When a Church is Not a Church, Part 2

Part 7 of series:
What is a Church?

When a Church is Not a Church, Part 2

In my last post, I argued something fairly commonplace: that the word “church,” understood theologically, does not refer to a building but to the congregation who uses it. This is not news, though it deserves to be repeated.

Then, I argued something fairly unusual: that the English word “church” is a poor translation of the Greek word ekklesia, the word that is almost always rendered as “church” in English translations of the Bible. I explained that ekklesia in standard first-century Greek did not have a religious connotation, and therefore “church” smuggles in meaning that was not present in ekklesia. So, you might wonder, if “church” isn’t the best translation of ekklesia, what might be better? I’ll try to answer this question, first by looking at the ordinary first-century meaning of the Greek word ekklesia.

The Ordinary Meaning of Ekklesia

Almost all New Testament uses of ekklesia are distinctive in comparison to secular Greek, since ekklesia is almost always used to denote a particular gathering, that is, of believers in Jesus. In Acts of the Apostles, however, ekklesia is used three times in a more or less ordinary secular sense, though perhaps ironically.

The top portion of a statue of Artemis of Ephesus.

The context for this usage is Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (a city in what is now western Turkey). For two years, Paul preached the gospel there, with considerable success. Many residents of Ephesus put their faith in Jesus and rejected their pagan practices. This led to a sharp decrease in the sales of little silver trinkets of one of the most popular pagan gods, Artemis. Those who made their living by making and selling these souvenir idols became enraged, fearing the loss of their livelihood. So they stirred up their fellow Ephesians, who all rushed together to the theatre at the center of town, dragging a couple of Paul’s companions with them. Acts tells us that the assembly in the theatre was in great confusion. The Greek word translated as “assembly” is ekklesia (Acts 19:32).

When one man tried to address the gathering, he was shouted down because the pagan Ephesians were biased against him, owing to his being Jewish. Finally, one of the civic leaders of Ephesus managed to quiet the people down. He told them not to worry about the worship of Artemis and to follow appropriate legal actions if they had been wronged by Paul and his retinue. The leader concluded by saying, “If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly [ennomoi ekklesiai, literally, the lawful ekklesia or assembly]” (19:39). Then, Acts tells us, the official “dismissed the assembly [ekklesian]” (19:40).

From this story in Acts we can learn several things about the word ekklesia. Most simply, it meant “assembly” or “gathering.” It referred to some sort of meeting of people who had come together for a particular purpose. In Greek society, the ekklesia was the assembly of full citizens in a particular city. (Most residents were not full citizens at that time.) Thus, the ekklesia was rather like the city council in a modern American city in terms of its authority.

Etymologically, the word ekklesia was derived from the verb ek-kaleo, which meant “to call people together” or “to summon” them. This does not mean, however, that ekklesia really meant “the called-out people,” as is often claimed by preachers. Those who wrote the New Testament and those who read what they had written would not have thought of ekklesia in light of its etymological roots, just as we don’t think of “a flock gathered together” when we hear the word “congregation,” which is based on the Latin con (together) and gregare (to make a flock or grex).  For speakers of first-century Greek, the word ekklesia meant “assembly” without a hint of whether those who gathered had been called out or not. It’s like when you hear the word “microwave.” This word denotes a certain kind of oven. You and I don’t think of the fact that “microwave” was derived from the combination of “micro” and “wave,” and uses high-frequency electromagnetic waves. Rather, “microwave” means “that white oven over there in which I warm up my leftover pizza.”

Ekklesia was a common Greek word for a gathering of people. Yet, it came to have a special meaning in reference to the assembly of the voting citizens of a city. In this sense it was the “regular assembly” referred to in Acts 19:39. But, as we saw in Acts 19:32 and 40, ekklesia could also be used to describe an unplanned and unruly crowd of people (perhaps ironically).

As I mentioned in my last post, ekklesia was not used specifically for religious convocations, not did it have religious overtones. The first-century Greek speaker would not thought of the gods or of a religious gathering when hearing the word ekklesia. Thus, if I were a Bible translator, I’d opt for “assembly” or “gathering” rather than church for most New Testament instances of ekklesia. I agree with N.T. Wright’s recent translation of ekklesia as “assembly,” as I mentioned in my last post. What gives the Christian ekklesia its distinctiveness is not the fact that it is an ekklesia, but the fact that it is an ekklesia in God. More on this later.

All of this raises some fascinating questions about the meaning of ekklesia in early Christianity, and why the early Christians chose this particular word to describe their meetings. I’ll try to answer these questions in my next post.


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