Category Archives: Church/Ecclesiology

What is an Ekklesia?

 

 

We have been slowly working our way through a study of church, or what some may call the doctrine of the church, simply stated, ecclesiology.  In this series thus far we’ve looked at:

We turn now from the English word church to the word used in the original Koine Greek, ekklesia.  After working through the meaning of ekklesia, we’ll need to ask whether the meaning and use of church corresponds accurately with ekklesia, whether church conveys the meaning of ekklesia, and what our Lord intended by using ekklesia over a similar word, sunagogue (synagogue).

In biblical translations, we arrive at our English equivalents in one of two ways: 1. Transliteration, or simply the English letter equivalent 2. Translation, inserting the near English equivalent in the place of the original language word.

In our Bible translations however, particularly English, this can be tricky because no word in the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) has a single word that corresponds to its meaning.  There is usually a range (semantic range) of words and context is the best guide to determining which word fits best.  So even the best, formal equivalency (attempted word-for-word) translations have a bit of interpretation in them.

Sometimes we use transliterated words (our English letter equivalents and the Greek words you see here because I don’t have Greek fonts) from the original biblical languages in our modern parlance, such as Hallelujah or Messiah or Christ.  However, our usage doesn’t always match the words meaning:  Hallelujah = Praise Yahweh; Messiah = Anointed; but sometimes they are closer as in Christos = Christ.  Other common transliterated words in our New Testament are, Apostle (apostelos), Angel (angelos), Baptism (baptismo), Evangelist (euangeli), and Deacon (diakonos).  Note that these words have not necessarily been translated into an English equivalent, but because they are transliterated instead, they carry their original meaning over, sometimes avoiding unnecessary replacement, but sometimes failing to communicate the actual meaning, as in baptismo= immersion.

Our English word “church” is the most common translation of the Greek word ekklesia.  As Mounce’s dictionary affirms we find his definition of ekklesia as “church, congregation, assembly.”  Since ekklesia is the transliteration of the original Greek word, we can see clearly that it has no transliteration relationship with church.  Ekklesia is sometimes said to mean “the called out ones”, because it is a compound of ek (out of) and kaleo (called), while possible, it’s not entirely accurate.  We know that the combination of words into one doesn’t necessarily convey the meaning, as in our English words butterfly or greenhouse.

Likewise we can see that the other possibilities (semantic ranges) given by Mounce could have a greater bearing on what this word ekklesia actually means, neither a location, building, or event but rather an assembly or gathering.

Ekklesia is used as a noun ~114 times in the New Testament, first appearing canonically in Matthew 16:18.  Our Lord was not novel is His declaration to build an ekklesia, rather He was using or perhaps clarifying the Old Testament use and understanding of ekklesia.  Were you aware that the word so often translated as “church” was used in the Old Testament some 100 times?

In the Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint (LXX), ekklesia is the most common translation of the Hebrew word qahal, meaning “assembly” or “to assemble”.  Of the 162+/- occurences of qahal (or maqhel), ~96 times it is translated as ekklesia.  However, qahal can also be translated as sunagogue or what we know as the transliterated word synagogue.  This translation choice for qahal occurs ~45 times in the Septuagint.  Commenting on the OT use of qahal, Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology, writes, “[Qahal] properly denotes the actual meeting together of the people.” (p. 555).  In other words, qahal wasn’t abstract, but took place when the people actually met together.

The remaining translations of qahal occur in a variety of ways.  As an aside, note how we have come to recognize the transliteration of synagogue and keep it in our English translations, but ekklesia is conspicuously absent.  It’s worth pointing out that unlike church, ekklesia doesn’t carry a specifically religious connotation, it simply means gathering or assembly (see Acts 19:32, 39, 41; now why isn’t it translated church in these verses!?!).  It gains its religious meaning when the phrase “of God” or “of Christ” is attached or implied.  We might say for our purposes that ekklesia simply means an assembly of God in Christ.

Ekklesia is used in at least of couple of different ways in the New Testament which has caused no little amount of tension.  As well as being used in the singular (church) and plural (churches), it’s use in the aforementioned Matthew 16:18 seems to be generic or what some have called a universal sense.  While it’s next use, the only other occurrence in the Gospels seems to be more specific, carrying a local application, Matthew 18:16.

Kittle, writing in volume 3 of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament writes, “From the time of Thuc. [Thucydides, 460-395 B.C.], Plat. [Plato, 428-348 B.C.], and Xenoph. [Xenophon, 430-354 B.C.], and especially in inscriptions, ekklesia is the assembly of the demos [people, mass of people assembled in a public place] in Athens and in most Greek poleis [cities].  The etymology is both simple and significant.  The citizens are the ekkletoi, i.e., those who are summonsed and called together by the herald.”

Think again how we use the word church in our modern vernacular and even in the definition of church itself and ask whether it fits with what we’ve seen regarding ekklesia. As we saw, typically church means a people or building belonging to the Lord, but has also been applied to denominations, events, institutions, even businesses.  Ekklesia simply means an assembly or gathering.  Ekklesia is never used in reference to a building, ever.  Also, implied in the meaning of an assembly or gathering is a plurality, not individuality.

