Called Out

Term has started and study is underway. This week I have learned a few things about the word ekklesia. That’s the word translated as ‘church’ in our Bibles.

Some people, who want to sound very clever about ekklesia, can sometimes start going on about the ‘root meaning’ of it. I have probably done so myself. The ‘root meaning’ is discovered by cracking open the word and examining the fragments. So, they say, it comes from the preposition ek and the verb kaleo which mean, respectively, ‘out of’ and ‘to call’. So, the astute thinker puts two and two together and gets the doctrine of election.

What? Well, ekklesia must mean ‘the called out ones’ – it is the root meaning, isn’t it? There you have it – the church is God’s “called out ones”!

Well, not quite. The answer is four-ish. The conclusion is OK, but the line of reasoning is not. If the line of reasoning were valid then every use of ekklesia would refer to God’s ‘called out ones’. However, look at Acts 19:32. The rioting crowd is called ekklesia. Are they God’s ‘called out ones’? No.

They were called out in another sense. They were called out of the genneral rush of society to be in that particular meeting with Paul. But that’s all! This points to the more general use of the word in the 1st century. It simply meant ‘assembly’ and could be used in a variety of situations.

This does not mean that ekklesia is evacuated of its theological significance. But that significance does not derive from its ‘root meaning’. Rather, it derives from how the word is used in the Bible. In other words, ekklesia acquires its significance for the people of God from its context.

More later … possibly …

Called Out

5 thoughts on “Called Out

  1. Alastair says:

    We should recognize that the word ekklesia had a well-established meaning in the first century. The ekklesia was the sovereign assembly of citizens of the polis and basileia. It was also language used of Israel.

    By calling the Church the ekklesia, the apostles were declaring the presence of an alternative ruling body within the walls of existing cities and the presence of a new kingdom.

    I do not believe that the ‘theological’ sense of the ‘called out’ is the primary sense at all (a number of scholars disagree with the argument that the term actually derives from this). Rather the primary sense is the political one of ‘ruling assembly’, or something like that.

  2. Stephen says:

    Hey Al, how are things?

    I am glad you have filled out the cultural background. I see that the ancient Greeks had ekklesia as their vehicle for democracy (see this Wikipedia entry.) However I am unhappy with your assertion that the apostles picked up this Hellenistic concept and applied it to the Church. As you note, there is an OT background to the word, but it does not seem to be the same concept at all.

    Are you not in danger of falling into the trap that the ‘root-meaning’-ists (!) fall into – importing an idea and laying it over the text?

  3. Alastair says:

    I’m doing well, thanks. Freshers’ week has just finished. I start into lectures tomorrow morning.

    I am not claiming that the apostles simply picked up a Hellenistic concept. The word ekklesia was also used of the assembly of Israel.

    I do not think that the two concepts are unrelated, and not merely because someone like Josephus or Luke uses the same Greek word to refer to both. The word is also used in the sense of gathered assembly in the Septuagint. The gathered assembly almost invariably was called together for political or covenantal reasons. Certain people, although they were permitted to be part of Israel’s general life, were not permitted to enter the assembly/church (Deuteronomy 23:1) and become part of the covenantal/political assembly. I think that the concept here is very similar to that of the Greek ekklesia — ruling assembly.

    The Church is the assembly of the firstborn. The gathered meeting of the Church is God’s council meeting. We are the ruling assembly of the covenant people, both as the local Church (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5-6) and as the universal Church (Hebrews 12).

    We have a greater role than the old covenant ruling assembly. In the OT only prophets were truly permitted to become part of God’s council meetings (e.g. Genesis 18:16ff; Isaiah 6; Amos 3:7). Even in the case of the prophets, they were only at the status of the angels.

    In the NT the people of God are no longer junior members of God’s council. In Christ we have been given the authority to bind and loose, to forgive and retain sins. We have the keys of the kingdom. We will judge angels.

    Christ calls His disciples His ‘friends’ because He told them everything that He heard from His Father (John 15:15). The word ‘friend’ does not mean ‘pal’ or ‘buddy’. It refers to someone who is given the status of chief council member, privy to everything that goes on in the court. When the Bible speaks about David and Job’s ‘friends’, this is what is meant (the fact that Job was a king is not picked up by many — Job 29).

    Once this background is appreciated I think that drawing a connection between the ‘secular’ usage of the term and the ‘religious’ usage of the term makes perfect sense. Of course, there was no secular realm at that time. The political assembly in most Greek cities was gathered around a shared sacrificial meal. They would not have been blind to the fact that the Church, gathered around a different sacrificial meal, was in some sense a genuine rival, the assembly of a new city within existing cities.

  4. Stephen says:

    Al, thanks for taking the time. I am happy with the assembly in the OT being covenantal. This seems to be an obvious ‘foreground’ idea in scripture. I have to admit I have never seen the assembly as one of political rule. I can see a connection with the political entity, Israel, but I am suspicious that there is eisegesis going on. More study required!

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