Ekklēsia is a strange word for early Christians to choose for church. It was used for political gatherings, not religious ones. They had words for religious meetings (synagōgē) or general gatherings (e.g. sullogos). Why ekklēsia?
It’s odd enough to choose this word for a local church meeting, such as “the ekklēsia that meets in your home” (Philemon 2). But it’s beyond odd to use this word for something that is not a local assembly, such as “the ekklēsia throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (Acts 9:31).
How did this usage arise? Let’s start with what ekklēsia meant before Christians borrowed it.
In the Greek world, an ekklēsia was a political assembly:
In classical Greek as well as in Hellenistic literature, it became a technical expression for the assembly of the people, consisting of free men entitled to vote.
—Balz, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament 1:411.
Ekklēsia has this sense in Acts 19. The silversmiths of Ephesus feared they’d be ruined if people believed Paul’s message and no longer wanted idols, so they orchestrated an assembly (ekklēsia) in defence of their local god:
Acts 19 32 The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. …
35 The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: … 39 “If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly.” … 41 After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. (NIV)
In the Jewish world, ekklēsia meant a secular assembly too. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the LXX), they used synagōgē for religious meetings and ekklēsia for political or secular assemblies:
In the LXX ἐκκλησία is a wholly secular term.
—Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 3:527.
Ekklēsia turns up most often in post-exilic books like Chronicles, where it usually refers to an assembly gathered around the king:
1 Chronicles 13 2 [David] said to the whole assembly of Israel, … 3 “Let us bring the ark of our God back …” 4 The whole assembly agreed to do this, because it seemed right to all the people. (NIV)
1 Chronicles 29 1 Then King David said to the whole assembly …
10 David praised the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly, …
20 Then David said to the whole assembly, “Praise the Lord your God.” So they all praised the Lord, the God of their fathers; they bowed down, prostrating themselves before the Lord and the king.
So ekklēsia is a political term, but Israel had no concept of separating church and state. The king was the anointed representative of the Lord. So if the king was doing his job, he directed the attention of the ekklēsia that gathered around him towards their true sovereign.
Now, Chronicles paints a somewhat idealized picture of David and Solomon, minimizing their mistakes and emphasizing what they did right. You can understand why: this is after the exile, when Israel has fallen in a hole, and the Chronicler’s agenda promotes the restoration of “all Israel” (x 47 times). They long for the restoration of Israel as the nation under divine reign, led by God’s anointed (the Davidic king). This king would gather the scattered nation back together as one people under one king, a united assembly under YHWH — the way it used to be when a son of David ruled:
2 Chronicles 6 3 While the whole assembly of Israel was standing there, the king turned around and blessed them. …
12 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel and spread out his hands. 13 … He stood on the platform and then knelt down before the whole assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven.
Do these examples of how ekklēsia was used in the Jewish world provide clues as to why the first Christians adopted the word?
Theologians regularly puzzle over the relationship between the kingdom of God and the church. But what if early Christians understood the significance of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God, recognized him as the king (Lord, ruler, anointed), and chose a political word to describe how they gathered around the king?
That would explain not only the use of a political word for a local gathering. Since the resurrected and ascended king is not limited to one location, it would also be the perfect word to describe the assembly of King Jesus as a phenomenon spread around the globe.
If that’s right, it could shape our understanding of what the church is and what we’re meant to do. Church becomes less about meeting for an hour each week, and more about the people who implement the reign of King Jesus in his world, functioning together to care for people our king cares for, to ensure no one misses out, to release the captives into life under his reign, so the poor receive the kingdom, the crushed are comforted, and the meek inherit the earth.
What picture do you see when you hear the word church? The assembly of people who inhabit God’s reign, under his anointed, the people who reunite as humanity under his kingship?
What others are saying
Gordon D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 79–80:
First, avoid the danger of becoming “derivation happy.” To put it simply, to know the etymology, or root, of a word, however interesting it may be, almost never tells us anything about its meaning in a given context. For example, the word ἐκκλησία (church) indeed derives from ἐκ + καλέω (“to call out from”), but by the time of the NT that is not within its range of meanings. And in any case, NT usage had already been determined by its prior use in the LXX, where it was consistently used to translate the term “the congregation” of Israel. Therefore, it does not mean “the called-out ones” in any NT context.
Update 2022-04-18: Gordon Fee quote added.
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