ek•kle•si•a

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?

don_sig2

Notes:

  1. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 454–455. []
  2. Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 456. []

Comments

  1. T. Pennock says:

    Don,
    About six months ago I concluded a series of studies on the church local and universal. I couldn’t agree with you more concerning your definition. Early on in my ministry I tried to limit the church to merely its local expression. But atter a few years, and some more detailed study, I came to see the church in both its local and universal expressions. I know good men differ here. Yet the local-universal position answers for more questions than it raises and allows Scripture to speak without coercion.

    tjp

    • Hi TJP

      I know good men hold tenaciously to the Local Only view. I don’t understand what advantage it has, other than to be thoroughly Biblical in the minds of those who hold it. They apparently don’t see the Universal aspect. In any case, the thing Ryrie pointed out to me in this recent study struck me as quite significant. The Lord and the apostles took the word church and adapted it for our use, making the concept so much more than a mere gathering of like-minded individuals on certain occasions.

      Ryrie thinks the term Invisible is not useful as a synonym for Universal, but he has an intermediary term between Universal and Local: Visible. This encompasses basically professing Christendom made up of local churches. It is interesting, I may write up something on that later.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Ox-ling says:

    Very interesting word study supporting both the local and universal church. While I agree the Scripture teaches these concepts, it is sad to see and hear of professing Christian individuals who take that truth that “the church still exists as a corporate entity, whether assembled or not” and use it to support the un-Biblical practice of having a “house church” without a formal pastor or with little adherence to the guidelines in Scripture for the church’s order.

    • T. Pennock says:

      Ox-ling,

      Very true. Scripture requires believers to submit themselves to recognized elders in a local assembly and to obey them. Lone Ranger-type Christians and gatherings, apart from recognized bishops and deacons, is unknown in the NT.

      tjp

  3. Don … used on Sharper Iron here. Thanks for your article

  4. Agreed with the article. Hiscox’s discussion in his “Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches” is particularly interesting, and in line with what you say here.

  5. I also agree with the article, Don.
    There are a number of pockets of “local church only” in the Midwest.
    Dr. Richard Paige, when he was head of the Minnesota Baptist Association (MBA) wrote a book called “The Church Christ Built” in the 1980′s. This book advocated an almost complete “local church only” position.

    • Thanks. I’m just waiting for some of my good friends who disagree to weigh in. I’m sure they will have something to say.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Don wrote: “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.”

    Ok, so when has your universal church assembled at all? Your comparison doesn’t, uh, compare…

    • Bobby, I think that’s my point. Read what I said carefully. The genius of the New Testament church is that it exists without assembly.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

      • T. Pennock says:

        Don,

        Yes, the genius of the One Body is that it’s always assembled, always together. It’s permenently joined together (assembled) by the one Spirit with Christ as its Head. Thus the church in Heaven is one with the church on earth. There’s no dichotomy here. And the church in Europe is one with the church in Amercia. That is, all true believers form the ONE BODY OF CHRIST and are assembled in Christ. The local assembly is merely a refection of that. I’m not sure why that’s so difficult to grasp.

        tjp

        tjp

      • Ok Bobby, you’ve had a say. If you want to put forward an argument from Scripture without the emotional rhetoric, I’ll approve it. But if it is just more of the same it will get trashed.

        To start with, perhaps you could explain why the “local only” position is important.

        Maranatha!
        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

  7. Bobby says:

    So the local church that Jesus walks in the midst of, that is called the “pillar and ground of the truth,” that has been given the ordinances and the Great commission, that is responsible to maintain discipline . . . is “merely a reflection” of your big church in the sky, TJP. Not difficult to grasp, just not Scriptural. You can have your catholic church. I’ll stick with what the Bible reveals.

    • T. Pennock says:

      Bobby,

      There’s nothing you say here that any Scripturally-grounded universal church advocate doesn’t accept. So what’s your point?

      tjp

  8. Huw Thomas says:

    The accurate interpretation of ecclesia in the NT usage is simple. A congregation or an assembly of people, called out people. Called out of the world/eon and into the Kingdom that has been preached. An assembly or congregation, not of this world., but of a people that have been called out to serve and to worship.

  9. Very good and helpful article. It has helped me as I explain the concept of church to our new believers here in Brazil. Thanks!

  10. Not “either/or” but both….
    The local church IS “the pillar and ground of the truth” in Timothy. The context is that of a local church with pastors, deacons, etc. The churches that Christ walks among in Rev. 2-3 are local churches. But that does not mean that there is not a universal church.
    The question is “which one is primary in our day?” I would say that God has given authority of discipline, structured leadership, etc. to the local church and that it ought to be primary for a believer.
    The church is BOTH an organism (body) and organization (assembly).

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