Formulating a biblically accurate picture of the church can be like nailing jello to a tree. For many of us, our concepts of the church have been driven by tradition as much as by truth and separating the two can be difficult—but not impossible.
Part of the problem (for some, maybe a big part), has to do with semantics. Like faith or love, the word church has layered meanings and ignoring this and/or importing our own definitions into the word will get us into trouble. (Think about the Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” routine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sShMA85pv8M ). Defining our terms may offer nothing in the way of excitment, but it’s like dirt work in construction—it’s where you have to begin if you want to build something solid.
Most students of Scripture know that our word church is translated from the Greek word ekklesia. It is a compound word from ek (meaning “out of“) and klesis (meaning “to call“). Put it together and ekklesia means “the called out.” The Greeks applied this word to any gathering or assembly of people. In Acts 19, Luke writes of a group of business people called out by a silversmith named Demetrius (v. 22). They gathered (as a result of having been called out), to protest the detrimental influence Paul’s preaching of Jesus had on the local economy. Twice they are referred to as the ekklesia (translated “assembly” in v. 32,41). Demetrius also speaks of a legal ekklesia/assembly in v. 39. So the word is used three times to refer to two different types of gatherings/assemblies.
The dominant usage of ekklesia in the NT is a religious one. That being said, we need to keep in mind that within this usage are important dimensions that need to be recognized. For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:19, Paul clearly speaks of an assembly/gathering of Christians when he says, “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.“ We recognize this as the literal usage of the ekklesia. As the people in Ephesus were called to their business and legal meetings, so the Christians at Corinth were called to their religious gatherings.
Ekklesia is also in a more extended sense to refer to Christians in a certain locale or locales, who were part of the same congregation or a group of congregations. When Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:2, “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy,” it’s obvious that he is speaking to Christians who live in Corinth as opposed to an assembly of people. Acts 8:3 and 9:31 are examples of the word being applied to multiple congregations. This usage goes beyond literal in that while Christians were definitely called (see Romans 1:4-6), they were not called in the literal sense of the word.
Finally, ekklesia is used to refer to all Christians everywhere. When Paul writes in Ephesians 1:22 that, “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,” he is not speaking of an assembly or a congregation of Christians. He is speaking of all who belong to Christ everywhere.
So here’s what we’ve said concerning the word church. It’s from a word that means “called out” and was applied to any type of gathering. When it is used in reference to Christians it has one of three ideas:
- a congregational assembly,
- a local congregation,
- the universal community of Christ.
All of this may seem initially as though it makes everything more difficult but nothing could be further from the truth. It is glossing over such distinctions in the name of simplicity that leads to warped understandings of the church and we’ve had plenty of that, don’t you think? So open your Bible, and when you come across the word church, determine the sense in which it is being used and build from there!