Friday, 8 June 2012



S. ’Jide Komolafe


The New Testament documents set the stage for all church history. They offer a series of explanations for the transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to the development of the Church. The purpose of a classical starting point, therefore, is to enable us reflect on what the Early Church might contribute to our contemporary understanding of the church. This is necessary because our contemporary conception of the English word “church” is punctuated with so many confusions and ambiguities that many years after the Reformation, we still cannot securely determine what exactly is meant each time the word “church” is mentioned. In other words, what is it that makes our own “church” painfully disparate with the Church of both apostolic and post-apostolic periods? Even in cases where appeals have been made to the Greek word, ekklēsia, the same terminological confusion remains.

This ambiguity is not limited to our understanding of the church alone. Recent scholarship has emphasized the diversity of theological interests that have influenced responses to culturally related questions that are found within the New Testament itself. Similarly, ecclesiology, the field that deals with the doctrine of the church, is not exempt from this problem.[1] Although I do not intend to argue that an etymological study of the Greek word, ekklēsia, as used in the Bible is sufficient to formulate a theology of the Church, it does help, however, to place our grasp of the Church in a proper perspective.

Etymological Analysis of Biblical Presuppositions

As already noted, the English word, “church,” has become the primary term for designating the idea of the church either as an institution or as the Christian community. Although this English translation has largely assumed the meaning of the Greek word ekklēsia (assembly), its contemporary comprehension is misleading and does not correctly translate the common classical usage in New Testament Greek.[2] Our conception of Church today carries with it a translation of different Greek derivative, kyriakon, (that which is the Lord’s).[3]

Opinions on the etymology of the word “Church” differ today so much that Roberts has cautioned, “we ought to avoid the frequent error of etymological fallacy.”[4] It is not my intention to engage in a broad treatment of the word; nevertheless, a brief analysis of the designation of ekklēsia in the Scripture is necessary so as to understand the perspective adopted in this series.

Ekklesia in the Old Testament

The popular etymology of the word ekklesia is connected with the Greek verb ekkaleo, meaning “to call out” or to “summon.” In classical Greek, the ekklesia was clearly characterized as a political phenomenon. It referred to the conveyed assembly of the people of a city-state, the supreme legislative and judicial body in the democratic system. Usually the citizens were summoned by the trumpet of the kerux (herald) to the ekklesia (assembly) in which fundamentally political and judicial decisions were made. The ekklesia or the general assembly of the citizens thus constituted the ultimate power with unlimited rights to make decisions with regards to constitutional and state matters.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the Jews adopted the same Greek word ekklesia to translate the Hebrew word, qahal, which also originally meant a company summoned for a definite purpose by a trumpet call (Num. 10:2, 7).[5] The Jews seized on this Greek word because it was suitable to describe their assemblies before an “Ultimate Authority,” the God of Israel. Deuteronomy 9:10, for example, records the first occurrence of the ekklesia as a decisive moment in the history of Israel when the people were assembled before Jehovah at Sinai where He covenanted with them as His people.

Later assemblies of the people renew this ekklesia of the Lord and are sometimes called the “assembly of the Lord” (Deu. 23:1-4), “assembly of God” (Neh. 13:1), “assembly of the people of the Lord” (Judg. 20:2), “assembly of the holy ones” (Psa. 149:1), “the people of Jehovah.”[6] The importance of this ekklesia as a holy assemblage unto the Lord is further demonstrated by the fact that those with bodily defects cannot enter (Deu. 23:1f.).

Although ekklesia was used mostly to translate the Hebrew equivalent, qahal, another Hebrew word that came to approximate in meaning is edah. Edah, however, was used to translate synagogē, the Hebrew word for “congregation.” Unlike qahal which denotes the “assembly of the Lord,” edah was used mostly in the sense of the Jewish people as a community, the assembly of the community, and finally for the building where the group met.[7]

The above brief analysis, therefore, suggests that while qahal (ekklesia) was a word with theological potential in the sense that it described Israel as the people of God, edah functioned more as a name or a technical term for Jewish communities. Giles’ position is an agreeable one when he suggests that “[t]he early Christians generally found the word synagōguē uncongenial because this was a name for Jewish communities, and the buildings they met in, and so its close associate, ekklēsia, was preferred.”[8]

Ekklesia in the New Testament

Ekklesia in the New Testament generally does not have as much emphasis in pre-Pauline thoughts as in the writings and usage of the apostle. The word occurs only in one of the four gospels, Matthew, and is used only two times in that gospel (16:18; 18:17). Considered along with its Pauline conceptions, however, the word has a basic two-fold meaning. First, it refers in some sense to a universal context as we can infer from Jesus’ statement, “Upon this rock I will build my Church” (Mat 16:18). Then it takes on a specific local context as in Paul’s reference to, for example, “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1:1). It is, therefore, important to do a brief analysis of the word in both its pre-Pauline and Pauline conceptions.

