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16 September 2014
In my last article I explained why I have abandoned some common Christian words when writing these articles. After recently reading The Harlot Church System by Charles E. Newbold, I became convinced that the word “church” had to be tossed onto the vocabulary trash heap. If you have not yet done so, please read why I’m using “ekklesia” instead of “church” before you continue here.
As Mr. Newbold explained in that book, the etymology of the English word “church” unravels itself to “the house of the master (lord).” In other words, it refers to a building. In contrast, the Greek word ekklesia (ehk-klay-SEE-ah), which is translated as “church” in the English New Testament, NEVER refers to a building.
Let’s take a closer look at the etymology of ekklesia. At its base is the Greek verb kaleo, which means “to call.” The Greek preposition ek means “out” or “out of,” with a connotation of “separation.” Put together, ekkaleo is a verb that means “to call out of, to call to separation.”
In Classical Greece, this verb gave birth to the noun ekklesia, denoting “the popular assembly of the competent citizens of a city-state” (source) Because cities like Athens were direct democracies at that time, the voting citizens of the town would gather regularly to discuss making or changing laws, problems that needed to be solved, and other issues of self-government.
Putting this all together, we can see that the citizens were “called out” from among the common people who had no voting rights, and then assembled together for a specific purpose. You have to have both aspects to get the full meaning of the word. It was not enough to simply be “called out.” You also had to assemble together for the given purpose. THAT was the literal ekklesia — which before the New Testament had no connection whatsoever to Yeshua (Jesus) and His followers.
The apostle Paul and the other writers of the New Testament took this pagan civic word and used it for their own purposes. They gave a figurative meaning to ekklesia beyond its traditional literal meaning. In this new sense, ekklesia meant those people who have been called out of the world system, called out of Satan’s kingdom, called out of darkness, and assembled together into the light of God and the Kingdom of Yeshua. Verses like these illustrate this concept:
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)Therefore, keep in mind that the ekklesia are not just “called out ones,” but also “called in ones.” You need to have both in order to capture the full meaning of ekklesia.
The Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light, has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son He loves. (Colossians 1:12-13)
The Greek word ekklesia occurs 114 times in the New Testament. The other day I took some hours to look up each occurence in order to determine how the word was used in each case. Out of that total, it was used 103 times (90%) to refer to the collective followers of Yeshua, and NOT to a gathering or a building. Obviously that is too many verses to list here. If you want to look at them yourself, here is a listing.
For today’s article, we will make a detailed examination of the 11 occurences of ekklesia which do not refer to the collective followers of Yeshua. Two of those instances were quotes from the Old Testament, where the word is referring to the congregation (assembly) of Israelites — see Acts 7:38 and Hebrews 2:12.
Three more occurences of ekklesia are referring to the non-Christian, literal meaning of the word: a civic assembly — see Acts 19:23-41, particularly verses 32,39 and 41.
In the remaining six verses in which ekklesia appears, the writers seem to be referring more to an actual meeting of the “called-out/in-ones” rather than the people themselves in the spiritual sense of the word. Let’s take a look....
In 1 Corinthians 14, the apostle Paul used the word ekklesia nine times. Unfortunately, in four of those instances he appeared to be referring to a meeting, while the other fives times he seemed to be referring to people — the collective followers of Yeshua. In order to unravel this, we need to examine each verse where ekklesia occurs.
In verses 4,5, and 12, Paul wrote:
Anyone who speaks in a tongue builds up themselves, but the one who prophesies builds up the ekklesia. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the ekklesia may be built up.... Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the ekklesia.In these three occurences, he is obviously referring to people, because you can’t build up (inwardly strengthen or uplift) a meeting, which is merely a thing.
In verse 19, Paul wrote: “In the ekklesia I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” In this case it seems clear he is referring to a meeting of Yeshua’s followers, since he mentions instructing others.
