Its form and function
By Glenn Kerr
One of the important parts of any scriptural doctrine is the words the Holy Spirit selected to name or describe that doctrine. The doctrine of the Lord's church, or Ecclesiology, derives its name from the Greek word ekklesia ( ekklhsia ). A proper understanding of that word is essential to a proper understanding of ecclesiology. The Greek word occurs 115 times in the Greek New Testament (TR). It is rendered 112 times as "church," and three times as "assembly." It is not the purpose of this article to discuss whether "church" is a good English translation of ekklesia. The real question we must settle is what the Greek word was intended to mean based on its history, and how it was used by the New Testament writers guided by the Holy Spirit. Such an understanding is essential if we are to be able to understand the doctrine of the Lord's church and separate scriptural teaching from the traditions of men.
I would like to illustrate this task before us by comparing words to tools. I have always appreciated fine tools, and I also appreciate the right word in the right place. I winced recently when I saw a man using a wood chisel as a screwdriver. Tools are designed and forged for a specific purpose, and though sometimes they can be used later for something the designer may not have thought of, the later use will still be related to the intended use. But a wood chisel's edge is ruined when used as a screwdriver. A pair of pliers used when a wrench is needed will mar the part being worked on. In the same way, biblical words can be misused. I have found that other believers many times do not mean the same thing by "church" that I mean, and that I find the word ekklesia and the Scriptures to teach. We must first see how the word was "forged" in ancient Greek usage (its form) and then see how the word was both used in the Bible and exemplified in the successful workings of the early churches (its function).
The form of the word ekklesia was shaped in the environment of the ancient Greek city-states, where the first democratic forms of government we know of were created. These city-states were governed by a body called the ekklesia, the "assembly duly summoned," as Liddell and Scott define it. All free citizens of the city-state were summoned to these regular assemblies, where decisions of government were made by majority vote. The word ekklesia is a noun formed from the Greek verb ekkaleo ( ekkalew ), which means to "call forth" or "summon." The word ekkaleo, in turn, is formed from the words ek ( ek ) "out," and kaleo ( kalew )"call." When an assembly was to be convened, the town crier would "call out to," or "call forth" the citizens to assemble for business. The convened assembly was "that which is called forth," or "that which is summoned," the ekklesia.
An ekklesia was "called forth" for a specific purpose; it was not just any gathering of people. The word ekkletos ( ekklhtoj ), an adjective also derived from ekkaleo, may serve to illustrate this. A person described as ekkletos was someone selected to judge or render a decision. Xenophon, the ancient Greek historian, describes a group called on to render a decision about the requests of some ambassadors during a time of civil war. He describes this group as ekkletos. In like manner an ekklesia was summoned because decisions or judgments had to be made.
The usage we have just mentioned was the accepted meaning of the word even in New Testament times, as is seen in Acts 19:23-41. Ephesus was a prominent Greek city in the Roman province of Asia, and the founding of a church there caused a great uproar over the worship of Diana of the Ephesians. Demetrius the silversmith and his fellow craftsmen tried to force the calling of an ekklesta to oust Paul and the Christians from Ephesus. Luke uses the word ekklesia in v. 32 to show us that the silversmiths were not just having a "pep rally"; they wanted official action taken against the Christians. After two hours of confusion (vs. 32-34), the town clerk, a high official in Ephesus, calmed the crowd by his presence and basically said that the ekklesia was out of order, and that Demetrius and his friends must bring their complaints to be judged "in the lawful assembly" (vs. 38, 39). The clerk further showed his displeasure by calling the gathering not an ekklesia, but a sustrophe ( sustrofh ), translated "concourse" in the KJV. This word means "crowd" or "mob."
The town clerk, having thus restored calm and by his presence and words lending some order to the chaotic situation, "dismissed the assembly" (v. 41). The connotation of
ekklesia even in secular usage was that of an officially called assembly. There are of course isolated exceptions to this, since words are used by people with great flexibility. But the general connotation is clear.