Translating ekklesia as church may have seemed like a fine idea if one is wanting to convey the idea of “belonging to the Lord”, but as we have seen so far, that is simply not the meaning of ekklesia and church is now a loaded term with baggage.  It would have been acceptable in our example we looked at last time from Revelation 1:10, John was in the Spirit on the church day, but not as a translation of ekklesia.

Our other word used in the original Greek, sunagogue (synagogue), seems to have overlapping meaning with ekklesia, i.e. they can both mean a gathering.  However, unlike ekklesia, synagogue can also refer specifically to a building, or the place where the gathering takes place.  On a surface level, it would appear that our English word church may more appropriately be related to synagogue, rather than ekklesia, particularly when we consider that synagogue carries with it a religious meaning.

However, let us be reminded that our Lord stated specifically in Matthew 16:18 that He would build His ekklesia, not His synagogue.  Both have meaning in the Old Testament, only one, synagogue, carries with it a specifically religious connotation as well as a strict geographic location that would have been easily recognized as such in the first century.  Ekklesia was much more generic, carrying with it the idea of a city council or local government.  Are these difference merely pedantic?  Or does understanding the meaning of church, ekklesia, and synagogue, respectively, influence the form or function of what we have come to call and participate in as church?

Let’s conclude with a final word from Kittle in his NT Theological Dictionary after stating that the use of assembly or gathering may be a more accurate way to translate ekklesia, “This does not mean that we should banish the words ‘Church’ and ‘congregation’ from our vocabulary. Apart from the impossibility of such an undertaking, there would be no sense in forfeiting the wealth of meaning proper to these terms. What is needed is that we should grasp the precise significance of the word ekklesia, since at this point linguistic sobriety will help us to the true meaning and bearing from the standpoint of biblical theology.”

Two main questions remain: 1. If it’s not the best-fit translation, how or why did church make it into our English bibles? 2. What, if anything, is the significance of all this?

What is Church?

 

What is Church? (notice I’ve left out the article “the” commonly placed in front, The church)

Since 2014, this is a question that I have been wrestling with, wading through the slough of opinions and the trappings of tradition to look at what Scripture has to say.  Some have considered this to be an inappropriate question to even consider, yet it is the same question asked by James Bannerman in his magnum opus The Church of Christ and it is the same question asked by Edmund Clowney in his own study of the Doctrine of the Church.  Pick up any systematic theology, turn to the chapter on church, and they’ll begin with the same question-any proper study of the Church must begin with this question.  In fact, on a more basic, practical level, every believer must ask and further define this question based on Scripture to know what it is they are to participate in and how.

Why is it important?  Understanding this question and answering it according to Scripture determines whether you are Roman Catholic or Protestant or other for that matter.  It determines whether you include as God’s people: all of the elect of God, or simply those post-Pentecost, i.e. whether there are Two Peoples or One People of God.  It determines what denomination you identify with and whether you believe in credo-baptism vs. paedo-baptism.  It answers whether the church is the Kingdom.  If you are a Millennial and have “left the church”, properly answering this question lets you know your actions are an impossibility.  It brings resolution to many of the dichotomies that exist in matters of religion, particularly those who identify with or at least outwardly profess Christ.

On a practical level, a dear friend of mine recently left Christianity for the Roman Catholic Church (<–see that?) because she thought the church out of Rome was more biblical because it was older, historic, and built upon the apostles (no, no, and no).  Further, the “Bible Answer Man” recently left Christianity for the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church (<–see that again?) because he too came to view the answer to “What is church?” as being in-line with the EOCC.  In just these examples, the creep of tradition is evident.

Asking this question matters.  Answering it biblically matters more.

We may be easily tempted to shrug off a question like this or to simply assume that church is what it has always been.  But notice how that assumption played out in the examples above.

What if our modern conception of church, i.e. what we see and have experienced, is not what Scripture has defined?  Then what?  What if over the centuries we have, perhaps even unknowingly, allowed the layers of tradition to creep in and obscure what church really is or supposed to be?  I would suggest that largely our individual understanding of church has most often been influenced by our experience, followed closely by society, with Scripture well down the line behind family and preference.

Case in point, consider how you would answer the following questions:

  • Is church primarily a location? (architectural)
  • Is church primarily an event? (institutional)
  • Is church primarily an identity? (congregational)
  • Or is it a combination of all three?

The source for answering these questions should be Scripture, as the final authority in matters of faith and practice (Sola Scriptura) and where we should turn principally.  But what happens if we do that and find something different than what we are used to seeing?  Are we willing to change what we think and do to be more inline with what God has revealed?  If we find this to be the case, it would require a certain amount of swimming upstream, against the popular tide and we know the purpose of salmon swimming upstream.

