Ekklesia in the Gospel of Matthew


In our last post on the doctrine of the church, we began our Scriptural examination with an overview of the Old Testament, particularly the Greek translation (Septuagint), use of ekklesia, the Greek word translated as church in the English New Testament.   Here we want to turn our attention to the first use of ekklesia in the New Testament, which as we have seen is not a new concept, rather a clarification and reapplication of an existing concept.

The word ekklesia is used only used three times in the Gospels, all occurring in Matthew and all used by our Lord.  We will begin with an overview of these passages, some brief observations/questions, and follow up with more in-depth exposition in subsequent posts. The first passage is Matthew 16:18 within the context of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and Son of God

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” Matthew 16:13-20

Historically, this passage has been the source of two significant controversies concerning the understanding of church.  First, is the identification of the rock upon which Christ will build His church.  This interpretive controversy has led to no shortage of division, most notably between Protestants and Catholics.

The second controversy concerns the notion of a doctrine of the universal church.  What is it? Does it or Does it not exist?  This has had massive implications such as who belongs to the church and may find its origin in the 3rd and 4th centuries, most notably with Augustine and the Donatist Controversy.  Here is where a nuanced understanding of church vs. ekklesia will help navigate the waters of this controversy, which we will traverse in a future post.

Additionally, as we dive into this passage in subsequent posts, we must distinguish between this concept of ekklesia (church) and the kingdom of heaven, a matter of confusion that also has its source around the time of Augustine.  Also, we’ll need to look at to whom the “keys of the kingdom” have been given.  Relatedly, what is the “binding and loosing” that is here mentioned?  Answering these questions biblically, while avoiding the tangles of tradition, will aid greatly in identifying the form of Christ’s ekklesia.

The next two uses of ekklesia (church) in Matthew are both found in Matthew 18:17.  Here the context of is the confrontation of a sinning brother or sister for the purpose of bringing them to repentance.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:15-20

Here, it is often asserted that the use of ekklesia is substantially different than in the previous use, perhaps suggestive of a more specific application, which some have determined to be a reference to the local church.  For obvious reasons, if a universal church existed, it would be impossible to “tell it to the church” universally, so by necessary reasoning the scope of ekklesia here is often seen to be different and narrower.  However, we will need a closer examination and not merely assume that there is an implied difference between ekklesia found in Matthew 16 and here in Matthew 18, as so many have done before.

Next, we find an additional mention of binding and loosing, which would seem to be a clarification and indeed an application of the previous mention in Matthew 16.  Additionally, some have used this passage to promote a concept known as “church discipline”.  As we unpack these uses of ekklesia by our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew, this will be one of the issues we will need take up.  What situations warrant discipline?  Who is qualified to issue this discipline?

With these passages from Matthew introduced, we will turn our focus to the first controversial issue from Matthew 16, namely upon whom is the rock which Christ will build His ekklesia?