Ekklesia in the Gospels

As I have already indicated, the word ekklesia is confined to two passages of Matthew in the Gospels. We see its first occurrence in Matthew 16:18. Following Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus’ response was, “On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The precise meaning of Jesus’ response has become a subject of hermeneutical controversy especially when consideration is given to the polemics deriving from later Christian history. My understanding, however, is the absolute universal sense of Jesus’ usage of ekklesia in this passage.

Although many scholars hold the view that its use by Jesus is an anachronism, depicting it strictly as a post-resurrection institution. This notwithstanding, its use within the context of Matthew 16:18 presupposes a messianic community which Jesus was already beginning to assemble at this time in his ministry.[9] Christ’s Church (ekklesia), in this sense, is not limited to the assembly of Jesus’ disciples alone but includes the great company of those who confess his messiahship. Our understanding of Christ’s lordship of the universal Church is further heightened by Jesus’ promise of resurrection. The full force of evil will come against this divinely instituted community, but so powerful will the Messiah’s people be that the opposition from the “gates of Hades” must give way before them.

The second reference to the ekklesia in the Gospels is Matthew 18:15-17. Unlike Jesus’ usage of ekklesia in chapter 16 that has both futuristic and universal connotations, the usage of ekklesia in chapter 18 is rather present and local. Since it is virtually impossible to report one’s brother’s fault to the universal Church, it makes sense to conclude then that the passage is referring to how the followers of Jesus are to settle disputes in a given ekklesia. Hort puts it well when he states, “[t]he actual precept is hardly intelligible if the ekklesia meant is not the Jewish community, apparently the Jewish local community, to which the injured person and the offender belonged.”[10] Even then, the universal reasonableness of this “principle holds good in a manner for all time.”[11]

Ekklesia in the Pauline Epistles

Ekklesia is used 62 times in the Pauline corpus, and generally refers to “the reality of the Christian community” or “to the groups of those who met in the name of Christ.”[12] Paul explicitly or implicitly used ekklesia in various contexts. Although the meaning he attaches to ekklesia depends on each particular context, his use is distinguished from the regular unconstitutional assembly (Act. 19:32) or the political assembly (Act 19:39, 41) as we see in other New Testament texts. For Paul, the ekklesia “is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ” and are given four different expressions (1 Th. 1:1).[13]

Ekklesia as a Local Assembly or Congregation

The first of Paul’s usage, in chronological ordering, appears in 1 Thessalonica 1:1 and refers to the local congregation of the Christians at Thessalonica. In this case, and in many other similar instances, Paul’s ekklesia is “not a metaphor, but a term descriptive of an identifiable object.”[14] For example, Paul’s strong requests (“I charge you”) to the believers at Thessalonica that his letter be read “to all the brothers” clearly indicates that he has a specific assembly in mind, the assembly of Christians at Thessalonica (1 Th. 5:25-27). Other instances of Paul’s ekklesia in reference to an identifiable reality include “the church in Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1), “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Co. 1:1), and “the church of the Laodiceans” (Col. 4:16).

Ekklesiai: Geographic and Generic

Paul also uses ekklesiai in the plural sense when he wishes to refer to more than one church. This plural usage, however, can be further subdivided into two categories: ekklesiai with reference to a larger geographical area,[15] and as a generic term.[16] First, Paul employs the plural word (ekklesiai) when he wishes to make a reference to a group of churches within a larger geographical area such as “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor. 16:19), “the churches in Galatia” (1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:1), “the churches in Macedonia” (2 Cor. 8:1), and “the churches of Judea” (Gal. 1:22; 1 Th. 2:14).

Second, Paul uses ekklesiai in a generic sense. For example, in addressing the issue of conduct in nonessential matters, he urges the Corinthians to have a tender concern for all, Jews, Greeks and the Church of God so as not to “cause anyone to stumble” (1 Cor. 10:32). This intentionally inclusive language does not seem to address any of the “old categories” (Jews and Gentiles) but to a “new category” of those “being saved.”[17]

Ekklesia in the House

The third expression of ekklesia in the Pauline corpus refers to those of smaller groups. Examples include “the church that meets at [the house of Priscilla and Aquila]” in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5), of the same couple in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19), that of Nympha in Laodicea (Col. 4:15) and that of Philemon in Colosse (Phm.2).

