The Nature of the Church
Stuart L. Brogden
Greek Word: ἐκκλησία
from a compound of <G1537> (ek) and a derivative of <G2564> (kaleo); a calling out, i.e. (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both), assembly, church.
What is “the church”?
The Greek word ekklesia is most often presented in English Bibles as “church.” The word “church” is not a translation of the Greek word, ekklesia; it’s not even a transliterated version of that word. Strong’s concordance shows ekklesia being used in the KJV as either “assembly” or “church.” But the Greek word means “the called ones” and actually shows up in Scripture being applied to an assembly of town-folk (3 times in Acts 19:32-41). As with most words in the Word, the bare definition of the word does not reveal the meaning in every usage.
As for the use of “church” in the Bible, there does not appear to be a clear record of why it was chosen, nor of the meaning of this word. At least twice in the New Testament of the KJV, “church” applies to God’s covenant people in the Old Testament:
Acts 7:37-38 This is that Moses, which said unto the children of Israel, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear. This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and [with] our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us.
Heb 2:11-12 For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified [are] all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.
It is not possible for anyone to make a categorical statement that every occurrence of “church” means the local assembly of the saints, as some do.
The first known use of this word in English Bibles is found in Wycliffe’s Bible, spelled “chirche.” His work was translated from the Latin Vulgate and we have no clear reason for his use of this word.
In Smith’s Bible Dictionary from 1884, page 452, we read:
the derivation of the word ‘church’ is uncertain. It is found in the Teutonic and Slavonic languages and answers to the derivatives of ekklesia, which are naturally found in the romance languages and by foreign importation elsewhere. The word is generally said to be derived from the Greek kyriakos, meaning the lord’s house. But the derivation has been too hastily assumed. It is probably associated with the Scottish kirk, the Latin circus/circulous, the Greek klukos, because the congregations were gathered in circles.
Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable of 1898 agrees:
The etymology of this word is generally assumed to be from the Greek, Kuriou oikos (house of God); but this is most improbable, as the word existed in all the Celtic dialects long before the introduction of Greek. No doubt the word means “a circle.” The places of worship among the German and Celtic nations were always circular. (Welsh, cyrch, French, cirque; Scotch, kirk; Greek, kirk-os, etc.) Compare Anglo-Saxon circe, a church, with circol, a circle.
The first definition in Daniel Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines “church” as “A house consecrated to the worship of God, among Christians; the Lords house. This seems to be the original meaning of the word.”
There two things to bear in mind regarding the apparent definition of the word “church.” The ekklesia of God in the New Testament refers to the redeemed saints, not a location or a building. Secondly, one of the messages Jesus taught the woman at the well (John 4) is that, in the Christian faith, there are no sacred or consecrated places where we must meet God.
Since the etymology of “church” is based on location rather than on people, it is a poor choice for ekklesia. In practice, so many Christians think of the building as the church, which many refer to as “the house of God,” it is a constant battle to keep the true meaning of ekklesia in front of people. In contrast, the Scriptures use myriad examples of buildings to refer to God’s redeemed people (1 Cor 3:15-17; 6:19; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5; Gal 4:26; Rev 21:2), and never refers to a temporal location within the New Covenant context. Why do we carry on with this word that people consistently understand to mean a temporal location rather than the people of God?
After Wycliffe’s Bible (1382), the early English Bibles took a different view. Tyndale’s Bible (1526), the Coverdale Bible (1535), Matthew Bible (1537), The Great Bible (1539), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568) all translated ekklesia as “congregation,” a term that conveys the idea of people called to be together. The Geneva Bible (1560) followed Wycliffe and used “church” in place of ekklesia, as did the KJV.
When work on the King James Bible began, the king provided 15 rules that the translators had to follow. Rules 1 & 3 are of particular interest to the topic of this paper:
- The ordinary Bible, read in the church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit.
- (not used here)
- The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation, &c.
Rule 1 shows that the king wanted his Bible to be in the common tongue, accessible to the people, who were used to having the Great Bible and the Bishop’s Bible used in the state-churches. It is not true, as some KJV defenders claim, that the KJV was a unique Bible; it was based on the Bishop’s Bible. Rule 3 came into play in two prominent words that were not translated, but merely used in place of (as with “church”) or transliterated (as with “baptism”). Translating these two words would have provided us a clearer picture of what God was communicating. Ekklesia rendered as “congregation” or “assembly” shows we are talking about people, not places. Baptizo rendered as “dipping” or “dunking” shows we are talking about being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection by going down into the waters as if unto death and rising up from them as if unto new life. Advocates of the state-church have a history of building geo-political empires with ostentatious buildings for their gatherings and sprinkling infants rather than baptizing disciples.
There are at least eight passages where ekklesia refers to what is called “the universal church,” all the redeemed in Christ, called according to His name.
Matthew 16:18 (KJV) And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
1 Corinthians 15:9 (KJV) For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Ephesians 1:22-23 (KJV) And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
Ephesians 3:9-11 (KJV) And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ephesians 3:21 (KJV) Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.
Ephesians 5:23-32 (KJV) For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
Philippians 3:6 (KJV) Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
Colossians 1:18 (KJV) And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
Colossians 1:24 (KJV) Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.
Hebrews 12:23 (KJV) To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
In each of these passages, the bolded phrases make consistent sense when seen as references to the total number of God’s redeemed; not as references to any given local ekklesia. In his 1858 book, Manual of Church Order, John Leadly Dagg spent chapter 3 discussing the universal church, beginning with this: “The Church Universal is the whole company of those who are saved by Christ.”
In his book, Concise Theology, chapter “The Church,” J. I. Packer, describes the universal church:
The New Testament defines the church in terms of the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and patterns through a relationship to all three Persons of the Godhead, brought about by the mediatorial ministry of Jesus Christ. The church is seen as the family and flock of God (Eph. 2:18; 3:15; 4:6; John 10:16; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), his Israel (Gal. 6:16); the body and bride of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:25-28; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9-27); and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; cf. Eph. 2:19-22). Those in the church are called the “elect” (chosen), the “saints” (consecrated ones, set apart for God), and the “brothers” (adopted children of God).
The truest, purest expression of ekklesia is the vision of heavenly Jerusalem, coming down from heaven with the Lord Jesus upon His second advent (Rev 21:2). Therefore, those New Testament passages which appear to speak of the universal assembly of God’s redeemed should be embraced rather than cast in the shadow, so the references to the local gathering of saints would be established as THE “church.” The primary focus on the “local church” by some brothers is so prominent in their doctrine that one can easily lose sight of the fact that the ekklesia of Christ is a heavenly body. Our citizenship is in heaven, we are pilgrims and sojourners in this age.
It is true that the overwhelming occurrences of ekklesia in the New Testament refers to local assemblies; there is no reason to pretend otherwise. The point is that the local assembly is not the only ekklesia of God’s people mentioned in Scripture. It’s easier to see this when we use a term that clearly portrays the people of God and not merely a place on the ground. The local ekklesia is important for the saints – this is where critical spiritual growth takes place, this is where the Spirit of God gathers and gifts us as it pleased Him. But in each local assembly of saints, there is likely to be false brothers in the pale. In this way, the local ekklesia is a type of the true ekklesia, the universal church, because in that gathering, there are only true sons and daughters of our Holy God; no pretenders.
The congregation is the people of God. Christ gave Himself for His sheep – all and each of them, whether they belong to a local congregation or are awaiting the resurrection of their bodies. After all, the Bible is all about the Lord Jesus and we ought to be, also. Let us not get so earthly focused that we take our eyes off Him.