

So, my ecclesiology would include a study of the relationships between God and his people, the relationships among God’s people, and the relationships between God’s people and those who are not God’s people.

Notice that this is delineation is different that what you would find in most ecclesiologies. Most jump right to functions, leadership, and activities. However, I believe that these can only be understood within the realm of relationships.

Also, the 66 books of the Old Testament and New Testament (primarily the New Testament) – the Protestant canon – form the sources for my ecclesiology. Other writings can be helpful in understanding how others interpreted the Scriptures, but I do not think they should be used as the primary sources. (By the way, this would include writings of philosophy, sociology, culture, etc. These can be helpful, but should not be the primary sources.)

I’ll write more about this later, but I thought this would be a good introduction to what I mean when I use the term “ecclesiology.”


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

  1. 4-27-2011


    You left out one source that we cannot avoid drawing our beliefs from: our culture and worldview. That is probably knit-picky to point out but I think it plays a HUGE role in this specific subject, and what makes it’s influence SO powerful is that it is almost entirely ignored and overlooked.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series!


  2. 4-27-2011

    I would agree with Dan. So much of what we know as “the church” is a construct of our culture and traditions and that clouds our attempt to study the church since the church has already been defined by our cultural traditions.

  3. 4-27-2011

    You’re right Dan, culture does have a profound effect on us. I have been concerned that much of the good things happening in regard to ecclesiology are simply a product of some cultural, postmodern focus on relationship. If our focus on relationship is driven by culture it will disappear when the world gets off its trend. (in other words, the definition will change)

  4. 4-27-2011

    Dan, Arthur, and Danny,

    You’re all correct. Our culture and worldview plays a huge role in how we interpret Scripture (or anything else, for that matter). We’ll never completely remove those presuppositions, but we should all seek to recognize it as much as possible.

    All cultures have good and bad aspects. I believe that the current culture is more socially (relationally?) active than others. I think this is one of the good things about this culture. But, we can’t be relational simply because the culture says its right.


  5. 4-27-2011

    I really appreciate what Danny had to say on this. I have thought that a lot of our ability to question our worldview and traditions and be more relational all stem from a general cultural shift. Whether or not we got here or were more willing to see it because culture is shifting is impossible to know because the way we think and the way our culture impacts those thoughts is so difficult to clearly demarcate, but I think what is more important is whether those things are true and valuable, not necessarily how we arrived at them.

    Like you said Alan, there are good things in culture, and maybe those good things lead us to true conclusions, but like Danny said if our views are based solely on their cultural trendiness they “will disappear when the world gets off its trend.” So sometimes maybe cultural trends help us see things in a new way that exposes truth we hadn’t even been aware of before, but there has got to be a difference between letting culture help you find truth and defining truth by cultural trendiness.

    That was a bit of a ramble. Sorry.


  6. 4-27-2011

    Alan, one of the reasons I like your blog is simply because many of the questions you raise ultimately find their answer in Scripture (or at least attempt to). Whatever we think about “church” it must be grounded in Scripture. Like Dan above said, if our emphasis on relationships today is simply cultural it will eventually fade away as the culture moves on to something else. But if it is something deeper and truer and grounded in Scripture then it will endure.

    It seems to me that many today are basing their opinions of the church on their preferences (i.e. likes and dislikes) rather than Scripture. However, when the church is what God is calling it to be it will not only engage the culture but transcend it.

  7. 4-27-2011

    I am really looking forward to this series. I read every one!

  8. 4-27-2011


    How do you think we can appropriate the good in culture without finding culture itself as a primary source of our understanding of the church? (In other words, how do we take the good from culture but not the bad and let people know that we’re accepting this because culture says it’s good?)


    Yes, preferences, traditions, and experience plays a big part in our ecclesiology. It’s easy to start with “Church As We Know It” and use Scripture to justify that image.

    How would you answer the question(s) that I asked Dan above?


    I didn’t realize this was a series… Seriously, someone just pointed out that the last sentence sounds like a series. However, I only have two “definitions” written: Ecclesiology and Church (or Ekklesia). What else would you like to see me “define”?


  9. 4-27-2011

    Alan, you asked, “How do you think we can appropriate the good in culture without finding culture itself as a primary source of our understanding of the church?”