Ekklesia as a Heavenly and Eschatological Entity

Paul’s other usage of ekklesia can be interpreted in the “already-not yet” eschatological framework. In a sense, Paul considers the earthly, historical ekklesia to be a preliminary and partial (“already”) rescuing “from the dominion of darkness” (Col. 1:12-14), with very important earthly responsibilities, shape and form (Col. 3:4; 4:6) striving towards eschatological (“not yet”) reunion with Christ, “the head of the body, that is the church” (Col. 1:18; 3:1; 3-4). This future ekklesia is the “Jerusalem on high,” an allegorical reference to the old Jewish personification of the holy city as the mother of many children (Gal. 4:26f.).[18] “Christ is all, and is in all” in this eschatological ekklesia, and in him “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” (Col. 3:11).

Paul, Israel, and the Church

The relationship between Israel and the Church has become a crucial reference point in systematic theology, especially among dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists. It is not my intention, and neither is it within the scope of this series, to engage in the dispensationalist argument of a spiritual absorption of God’s promises to Israel by the Church. My attempt in this series is to apply the term (“already-not yet”) to interpret Paul’s understanding of the relation between the earthly ekklesia and the heavenly, future ekklesia.

It should be noted that Paul’s primary application of ekklesia has to do with “the assembly of God” composed of Jews, Gentiles or a mixture of both. In such instances, “there is no indication that the ekklesia is divided into ekklesiai, or vice versa.”[19] Rather, the reality of the church for Paul finds expression and continuity in its universality with Christ as the Head of the body (Eph. 1:22; Co. 1:24). Furthermore, this reality is metaphorically expressed in his application of the household code such as the unity between husband and wife in becoming “one flesh” (Eph. 5:31).[20]

Having attempted an analysis of the different expressions undergirding the use of the word “Church” in Scripture, I now turn to look at some selected New Testament churches in their different contexts. By so doing I hope to find those “relevant clues” in the attempt to formulate an understanding of contextual ecclesiology and to establish the observation that the Church by her calling and nature exists at the center of the continuum between Scripture and context.

(To be continued)

[1] See especially the works of James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (1990). See also E. Käsemann and Raymond Brown, “Unity and Diversity in New Testament Ecclesiology” (1963).
[2] F.J.A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (1914:1-21); J.W. Roberts, “The Meaning of Ekklesia in the New Testament” (1972:27-36); William Stewart, The Nature and Calling of the Church (1958); and J.Y. Campbell, “The Origin and Meaning of the Christian Use of the Word Ekklesia” (1948:130-142).
[3] Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (1996:129-130); William Stewart, The Nature and Calling of the Church (1958:5-6); George G. Findlay, The Church of Christ as Set Forth in the New Testament (1893:9-10).
[4] J.W. Roberts, “The Meaning of Ekklesia in the New Testament” (1972:28).
[5] William Stewart, The Nature and Calling of the Church (1958:6).
[6] Dean Gilliland, Pauline Theology and Mission Practice (1983:183).
[7] J.W. Roberts, “The Meaning of Ekklesia in the New Testament” (1972:34).
[8] Kevin Giles, What On Earth Is the Church? (1995:25). Everett Ferguson also draws the same conclusion, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (1996:130-131). For more detailed discussions of this topic, see also J.A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (1914); and George Johnston, The Doctrine of the Church in the New Testament (1943).
[9] R. Bowen Ward, “Ekklesia: A Word Study” (1958:164-179); Geoffrey Preston, Faces of the Church: Meditations on a Mystery and Its Images (1997:9); and J.W. Roberts, “The Meaning of Ekklesia in the New Testament” (1972:29).
[10] F.J.A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (1914:10).
[11] Hort (1914:10).
[12] See Dean Gilliland, Pauline Theology and Mission Practice (1983:187); and James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (1998:537).
[13] See R. Bowen Ward “Ekklesia: A Word Study” (1958); and Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, and Daniel Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (1993:124-126).
[14] Hawthorne, Martin, and Reid (1993:124).
[15] R. Bowen Ward, “Ekklesia: A Word Study” (1958:170).
[16] Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, and Daniel Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (1993:124).
[17] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (1987:489).
[18] For details, see Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Church in the New Testament (1965:84).
[19] Roy Ward, “Ekklesia: A Word Study” (1958:170).
[20] See especially the works of James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (1990). See also E. Käsemann and Raymond Brown, “Unity and Diversity in New Testament Ecclesiology” (1963).

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