Having examined the forge at which ekklesia was made, and having seen a little of its use, or function, in secular situations, we now turn to see how the word was employed in scriptural usage. It is important to note that, in a sense, the word ekklesia had a scriptural usage before Christ used it in Matthew 16:18. During the years between 250 and 150 B.C., Jews in Alexandria in Egypt completed a Greek translation of the Old Testament now known as the Septuagint. This translation was widely used in New Testament times, and a number of the New Testament writers quote the Septuagint word-for-word when they quote the Old Testament. The word ekklesia is found 74 times in the Septuagint, and so from that fact alone Christ's disciples and followers would have been familiar with the word. Though it is only a translation, the Septuagint will tell us a lot about the usage of the word ekklesia, and it will also indicate what kind of impression the word would have had on the mind of a first-century Jew. Of the 74 occurrences of ekklesia in the Septuagint, 67 of those are to translate the Hebrew word qahal, "assembly." The word qahal is found 115 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, and 36 times it is translated to sunagoge ( sunagwgh ). "synagogue," "assembly." Ten times qahal is rendered with some other Greek word, and twice there is no Greek equivalent. So roughly two-thirds of the time qahal equals ekklesia, and one-third of the time sunagoge.
Now if we examine these 74 occurrences of ekklesia in the Septuagint, a notable fact is evident. Sixty-six of these refer specifically to the congregation of Israel, assembled for worship, in the vast majority of instances at the temple. The first usage of ekklesia in the Septuagint is Deuteronomy 4:10, when Israel was assembled at Sinai to receive the law. In Deuteronomy 9:10 and 18:16 this is called "the day of the assembly." This was the first ekklesia in Israel's history, when they received the Law, and the concept of Israel having an ekklesia was originated.
When we see that the Bible records that Christ said "I will build my ekklesia" (Matt. 16:18), we remember first that Christ did not create a new word. Of the available words in the vocabulary of his hearers, He chose ekklesia. We will see His wisdom even more clearly as we see how the New Testament writers employed this word, and how perfectly the "tool" is suited to the "work" to which it is applied. But before we go on to that section, consider for a moment the most likely second choice, the word sunagoge. The synagogue was also a place of meeting in Israel, and the Greek word is used in the Septuagint at least 16 times of officially assembled Israel. The synagogue was also a place of worship and teaching, where during the captivity and in the scattered places in the world the Jews found a place to sustain their spiritual life. But the synagogue as it came into being after the captivity was a good, but man-made institution. It came into being to circumvent the problems the nation's sins had created. The Jews recognized this, and never as a rule allowed the synagogue to take the place of the worship at the temple that God prescribed. Had Christ used the word sunagoge, it would have been much more difficult to establish the fact that the old system had been replaced by a new one, similar in authority and sanction by God, but different in makeup and commission.
EKKLESIA IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
It is time to state the case before us very plainly. To the Greek-speaking world, an ekklesia was an organized governing body, summoned regularly to transact business and render decisions. To the Jew of New Testament times, an ekklesia was also the officially assembled nation of Israel, called on to worship and to offer sacrifices and atonements for the nation as a whole. Both these uses for the word ekklesia are easily seen to be similar in definition though different in purpose. They could be compared to different types of chisels, with different purposes, but the same general design and function.
The first mention of ekklesia in the New Testament, Matthew 16:18, should not be understood in the light of what two thousand years of church history have tried to make it say. Christ was not founding a new kind of salvation; Abraham rejoiced to see Christ's day. He was not giving forth a new law; He came not to destroy, but to fulfill. But He was creating a new type of assembly; the assembly before the temple was not going to continue. He said this assembly would have "the keys of the kingdom of heaven," that it would "bind" and "loose." In the light of Matthew 18:15-18, this clearly meant authority among other things, and specifically authority as to who was to be in the assembly and who was to be placed outside. Christ was describing a "chisel," similar in design to the ancient Greek one and the Old Testament one, but different in the purpose and function He had given it.
But many Christians claim that the New Testament teaches the existence of yet another type of ekklesia. This so-called ekklesia cannot be assembled. It has no organization, and it cannot function as a whole to carry out specific purposes. It never meets for worship, and never transacts any business. It is an ekklesia in name but not in function. Those who believe in it call it the "universal invisible church." If such an entity exists, the fact that it is so radically different from what the New Testament world would have called an ekklesia demands that we believe in it only if the New Testament demands that we take no other interpretation.
After many years of study on this subject, I am convinced that the New Testament in fact demands the opposite, that the only ekklesia Christ established was a local one. All New Testament occurrences can easily be classified under one of two types: either a reference to a specific church or churches, or a reference to the local church as an idea or concept, the generic type. To establish this case as true, we will here present three arguments.
