A Word for Today: Earth (Gk. Ekklesia)

TAGS:

ekkleio (To shut out)
ekklesia (Assembly, congregation, church)
ekklino (To turn aside, deviate)

The Greek noun ekklesia, used in the New Testament and translated as the words ‘assembly, congregation or church’,1 has been highly influenced by its use in the Septuagint (LXX). As Barr states, ‘It is the special use of ekklesia in the Septuagint that gives the New Testament its technical term for the Church’. The noun ekklesia occurs over 100 times in the New Testament and was taken, centuries before, into the vocabulary of the Septuagint (LXX) to translate the Hebrew word qahal, meaning an assembly of people.2 It was also in common use in the ancient Greek world prior to the birth of the New Testament, but its later use in respect of the word ‘church’ has distinguished the word for all time.

In ancient Greece, the word ekklesia referred to the summoning of an army or the assembly of Greek citizens enabling them to discuss and debate political and other matters within a Greek city state - see Acts 19. 39. These assemblies, which met in an open space known as the ‘agora’, had significant executive powers within the Greek state and made critical decisions in time of war and, generally, were responsible for policymaking within the city. Barclay states, ‘It is interesting to note that the Roman world did not even try to translate the word ekklesia; it simply transliterated it into ecclesia and used it in the same way; To Greek and Roman alike the word was familiar in the sense of a convened assembly’.3 Some scholars argue that the etymology of the word ekklesia suggests that citizens were literally called or summoned out of the general population of the city or out of their houses by the herald’s trumpet to assemble, cp., the summoning of Israel by the sounding of silver trumpets, Num. 10. 1-10. By parallel reasoning, it could also be argued that the use of ‘church’ in the New Testament to translate the word ekklesia similarly refers to those who have been called out or transferred. As Lightfoot writes, paraphrasing Colossians chapter 1 verse 13, ‘We were slaves in the land of darkness. God rescued us from this thraldom. He transplanted us thence, and settled us as free colonists and citizens in the kingdom of His Son, in the realm of light’.4

In addition to the Hebrew word qahal, the synonym edah was also used to describe the congregation of Israel, as in Psalm 74 verse 2 where it refers to God’s ‘congregation’. However, when the translators of the Septuagint (LXX) came to describe the assembly of God’s people, they made a distinction between qahal and edah by translating the former by ekklesia and the latter by synagoge.5 This change of emphasis has been put down to Judaism’s preferred use of the latter term to describe the place of its religious gatherings, i.e., the synagogue. Uniquely, though, by its use of the word ekklesia, the church now assumes a separate identity from Israel, and this important distinction is sustained in the New Testament and for ever. It also emphasizes the fact that the church is no longer restricted to an ethnic group but is universal in its comprehensiveness by including both Jew and Gentile alike. Deissmann states, ‘The first scattered congregations of Greekspeaking Christians up and down the Roman Empire spoke of themselves as a “(convened) assembly”; at first each single congregation was so called, and afterwards the whole body of Christians everywhere was spoken of collectively as the “(convened) assembly”. That is the most literal translation of the Greek word ekklesia. This self-bestowed name rested on the certain conviction that God had separated from the world His “saints” in Christ, and had “called” or “convened” them to an assembly, which was God’s assembly, “God’s muster”, because God was the convener’.6

The word ekklesia for qahal in the Septuagint (LXX) can be seen in the Book of Deuteronomy to describe various assemblies of the children of Israel. In chapter 4 verse 10, Moses reminds the nation that God had gathered, or assembled, them at Horeb so that they might understand the importance of hearing and obeying His word, i.e., the Decalogue, v. 13. It is used in a technical sense in chapter 23 verse 2 to emphasize that the assembly or congregation of Israel belonged to the Lord with prescribed rules of admission, cp. Judg. 20. 2. So, in a very short circumference of texts, the assembly of Israel becomes ‘the Assembly of the Lord’, which gives it then theological meaning. Solomon blessed the whole congregation of Israel as they assembled before him at the dedication of the temple, 2 Chr. 6. 3, and Ezra refers to the congregation of those who had returned from exile, Ezra 10. 8. The word is used in the Septuagint (LXX) in Psalm 25 (26) verse 5 to describe an assembly of evil men that the psalmist disassociates himself from as he seeks to live uprightly before God.

