I’ve been doing a little study on the term ekklesia recently. That’s the Greek term translated ‘church’ in the New Testament (at least most of the time). The word is important to Baptists because of the prominence of eccliesiology (the doctrine of the church) to the Baptist distinctives.
In secular Greek usage, the term was not used as a religious term. Charles Ryrie says it was a political term.
It did not refer to the people but to the meeting; in other words, when the people were not assembled formally they were not referred to as an ekklesia.1
We have this usage in the New Testament, both referring to the assembly following the riot in Ephesus, Acts 19.32 and Acts 19.41. When the group disbursed, it no longer was an assembly (ekklesia).
There is one reference in the New Testament where the word is used to refer to the Jewish “congregation” – the nation of Israel – in the wilderness, assembled to receive God’s law (Acts 7.38).
Every other use of the word in the New Testament refers to the Christian church in one way or another. And it is the apostles who add a nuance to the word that makes its use distinctly Christian and completely different from the secular Greek usage. Again from Ryrie, this distinction is made:
the people themselves, whether assembled or not, are the ekklesia.2
The members of the Christian church do not cease to be members of the church when they are disbursed to their own homes. The church still exists as a corporate entity, whether assembled or not.
This distinction seems to be born out by Thayer in his lexicon. On the secular use, he says:
an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberating
On the Christian use he has much more, but among his descriptions he says:
a. an assembly of Christians gathered for worship …
b. a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal Salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake; aa. those who anywhere, in city or village, constitute such a company and are united into one body:
Why is this New Testament development important?
Well, there is a notion among many of my friends that there is no such thing as a universal church. They deny that Ephesians 1.22-23, 1 Corinthians 12.13 and Heb 12.23 refer to anything approaching a universal body of believers that includes all believers from all ages in one spiritual union, the church.
One of the arguments made against the concept of the universal church is that it has never assembled and it cannot assemble in the present age.
However, the New Testament concept of the church teaches that the church is still the church whether assembled or not. That is true of my local church. We don’t cease to be who we are when we go home on Sunday afternoon. In a sense, I think this is true because through the unity of the Spirit, we are always assembled.
But isn’t this true of the universal whatsit as well? Consider Heb 12.23 in particular. The saints in heaven are called the “church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (NAS), “the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven” (KJV).
If they are the church, and we who are saints on earth are the church, is it safe to call the universal whatsit … The Church?