THE MEANING OF ECCLESIA
There are many different opinions on what defines the universal church. To most dispensationalists, it is a body of believers from Pentecost to the Rapture of the church. To them, the universal church includes all the saved who are alive, the dead in Christ, and those who will be saved who are not yet born. They believe that it includes believers from all denominations.
To those who follow covenant theology, it is an invisible body/church which consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head.
These groups both believe there is some kind of mystical union that unites the members together even though they never assemble. They believe that this vast multitude is the “Body of Christ” which Paul writes about in his epistles.
To find out if this “universal body” really exists, we cannot rely on the teaching of theology books, we must go to the Scriptures. As students of the Scriptures, we must understand the meanings of the words used at the time of their use. Since we are studying the church, we must start by understanding what the Greek word “ecclesia”, which is translated “church” in our Bibles, meant to those who heard it in Bible times. We need to do an in-depth word study of this word to see how it is used in the New Testament.
The natural starting point is to check the lexicons and dictionaries of New Testament Greek. Since the most popular of these is Strong’s Greek Dictionary, part of his concordance, let us start with it. In it we find the following definition:
Strong’s Greek Dictionary
- εκκλησια ekklesia
εκκλησια ekklesia ek-klay-see’-ah
From a compound of 1537 and a derivative of 2564; a calling out, i.e. (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both):—assembly, church.
This seems simple enough. We have, in our first definition, the idea of a universal church. I’ll say more about this later, but if the church didn’t exist until Pentecost, like most who believe in a universal church teach, how could the Greek word have meant “Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both” when Christ used it in Matthew 16:18?
Berry’s lexicon gives us the following definition:
“Ecclesia…an Ekklesia, from ekstian believers, a church in one place, Ac. 11:26; often plural, as Ac. 15:41; the whole body of believers on earth, 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians. 1:22; or in heaven, Heb. 12:23.”
Again, how could the word have meant “the whole body of believers on earth” if the church did not exist until Pentecost?
Vine’s definition gives us considerably more information on the meaning of the word:
“Assembly. 1. Ekklesia, from ek, out of, and klesis, a calling (kaleo, to call), was used among the Greeks of a body of citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of State, Acts 19:39. In the Septuagint it is used to designate the gathering of Israel, summoned for any definite purpose, or gathering regarded as representative of the whole nation. In Acts 7:38 it is used of Israel; in 19:32,41, a riotous mob. It has two applications to companies of Christians, (a) to the whole company of the redeemed throughout the present era, the company of which Christ said, ‘I will build my Church,’ Matt. 16:18, and which is further described as ‘the Church which is His Body,’ Ephesians. 1:22, 5:22, (b) in the singular number (e.g., Matt. 18:17, R.V., marg., ‘congregation’), to a company consisting of professed believers, e.g., Acts 20:28; 1Cor.1:2; Gal. 1:13; l Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:5, and in the plural, with reference to churches in a district.”
We have agreement among these popular lexicographers concerning the word’s supposed double meaning. These definitions make the word ecclesia mean both a local church and a universal church. The difference would depend on the context in which it is used. If we stopped our study here, we might conclude that the concept of universality is inherent in the word “ecclesia.”
Since these definitions come from sources that have been influenced by the teachings of the Catholic and Protestant churches, and which have the preconceived belief in a universal church, it would be a mistake to draw this conclusion. These lexicographers may have read their preconceptions into their definitions of the Greek word. In their definitions they say one of its meanings is “a Christian church, local or universal.” This could not have been the meaning of the word when Jesus first used it because the church did not exist.
To get the true meaning we need to look at the usage of the word ecclesia at the time it was used, that is, in New Testament times. When we do that, it will become evident that these lexicographers have not given us the true classical Greek meaning of the word at the time the New Testament was written. Because of this error, many people take these definitions to the New Testament and find a universal church. It is never right to take our theological presuppositions and try to make the Scriptures fit them. We are to seek our doctrine from the Scriptures and test our theology by biblical doctrine.
In the next chapter we will examine the verses used by many to teach that there is a universal church. Suffice to say here that lexicographers are no more infallible than others who write on biblical subjects.
Although we can learn much from dictionaries and lexicons, we must remember that they are not always completely reliable. No man can write anything without his preconceptions having an influence on what he writes. The more the lexicographer gets into details, the less accurate he tends to be and the more presuppositions are involved.
Words evolve in meaning. An example of this is seen in the English word “prevent.” To us it means to stop or hinder something. In the Scriptures it means to go before. As an example of this, look at I Thessalonians 4:15
For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
This does not say that those who are alive and remain will not stop those who are asleep from going up in the Rapture. It says those who are alive will not go before those who sleep.
This brings us to the next step in our understanding of the word ecclesia. Looking at the etymological roots of words can give us insight into the meaning of a word, but the meanings of words evolve over time. If we look at the word prevent mentioned earlier, we see that it comes from “pre”, which means before, and “vent”, which means to go. This agrees with the biblical meaning of the word, but not with our modern understanding when we hear the word.
Etymologically, ecclesia is made up of the two Greek roots “ek”, meaning out of, and “kaleo”, meaning to call. Etymologically the word means to call out without any regard to who is called, where they are called from, or to where they are called. In modern definitions we are usually told that ecclesia means a group of people who are called out, and nothing more. Therefore, we are told, it can mean a group of people called out of the world and separated unto God. This allows the word to be used in the sense of a universal church.
