Tod Kennedy, May-July 2011
Ekklesia ἐκκλησία is the Greek work for church. It means a regularly assembled legislative body, an assembly, community, congregation, church. I have also added commentary on two related terms: ἐπισυναγωγή episunagoge a gathering together, a meeting; and σῶμα body, in reference to “the body of Christ.”
Ekklesia in Ancient Greece
Ekklesia refers to “any public assembly of citizens summoned by a herald” (Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, page 195). It is an “assembly duly summoned,” say Liddell, Scott, Jones, and McKenzie, A Greek-English Lexicon, Rev 1996, page 509. In such a gathering the people debated and voted on matters of the state. The assembly was the highest power. Examples include Homeric assemblies, Spartan Assembly, Samian Assembly, Athens Assembly, and the meeting of the Amphictyons at Delphi.
Ekklesia in the Greek Old Testament
Ekklesia is also used many times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint (or LXX in abbreviation, in reference to the supposed number of 70 translators). Every occurrence of the Greek term refers to a community, group, or gathering of people, and in most instances Israel is the subject, as may be seen in these examples: Numbers 20:8; 1 Kings 8:14; 1 Chronicles 29:1; 2 Chronicles 30:23-25; Psalm 22:22, 25 (LXX 21:23, 26); Psalm 68:26 (LXX 67:27); and Lamentations 1:10.
Ekklesia in the New Testament
The word is used 114 times in 111 verses in NASB95, ESV, NA27, and SBL edition, and 115 times in 112 verses in the Majority Text (Acts 2:47). The same meaning continues—a physical assembly of people and a spiritual assembly of people also called the body of Christ. Church people are those who believe in Jesus Christ.
- Matthew 16:18 in the section of 16:13-20. Peter says Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Verse 18. Jesus says that he will build his church on that statement—Christ and the doctrine of Christ. The church’s foundation is Jesus Christ and the truth about him. In Ephesians 2:20, Jesus is the chief cornerstone of the church, and thus without him there is no church. Unless a local church holds to the doctrine of Christ and believes in him, that group is not a church.
- Matthew 18:17. This passage sets up guidelines for dealing with a sinning brother in an Israelite assembly. It may set a pattern for dealing with sin today as a matter of church discipline.
- Acts 2:47. The Majority Text has “to the church.” Both readings have the same meaning. The MajT specifies that those saved were added to the church. The context already indicates this.
- Acts 5:11. The church fears God because he severely disciplines Ananias and Sapphira. They had lied to God the Holy Spirit. We learn that the church is people, not a building. God wants a holy church. He will discipline if needed.
- Acts 7:38. This is the general use of the word which means an assembly of people. This reference refers to the Exodus people.
- Acts 8:1, 3. Verse 1. The church at Jerusalem was greatly persecuted so that believers were scattered. The Apostles stayed in Jerusalem. Verse 3. Saul persecuted the church.
- Acts 9:31. After Saul’s salvation and instruction the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace. Church is singular—one church. Church was built up, feared of the Lord, had the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and continued to grow in numbers.
- Acts 11:22, 26. Verse 22. Men from Cyprus and Cyrene came to Antioch and preached the Lord Jesus. There was a church at Jerusalem and the church responded to a missionary report about Antioch by sending Barnabas to get a firsthand report. This indicates leadership. Verse 26. Barnabas brought Saul to Antioch and the two men taught the church for one year. Disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
- Acts 12:1, 5. Verse 1. Herod Agrippa I persecuted some members of the church (probably in Jerusalem). Verse 5. The church prayed for Peter while he was in prison. The gathered group prayed for another member.
- Acts 13:1. There was a church at Antioch (NW coast of the Mediterranean). Prophets and teachers were there. The Holy Spirit told them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for His work. Those ministering in the church fasted, prayed, laid hands on (identified) and sent Barnabas and Saul out as missionaries. This church had leaders and organization. They were guided by the Holy Spirit. They were missionary minded.
- Acts 14:23, 27. Verse 23. Paul and Barnabas visited many churches and after encouraging them, they appointed elders (presbuteros) in the churches they visited. Verse 27. Paul and Barnabas gave a missionary report to the Antioch church, which previously had sent them out to minister.
