Church Beyond the Local Gathering

Part 12 of series:
What is a Church?

Church Beyond the Local Gathering

Before I finish my discussion of the meaning of the word ekklesia – usually translated as “church” – in the New Testament, I need to say something about the use of ekklesia in Paul’s letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians.

I'm a now and then collector of old hymnals. I was glancing through my collection recently to see if I could find any interesting hymns about the church. I did indeed find a curious selection in The Sunday-School Service and Tune Book. It's called "Beautiful Church," by Rev. E. L. Drown. I find his vision of the church – and here we're talking largely in terms of an actual gathering – quite fascinating. See the appendix to today's post.

Curiously, neither of these letters are addressed to an ekklesia or to a group of ekklesiai as is the case in Paul’s letters to Corinth (both letters), Galatia, and Thessalonica (both letters). Colossians is addressed to “the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:2), while Ephesians was sent to “the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1:1). The greetings at the end of Colossians reflect the sort of tangible, actual-gathering quality of ekklesia that we have seen before in Paul. He greets “Nympha and the ekklesia in her house” as well as the “ekklesia of the Laodicieans” (4:15-16).

Yet earlier in Colossians we find a different nuance of ekklesia. Let me quote several verses from the first chapter of this letter:

15  [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (1:15-20; emphasis added)

A few verses later Paul underscores this new sense of ekklesia:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (1:24)

Ephesians takes this ball from Colossians and runs with it far upfield. In the first chapter, God raised and exalted Christ,

22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (1:22-23)

In Ephesians 3, God reveals his wisdom “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” “through the church” (Eph 3:10). He concludes the chapter with a stirring benediction:

20   Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (3:20-21)

Then, in Ephesians 5, ekklesia shows up six times. Christ is “the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior” (5:23). The church “is subject to Christ” (5:24). Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). Christ seeks “to present the church to himself in splendor” (5:27). He nourishes and tenderly cares” for the church (5:29). Finally, like the unity between husband and wife, so it is with Christ and the church, something Paul refers to as “a great mystery” (5:32).

The meaning of ekklesia in Colossians and Ephesians has clearly moved far beyond the literal gathering of Christians in some location. Now the ekklesia is the body of which Christ is the head. It appears to be some cosmic reality that transcends ordinary space and time, and that encompasses far more than a single gathering of believers. Paul seems to be envisioning some sort of “gathering,” now used metaphorically rather than literally, of all Christians on earth and in heaven. This ekklesia has permanence in time like an actual body. An ekklesia in the regular sense may come and go, but an ekklesia as a body remains intact over time.

The relationship of the church/body in Colossians and Ephesians and the local church is not spelled out in detail. Though Paul uses ekklesia in a new and greatly expanded sense, he can still refer, as I mentioned earlier, to the ekklesia in Nympha’s house (or that meets at her house, Col 4:15) and to the ekklesia of the Laodiceans (4:16). His specific instruction that his letter be read “in the ekklesia of the Laodiceans” suggests that Paul can still use ekklesia in the ordinary sense of the tangible gathering. Yet, at the same time, the ekklesia is also a much larger and more permanent reality. It is something that can be spoken of as a body, with Christ as the head.

The use of ekklesia in Colossians and Ephesians offers a fitting segue to the next image I want to investigate in this series on the church, the image of the body. To this I will turn in my next post.


“Beautiful Church” by Rev. E. L. Drown

Beautiful Church of Christ below,
Beautiful in this world of woe,
Beautiful Gate to Heaven above,
Beautiful House of God I love;
He, who was slain on Calvary,
Has built this beautiful Church for me.

Beautiful Round, our Festival year,
Beautiful all its scenes appear,
Beautiful Feast, when Christ was born,
Beautiful light the Easter morn;
With Christmas wreaths, and Easter Flowers,
Thank God, this beautiful Church is ours!

Beautiful Baptism, Christ its light,
Beautiful Infants, robed in white,
Beautiful Chants, we love to sing,
Beautiful Hymns to Christ our King;
The path that Saints and Martyrs trod,
The Church that leads us home to God.

Beautiful Church of Christ, our King,
Beautiful offerings let us bring,

Beautiful lives, the Church to adorn
Beautiful love, to Heaven’s First-born;
With hearts of faith the Saviour see.
Come to this Beautiful Church with me.

From The Sunday-School Service and Tune Book, ed. John C. Hollister (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1863) p. 155.


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