Consider now how we use the word church particularly in the West.  What church do you go to?  Did you go to church on  Sunday?  How was church this morning?  We are just getting out of church.  Would you like to go to church with me?  There’s Purpose-Driven Church,  The Emerging Church, the aforementioned Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, the Mormon (LDS) Church, The Church of England, the Southern Baptist Church, the Ecumenical Church. We build churches, plant churches, reform and revitalize churches.  We have un-churched, de-churched, and churched.  As I look out my window at work I see 5 “churches”.  If I were to ask someone to walk down the block to the next church, they would stop at a building.  Relatedly, we have terms like church staff, church secretary, church membership, someone who cleans the church, church maintenance, church budget, church mortgage, and increasingly popular is the notion that an individual can be the church….and on we go.  The variety and meaning with which we use the word church is broad.  Just simply look at the dictionary definition used in the post header.

Perhaps we have let our use of the word church determine its meaning, not all to uncommon these days where we can make words mean what we want. Contrary to this thought, words do have defined meaning and origin.  This is true across the board, but most certainly with biblical words, sometimes those found in our translations, but more importantly those found in the original biblical languages.  A wise man once told my my interpretation is only as good as my translation.  A thought to ponder for another day.

Before we take time to examine the etymology of church and more importantly how it is defined in Scripture, simply consider whether this question is an important one to raise.  Is it important for us to know what (or who) church is?  Is it important for us to biblically define what many of us have been apart of for most of our lives?

An additional reason for why this question matters is that it effects how one addresses these points on the form and function of church:

  • The mission of church
  • The governance of church
  • The people of church
  • The “marks” of church
  • The order or operation of church

Each of these depends on properly answering the question, what is church?

In summary, can we come up with a loose understanding of what church is based on some of the scattered thoughts above about how church is used in our modern vernacular?  It may look something like below:

Church is _______________

  • A religious building
  • A religious organization (may or may not be truly Christian)
  • A religious meeting
  • A religious people
  • A religious institution
  • A recurring religious event
  • A particular religious denomination
  • A tax-exempt religious business

*Note: I’ve simply used the word “religious” to highlight that church is never used in a generic sense (or at least rarely), but that it carries a certain religious connotation.  This isn’t a post about Jesus being anti-religion or that Christianity is about a relationship and not a religion.*

In the next post, we’ll look at the origin of the word church and whether or not its usage corresponds with the Greek word ekklesia, translated as as church in the English bibles.

 

 

 

Thinking about Church

 

Since 2014, I’ve had ebbs and flows in my thoughts regarding the church.  When I lay aside these studies, they inevitably come back seeking further clarity and resolution until I grow weary and lay them down again.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

In that year, I was taking a seminary course called the Doctrine of the Church where we looked at every single use of “church” in the Scriptures.  Note that I didn’t simply say use of church in the New Testament.  That’s because the Greek word, ekklesia, translated church in our English Bibles (a poor translation by the way), is also in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) quite frequently.  It is a common translation of the Hebrew word qahal, which our English Bibles translate as assembly or congregation (hold on to that).

So the concept of ekklesia, or what we read translated as church, is not an entirely New Testament idea.  We must also allow the Old Testament to inform our understanding of how we define church.  Want a practical implication of this?—How often have you been taught that the church was formed at Pentecost?  Really?  Then we need to explain how the church was in the wilderness with Moses, as described by Stephen in Acts 7:38 as well as the more than 100 times ekklesia appears in the Greek Septuagint.  There is both continuity and discontinuity from Old to New Testaments regarding ekklesia.

I’ll hope to unpack all this in the future, but for now I simply want to lay out some thoughts or better, questions, much like I did in the post “Who or What determines how you worship?”  As there, so also here, the Scriptures must be our final authority.

  1. What is an ekklesia?
  2. What is the church? A building, event, identity, or other (denomination)?
  3. Does church require a building?
  4. Can we leave the church?
  5. Can you become a member of a church?
  6. Who runs the church?
  7. Is the church a 501c organization?
  8. Is the church universal?
  9. Is the church invisible?
  10. Is the church an institution?
  11. Is church history monolithic?
  12. Is Christ building His church eschatological?
  13. What does Christ intend to communicate to Peter (and us) by the statement, “Feed my sheep”?
  14. Is there a biblical distinction or hierarchy between clergy and laity?
  15. Are “pastors” the only preachers?
  16. What is preaching?
  17. What is teaching?
  18. Is pastoring a profession/vocation?
  19. Is a formal seminary education required to “pastor” or preach?
  20. Is church a worship service?
  21. Is church participatory or non-participatory?
  22. What are the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 on our churches?
  23. Where did our modern expression of church come from, Scripture or tradition?
  24. Can we build a church?
  25. Can we plant a church?

What about you?  What are you thoughts on church?  Have you thought about it with Scripture as your guide?  Have you wrestled with what you see versus what Scripture describes?  Have you ever stopped to ask, wait…now why are we doing this?

My goal is not to ask why as an end to itself.  My goal is to more conform my life to the Word of Almighty God and participate in His ekklesia as He has directed.