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The Nature of the Church: The Church as ‘Ekklesia’

By Ethan Longhenry.

“And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

By this statement Jesus establishes the term most commonly used to describe the group of people who follow Jesus: “the church”. We today may not think much of it, but it is interesting to note that Jesus chose a particular term in the midst of so many to refer to this group. In Greek, the term is ekklesia; why does Jesus use this particular word? What do we know about it?

Very often, ekklesia is defined by its origin: ek, meaning “from,” and kaleo, meaning “to call”, and therefore we see “the called out”. While the word derives in this way, such is not its meaning. By the time of the New Testament, the word had a long history, and there is no dispute that the word was understood to mean “assembly”. Why, then, does Jesus describe the group of His followers as “the assembly”? Jesus often uses the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in His preaching in the Gospels; we find the word ekklesia used to translate Hebrew qahal, “assembly, congregation,” over 60 times. The Greek word for “synagogue” is also used to translate that Hebrew word over 30 times. Jesus is most certainly using the word ekklesia to refer to the congregation of His people in much the same way as it was used to speak of the assembly of Israel. Nevertheless, Jesus is using a term to describe a congregation of a physical nation to describe a congregation of a spiritual nation— a true shift in meaning!

In the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, however, ekklesia would have been commonly understood as possibly referring to a disorganised crowd (cf. Acts 19:32, 40), but most likely to a political legislative body, somewhat akin to our current Congress (cf. Acts 19:39). The term was rarely, if ever, used to describe a religious body in the pagan world. Nevertheless, we can discover some interesting parallels between the ancient legislative bodies and the nature of the church established by Christ. Granted, we cannot extend these too far, since the bodies have different purposes, but they perhaps might shed some light on why the term ekklesia was used to describe the church.

The ancient ekklesiai consisted of “equal” persons. The ancient Athenian assembly consisted of all freeborn native men, and each had an equal opportunity to speak and to vote. Granted, this is not full equality, since there is no mention of women or non-natives, but for the ancient world this was a huge step toward equality. In the assembly of Christ, every soul is equal before God (Galatians 3:28), an equally revolutionary concept. We recognise that the Scriptures define different roles for different people (cf. Ephesians 5:22-6:9), but the inherent equality of each person before God is assured.

The ancient ekklesiai involved participation by everyone. In ancient Athens, all men who were able to comprise the assembly realised that they should attend and help make the important decisions. In fact, those who did not perform their civic duty were considered worthless. Likewise, in the assembly of Christ, all saints should realise the need to assemble with one another (cf. Hebrews 10:25), and while God has again established different roles for different people within the assembly (cf. 1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35), everyone can participate in the prayer, singing, Lord’s Supper, and other such acts.

The ancient ekklesiai continued for generation after generation, with the younger learning from the older and in turn teaching the next generation. The assembly of Athens was the main legislative body for over 150 years and lasted for many more; it continued because each generation, in turn, involved the younger generation, instilled in them the need to continue the assembly, and showed them how to participate. The assembly of Christ has functioned in much the same way: Christ has always remained the Head (Ephesians 5:23), but it is incumbent upon each generation to instil in the younger generations the need to assemble with the saints and to fight the good fight of faith (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18), to instruct them in the discipline and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4), and to provide them an example to follow.

These are a few of many possible parallels that can be drawn between the ancient political assemblies of the Greeks and the religious assembly established by Christ. Let us continue to build up the assembly of Christ, helping to show His light and the light of HIs Gospel throughout the world (Matthew 28:18-20)!

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