THE CHURCH VS. THE KINGDOM
The first argument we will consider is based on the contrasting New
Testament teachings concerning the church and the kingdom. The Jews expected the Messiah to come and rule as an earthly king over a literal earthly kingdom. They attempted to take Jesus by force, to make Him a king once (John 6:15). Their assumption, in itself logical, was that since David had had an earthly kingdom, his Son to come would have the same thing. Yet Jesus belabored the point that the kingdom was spiritual, not physical: "And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20, 21).
Jesus said, when questioned by Pilate about the same subject: "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should
not be delivered to the Jews" (John 18:36).
Christ plainly spiritualized His kingdom, and on that basis we can say the kingdom He spoke of in these cases was a spiritual entity. That entity contains all those who have bowed to Jesus as King. It is not a literal, geographical kingdom, but a spiritual one. Now when we compare this scripturally taught concept to the matter of the so-called "universal church," two glaring problems immediately appear. The first is that the Bible already has named the entity that some Christians want to call the "true church." It is called the kingdom. The second problem is that unlike Christ's clear teaching that the kingdom is spiritual, there is not a line in Scripture that declares there is a "church" which is purely a spiritual, and not also a physical, visible entity.
THE GENERIC USAGE
The first argument naturally leads to the second, since some undoubtedly will say, "But there are some uses of ekklesia in the New Testament that refer to no specific local church!" No one with any familiarity at all with the New Testament would deny that. But that does not mean we must conclude there is a "universal church," especially without explicit scriptural teaching. The New Testament is filled with uses of ekklesia in the generic sense. All uses of the word in the New Testament refer either to a specific local church or to the local visible church as a generic type.
I have often been asked the question by my detractors, "When Christ said in Matthew 16:18, 'I will build my church,' which local church did He have in mind?'" This is asked humorously, as if no answer could be given. My reply is: "Every local church that fits His pattern." If Henry Ford had said to America "I will build my car," America would have known it would not be a Packard, a Hudson, a DeSoto, or anything else but a Ford car. Every car built to his pattern was a Ford car. Every church built to Christ's pattern is His church. Christ in the New Testament used the word ekklesia 21 other times besides Matthew 16:18, and in 19 of them He refers to a specific local church or churches. The other two are found in Matthew 18:17, where Christ is referring either specifically to the church He had already established with His disciples, or generically to every true local church, including that one He first established. Considering Christ's use of ekklesia alone, we see both a majority of uses which are specifically a local church and a small but clear minority of the generic use.
It will be worthwhile to look at the passages most used to defend the "universal church" view. It is well to point out that the question is not if it is possible to interpret a given passage as referring to the "universal church." The question is really if we have the right to do so if the Scriptures teach predominantly and with such certainty the doctrine of the local, visible church. Given the fertile imagination of men, even of godly men, many interpretations are possible. But godly men must be those whose minds are governed by Scripture, not tradition. An unnecessary interpretation not only introduces a new and potentially dangerous teaching into the world, but it also obscures the true meaning of a given passage, thus "making the word of God of none effect through your tradition" (Mark 7:13).
In Acts 20:28 Paul instructed the elders of the church at Ephesus "to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood." It may be possible, though manifestly impractical, for us to think that Paul was giving each elder responsibility over all believers everywhere. More sensibly, the Holy Ghost makes men overseers over a specific flock in one location, and their responsibility is to feed that particular church. The statement "which He hath purchased with His own blood" points out the serious concern Christ has for His churches, without saying they are the only things He purchased. This verse briefly summarized says every elder made an overseer by the Holy Spirit must pastor in the church where God has placed him.
I Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 1:22, and Colossians 1:18 and 24 are important passages, but we will discuss them in connection with our treatment of the body of Christ. Ephesians 3:10 is an example of where an unnecessary interpretation not only introduces dangerous ideas, but also negates the effect of Scripture. To say that "church" here is the "universal church" is to impugn the wisdom of God. There is no way a truly honest person can look at the mass of all believers in this age or in any age and declare that this confused, divided mass represents or proclaims the "manifold wisdom of God." The word "manifold" does not mean "contradictory." Some people have blindly said that the various denominations represent the many-sided nature of God's "church," and Fundamentalism as a movement has been built on such a form of ecumenicity that differs from liberalism only in degree. In contrast, to say that "church" here is the local church, generically considered, is to see our responsibility to take the institution God designed and established and to display to all the universe God's many-sided wisdom in designing and creating such an institution, and in vesting it with the responsibility to preach the gospel.