As we move into the New Testament, the word ekklesia has been translated by several English words such as, ‘church’, ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation’.7 It is necessary, therefore, to look at the various contexts in which the word appears to decide whether the writer is referring to the whole body of believers as the church, or to a local assembly or congregation of believers. This distinction is evident from the word’s initial use in the New Testament. It only occurs twice in the Synoptic Gospels and provides us with a foundational statement that the church would be built upon Christ Himself, Matt. 16. 18. This first mention refers to the complete body of believers from Pentecost to Christ’s second coming. The second occurrence, however, of ekklesia in Matthew chapter 18 verses 15 to 17 refers to a local assembly or congregation of believers as they exercise their collective and considered judgement in respect of a dispute between two believers following their private disagreement. This jurisdictional procedure has its background in Deuteronomy chapter 19 verses 15 to 20 and the assembling of Israel.

Moving then beyond the Synoptics, ekklesia occurs throughout the book of Acts, mainly referring to local assemblies of Christians, 9. 31; 13. 1; 20. 17. But one reference stands out from the rest where ekklesia is used by Stephen in his defence before the Jewish authorities. Here he refers to the ekklesia or assembly of Israel in the wilderness, Acts 7. 38, again confirming the correlation between ekklesia and qahal.

Paul often uses the word in a comprehensive and universal way, but he too makes the clear distinction in his letters between the entire church, 1 Cor. 12. 28, and local congregations or assemblies, 1 Cor. 11. 16; Gal. 1. 2. For Paul, the whole church is not an institution or an organization, or for that matter a new synagogue, but:

  • A spiritual building and the house of God with Christ as its head, Eph. 2. 20-22; Col. 1. 18; 2. 19.
  • An organism consisting of many limbs interacting in unity with each other, yet one unique body in Christ, 1 Cor. 12. 12; Rom. 12. 5; Col. 1. 24.
  • An unprecedented demonstration of the variegated wisdom of God, hidden in Himself, and ordained in Christ before the foundation of the world, Eph. 3. 9-11.
  • A realm of blessing which has been established through the death of Christ, Eph. 5. 25-27, and where Christ continues to work on earth through His redeemed people, Matt. 28. 19, 20.

As to the local church, W. E. Vine makes an important point when he states, ‘The word ekklesia is never used in the New Testament in the singular number to embrace all the believers in a country, or district, or the churches in any locality’.8 It is clear therefore in the New Testament, that local congregations, or assemblies,9 are stand-alone autonomous entities, but, nonetheless, share in the common life of the whole church of God.10 These assemblies recognize the supreme Lordship of Christ,11are guided by local elders, Acts 20. 28; 1 Pet. 5. 1-4, and exercise spiritual gifts for the edification of the body of Christ, Eph. 4. 12.

Lack of space prevents us from developing this study further. However, the great hope of the church is the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. This dynamic hope is anticipated every time local assemblies observe the weekly remembrance of the Lord in the breaking of bread, 1 Cor. 11. 26. May we, as members of His body, ever cry, ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus’, Rev. 22. 20.

For further reading/study Introductory

‘Ekklesia - The Church of God’ in William Barclay, New Testament Words, John Knox Press, pp. 68-72.

Advanced

QUAHAL - ekklesia in James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, Wipf and Stock, 2004, pp. 119-129.

Endnotes

1

James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, Wipf and Stock, 2004, pg. 119.

2

I. H. Marshall states that the word qahal is translated by ekklesia on 73 out of 123 occurrences, New Wine in Old Wine-Skins: V. The Biblical Use of the Word ‘Ekklesia’, pg. 360.

3

William Barclay, New Testament Words, John Knox Press, pg. 69.

4

J. B. Lightfoot, The Epistle to the Colossians, pg. 139.

5

The word synagoge occurs over fifty times in the New Testament and is usually identified as a place of Jewish worship, Matt. 6. 2; Mark 13. 9; Acts. 6. 9; 17. 1. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, the synagogue became the main centre of Jewish worship and communal activity.

6

Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, Hodder and Stoughton, 1911, pg. 112.

7

Tyndale controversially translated ekklesia as ‘congregation’ rather than ‘church’ in his 1526 New Testament. He argued that the use of the word ‘church’ gave credence to the medieval church, which he viewed as essentially corrupt. Whether he would have taken the same view once the Reformation had been established in England is a moot point.

8

W. E. Vine, The Church and the Churches, Precious Seed Publications, pg. 55.

9

‘The word “assembly” is perhaps the best single term, particularly as it has both a concrete and an abstract sense, i.e., for the assembling as well as the assembly’. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol 1), pg. 397.

10

Acts 2. 42-47; 1 Cor. 15. 9; Phil. 3. 6.

11

Eph. 4. 5; 1 Cor. 12. 3; Rev. 1. 11-20.

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