Part 8 of series:
What is a Church?
When a Church is Not a Church, Part 3
In my last two posts, I suggested that the Greek word ekklesia, which is usually translated as “church” in our English New Testaments, did not have the religious overtones we naturally hear when “church” is spoken. Because of this, I’ve even suggested that “church” is not the best translation for ekklesia. “Assembly,” it seems to me, is better, even though it doesn’t quite represent the nuances of ekklesia. You may recall that ekklesia had a common and quite specific meaning. It denoted the gathering of citizens in a Greek city, those who had authority over the city much like a city council might today. (In actuality, the ekklesia would be like a peculiar combination of the voters in a city and the city council. Perhaps the town meeting in a small New England town would be the closest modern equivalent. )
The Earliest Usage of Ekklesia in the New Testament
Unquestionably, the earliest written use of ekklesia in the New Testament comes from the letters of Paul. Scholars differ on which of Paul’s letters was the earliest. Some opt for Galatians; while others prefer 1 Thessalonians. I’m in the “others” group for reasons I won’t go into here. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica (in Macedonia, an area of northern Greece), he began in this way:
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the ekklesia of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes 1:1)
Presumably, of course, he had taught the Thessalonian Christians to think of themselves as an ekklesia, so they would know what he was referring to when he used this word.
The phrase “ekklesia of the Thessalonians” would have had an established, commonly-understood meaning in this city. It denoted the gathering of citizens to govern the city. But Paul qualified his use of this phrase and therefore limited misunderstanding by adding “in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christians gathered in Thessalonica were not equivalent to the civic ekklesia. Rather, they were an alternative assembly, one that met “in God and Christ.” “In” means something like “by the work of” or “under the authority of” or “for the sake of.”
Given what we’ve seen earlier about the meaning of ekklesia, it’s quite likely that Paul was referring to the actual gathering of Christians in Thessalonica, not some ideal assembly. He envisioned that his letter would be read in this gathering and he was addressing the people who were in fact present. There’s no evidence that he was thinking, as we might think, of all the members of the Thessalonian church, whether they were present for the reading or not. Paul was addressing a real assembly, an actual gathering of people. These were the ekklesia of the Thessalonians in God and Christ.
Support for this understanding of church comes also from Paul’s letter to Galatians. He addresses this letter to: “The churches [ekklesiais] of Galatia” (1:2). The use of the plural is telling here. When Paul writes a letter to the Christians in the region of Galatia (in the center of modern Turkey), he does not think of them as some sort of spiritual group that could be called a single ekklesia that never gathered together in the same place. Rather, they were a bunch of ekklesiai, “assemblies” in the plural.
In some of Paul’s later writings, notably Colossians and Ephesians, he expands the sense of ekklesia beyond this basic, literal sense. As a matter of fact, I even think it’s possible to speak of the “scattered church.” I’ll discuss these matters later. For now, however, I want to make the simple point that the essential meaning of ekklesia includes the notion of an actual gathering of real people. Paul wouldn’t know what you meant if you said, “The Thessalonian ekklesia didn’t meet today.” From his point of view, there would still have been a few dozen Christians in Thessalonica, and they would still have had many ties together in Christ and in the Spirit, but they wouldn’t have been an ekklesia if they didn’t actually meet.
It may seem like I’m making an academic and linguistic point here that is of interest to scholars but otherwise of little practical value. On the contrary, I think what I’ve just said has profound implications for our actual understanding and practice of church today. I’ll explain this in my next post in this series.