Definition of Church / Assembly
The English word “church” comes from the German word kirche and the Scottish word kirk. These terms are etymologically related to the Greek word kuriakos, meaning “belonging to the Lord.”1
The Greek word ekklhsia is translated “church” in much of the New Testament. Some teach that ekklhsia is derived from ekkalew; from ek, meaning “out of” and kalew, meaning “to call.”2 It is true that ekkalew can be translated “call out” or “call forth.” It can also mean “summon” or “call together.” The word ekkalew is not found in the New Testament nor is it listed in most standard New Testament Greek Lexicons. Liddell and Scott do list it with regard to Classical Greek usage.
It is often claimed that an ekklhsia is a group of Believers that has been “called out” from the world. There is a theological aspect to this claim that is true. It is questionable whether this definition is valid from a purely lexical perspective. The standard Greek Lexicons make no reference to ekklhsia referring to those who are “called out.”3
Definitions of ekklhsia listed by Liddell and Scott include:
An Assembly duly summoned; in NT, the Church, as a body of Christians; to be a member of the Assembly; to be called together.4
Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich list:
Assembly; Gathering or meeting; A church meeting; The church universal.5
Moulton and Milligan include:
Public assembly of citizens; The community of Israel whether assembled or not; Christ’s new ekklhsia.6
Some lexicons do include a reference to an ekklhsia being a group of people that is “called together.” Thayer comes closest to the common belief that an assembly is a group of “called out” people when he refers to “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly.”7 This definition is true when speaking of a political or social gathering but it would be difficult to reconcile this with a strict definition of the New Testament Church. Believers are commanded to come out and be separate from the world. They are not commanded to leave their homes and gather into a public meeting. New Testament Christians often met in individual homes.
Charles Ryrie writes:
The Greek word, ekklhsia, meant an assembly and was used in a political, not a religious sense. It did not refer to the people but to the meeting; in other words, when the people were not assembled formally they were not referred to as an ekklhsia. The word is used in this same secular Greek way two times in the New Testament (Acts 19:32, 41).
When the Greek word is used in the New Testament, it takes on much richer and fuller aspects to that basic secular meaning. For example, the people themselves, whether assembled or not, are the ekklhsia. Nevertheless, the word as used in the New Testament still retains the basic meaning of an assembly, and does not take on a supposed theological meaning (based on the breakup of the word into its two parts, “call” and “out of”) of a “called out” people. If the word is going to be translated on the basis of etymology, then it should be translated “called together,” not “called out”.8
The New Testament uses the word ekklhsia in a number of ways:
1. A general assembly of people. - Israel in the wilderness was called “the ekklhsia in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). The confused and angry mob (ekklhsia) that was rioting against Paul in Ephesus was encouraged to take their case to a lawful assembly (ekklhsia) (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). A religious gathering (Heb. 2:12; cf. Ps. 22:22).
2. A gathering of Christians. Frequently the New Testament speaks of the ekklhsia which was in some particular location: “the ekklhsia which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1); “the ekklhsia which was at Antioch” (Acts 13:1); “the ekklhsia of God which is at Corinth” (I Cor. 1:2). Ekklhsia is also used in the plural for a group of local churches (I Cor. 16:19; Gal. 1:2).
3. All professing Believers. In this sense ekklhsia takes on a meaning almost synonymous all with Christians. Paul said to the Romans, “the ekklhsiai (plural) of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16). To the Galatians Paul wrote that he had “persecuted the ekklhsia of God” (Gal. 13:13). In these statements no particular local assembly is in view. Paul is speaking of Christians everywhere.
4. The Universal body of Christ. The word ekklhsia can refer, not only to a local gathering of Christians, but also to the general body of Christ. This includes all Believers who have placed their faith in Christ whether they are living or dead. Paul identified the ekklhsia as Christ’s body in his letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18). All Believers in this dispensation are united with each other and with Christ. Christ is head of the body and Lord of the ekklhsia.
Lightner writes regarding the Universal Ekklhsia:
There are a number of usages of ekklhsia that do not seem to refer to a local assembly of believers. Instead, they speak of that company of believers formed on the day of Pentecost into the body of Christ, which has been growing ever since as sinners trust Christ alone as Savior and are added to it. This company of the redeemed is called the church without consideration of whether or not those who are part of it are members of local churches.9
Nature of the Church / Assembly
Many believe that the word “assembly” refers to a localized gathering of professing Christians while the term “church” refers to the broader universal body of Christ. In truth, the word “ekklhsia” refers to both a localized gathering of Christians as well as the universal body of Christ.