Ephesians 5:23-32, contrary to any "universal church" interpretation, is the core passage in the New Testament for the generic use of ekklesia. Verse 23 begins with a generic statement: "For the husband is the head of the wife." We might ask facetiously what specific local husband Paul had in mind here. This entire passage is built on the generic usage and demonstrates how precious the church as a local institution is to Christ. It describes Christ's tender care of His churches, as exemplified in Revelation 1:12, 13, where He is seen in the midst of His churches, there pictured as candlesticks or lampstands, trimming the wicks, adding the oil, tending the flames. He in like manner today walks among His true churches.
THE BODY OF CHRIST
The last argument to be considered is that the term "body of Christ" is used in the New Testament as an analogy of the organization and function of the local church. The concept of the "body" is considered by many to be the stronghold of the "universal church" concept. In Ephesians 1:22 and Colossians 1:18 and 24 the body of Christ is equated with the church. Since we have demonstrated that ekklesia is always used in either a local or generic sense in the New Testament, then the above equation means we have torn down this last stronghold, since the "body" cannot be something the church is not.
We will not look at all the New Testament passages where the Greek word soma ( sñma ) "body" is used. I Corinthians 12:12-28 is the core passage on Paul's use of the term soma. This passage cannot be adequately explained as referring to a universal body of all believers. Verse 12 might by itself be understood that way, and many have understood verse 13 in that way. But the Spirit of God directs individual believers to be baptized into local churches, whether they are Jews or Gentiles. Under the Old Testament law, Gentiles could be believers, but they could not come into the ekklesia of Israel (Deut. 23:3) without renouncing their former citizenship, being circumcised, and going through an initiation for proselytes. In the New Testament, the Gentiles were to be "fellowheirs, and of the same body" (Eph. 3:6). They were to be part of the same local body, which was the real "sore spot" to the Jews.
When we get to verses 15 and 16 of I Corinthians 12, we realize that the universal body no longer fits at all. Many pastors have heard a disgruntled member say "Since I can't be the pianist, I'm leaving this church!" This is the "foot" griping about not getting to be the "hand." But none of these disgruntled members would try to leave the "universal church," even if it were in existence and they could thereby renounce their salvation. Reading the rest of this passage gives us a detailed picture of how the members of the local church are to work together. I can think of no better analogy for the local church than that of a body. Further, I can honestly see no way in which the "universal church," if it did exist, could be compared to a body, even a dead one. In contrast, a healthy church is "fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part," and it "maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Eph. 4:16). The local church is an organism, a living thing, with Christ as its Head. Just as "the head of every man is Christ" (I Cor. 11:3), so the head of every true New Testament ekklesia is Christ.
Going back to I Corinthians 12, Paul says in v. 27, "Now ye are the body of Christ." Two things should be observed here. First, Paul said that the Corinthian church (the group he wrote to) was the body of Christ. Second, the word "the" is not in the original. It is put in the English since it is difficult to translate the impact of the Greek words. Literally it reads "You [emphatic] then are body of Christ." The words "body of Christ" without the article are meant to describe the Corinthians generically. Their character as an organization is "body of Christ." "The Body of Christ" is not a single, universal entity, but rather a local, generic entity.
Paul concludes this passage in verse 28 with reference to the internal organization of the churches, emphasizing that God, not man, is to be the organizer of the local church. Each gift has its place in each church. Paul wrote when the apostles were still in the churches, but the deletion of apostles from the churches today does not in any way weaken the organization of the churches.
We have tried to set forth clearly the form and function of the Greek word ekklesia. Our study has not been exhaustive, but rather we have chosen examples to illustrate what the word means to an ancient Greek, a Jew of Christ's day, and a New Testament Christian. All these uses or functions fit perfectly the form of this word, and a proper understanding of all New Testament passages where this word occurs requires no other definition. The "universal church" does not fit the form or the function of ekklesia.
Since all true believers are members of the kingdom of God, we emphasize what ought to be every believer's obligation when we say that the New Testament ekklesia is a local, visible church only. We strengthen the understanding of what Christ intended when He said "I will build my church," and we undermine the traditions of men, who in their zeal without knowledge have built vast organizations with no resemblance to Christ's ekklesia. If a chisel is to cut, it must have a sharp edge. It must be used skillfully. When it is used, some chips will fall where they may. Let us never apologize for using the words God chose as the tools He intended.