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.)