    Good and hard question!

    One way is music. Within the context of what a church should be according to the NT, we can sing music that is more recent and connects with people. Many of the more recent songs and hymns have been influenced by contemporary music and culture. As long as we don’t get caught up in musical performances this is not bad.

    It may sound silly, but another is food! What you eat in the south we may not eat in the north and midwest. What brothers and sisters eat in other parts of the world will look very different from what we eat. This is cultural. But the consistent practice from Scripture is the necessity of eating together as the body of Christ.

    These aren’t great answers. This question is harder than I thought. I’ll have to think about this some more.

  10. 4-27-2011


    Ecclesiology? Understanding God’s design for His family!

  11. 4-27-2011


    Yes, I think things such as music, food, clothing, etc. will follow culture to some extent. I wouldn’t necessarily consider those things part of ecclesiology. The issue, to me, is at a deeper level. For example, I believe that relationships and community are very important for the church. Today’s culture also believes that relationships and community are very important. In fact, the younger generations today appreciate and desire community more than their parents. How do we include that “good” part of culture while expressing that the source is not culture?

    Aussie John,

    You said ecclesiology is “understanding God’s design for his family.” I like that very much!


  12. 4-29-2011


    You asked what I would like to see more of. You mentioned the three relationships

    “So, my ecclesiology would include a study of the relationships between God and his people, the relationships among God’s people, and the relationships between God’s people and those who are not God’s people.”

    I know you have written on these in other posts, but I guess my question is, do you think church is possible with only one or two of these? Either way, what do these relationships look like in church? What are the non-negotiables of these relationships?

  13. 4-29-2011


    Yes, wherever God’s people are gathered, that is the church, even if their relationships are not healthy. In fact, I think most of the NT was written to help the church grow in one or more of those three relationships.


  14. 6-9-2011

    Great article. I am struggling to find a true Ekklesia in my town and there are none that I know of. I will be following you as you flesh this out.

  15. 6-9-2011


    Every church attempts to follow God and his plan for them. I think that some are more successful at this, and thus some are more beneficial to believers than others. You can begin relating to others as the church (and family) of God now, regardless of what others choose to do or not do.


  16. 10-18-2011

    “a study of the relationships between God and his people, the relationships among God’s people, and the relationships between God’s people and those who are not God’s people.”

    I love this definition. That really makes it simple. If studying the church is about studying relationships, which it clearly is, do you have some practical ways in which you go about “studying relationships” or is it more of an informal experiential process?

  17. 10-18-2011


    I was primarily talking about studying the relationships between God’s people and God, other believers, and others that we find in Scripture. For example, a good place to start is the numerous “one another” passages. But, that would be just a beginning. Then, we can compare our own relationships with what we find in Scripture. Are we truly “serving one another” or “considering one another more important”? Are those we consider “leaders” actually leading when it comes to those kinds of relationships? I hope that’s a good start.


  18. 10-22-2011


    That’s just too practical for me :). Just kidding. Yeah, I like how you broke this down here. You’re looking at “church” from a relational perspective instead of a positional one. Let’s not call someone pastor if they aren’t actively and intimately pastor-ing your life, or leader if they are not actively and intimately leader-ing your life, or brother if you don’t share life together as a family. I like it!

  19. 10-22-2011


    I greatly appreciate the feedback. I think if we looked at the church in view of those three relationships, it would change much about what we think about the church and what we do as the church.


  20. 11-12-2012

    What I do not understand about this article is why you leave out the translation of church? Because ekklesia does not properly translate to “church”. So, why are we even using the word “church” to men ekklesia? The word church comes from pagan origins. It was purposely mistranslated to parallel pagan rituals. There really is no adequate translation for ekklesia. Now that I know this, the word “church” has only negative connotations for me. I only want to refer to a group of believers as ekklesia, not church. Can you explain your views on this?

  21. 11-12-2012


    The term “church” does not come from pagan origins. I know that some people claim that, but it simply doesn’t hold up historically. However, the Greek term “ekklesia” was often used by pagans.

    By the way, I think it’s fine for you to refer to a group as “ekklesia.” You will have to define that term though, since it is not an English term. Thus, it’s much the same as me using “church,” since I also have to define the term.



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