In verse 23, Paul wrote: “So if the whole ekklesia assembles in the same place and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” Because you can’t have a gathering of meetings, ekklesia here obviously refers to the people who assemble.
In verse 28, Paul wrote: “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the ekklesia and speak to himself and to God.” Clearly Paul is talking about a meeting in this verse. I highly doubt that he’s telling followers of Yeshua to keep quiet and speak only to themselves and God during their normal daily lives!
The last three occurences of ekklesia in chapter 14 are found in verses 33-35:
As in all the ekklesia of the saints, the women are to be silent in the ekklesia, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, they are to be submissive, as in fact the law says. And if they want to find out about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in ekklesia.First of all, this is an article about the ekklesia and not about women in the ekklesia, so we are NOT going to get sidetracked into that raging controversy! Next, I think the second and third occurences of ekklesia in this passage obviously refer to meetings, because, once again, Paul is not telling women to be silent all the time in daily life, but only in the meetings (for whatever reason).
Regarding the phrase “in all the ekklesia of the saints,” I think the meaning could go either way. It could be referring to meetings, since that’s the meaning of the word in the next two instances. However, if you look at the 6 other occurences of “all the churches” in the New Testament, every time it is referring to the collective followers of Yeshua and not to meetings. Therefore, I think it means the same thing in this case. Paul is saying that his instructions apply to the ekklesia in Corinth, just as they do to all of the other ekklesia in other places.
Ekklesia, as I stated above, means the people of Yeshua 90% of the time in the New Testament, and not meetings. Furthermore, ekklesia NEVER refers to a building in the Greek, even though that is a common meaning in English. Verse 23 that I quoted above illustrates these differences quite well.
In that verse, you have the ekklesia, the people, and then you have a meeting when the whole ekklesia assembles in the same place. Furthermore, the assembling in that verse is not a noun but a verb. This highlights the fact that the collective people of Yeshua are the true reality and substance of ekklesia. Meeting together is what the ekklesia DOES, not what it IS. The meetings are not the substance and reality, but merely an activity.
Now that we have covered 1 Corinthians 14, lets move on to consider the last two occurences of ekklesia which seem to be referring to meetings instead of people:
After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the ekklesia of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16)Paul wanted the letter he had written to the ekklesia in Colossae to also be read in the ekklesia of the Laodiceans. Notice that he didn’t say TO the ekklesia, but IN the ekklesia. Because the ekklesia is a spiritual collection of people, the only way to read it IN them is when they assemble together for a meeting.
When I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the ekklesia. (3 John 1:10)
As an aside, where IS Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans? No one has heard of it for ages — but perhaps Paul’s lost letter to the Laodiceans has recently been found?
The other verse, which the apostle John wrote, is quite interesting as well as a bit troubling. He mentions that some believers were being put out of the ekklesia. Seeing that the ekklesia is the spiritual Body of Yeshua, how can any other human being put you OUT of it? The ekklesia is something that you are BORN (again) into through the blood of Yeshua, and no one can snatch you out of His hand (John 10:28-30). I explore these concepts more fully in What IS the Church?
Furthermore, if believers were being put out of the ekklesia, that would not prevent them from interacting with other members of the ekklesia on a private, one-on-one basis. So the only meaning that makes sense in this context is that believers were being barred from attending the meetings of the ekklesia.
We have now considered the 11 times that the word ekklesia is NOT referring to the people of Yeshua. In the process, we have also looked at 5 instances where the word does mean the collective followers of Yeshua, either at an all-encompassing spiritual, heavenly level, or else at a down-to-earth local or regional level. ALL of the other 98 occurences of ekklesia in the New Testament are referring to the Body of Yeshua, His followers, and NOT to a meeting, and NOT to a building.