- Acts 15:3, 4, 22, 41. Verse 3. The church at Antioch, because of doctrinal problems in Jerusalem, sent Paul and Barnabas and others to Jerusalem to find out the trouble. Verse 4. The church, apostles, and elders received them. Barnabas and Paul gave their missionary report. Verse 22. After discussion the apostles, elders, and the Jerusalem church chose Paul and Barnabas and others to carry a letter to the Antioch church with the conclusions. The point of the conclusions was to prevent disharmony between Jewish and Gentile believers. These conclusions were only mentioned in Scripture one other time, Acts 21:25, and then by the Jerusalem elders when they told Paul to join with four men and pay for the completion of the men’s vow. Verse 41. Paul and Silas traveled and taught the churches, strengthening the churches.
- Acts 16:5. Paul and his helpers traveled to different cities and strengthened the faith of the believers by teaching. The number of believers increased.
- Acts 18:22. Paul, on his return from his second missionary trip, greeted the church at Caesarea and then went to Antioch.
- Acts 19:32, 39, 41. Verses 32 and 41. Here ekklesia is used for the riotous crowd that gathered in the theater in Ephesus because of Demetrius the silversmith. Verse 39. Ekklesia refers to the legislative assembly in Ephesus. Verses 30 and 33 have the word demos (a gathering of people for any reason).
- Acts 20:17, 28. Verse 17. The Ephesian church had elders (presbuteros). Paul called them to Miletus for a conference. Verse 28. Overseers (episkopos) and elders are to shepherd (poimaino) God’s church. God purchased the church with his own blood. In this text God’s blood is Christ’s blood—Christ is God.
- Romans 16:1, 4, 5, 16, 23. Verse 1. Phoebe, a woman, was a servant in the church at Cenchrea. Verse 4. The Gentile churches and Paul thanked Prisca and Aquila for risking their lives for Paul and his ministry. Verse 5. Prisca and Aquila had a church in their house. Verse 16, Paul passes on a greeting to the Roman believers from the churches he has visited. All the churches from which Paul brings greetings are called Christ’s churches. Verse 23. Gaius apparently was kind to Paul and the believers in the church (at Corinth?). Gaius sends his greetings to the believers in Rome.
- 1 Corinthians 1:2. Paul addresses the church at Corinth. It is God’s church. They are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called saints, and they are part of a widespread community of saints.
- 1 Corinthians 4:17. Paul teaches Christian life doctrines in churches wherever he goes. Timothy will follow up Paul’s teaching.
- 1 Corinthians 6:4. There are problems in the Corinthian church and they should be handled by a wise person within the church, not by some unbelieving judge or law court.
- 1 Corinthians 7:17. Paul directed, appointed, instructed (diatasso) the different churches. The point in this context is to remain in the position God has put them unless there is a God given reason to change (doctrine of status quo).
- 1 Corinthians 10:32. The church is God’s church. The church is one of three groups of people—Jew, Gentile, Church; and note that the church did not replace the nation of Israel. In doubtful things do not give offense, but instead do all to the glory of God.
- 1 Corinthians 11:16, 18, 22. Verse 16. Paul addresses the issue of authority as represented by the man’s short hair and the woman’s long hair covering, and he says that God’s churches practice the principles of authority, order, and woman’s head covering. Verse 18 A church, geographical or local may wrongly have divisions (schisma σχίσμα) in the church and these may show up when the church assembles. Verse 22. Factions and discourtesy in a church assembly for the Lord’s supper preceding the Communion ritual dishonors the church and individuals (here the poorer members). Paul rebukes them for this wrong.
- 1 Corinthians 12:28. God appointed gifted men to teach the church and also other gifts to begin the church ministry. In the context the church is Christ’s body (12:27).
- 1 Corinthians 14:4, 5, 12, 19, 23, 28, 33, 34, 35. Verse 4. The purpose of public communication in the church is for edification or building up the individuals and the church as a whole. Verses 5, 12, and 19. Prophecy (teaching and foretelling) builds up the church, but tongues do not. Edification requires intelligent communication, and also authority and order. Verse 28. If one speaks in tongues, there must be an interpreter and if there is no interpreter he must not speak. Verse 33. God is a God of peace in the churches. Peace, not confusion, reflects God’s plan for churches. In context the problems were tongues and prophecy. There also is a warning against disorder and against women challenging authority in church. Verses 34-35. The reminder that women should not pass judgment at church on what the prophets teach. If they have questions they are to ask their husbands at home (compare the context of verses 29-35).
