Self-Designation and Group Identity– Part Five

Self-Designation and Group Identity– Part Five November 19, 2012

There is probably no more used, or abused term for the early Christians than the term ‘ekklesia’. Trebilco seeks to set the discussion on a sounder footing, He rightly warns from the outset that the translation ‘church’ is just too anachronistic is almost any text where we find the term ‘ekklesia’ The background of the term is well known. From at least the fifth century B.C. the term referred to the democratic political assemblies in Greece. Acts 19.39 shows the term still being used in this way in a Greek setting. It normally referred to the act of coming together or meeting, not to the body of persons who met, and this is an important point as it also has that sense in some NT texts (‘when you all come together as ‘ekklesia’…’). Trebilco also rightly stresses that the term always refers to a gathering of a group. It is never ever a term used of an isolated individual whether it is used in the singular or plural. One person does not an assembly, a gathering, a meeting, a congregation make.

What Trebilco fails to say, but should have said is that the term carried large overtones in Greek settings, like Corinth or Philippi, or even Ephesus, of a ‘democratic assembly where deliberative rhetoric, the rhetoric of advice and consent would be heard, as arguments about policy to be adopted would be heard. This is not a trivial point. It tells us something about how Paul uses the term ekklesia. He sees congregational meetings as democratic in character, rhetorical in focus, where discourse, dialogue and argument was appropriate.

It is also true that the use of ekklesia in the LXX of the qahal or assembly of God’s people is of course an important part of the background of the use of this term, however, it must be doubted that Gentiles converted from paganism would have heard the term in light of that background rather than the Greek one. As Trebilco points out however, the term most often carries with it the sense of an act of assembling or a gathering. It has more of a verbal sense than a noun sense quite often. Interestingly, by far the most frequent use of this term is found in the LXX of 1-2 Chronicles where we find some 8 and 24 uses respectively in those two books. In other words, the chronologically later books in the LXX use it more frequently (see also 11 times in Ezra-Nehemiah).

Philo uses the term some 23 times (mainly of the Israelites in the wilderness), Josephus some 48 times. Trebilco is surely right that Josephus uses it because the term is well familiar and has specific resonances in the Greek speaking world. Ekklesia is not a technical term referring to a specific kind of assembly, much less necessarily to a religious assembly. It can be used in a variety of ways.

Turning to NT usage, we learn that Paul uses the term over 50 times (counting references in Colossians as well as the capital Paulines). It is the singular most frequent term he used to refer to Christian meetings. Note 1 Cor. 11.18– when you come together in ‘ekklesia’. It requires a group of people meeting. A building is not an ekklesia. This sense of assembling is especially clear in 1 Cor. 11-14, and it would appear to refer to various separate household groups coming together into one larger meeting in some cases. The use of the term ‘ekklesiae’ plural is not much in dispute. It was used for a variety of Christian gatherings in a variety of places.

The singular usage however, Trebilco gets wrong at a couple of key places. It is simply not true that Paul only uses the term for specific localized assemblies, and not for a larger entity that is multi-local. Gal. 1.13 does not refer to one particular assembly of God. Saul was not just a persecutor of the Jerusalem assembly of believers, or even just the Judean assembly of believers. He had gotten papers to go and persecute Christians in Damascus as well, so when he says he ‘persecuted the assembly of God’ he is talking about any that existed at the time. In other words, he uses the term to refer to multiple local meetings in various places and he uses the singular collectively here. Secondly. 1 Cor. 12.28 is certainly not best understood to refer to every local assembly! Every local assembly did not have apostles in the Pauline sense. Indeed, when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, there were no apostles mentioned as being in Corinth. Apostles were overseers of the ‘Assembly’ with a capital A, not just particular local assemblies. So far as we can tell both Peter and Paul were apostles to many assemblies in many places. In other words, the office of apostle is not a local one, nor is the office of co-worker of the apostle. One should also examine 1 Cor. 15.9 and Phil. 3.6 where the term also has a broader than local sense. This explains why as well we have the term used in that broader or more universal sense in Col. 1.18 and 1.24, and also in Acts 20.28, Ephes. 1.22;3.10,21; 5.23-32, also Mt. 16.18 and Heb. 12.22-23 of the heavenly assembly of the saints.

The attempt to avoid the hierarchial implications of this language is both wrong and unfortunate. There is a good reason the groups of Christians in Rome are never called ‘ekklesia’ by Paul, although he could have done so. It is because they never all met together in one place…. they were fragmented and divided, but Paul wanted them to come together. Nevertheless, Trebilco is right to say that each expression of the assembly is viewed as a miniature version of the whole body of Christ, not merely part of the body or assembly.

The use of the phrase assembly of God, or assembly of/in Christ Jesus is meant to indicate the source of the assembly, the one convoking or calling together the assembly (see p. 173). It is also likely that in Pauline usage, Paul is assuming some continuity between his assemblies that he is involved with and the OT assembly of God.

Trebilco is right as well that even with a phrase like ‘the assembly of God in Corinth’ there is an implicit stress on being part of a wider movement, being interconnected with other assemblies of God elsewhere, otherwise there would be no need to use the geographical particularizing qualifier. (see p. 180). It may be true that the Jerusalem assembly of Christians was the first to apply this language to itself, as Acts may imply, but we cannot be sure. Trebilco thinks perhaps the Hellenists, the Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem used it, and Paul got it from them (cf. Acts 5.11, 6.1, and then the term is used frequently from Acts 8 on). Trebilco also suggests that the term ekklesia was selected by the Hellenists to distinguish their meetings from those in the synagogue. This could be correct, but then it is hard to explain why someone like James (James 2.1) would continue to use synagogue to apply to Jewish Christian meetings in the Diaspora. Yet synagogos was a term already in use in some places of a Jewish meeting building (see pp. 191-93). On the whole he seems right in saying that when Christians as both Jews and Gentiles met together there became an increasingly strong preference to call the meeting something other than synagogos… preferring ekklesia.

It is probably right that the usage of ekklesia in Mt. 16 and 18 reflects later Christian usage, but it seems probable since Jesus did proclaim the coming of the eschatological Kingdom, and did gather a group of followers that he did speak of a community perhaps using the Aramaic equivalent (or qahal) to refer to his gathered group. One of the mysteries about the use of ekklesia in the NT is why it surprisingly never shows up in 1 Peter though the author has quite a lot to say about ecclesiology generally speaking. Whatever else one can say… Trebilco is certainly right that the ekklesia only functions as a group. It does not function as isolated individuals. One person does not make (or break) a church.

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