What is the Church? [2: the Greco-Roman ekklesia]

In the first post on the church, I laid out some basic hermeneutical principles to guide the study of the church. In today’s post, we’ll look at the cultural contextual usage of the word “church” in the time of the New Testament.

The New Testament word translated as “church” is the Greek “ekklesia.” In the Greco-roman world of the New Testament, ekklesia had a specific meaning. The ekklesia was an Assembly of voting citizens which would meet to discuss affairs of the state (or city), very much like a city council. The very nature of the Assembly was that it was local. It was a function of geographic locality.

I will also note that I do not think that the etymology of ekklesia plays a major role in the interpretation of its meaning. I do not think it is legitimate to point out the etymology as meaning to “call out,” and arrive at the conclusion that the word simply means Christian are to be called out or separate from the world. Others think it refers to salvation, as God calls people out of the world to save them. Thus, anyone who is saved is part of the church. However, this ignores the historical context in which the word was used to mean the assembling of a specific group of people – full citizens – in a specific location, for a specific purpose (dealing with public affairs, commissioning the military, etc.).

Nor do I think however, that it would be legitimate to say that the etymology plays no part in the establishing of the meaning, and that one should only look at the usage in the historical context. To me, it seems the usage in the historical context, and the etymology, are not mutually exclusive. If ekklesia refers to an assembly of citizens to vote on decision and discuss governmental affairs etc., then when the assembly was to be convened, the citizens would be “called out” from the people to the meeting. Before people assemble, there is a summons. Therefore, I do see the etymology playing a role in the meaning, but not in the sense of Christian separation from the world, but rather simply that we are speaking of a summoned, called together assembly. Craig Blomberg comments on this in his commentary on Matthew:

“The popular view that the church is somehow to separate itself from society, based on the derivation of ekklesia from ekkaleo (to call out) affords a classic example of what linguists call the etymological fallacy. Words often develop meanings over time that differ from their roots. The only sense in which the word church in New Testament times means those who are called out is that believers routinely gather together by leaving their separate places of residence or work.”

Many Christians view the New Testament as teaching the concept of another type of ekklesia – a universal, or invisible church. Others argue though, that this entity would then only be an ekklesia in name, but not at all in function, as it cannot be assembled, cannot meet for worship, and cannot carry out certain obligations (take church discipline as a simple example). If the concept of the universal church exists, the fact that it is so radically different from what the New Testament world would have called an ekklesia demands that we accept this interpretation only if the New Testament demands it of us. That is the principle that will guide the examination of specific Scripture passages.

We’ll look at some specific passages of Scripture next time, to examine the development of the concept in the New Testament.

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