- 1 Corinthians 15:9. The church is God’s church; Paul had persecuted the church. Note that in the biblical record and church history the church is often persecuted.
- 1 Corinthians 16:1, 19. Verse 1. Paul directed various churches to collect money for the Jerusalem believers. Giving and the orderly collecting of giving for the support of believers is a normal part of church participation. Verse 19, there were many churches in Asia Minor. Aquila and Priscilla had a church in their house. This seems to be the pattern in the early church. These individual churches were what we now call local churches.
- 2 Corinthians 1:1. The church at Corinth is God’s church. Paul greets them and the saints in Achaia (Greece). Saints are the believers in the church.
- 2 Corinthians 8:1, 18, 19, 23, 24. Verse 1. The churches in Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) demonstrated God’s grace by their giving to help the believers in Jerusalem. Verses 18, 19, 23. Titus and two other believers (unnamed) went to Corinth to make sure the giving and transport of the gift was honest and orderly. The first unnamed believer was well known in all the churches. The second had been often tested and proved to be diligent in his Christian service. Those persons chosen to handle money in the church should be proven and responsible believers. Verse 24. Paul urged the Corinthians to complete their giving and their giving would be a proof of their love and Paul’s reason for speaking highly of them.
- 2 Corinthians 11:8, 28. Verse 8. Paul did not take any pay from the Corinthians for his ministry. Instead other churches (in Macedonia) supported him for his Corinthian ministry. He did this to prevent the Corinthians from saying that he just wanted their money. Support for those in the ministry is a good thing. Verse 28, though Paul faced enormous external pressure and suffering because he was an apostle, his great concern for the many churches was a source of continual pressure upon him. He cared about them and took responsibility for their spiritual welfare.
- 2 Corinthians 12:13. Paul says that he treated the Corinthians correctly. In comparison to other churches, he treated the Corinthians the same, except that they did not give him money. Here we see that churches can become proud and self centered and therefore reject leadership.
- Galatians 1:2, 13, 22. Verse 2, Paul writes to the churches in the Roman province of Galatia in Asia Minor (named after the Gauls). Paul had previously established many churches in Galatia. Verse 13. Paul (as Saul) had persecuted the church. Believers often are persecuted for Christ. Verse 22. there were churches in Judea—the gospel had spread and taken root. These churches at first only knew Paul by his reputation as a persecutor of the church. Now they heard that he was preaching the faith.
- Ephesians 1:22. Verse 22. God the Father gave Jesus Christ to be head over all things that had to do with the church. Head means the leader, the authority, the one the body depends upon. Verse 23 goes on to say that the church is Christ’s spiritual body, the fullness of the Father who fills all things with all blessings.
- Ephesians 3:10, 21. Verse 10. God the Father’s many sided wisdom is known now to angels through the position and life of the church. Verse 21. God the Father possesses glory in and through the church and this glory and this glorification continues forever.
- Ephesians 5:23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32. Verse 23. Christ is head of the church and savior of the body (the church is Christ’s spiritual body). Head means the leader, the authority, the one the body depends upon. Verse 24. The church is under Christ’s authority (placed under, subjected to) and therefore we are to submit to him. Verse 25, Christ sacrificially loved (agapao) the church and gave himself up (in death) for the church. Sanctification of the church is Christ’s purpose (26). Verse 27. A further purpose is that Christ now can present the church to himself without any sin—the church will be cleansed, holy, and blameless. The church has been made ready, qualified to be with Christ. Verse 29. Christ nourishes (ektrepho, to bring up from childhood, provide food for) and cherishes (thalpo, to keep warm, comfort, care for) the church right now. Verse 32. The relationship of Christ and the church is the model for the husband and the wife.
- Philippians 3:6. Paul persecuted the church. This is another Scripture where Paul recognizes that believers in Jesus Christ equal the church.
- Philippians 4:15. The Philippian church supported Paul with money, even when no other churches did. Here the church is the body of believers in Philippi. The Philippian church is the geographical church in the city or region of Philippi, Macedonia. Verse 16 goes on to say that the Philippian church sent money for Paul when he was in Thessalonica, and did so more than once. We learn from this that giving to support those in the ministry is needed and is commendable.