Besides “local” and “universal,” many Bible students employ the terms “visible” and “invisible” when speaking of the New Testament ekklhsia. The term “invisible” is normally used to refer to the universal body of Christ. The weakness in using the term “invisible” is that much of the universal church is actually visible. The only members of the universal ekklhsia that might be considered invisible are those who are already with the Lord in heaven.
In reality there are three defining aspects to the New Testament ekklhsia.10
1. Universal Church - This category includes all believers in heaven and on earth (Heb. 12:23). All Believers, in this age, have been born of the Spirit of God and have by that same Spirit been baptized into the Body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13; I Pet. 1:3, 22-25).11
2. Visible Church - This category includes all localized assemblies. The singular ekklhsia may designate several assemblies in a geographic region. Luke wrote of “the ekklhsia throughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (Acts 9:31). The ekklhsia at Corinth (I Cor. 1:2) included several house assemblies. Yet, it was still localized in that it was confined to the city of Corinth and did not include assemblies from other cities. The visible ekklhsia can include a singular meeting, several house meetings in a city, or even many assemblies in a region.
3. The Local Church - This category designates a particular ekklhsia of Christians. It is defined primarily as the assembly in which a professing Believer is regularly in fellowship. All Roman Christians were part of the ekklhsia of God at Rome but each Believer was part of a particular house assembly where he was regularly in fellowship (Romans 1:7; 16:5).
Two more items deserve attention when defining the nature of the New Testament ekklhsia. First, there is nothing in Scripture to support the common misconception that the “church” is a building or place of worship. The place of meeting is irrelevant. All who have placed their faith in Christ are members of His body, the universal church. When some of those members assemble together, according to the New Testament pattern, this constitutes a local church. It is biblically impossible for a person to go to church. Believers in Christ are the “church.” When they gather together according to the Scriptures, they meet as a local “church.” The church is not where you pray it is those who pray. The church is not where people gather it is the people who gather.
Second, the local church is more than just two or three Christians gathered together. Jesus taught “for where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). This is a true statement of our Lord. This does not necessarily mean that the mere presence of two or three Christians constitutes a local church. Even if only one Christian is present the Lord is still with Him.
Although difficult to define, the definition of a local ekklhsia assembly is more than just two or three Christians in a particular location. When a husband and wife pray together the Lord is in their midst. This does not constitute a local assembly. The Lord is present during a small group Bible study. This does not mean that it is a local church. A local ekklhsia is comprised of professing Believers who regularly meet for Fellowship, Prayer, Breaking of Bread, and Instruction in Apostolic Doctrine. In a local assembly, each member is accountable to others who are regularly in fellowship. A local assembly should seek to follow the New Testament pattern of organization and leadership.
The New Testament does not contain a formal definition of a local church. However, it does describe the normal features of a local assembly. On the basis of these features we can formulate a definition of a local church. It is an assembly of professing believers in Christ who have been baptized and who are organized to carry out God’s will. Notice the important facets of that definition. (1) Those who do not make a profession of faith are excluded. The profession may not be genuine, but it must be made. (2) Without debating the mode of baptism, it is clear that the New Testament knows nothing of unbaptized church members. (3) A church always has some kind of organization, and in the New Testament organization was instituted as soon as possible (Acts 14:32). (4) A church exists for a purpose-to do God’s will. This includes a number of things: observing the ordinances, evangelizing, building up believers, worship, giving, ministering to all age groups, etc.12
1 Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and Wilbur F. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957) p. 459.
2 Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1989) p. 347.
3 Standard Greek Lexicons include: Liddell and Scott; Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich; Moulton and Milligan.
4 Henry Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (New York: Clarendon Press, 1843) p. 509.
5 Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 240.
6 James Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930) p. 195.
7 Joseph H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Company, 1886) p. 196.
8 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986) p. 393.
9 Robert Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995) p. 228.
10 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 395.
11 Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, revised by Vernon D. Doerksen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) p. 307.
12 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology, p. 405.
Copyright 2008 by Joe Fogle. All rights reserved.