Uses of Ekklesia in the New Testament

My old friend Paul made a comment in an earlier post which has prompted this entry. There, speaking of Christian entities or institutions Paul said,

After all Scripture seems to recognise only two of importance – the universal Church and the local Church.

Paul rightly identifies that the only ‘entity’ that scripture recognises is the church. However, it seems to me there are at least four, possibly five, ways in which the New Testament uses the word ekklesia, translated as ‘church’, which I thought I would just list here:

  1. The majority of uses of ekklesia to describe an assembly at a particular location. For example Paul writes to “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1) and to “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1, 2 Th. 1:1). In the book of Acts, Luke describes the particular churches in Jerusalem (Ac. 8:1, 11:22, 15:4, 22), Antioch (Ac. 11:26, 13:1, 15:3) and Ephesus (Ac. 20:17, 28). From these verses we see local congregations of the faithful.
  2. A second use of ekklesia is to describe the whole body of such faithful believers all over the world at a any point in history. In other words, this singular noun is used to describe the aggregate of all the individual churches. For example, Paul describes in 1 Co. 12:28 “the church” has been given gifts. By including the gift of apostleship, Paul is thinking more widely than the congregation at Corinth. Apostleship was a given to the church as a whole for that early period of history.
  3. A third use of ekklesia in the New Testament is to describe the whole body of the church, gathered from throughout all ages and places, which is spiritually united to Christ. For example, in Matthew 16:18, Jesus looks to the future of the church and its ultimate destiny as the body that will prevail over the gates of Hell. Paul, in Ephesians 5:25-27, also sees into the future where the church will be cleansed and purified in preparation for her presentation to Christ at the eschatological wedding. In these examples the church is contemplated in its final, completed state.
  4. A fourth and less certain use of ekklesia is found in Ac. 9:31. In some readings the word is singular (as rendered, for example, in the NIV) and on others plural (as rendered in the NKJV). If plural, then this use falls into the first category listed above. If the singular reading is correct, and it seems to be the most reliable, then this adds a new use, for clearly a collection of local churches can still be called a “church”. So, for example, it would not be unscriptural to make reference to ‘the church in Derby’.
  5. The final use is found in Mt. 18:17 where Jesus outlines the process of discipline for sin. Some have argued that ‘church’ here is a representative body of the elders. However, I personally am not convinced of this.

Any dissenters?

Uses of Ekklesia in the New Testament

5 thoughts on “Uses of Ekklesia in the New Testament

  1. Jon says:

    Not to mention the Old Testament… Someone should write about that (pref. Richard Bauckham) – I mean the origins of the idea of Church in the Old Testament and Judaism.

    JC reackoned that there was another division in the Church – visible and invisible but I’m not entirely sure I like that one yet… Oh.. John Calvin BTW…

  2. David says:

    Essentially, there are only two churches in what you have described here – the local church, and the universal church found in various subsets.

    1. is a local church.
    2. is the universal church as found on earth.
    3. is the universal church as found in heaven and earth.
    4. would be the universal church as found in a particular locality, though I completely disagree with your view that the NIV is more reliable here.
    5. – what a strange opinion!

  3. Stephen says:

    Yes I agree.
    BTW do you have a source for Calvin. (I haven’t read Bk 4 yet.)

    Yes. 5 is strange. I think you would have to be an episcopalian to accept that.

    On 4., I have to admit I am taking other writers’ word for it. So I would happily retreat, knowing that you have investigated this more fully than I have! 🙂

    1. and 2. we agree.

    In 3. the only distinction you seem to be allowing is that option 3. equals option 2. + those already in paradise. This would rather miss the point I was making i.e. that the distinction is between the final completed, perfected bride and the church as it exists e.g. today. What you are saying seems to be like saying that an oak tree is an acorn with sticks and leaves sticking out of it. But I’m sure that is not what you meant!

  4. Paul says:

    Two trivial points:

    1. Like many words given a particular and new significance in the NT, the word in the original is a general one not used only for Church – thus Acts 19:32 of the rioters in Ephesus. Don’t think this is especially important, except perhaps that it points to the simplicity of early Christian meetings. No great ritual or fanfare. What was going on might have been very profound (eg listening to the Apostle Paul teaching in Acts 20), or great power might have been exercised (eg the judgement exercised in Acts 5), but the gatherings as gatherings were simply that – gatherings.

    Perhaps we try to substitute ritual and form for power?

    2. Not sure I like being refered to as “old” ..although it is increasingly accurate!

  5. Stephen says:

    Howdy Paul.
    I wrote on this some time ago, and a discussion ensued in the comments. As well as Ac. 19:32 there was a wider use of ekklesia in greek culture to mean political rule. This would have implied some structure and form. So the idea of ‘simplicity’ from this verse does not necessarily follow.

    I believe that ekklesia must assume a meaning for us by how we see it used in scripture, not from culture. But, as far as structure of such a meeting is concerned, this must be defined from other parts of scripture. It may be simple, but this seems to me to be a relative term. One man’s simplicity is another man’s clutter.

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