- Colossians 1:18, 24. The context of verses 15-23 emphasizes the nature (eikon), the pre-existence (pro panton), the preeminence (prototokos), the head (kephale) of the church, and the cross (tou staurou autou) of Christ. Verse 18, Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Head means the leader, the authority, the one the body depends upon. The church is also the spiritual body of Christ. This figure is used a number of times. Christ is the head and believers are related to him and serve under him just as different parts of the human body are under the control of the brain. Verse 24, Christ’s spiritual body is the church. Very strong Christology passage.
- Colossians 4:15, 16. Verse 15. There was a church in the house of Nympha. This house church or local church was in Laodicea. Laodicea is mentioned seven times in the NT. The phrase “brethren in Laodicea” refers to all believers in the geographical city church, and the church in a house indicates a local church within the geographical church. Verse 16. Paul wanted his letter to the Colossians also read in the church of the Laodiceans. This indicates that Paul considered it necessary that his letters (epistles) be circulated widely and read in the different churches. Scripture is central to the church meeting. We also see that the church is made up of people. The church is not the building.
- 40. 1 Thessalonians 1:1. Paul addresses the church at Thessalonica. Note that the church is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This speaks of the unique origin, relationship, privilege, and opportunity possessed only by the church and no other group.
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14. There were many churches in Judea. The churches were “in Christ Jesus,” which indicates a unique relationship, privilege, and opportunity possessed by no other group.
- 2 Thessalonians 1:1, 4. Verse 1. The church in Thessalonica is in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a unique relationship possessed by the church. Verse 4. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy speak highly about the Thessalonian believers to other churches. They have continued contact with the churches by traveling and teaching. This indicates follow up and care for new churches.
- 1 Timothy 3:5, 15. Verse 5. An overseer (episkopos), same as elder and pastor and teacher, must care for (ἐπιμελέομαι epimeleomai, to take care of, attend, have charge of) the church. Verse 15. The church is the household of the living God. It is also the pillar and support of the truth. Household is the word οἶκος oikos, a dwelling or house. The living God lives in the church through his Spirit. A pillar (στῦλος, stulos) is a column or support. Support (ἑδραίωμα hedraioma, a base or mainstay). The church supports the truth and is the base or main foundation for the truth, which is God’s revelation. Here we have the importance of the church to stand for, protect, apply, and proclaim God’s word. The church is the base for God’s word in the world.
- 1 Timothy 5:16. A woman who is able to support a widow in her family is to do this so the burden does not fall on the church. This adds to the requirement that men have the responsibility to provide for their households (5:8). Women also have a certain responsibility. The church does have a responsibility for godly widows (5:9-15), but family has the first responsibility.
- Philemon 2. A local church met in Philemon’s house. This was quite common in the early church. Note that the church is the people, not the building. Believers gathered together. Archippus may have been a leader in the church.
- Hebrews 2:12. This is a quote from Psalm 22:22. The use of ekklesia in Hebrews 2:12 is not necessarily a reference to the local or geographical church. It possibly refers to the universal church. But most likely in context it refers to the entire assembly of believers—the people of God. Jesus proclaims his solidarity with all believers to the Father. For our study this reminds us that ekklesia is a gathered group of people. Though the body of Christ is scattered, church emphasizes the gathering of those people together.
- Hebrews 12:23. This passage contrasts the Old Covenant from Sinai with the New Covenant that Jesus brought about. The church of the firstborn ones (plural) probably refers to church age believers, but may refer to all believers. Whichever, it does indicate a group of people
- James 5:14. Elders (πρεσβύτερος presbuteros, older, or an official) of the church are the leaders of the church. The book of James was early and likely patterned the leadership on the Jewish model, at least in Judea. In Acts 20:17 and 28 Paul equates elders with overseers and says they are to shepherd (pastor) the flock. The church in all three classifications must have leadership. Here the leadership responds to a spiritual need. Sin brought on discipline in the form of illness. The person under discipline asked the elders to pray for him. The oil symbolized the person wanted God’s blessing and restoration to fellowship with God and believers.