This idea is echoed by most, if not all, lexicographers and commentators. Berkhof, Barnes, Gill, Clarke, Matthew Henry, etc. all follow the definitions given above. We could stop here and say we have found the answer. We would certainly be in good company if we did.
To conclude that what we have seen thus far gives us a clear meaning of the New Testament usage of the word would be premature. A word is not defined at a given time in history by its etymological roots. It is defined by what it means to those to whom it is spoken at a given time in history. Remember the word prevent we discussed earlier.
Great men of God like B. H. Carroll see things a little differently than those we have looked at so far. He said that the word “ecclesia” in New Testament times meant those called out from their homes to attend a meeting. He wrote the following in his book “Ecclesia – The Church”:
“What, then, etymologically, is the meaning of this word? Its primary meaning is: An organized assembly whose members have been properly called out from private homes or business to attend to public affairs. This definition necessarily implies prescribed conditions of membership… Locality inheres in ecclesia. There can be no assembly now or hereafter without a place to meet.”
We cannot settle the issue of the meaning of ecclesia etymologically because the etymology does not tell us whether it means “called out from the world at large, but not to meet”, or “called out from their homes to meet in local assemblies.” In the evolution of a word, there are three time periods that may significantly change the word’s definition. First, there is the time period in which the word was originally used. During this period the etymological evidence is the most accurate. There is also the meaning given the word at any particular time period in history. Finally, there is the period of time when the reader is considering the word. Definitions of the word can be significantly different during each of these time periods.
We have already seen this evidence with the word prevent. To further show how words evolve, here are two other words that have changed over the centuries. ‘Hussy’ came from ‘huswife’ in Middle English, which meant a housewife but today it means a brazen or immoral woman. ‘Constable’ came from ‘comes stabuli’ which means keeper of the stable; today it means a peace officer.
Ecclesia did not simply mean “called out” in New Testament times. It meant assembly or called out assembly. Its most common usage at the time Jesus first used it was to signify the assembly of citizens in a self-governed city/state. Citizens were called out from their homes to meet together to deal with affairs of state. The word would have never been used of a group of people called out by God to be separate from the world but who never assembled together. It always meant called out to meet together.
The etymological support for a universal church rendering of ecclesia is at best inconclusive. Inconclusive is really an understatement because there is no support for the idea that ecclesia meant anything universal in its etymology. Those who claim that the word means those called out through, or at the time of, their salvation are imposing more on the meaning of the word that any evidence will support.
Like any word, ecclesia must be defined by the common meaning of the word at the time it was used unless something in the context requires a different meaning. For the word to mean anything other than an assembly called out to meet together for some official reason, the context must do more than simply allow another meaning, it must require it.
Ecclesia was not an obscure word in the first century. If it always meant an assembly in the first century, we cannot impose our 21st-century meaning upon it. As we have seen, the lexicographers have added meanings based upon the understanding of their time, rather than how the word would have been understood at the time the New Testament was written.
All those who hold to the doctrine of the universal church readily admit that the vast majority of the instances of ecclesia in the New Testament refer to a local church. Imposing another meaning where it is not immediately obvious that it is talking about a local church must only be done if it is the only possible interpretation in the context where it is used. If we can change the meanings of words simply because the new meaning fits our doctrinal prejudices, then the Bible has no meaning at all.
The word ecclesia was used by the Greeks of the first century exclusively to define local assemblies. The Greek word panegyros was used for more general groups of people. This word was used to describe all the people of all the Greek states. If the church were universal, panegyros is the word that would have been used to describe it.
An honest search of classical Greek literature for any usage of the word ecclesia which would support a universal group or assembly will come up empty. Some of the greatest Greek scholars have tried and no instance of this meaning has ever been found.
Professor Royal, of Wake Forest College, was asked if he knew of any instance of the word ecclesia being used of an unassembled or non-assembling group of people. His answer was “I do not know of any such passage in classic Greek.” Many other scholars agree with this statement.
In the classical Greek used in the New Testament, the word ecclesia was understood by both Greeks and Jews to mean an organized assembly of the people. To the Greeks, this word meant an assembly of the citizens of a free city/state gathered by a herald blowing a horn through the streets of a town. To the Jews it would have meant something like their synagogue.
Thus, from a survey of classical Greek usage, we see that the word ecclesia meant more than “called out.” It meant a “called out assembly,” with emphasis on the concept of a local assembly. The concept of universality cannot be supported from classical Greek usage. Indeed, the Greek definition appears to rule out the idea of a body of believers scattered through space and time, who never meet together.
Our study thus far has shown us that the idea of universality is not inherent in the word ecclesia. It is also readily admitted by all that the predominant usage of the word in the New Testament refers to a local church. Based upon these two facts the burden of proof rests upon those who would give ecclesia a different meaning.
We still have to look at the usage of ecclesia in the New Testament. It is possible that it is used by God to present some new doctrine not previously revealed. However, if we are to find the truth we must use proper methods as we study the New Testament. We cannot read in our theological presuppositions. The context must clearly show there is a new meaning in the passage. Consensus will not be sufficient. Remember, we are dealing with the Word of God. We are seeking what He said and what He meant. We are not to rely upon what some scholar thinks it means.
Just because a majority declares something as truth doesn’t make it truth. The majority of Christendom believes that works are in, some way or another, involved in salvation. This does not make it so. Only an unbiased study using proper rules of interpretation can give us the correct answer.