Definition: Church (or Ekklesia)

by Alan Knox

Look in an English dictionary under the letter “C”, somewhere between “chocolate” and “cider”, and you’ll find the word “church.” “Church” is an English term that has many different definitions. In that dictionary, you will probably find five or six different definitions for “church.” Many of those words are related, which makes this process even harder.

What process is that? I’m talking about defining the word “church” as it’s used in the New Testament. In other words, I’m trying to answer this question: When we read the New Testament and come across the word “church,” what does this word mean?

Unfortunately, because of the many definitions of the modern term “church,” the meaning of the word when we read it in the New Testament is often muddled. Some of that ambiguity has arisen because the English term “church” did not originate from the Greek term ekklesia that it translates in the New Testament. (For more information, see my post “The ekklesia and the kuriakon.”)

The Greek term ekklesia did not and could not carry all of the definitions of the English term “church.” Instead, the term ekklesia always referred to an assembly of people. (For more information, see my posts “The ekklesia of Josephus” and “The ekklesia in context.”) In the instances that interest me, the term ekklesia refer to an assembly of God’s people.

In some cases, the term ekklesia refers to all of God’s people which he has “assembled” or “gathered” out of the world. In other cases – most cases – the term refers to actual gatherings of God’s people, often designated by geography or location. Interestingly, in this latter case, the term ekklesia does seem to refer to subset of a largerekklesia (i.e. the “church” in someone’s house as a subset of the “church” in a city). However, these subsets are never set against one another; they remain part of the larger ekklesia.

Therefore, when we read the word “church” in the New Testament, we should always remember that the author is talking about a group of people. The New Testament writers are constantly talking about the “church” in relational terms. Primarily, I divide these relationships into three types (although they are interrelated): 1) the relationships between God and his people, 2) the relationships among God’s people, and 3) the relationships between God’s people and others (i.e., those who are not God’s people).

I think that if we understand “church” as a group of people, and we understand the importance of relationships to the church, then the way we live as the church and the way we study the church will be different (than it normally is today).

As with my definition of ecclesiology, this blog post is by necessity only an introduction. It is not complete or exhaustive. What would you add to my definition of church? What would you change? Why?

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