- 3 John 6, 9, 10. Verse 6. A certain church treated traveling believers, probably missionaries, with love when they came through the town. The missionaries testified in the church meeting of this love. Missionary support by money, hospitality, teaching, and listening to the missionary is important. How a church treats missionaries demonstrates God’s love. Verses 9-10. Diotrephes was a problem in the church. He was authoritarian, unteachable, and uncooperative with other believers. He would not receive the missionaries. He wanted to be in charge and would not accept John’s correction. John was going to come and put him in his place. There are times when the Pastor must step in and correct someone who is acting contrary to Scripture.
- Revelation 1:4, 11, 20. Verse 4. The seven churches were historical churches in each of the seven cities in Asia Minor, now present day Turkey. The seven are at Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. We see that the gospel had spread far by the 90s. From these churches we have a picture of the tests, failures, successes, and blessings that are found throughout church history in every generation and geographical area. Verse 11. God revealed, inspired, and communicated this letter. John was the human author. Verse 20. The stars represent messengers (possibly angels in human form as in Hebrews 13:2, or simply people who functioned as messengers) and the lampstands represent the churches. A lampstand holds light. The churches are to hold up God’s light so that it can be seen—his revelation. Compare this to 1 Timothy 3:15 where Paul says that the church of the living God is the pillar and support of the truth. The church as a whole and individual churches are privileged to be the base for God’s word and the place from which it shines out to the world.
- Revelation 2:1, 7, 8, 11, 12, 17, 18, 23, 29. Verses 1, 8, 12, 18 indicate the churches addressed. Verses 11, 17, 29 teach that the Holy Spirit illuminated or explained the messages that the angel (or human messenger) delivered to each church, “what the Spirit says to the churches.” The order of delivery was from God the Father to Jesus to God’s angel to John. John wrote the revelation down and sent it to each church (1:11). The angel messengers may have taken a copy of John’s writing to each church. Revelation 2:23 teaches that God the Father knows intimately about each church. He searches the minds and hearts. He is omniscient. He also is the sovereign judge and disciplines those in the church who need the corrective or punitive discipline.
- Revelation 3:1, 6, 7, 13, 14, 22. Verses 1, 7, and 14 indicate the churches addressed. Verses 6, 13, and 22 repeat as, in chapter 2, that the Holy Spirit illuminated or explained the messages, “what the Spirit says to the churches.”
- Revelation 22:16. Jesus reaffirms that he sent his angel (1:1) to testify or confirm to you (plural, humin), apparently to John and those who read this book (1:3) in the churches.
Other words in the New Testament that relate to ekklesia
- Assembling together, episunagoge (ἐπισυναγωγή a gathering together, a meeting). In Hebrews 10:25 the author encourages and exhorts believers to gather for church meetings. Some have apparently gotten into the habit of staying away (“not forsaking our own assembling together”). Episunagoge is not the technical word for church (ekklesia) itself, but is instead emphasizing the coming or gathering of people to the church. The only other use of this word in the New Testament is in 2 Thessalonians 2.1 which refers to a future time when believers will be gathered together to the Lord at the rapture of the church. The immediate context of Hebrews 10:19-25 has three hortatory present subjunctives in the first person plural which strongly encourage an action: verse 22, “let us draw near,” verse 23, “let us hold fast,” and verse 24 “let us consider.” Verse 25 goes with verse 24. We cannot “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” if we are in isolation from each other, not can we fulfill “but encouraging one another.” Gathering together in church is especially important in view of “the day drawing near” (tests, temptations, the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and the future judgment seat of Christ).
- Body (σῶμα soma) or Christ’s body is another way to indicate the church. This is found in Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 10:17, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 1:23, Ephesians 4:4 and 16, Ephesians 5:23 and 30, Colossians 1:18 and 24, Colossians 2:19, and Colossians 3:15. In all of these Scriptures Christ’s body is his spiritual body, the church, and he is the savior and head of the church. Furthermore, as the human body has many different parts yet is all part of the same body, Christ’s spiritual body has many parts. These parts, called members, have different special ministries that stem from the various spiritual gifts and the function of those gifts. Still it is all one body. All of this means that the church is a living spiritual organism related to Jesus Christ who is the savior, authority, guide, protector, and provider. This body grows and matures under Christ’s direction through the various parts doing their designed job.