In the book of Acts, there are several passages that can be used to argue for the use of “church” to refer to the universal body of all believers.
Immediately after Ananias and Sapphira’s punishments by death, Acts 5:11 states that “great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things.” Some have interpreted this to refer to the people of God in general. However, this is due to the presupposition with which one comes to the text. The context is clearly a specific local assembly, so there is no legitimate reason to abandon the original meaning of ekklesia.
In Acts 8:3, Saul is said to be “ravaging the church.” This has been understood to refer to the “universal church,” however, the context is “the church in Jerusalem” (8:1), so there is no reason to force this passage to mean anything but the local church in Jerusalem.
Now Acts 9:31 becomes slightly more difficult, and may legitimately be a case of an expanded, perhaps somewhat new, use of ekklesia. The passage refers to multiple churches throughout a region, yet uses the singular form ekklesia.
Several solutions have been offered regarding this passage. The first is to regard church as referring to the universal people of God. It has also been suggested that the singular form is possibly used here simply to mark the unified nature of the people of God.
There is also a textual variant in this passage in some of the manuscripts that would make this passage read “the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria.” Though the superior manuscripts tend to read as a singular here, this textual variant would deal with the issue in this passage. However, because this is unsure, we should allow for the use of a singular word here to refer to multiple local assemblies throughout Palestine.
Instead of necessarily thinking of this as referring to the concept of a “universal church,” though, it is possible to read this as referring to the institution of the local church. Asking what the word ekklesia means is a slightly different question than asking, “to what does the word ekklesia refer in a particular instance?” D.A. Carson makes the point that one cannot take the main meaning of a word and then apply a single connotation to every instance of the usage. The meaning of the word does not seem to essentially change, but what specifically that word is used to refer to can be different. It is critical to keep the context in mind in order to determine the referent.
In Acts 20:28, Paul encourages the elders from Ephesus to be on guard for themselves and “for all the flock,” and to “shepherd the church of God.” This may sound like a reference to the people of God in general, but taken in context, Paul is speaking specifically to the elders of the church in Ephesus, so we would expect them to take his statement as specifically referring to shepherding the church in Ephesus.
Note that in 1 Cor. 1:2, Paul calls the church in Corinth “the church of God at Corinth.” Obviously Paul does not mean that the assembly in Corinth is the only church of God. Nor does he mean that the church in Corinth is part of the church of God. Rather, any legitimate church, no matter where it assembles, belongs to God. So Acts 20:28, though the instruction can obviously be applied to every pastor in every church, refers specifically to the elders of a specific local church, namely, in Ephesus.
It is probably not entirely fair to say that the idea of a universal church (or at least a concept slightly different than the strict cultural contextual usage) is utterly absent in the book of Acts. However, it is certainly true that Luke does not explicitly teach or develop any concept contrary to or distinct from the common usage.
There are several verses throughout the rest of the New Testament, such as Colossians 1:18, 24, Ephesians 1:22-23, Ephesians 3:21, Ephesians 5:23-25, and 1 Timothy 3:15, which can be easily taken to refer to a universal church concept, and may have a broader application than the original cultural usage. However, because these passages are all written to specific local churches, these statements can also be understood to be personal instructions regarding that particular local church, and so we must not so readily abandon the cultural connotation of a local assembly. Another option though, similar to Acts 9:31, is that these passage are now referencing the concept of the local church as an institution (this seems to be an acceptable interpretation of Ephesians 3:10 as well). Roy Bowen Ward argues:
“At first it was a neutral term, devoid of any special doctrinal significance. But this word which meant ‘assembly’ now included the people who assembled, whether actually in an assembly or not. This assembly was something real; thus the first and most common usage was of a local church, i.e., where there was actually an assembling of the people. This usage is typical of Acts, of much of the Pauline epistles, of the general epistles, of the Revelation to John, and of many of the passages in the Apostolic Fathers. It had become in most of these passages the technical term to designate this new institution.”
I look forward to researching this subject more, especially once I have taken the language classes. But at the present time at least, it is my opinion that while the term ekklesia retains its original meaning of a local assembly throughout the New Testament, I believe it is used at times to refer to the concept of the local church as an institution of Christ, and in this way may be used more generally to refer to multiple local assemblies – possibly in a way that supersedes how the word was used in the Greco-roman world, but only in the referent to which it is applied (the institution of a new program), not in the essential meaning of the word as a local assembly.
References used in the study “What is the Church?”
Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1992.
Bousquet, David. Simply Put: truths of Heaven brought down to earth. Mustang, Okla.: Tate Pub., 2009.
Carson, D. A.. Exegetical Fallacies. 2nd ed. Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster ;, 1996.
Grudem, Wayne Systematic Theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
HCSB Study Bible. Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Bible Publishers., 2010.
Merkle, Benjamin L.. “The meaning of ‘Ekklēsia in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17.” Bibliotheca Sacra.
Roberts, J.W. “The meaning of ekklesia in the New Testament.” Restoration Quarterly.
Ward, Roy. “Ekklesia: a word study.” Restoration Quarterly.