Before I bring this article to a close, I want to take a look at three more verses which contain the word ekklesia. What is interesting about these occurences is how each verse is translated. The theology of the translator most definitely affects how the original Greek is understood and translated. Likewise, the theology of the reader influences his or her understanding of what the translator has written. In the first example, Luke wrote:
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each ekklesia and, with prayer and fasting, committed the elders to the Master, in whom they had put their trust. (Acts 14:23)As I was considering this verse while preparing for this article, I was somewhat troubled by the phrase “in each ekklesia (church).” Because ekklesia primarily means the collective followers of Yeshua, I don’t quite see what “IN the ekklesia” means. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be referring to a meeting of the ekklesia either. To me, the phrase sounds too much like the modern, man-made institutional church.
The phrase in Greek is kat’ ekklesia (kat’ being a contraction of kata). Kata is a preposition which can have a wide range of meanings, depending on how it is used in a sentence. In this case, it functions in the same way as in Acts 2:46 — “...breaking bread from house to house...” The Greek phrase for “from house to house” is kat’ oikos.
According to the references I have consulted, in these two verses kata is being used in a distributive sense. In Acts 2:46, the word for house (oikos) is in the text only once. Combined with the preposition kata, it means “from house to house.”
In Acts 14:23, the word ekklesia is in the text only once. Combined with the preposition kata, it means “from ekklesia to ekklesia.” So, as Paul and Barnabas went from group to group of followers of Yeshua in each town they visited, they appointed elders chosen from among each group to oversee the group. Perhaps I’m being nitpicky, but rewording it like this makes it sound less institutional and more organic.
In the next example, we have Paul’s words: “I am writing these things to you... so that you may know how people ought to conduct themselves in the house of God, which is the ekklesia of the living God...” (1 Timothy 3:14-15). The Greek word translated “house” is the same oikos which we just saw in Acts 2:46. “House” is the literal meaning, but figuratively it can also mean “household.”
So it’s interesting to see which sense a translator will choose. If he sees the ekklesia as an institution, — or even worse, as a building — it is natural that he would translate oikos as “house.” On the other hand, if the translator understands ekklesia to be the collective followers of Yeshua — or better yet, as the family of Yeshua (Matthew 12:46-50) — then “household” is obviously a better translation. Now on to the third example:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the ekklesia of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Yeshua, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)Even though this is one of the 103 occurences of ekklesia which refer to the collective followers of Yeshua, numerous English translations use the word “assembly” instead of the word “church” that they use everywhere else. This strikes me as strange. Why would the translators NOT use the word “church” in this one instance? Perhaps they see the church primarily as an institution, and that perspective does not fit well into these verses from Hebrews. So they use the word “assembly” instead, which, in the end, is closer to the original Greek. Either way, it is still the ekklesia, no matter how you want to translate it into English.
The Book of Acts, which tells the story of the birth of the ekklesia, uses that word 23 times. But as we discovered above, in four of those instances it is NOT referring to the followers of Yeshua.
I’m not positive, but I think the most frequent use of ekklesia within a small number of chapters of the New Testament occurs in Revelation 1-3, where ekklesia is used 18 times. And in 17 of those occurences it is Yeshua who is speaking — “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the ekklesia.”
To bring this survey of the ekklesia to a close, let’s finish with what is probably the most profound description of Yeshua and the ekklesia in the entire New Testament:
The husband is the head of the wife as Yeshua is the Head of the ekklesia, His Body, of which He is the Savior. Now as the ekklesia submits to Messiah, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Yeshua loved the ekklesia and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant ekklesia, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Messiah does the ekklesia — for we are members of His Body.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is a profound mystery — but I am talking about Yeshua and the ekklesia. (Ephesians 5:23-32)
This article is 23rd a series of articles on this Web site related to Exploring New Testament Realities which also includes (scroll to see the entire list):
On December 20, 2015, Steve Simms wrote:
Check out the book "Beyond Church: An Invitation To Experience The Lost Word Of The Bible, Ekklesia" in paperback and Kindle at Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Church-Lost-Bible-Ekklesia/dp/1518744567/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=