The term church comes from the Greek word Eklesia (Strongs # 1577). It basically means “assembly” or “called out” (from the verb “to call out”).
In the Greek City-State
Church (assembly) is derived from “call out”, a verb used for the summons of an army to assemble. In Greek culture, it denoted the popular assembly of the full citizens of the “polis” or Greek City-State. From the 5th century B.C. onward, it met at regular intervals. The term was also used to describe emergency meetings.
Every citizen had the right to speak and to propose matters for discussion. In the centuries prior to the translation of the Old Testament and the time of the New Testament, the term eklesia was clearly a reference to a political activity. It was the assembly of full citizens, adopted in Greek democracy, an assembly in which political and judicial decisions were taken. Eklesia was only regarded as existing when it was actually assembled.
Greek Writers Josephus and Philo and the Septuagint
Josephus used the word eklesia some 48 times, always of a gathering. The character of the gathering varied (i.e. religious, political and spontaneous assemblies). Philo uses the term some 30 times.
In the Septuagint (the translation of the Old Testament into Greek), the Greek word eklesia occurs about 100 times. It represents the Hebrew qahal (assembly) about 73 times (but never edah which is congregation). The Hebrew term qahal and its Greek equivalent eklesia could describe assemblies of a less specifically religious or non-religious kind. For example, gahal is used in the gathering of an army in preparation for war (1 Sam. 17:47; II Cron. 28:14) or the coming together of an unruly and potentially dangerous crowd (Ps. 26:5; Eccls. 26:5). However, most significant are those instances of eklesia (from qahal), which denote the congregation of Israel when it assembled to hear the word of God on Mt. Sinai, or later on Mt. Zion where all of Israel was required to assemble 3 times a year. Sometimes, the whole nation appears to be involved (Deut. 4:10). Therefore, we can see that the term eklesia in Greek and Jewish culture prior to Paul meant an assembly or gathering of people. It did not designate an organization or society. Although it did not have a particularly religious meaning, it could refer to meetings that were quite secular (those meetings of Israel before God).
The New Testament
Eklesia is used 114 times in the New Testament and Paul uses over half of them. We are not sure whether the Christian use of the word was first adopted from Jewish or Gentile usage, although it appears most logical that it was derived from the Septuagint use. One may wonder why the Christians did not use the term “synagogue” as was widely used by the Jews. It is speculated that the reason may lie in the common association of a building with “synagogue.”
Paul’s Use of Eklesia
Paul uses it to greet the Thessalonians in 1 Thess.1:1 and II Thess.1:1. With it, he associates the term in God the Father and Jesus Christ, which certainly distinguishes it from the former political meaning. By adding the words “in the Lord Jesus Christ”, Paul clearly distinguishes eklesia from “synagogue” meetings. Paul uses the term “churches” in Galatians, Romans and the two Corinthian letters. We see phrases such as “churches in Galatia”, “churches in Asia”, “churches in Macedonia” and “churches in Judea.” This suggests that the term was only applied to an actual gathering of people, or to a group that gathers regularly. It is doubtful that Paul used eklesia to refer to a collective group of congregations (as in a denomination). The notion of a unified, regional or provincial church was foreign to Paul’s thinking. The primary thinking of Paul comes from 1 Cor.11:18 where he states “when you assemble as a church”, and “to speak in church” (1 Cor.14:35). Paul further defines the church as having been created divinely by God in the beginning of the two Corinthian letters, so as to be certain that it could never be a human association or religious club. Paul’s reference in Galatians 1:13 to his original persecution of the church of God further strengthens this interpretation. This reference may in fact by of the church at Jerusalem before it was distributed into a number of smaller assemblies in various parts of Judea.
Eklesia in Colossians, Philemon and other letters
Eklesia turns up 5 times in Colossians and Philemon. It is used in three separate ways. In Col. 4:16, it is used in the customary sense of assembly at Laodicea. Here an actual gathering is in view. In two references, it designates a house-church. In Col. 4:15, reference is made to “Nymphas and the church that is in her house.” Similarly in Philemon 2, it is clear that Philemon’s house was used as the meeting place in Colossae (“the church that meets in your house”). Other similarities used are in Rom. 16:5, 1 Cor.16:19.
There are two significant instances in Colossians 1 in which eklesia has a wider reference than either the local congregation or the house-church.
1. In Col. 1:18, Paul states that “Christ is the head of the body, that is, the church.”
2. In 1:24, a similar expression is used about Paul’s sufferings. We can understand this wider meaning if we recognize that the context of these usages is one in which Paul is referring to our heavenly citizenship. Note the example in Galatians in which Paul refers to the distinction between the children of “the present Jerusalem” and “the Jerusalem above.”
Likewise, in Philippians, Paul refers to their heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:19-20). In Eph. 1:22, Christ is referred to as the head of the church.
- If the term eklesia is to be understood here as “church” taking place in heaven, then this would mean that Christians participate in it as they go about their ordinary daily tasks. They’re already gathered around Christ, which is another way of saying that they now enjoy the fellowship with Him.
- If the term eklesia does point on some occasions at least, to a heavenly entity, then one may well ask what is its relationship to the local congregations (or even house-churches), which are styled eklesia? Certainly, local gatherings are not part of the heavenly church any more than they are part of an alleged universal church. Even when there are several gatherings in a single city (as in Corinth), the individual assemblies are not understood as part of the church in that place, but rather as one of the churches that meet there. This suggests that each of the various local churches are manifestations of the heavenly church, tangible expressions in time and space of what is heavenly and eternal.