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The ekklesia that actually gathers in a location

Posted by on Oct 10, 2012 in books, definition, scripture | 6 comments

The ekklesia that actually gathers in a location

Yesterday, I mentioned that I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite academic books on the church: Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004). As you can imagine, Banks includes an extended discussion of Paul’s use of the Greek term ekklesia (usually translated “church” in English translations). In fact, two chapters focus on how Paul uses that term: “Church As Household Gathering” and “Church as Heavenly Reality.”

In the first chapter (“Church As Household Gathering”), he examines how Paul uses the term ekklesia in his earlier (chronologically) letters: 1-2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans. In these letters, Banks concludes that Paul only uses the term ekklesia to refer to groups of believers who actually gather together in a locality.

What is Paul’s early usage of the term ekklesia, church? He first uses the term in his greeting to the Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thess 1:1). Here he is using it in the same way as in Greek and Jewish circles and yet is consciously distinguishing the “assembly” to which he is writing from others in the city. It is clear from the closing remarks of the letter that Paul has in mind either an actual gathering of the Thessalonian Christians or the Thessalonian Christians as a regularly gathering community…

Elsewhere in these letters [1-2 Thessalonians] we have reference to other Christian gatherings only in the plural, viz., to “the churches of God” generally and to “the churches of God” in Judea specifically (2 Thess 1:4; 1 Thess 2:14). This suggests that the term is applied only to an actual gathering of people or to the group that gathers as a regularly constituted meeting and not, as today’s usage, to a number of local assemblies conceived as part of a larger unit. (pp 29-30)

Banks offers other evidence, such as Paul’s reference to the plural “churches in Galatia,” “churches of Asia,” and “the churches of Macedonia.” (Gal 1:2, 1 Cor 16:1, 1 Cor 16:19, 2 Cor 8:1) Similarly, he discusses Paul’s reference to “the whole church” in Corinth – indicating that the believers in Corinth did all gather together at some point, thus they could be referred to as “the church in Corinth,” and also indicating that believers in Corinth gathered together in smaller groups which would also be referred to as “church” (otherwise the term “whole” would be unnecessary).

On the other hand, since Paul does not refer to “the church in Rome,” but instead only refers to individual gatherings in Romans 16, then this indicates that the believers in Rome did not all gather together at one time.

Concerning the various groups in Rome, Banks writes:

This probability is confirmed by Paul’s comments in Romans 16 about various Christian groups in the capital. There is no suggestion that Christians ever met as a whole in one place [in Rome]. (Indeed, as much as a century later, Justin remarks that this is still the case!) Presumably this is due to the size of the city. (pg 32)

So, if I understand what Banks is saying, Paul could refer to “the church in Thessalonica,” “the church in Corinth,” etc. because the believers in those cities actually gathered together at some point. In the same way, he could refer to “the church that meets in [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house” (in Rome – Romans 16:5) because those believers actually gathered together at some point.

However, Paul would not have referred to the believers in Rome or Galatia or Judea as “the church” in those locations because the believers in those locations did not all gather together at some point.

In my post tomorrow, I’m going to introduce another way that Paul used the term ekklesia in his later letters (according to Banks).

But, for now, what do you think of Banks suggestion that Paul would only use the term ekklesia when referring to believers who actually gather together? (Remember, Banks is only examining Paul’s use of that term in 1-2 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, and Romans at this point.)


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  1. 10-10-2012

    I’m not sure of the implications in Banks’ excerpts (no mega-church in Rome but yes in other instances?), but:

    Why would Paul write “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints:” of whom he also wrote “your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” if this is to a group of people that do not meet together? I’m just thinking logistically, if they do not meet how does the letter ever circulate?

    I guess the individual groups at the end of the letter could be located close by but not in Rome (I don’t know) to explain why a letter to “all that be in Rome” wouldn’t also include them….or it could reinforce the idea that the letter didn’t go to “the church at Rome” but just a smaller group that had to share/communicate the message with other believers in Rome, including those specifically named groups (churches).

  2. 10-10-2012


    There are indications that letters were circulated even among believers in different cities (i.e., Colosse and Laodicea), so I don’t think that would be an issue. Also, I don’t think that Banks was suggesting that they did not know each other, or that they were not all saints, or that they were not all loved by God. He only said they did not gather together, thus Paul did not use the word “ekklesia” to refer to them.


  3. 10-10-2012

    My entire post here — — is relevant to this question.

    I think the following quote from German historian/theologian Peter Lampe from the book “Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus” is particularly instructive:

    “The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterian system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city… Before the second half of the second century there was in Rome no monarchical episcopacy for the circles mutually bound in fellowship… Fractionation into house congregations does not exclude that the Christian islands scattered around the capital city were aware of being in spiritual fellowship with each other, of perceiving themselves as cells of one church, and of being united by common bonds… people writing from outside of Rome could address the Roman Christians as a unity. Not only Paul but also Ignatius and Dionysius of Corinth did this. Conversely, the Roman Christians as an entirety could send letters to those outside… A plurality of presbyters leads Roman Christianity. This Christianity, conscious of spiritual fellowship within the city, is summed up under the concept ‘ecclesia,’ but that changes nothing in regard to the plurality of those presiding over it… Each presbyter in Rome apparently leads a worship assembly in a house community and therefore also takes care of needy fellow Christians there… At the same time, we observe the awareness of Roman Christianity as a whole as ‘ecclesia’” (pp. 397–99).

  4. 10-10-2012


    Thanks for the link and the excerpt. About these lines: “people writing from outside of Rome could address the Roman Christians as a unity. Not only Paul but also Ignatius and Dionysius of Corinth did this.” Banks does not suggest that they were not in fellowship with one another or in unity with one another. He says that Paul did not use the term ekklesia to refer to the believers in Rome because they never met together (as the “whole church” the way the believers in Corinth did).

    By the way, I haven’t decided if I agree with his conclusions or not, but he’s correct that Paul does not use the term “ekklesia” to refer to all the believers in Rome.


  5. 10-11-2012

    I agree with Banks. Sure, there is a heavenly reality to it all, but as long as the Ekklesia remains a wonderful idea up in the clouds somewhere with no visible expression on earth, what good is it?

    An invisible God is real, but God-in-flesh is one whom I can handle, touch, and know. Same thing goes for the church. Is there truth to the idea of an invisible, “universal” church? Perhaps. But what matters is the real thing-the gathering of disciples that I can go to and be a part of and know Christ through.

  6. 10-12-2012


    I wonder if that (what you said in your comment) is why Paul seems to focus more on the physical, earthly gatherings of believers instead of the heavenly reality, although he certainly thought that both were very important.