The New Testament Use of Ekklesia – Part 2

In the previous post from our look at the New Testament use of ekklesia, our primary focus was on the majority report of uses for the word most often translated as church in English Bibles, namely those found in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation. There we were able to notice a pattern of usage, specifically that the wide majority of occurrences refer to local, plural, and independent ekklesiae. Without looking at every one of the remaining uses in Scripture, we can summarize by way of the patterns that we have seen so far, and then highlight any possible anomalies.

Most of the remaining occurrences in the rest of the New Testament deal primarily with either the local church singularly, for instance the assembly which is being addressed in a particular letter, or plurally with references to more than one church in a particular geographic area, i.e. “churches of Galatia.” That said, there is one additional use which we alluded to last time that becomes more evident in passages from Ephesians and Colossians, specifically Ephesians 1:22; 3:10; 3:21; 5:22-33 and a similar, parallel passage in Colossians 1:18-24.

Using Ephesians 1:22 to introduce this particular use, we find a use of ekklesia with reference to Christ as the head:
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 1:22-23
Here, it is certainly true that Christ is the head of church in Ephesus, however given the context it would appear that a much larger, more broader use is intended with the reference to the church/ekklesia as the body of Christ. The typical Protestant interpretation of this passage falls in line with that of other denominations, such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox, that sees this as a reference to the universal church. By that, they mean a general reference or banner over all churches throughout the world. We most often hear this universal church referred to as ‘The Church’. Of course, this introduces some difficulties which have attempted to be resolved by distinguishing a visible church from an invisible church. While I have written much on the historical development of the universal church (see here), summarily we need only to ask a couple of questions.

First, we must remember the meaning of ekklesia as a gathering or assembly. While an ekklesia may be referred to even if they’re not gathered, most often it is a direct reference to an actual assembly. Next, within the ekklesia there are those who lead the gathering, activities and expression of gifts, celebrations of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, testimony, edification of one another, much of which is summarized under the heading of fellowship. We need only to ask does any of this occur within the universal church? No, of course not. Not only has this universal church never gathered together, contra Roman Catholicism there is no universal leadership, nor fellowship where the above activities take place within a gathering.

A better explanation of our passage from Ephesians 1:22-23 above, including those other passages which refer to the church as the body of Christ, is to consider ekklesia in eschatological terms. By eschatological it is meant those things referring to the end or culmination of God’s redemptive plan of salvation. In other words, the church as the body of Christ is a done deal and ought to be viewed as the completion of God’s plan of salvation initiated before the foundation of the world particularly when considering the eschatological language in Ephesians 1:
  • He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him (Eph. 1:4)
  • In him we have obtained an inheritance (Eph. 1:11)
  • and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6)
As seen in those references above, eschatological language often states in the present what is guaranteed in the future. This is referred to as the already/not yet. For instance, above we see that, “In him we have obtained an inheritance,” which asserts the finality of our inheritance received in Christ. However, just a couple verses later we read that the Holy Spirit seals us and is the Guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it (Eph. 1:13-14). Our inheritance is already but not yet. The same is true when eschatological language is applied to the church (ekklesia). A reference to the church as the body of Christ is eschatological. It assumes the finality, purity, and completeness of the elect people of God gathered together in eternity in Christ. Christ has secured the redemption of His elect people through His shed blood on the cross. He has paid the ransom and bride-price for His bride, but that bride cannot be said to include unbelievers. It cannot be said of a general ekklesia, nor of a universal reference to all those that claim to be a church.

The use of church in a general or universal way often leads to confusion. Consider how often you have heard of The Church; that their are enemies in The Church; that The Church is infected with liberalism or social justice, or other uses such as The Evangelical Church, etc. Usage such as these and others are rarely defined, lump Christendom under the title of church, and fail to recognize the existence and significance of the eschatological ekklesia (church) and how it relates to the local independent ekklesia. In part 3, we will continue our look at ekklesia in Ephesians and draw out more of the eschatological nature of it, specifically in terms of already and not yet.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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