The majority of uses of ekklesia (“church”) in the New Testament are clearly references to local churches. However, there are some passages that will shed extra light on whether we are to understand the church in the New Testament as referring to a purely local assembly, or something more universal. We will very briefly look at a few of those passages now.
The question that will structure how we will discuss these passages is this: “Is there anything about this passage that forces me to compromise or abandon what the cultural conceptual antecedent would have made me expect the hearer to understand?” If there is nothing to absolutely require this, then we will maintain the original cultural concept of a local assembly.
In Matthew 16:18, Christ says He will build His church. This is the first mention of the church in the New Testament, and is likely the first time Jesus mentioned it to His disciples. As such, we must bring to it the connotation that the original hearers would have understood. This does not mean that Christ could not have meant something somewhat different or expanded than what His disciples understood, but it does mean they would not have taken it that way naturally.
Roy Bowen Ward argues that Christ did not use the word ekklesia at all, but rather used an Aramaic word for assembly, not having the technical application of ekklesia that would exclude it from being used to refer to the whole people of God. Then, by the time Matthew penned his gospel, the word ekklesia had expanded to be used in this universal sense, which is why Matthew then used ekklesia to translate whatever word Jesus really used.
However, if Jesus used a word that in Aramaic meant something that could be translated to ekklesia, the disciples may have still carried over the cultural connotations of ekklesia. Also, later in Matthew 18:17, Jesus is discussing “church discipline” and says to “tell it to the church.” This fits precisely with the cultural contextual usage of the assembly; thus, if the disciples suspected they were to understand something different/new about Jesus’ church in 16:18, this certainly would have dissuaded any such suspicion, and relegated them to understanding the church as a local assembly of citizens in the original sense.
Next time, we will look at the development of the ekklesia in the rest of the New Testament.