Tag Archives: What is the Church

Reviving the Doctrine of Church Studies

 

It’s been a few months since we visited our ongoing study regarding the form and function of church.  We left off with an introduction to the universal concept of church as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.  Recall that generally speaking, the doctrine of the universal church finds chief support in Matthew 16:18 as compared with Matthew 18:17, though as we’ll soon see, whether rightly or wrongly some other verses are brought into the mix for support as well.

Additionally, in that last post, we looked at three key issues which have been the source of debate and disagreement regarding the nature of a universal church theory.  They were:

  1. The theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering), the New Testamen Greek word that is translated as church in our English bibles..
  2. The theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.
  3. The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.

We left that post with anticipation of a historical look at this theory’s development and to hopefully determine whether any of these objections have merit.  That is where we find ourselves today, reviving our studies on the doctrine of the church.

In order to accomplish this historical review, we’ll lean heavily on the overview provided in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof who provides a succinct history on the doctrine of the church.  I’ll be quoting him extensively as a solid, well-respected, point of reference, but ultimately to show how some of the conclusions we may reach are not unique, but have at least been mentioned in times past.  It of course does not mean that by citing him that we necessarily have come to agreement with his conclusions.  Generally speaking, Berkhof’s conclusions are typical of the Reformed tradition.

By way of continuing our review, in order to resume our series here, and as an introduction to Berkhof, we will follow his outline beginning with a well thought out introduction to the meaning and use of ekklesia in the New Testament (Old Testament as well).  For an expanded study, our post on this issue may be found here: What is an Ekklesia?

Berkhof writes,

“The New Testament also has two words derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.”  The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jew or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.  The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies.” Pg. 555-556

As in our study, Berkof points out the two significant terms in the New Testament which find their roots in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), sunagoge (synagogue) and ekklesia, which as we’ve mentioned is translated into English as church.  After doubting the validity of deriving the meaning of ekklesia from the compound of ek and kaleo, Berkhof adds,

“Deissmann (1866-1937, German Protestant) would simply render ekklesia as ‘the (convened) assembly,’ regarding God as the convener.  Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation.  Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God.  It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel.  Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquitted various significations.  Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ.”

Here we may observe a few noteworthy points, namely the recognition that ekklesia refers to the “convened assembly” and that Christ’s use of ekklesia, from Matthew 16:18, alluded to those who were “convened” or gathered around Him.  That’s an important point that is often neglected and may aid to ones understanding of whether Matthew 16:18 is a universal church reference or not.  Remember that this particular verse is often championed as evidence of universal church, i.e. that Christ’s use of ekklesia here necessarily implies that He is talking about the whole community of God’s people.  Contrary to this, Berkhof is describing it as the actual fellowship of those around Him, beginning with the twelve.

After this, Berkhof begins his descriptions of these various uses or connotations of ekklesia in the New Testament, the first of which he discusses is the most frequent usage.  According to him the most frequently used meaning of ekklesia “designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship.”  Here, Berkhof concludes that an ekklesia may be an ekklesia, even if they are not actually gathered together.  Additionally, he concludes that regardless of whether they are gathered or not, geographic location is still a determinant factor.  He then lists several passages as examples for gathered and ungathered, which I’ve included below.[1] This of course brings up an interesting point of discussion, which we’ll take up another time, namely, is a church a church when it is not gathered.

The second use of ekklesia in the New Testament, he concludes, sometimes “denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual,” citing instances of this word in Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15, and Philemon 2.  Along a similar line, Berkhof notes that at least once, Acts. 9:31, the word is used in the singular to denote a collection of churches from Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.  This usage is a debated passage and as he points out, “this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination.”

His final two uses, again by way of review for our own study here, are critical towards understanding the issue at hand, namely whether it is accurate to speak of an universal church, and if so, what exactly this should refer to.  He states, “in a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.”  With some hesitancy, Berkhof suggests this is found in 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28 and possibly the intention for the use of ekklesia in Ephesians.  Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Matthew 16:18 as so many do, so we’ll need to examine these additional references if we’re to find evidence of a universal theory of church.  Finally, he states that the word in its “most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Savior.”  He cites some examples that I’ve listed below.[2]

Wit this point, let’s recall the actual meaning of the word under discussion here, namely ekklesia, which refers to a gathering and note too the most frequent usage cited above.  Would it therefore be proper or accurate to refer to the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, or whether or not they have been united to Christ or not (saved) as the ekklesia, i.e. church?

Summarizing then these uses of ekklesia in the New Testament, at least according to Louis Berkof, we have the following

  1. A convened assembly with God as Covener.
  2. First used by Christ in Matthew 16:18 – a reference to those convened about Him.
  3. A circle of believers in a definite geographic location.
  4. May or may not be gathered together (for worship), meaning that they may be called a church whether they are physically present together.
  5. Ekklesia in the New Testament often referred to a gathering in a particular house of an individual.
  6. Ekklesia may generally refer to the collected body of believers throughout the world.
  7. The most comprehensive meaning of ekklesia refers to the whole body of believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been united to Christ.

After giving an overview of how the meaning of the English word “church” was transferred to the use of ekklesia, which we looked at earlier in this post, Berkhof overviews other scriptural concepts that refer to the people of God (i.e. Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, New Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, Pillar and ground of the truth) and then opens up his section on The Doctrine of the Church in History.  Here is where we will pick up in the next post for the purpose of understanding how this concept of the universal church has developed in history.

In the meantime, you can get caught up on this series here:

[1]Assembled: Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28,35; Not assembled: Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14

[2]Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18,24

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?