About Jesus    Steve Sweetman

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"Ekklesia" - The Church

When we use the word church in our modern society, what comes to our minds? Most likely we think of a building where Christians gather. Maybe we think of a church as a group of organized Christians, with a pastor, deacons, and so on. The question can be asked, when the first century Christians used the word "church", what came to their mind? What did they mean when using this word?

In our culture the word church has a narrow definition. That is, it is applied to Christians only, or possibly to a religious gathering. Church then is a religious word, which is not used in our secular society. Yet the Greek word "ekklesia" which we translate into our English word church has no such narrow definition. "Ekklesia" is derived from two other Greek words; "ek", meaning "out of", and "klesia", meaning "a calling". Thus a good definition for "ekklesia" is a group of "called out people", a smaller group separated from a larger group.

It is important to realize that in the first century "ekklesia" was not a Christian word. It was not even a religious word, as our word church is today. "Ekklesia", you might say, was a secular word. It was used for any type of gathering of people. Even in New Testament writings you can see "ekklesia" used in many different ways.

In Acts 19:39 "ekklesia" is translated as a "legal assembly" of Greeks. In Acts 19:32 "ekklesia" is translated as "an assembly" of Jewish leaders. In Acts 19:41 "ekklesia" is translated as an "assembly" in reference to an angry mob. So here we have this word translated three times in on chapter as "an assembly" of people, yet the assembly each time is a different group of people, all of which have nothing to do with the church, or religion.

The point is then made that "ekklesia" in its original usage had a much broader definition than our modern day word church. So does this mean anything to us as Christians today?

I think this distinction has much to say to us today. First of all we should note that when "ekklesia" is used in a Christian sense in the New Testament, it is used in a couple of different ways. In Rev. 3:1 (along with the other 6 churches mentioned in Rev.) "ekklesia" is used of all Christians in a particular city, in this case Sardis.

Note also in Rom. 16:3-5 that Pricilla and Aquila had a church, or "ekklesia" that met in their home. Could this be the only "ekklesia" or church in the city of Rome? Not likely.

So in the Christian usage of "ekklesia" we have a gathering of Christians in a whole city, or also a gathering of Christians in one small home.

So once again, what does this mean to us today? I think that we have placed to much emphasis on our English word church. We have narrowed its definition down to mean a group of "structured" Christians who meet in a building that some even go as far to call a church. In reality, the original usage of this word had a much broader definition. In my thinking the first Christians viewed church as merely "an assembly of Christians", no matter if it was a city wide assembly, or an assembly of people in a home. The assembly might have been ten people, or then thousand people. The assembly might have been organized or unorganized. It was merely a gathering of Christians.

Today we would not call a home Bible study group of 10 people a church, but really it is an "ekklesia". It is a gathering of Christians. It is a church, even though there may be no pastors and no deacons. It is an "ekklesia" according to the original definition of "ekklesia". It may not be a church according to our modern definition of church.

This may paint a different picture of what we view the church as being. Some say that there are many different churches in a city, many different denominations. Some say that there is only one true church in a city. Others say that there is only one real church in the world, and each city church is an expression of the world wide church. Yet if we use the first century definition of "ekklesia", and not our modern definition of "church" we should admit that church in any gathering of Christians, whether organized or unorganized, whether large or small.

As with other Biblical words we as Christians have Christianized many words to the degree that they have lost their original meaning. Church may just be one of those Christianized words, once having a broader meaning than its modern day counterpart. If this is the case then, we do not think in the same terms as the first century Christians did when it comes to church.

Church (ekklesia) is simply a gathering of Christians. Thatís it. Maybe we should think in terms of "a gathering of Christians", and not in terms "church".

One last note. There was another first century word that is often translated as "an assembly" and that is the Greek word, "synago". You might look at this word and think you recognize it. It is where we get our English word "synagogue". "Synago" was also a "gathering of people" but mostly used in Jewish terms in the first century.

Jesus could have said that "He would build His synago", but He did not choose to use this word. For some reason He said, "I will build my ekklesia". Why this was the case may be speculation. Possibly He wanted to use a more secular word because His assembly would not be taken just from His Jewish heritage. His assembly that He would build would be "a called out assembly from all nations of the earth". It would not be "religious", in nature, but "relational".

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