Setting the Record Straight on the Meaning of Ecclesia, or What is Church?
After my fourth book in a row on the missional church, having seen a recurrent sentiment expressed over and over, I feel the need to correct some narrow and not-quite-accurate thinking. Throughout a lot of the missional literature, and even in evangelical pulpits from time to time, I hear this erroneous claim: "The term church (Greek, ekklesia) is more a verb than a noun. It refers to the calling out of a people" (Gibbs, Emerging Churches, 99).
Unfortunately, certain scholars have succumb to the etymological fallacy, which is that the meaning of words is equal to its root word or (in the case of compound words) component parts. Some have observed that ecclesia is a compound of the Greek preposition ek (from, out of) and the verb kaleo (to call), which when combined mean, "calling out," or in the adjectival form (ecclesia), "called out." Hence the common assertion that the church is not a building, nor a place, nor even something Christians do together on each Lord's Day (Sunday), but means "called out ones." The problem is, the consensus of the best linguistic scholarship over the last several decades has proven that usage (i.e., context), not etymology, determines the meaning of words. The standard Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) bears this out in its entry for ecclesia. Its definitions are threefold:
1. a regularly summoned legislative body, assembly, as generally understood in the Greco-Roman world (e.g., Acts 19:39).2. a casual gathering of people, an assemblage, gathering (e.g., Acts 19:32, 40).3. a people with shared belief; community, congregation:(a) of OT Israelites (e.g., Dt 31:30; Jdg 20:2);(b) of Christians in a specific place or area: a. of a specific Christian group assembly, gathering ordinarily involving worship and discussion of matters of concern to the community (e.g., Mt 18:17; 1 Cor 11:18); b. congregation or church as the totality of Christians living and meeting in a particular locality or larger geographical area, but not necessarily limited to one meeting place (e.g., Acts 5:11; 8:3; 1 Cor 4:17; Phil 4:15);(c) the global community of Christians, (universal) church (e.g., Mt 16:18; Acts 9:31; 1 Cor 6:4; Eph 1:22).
Two important observations need to be emphasized. First, there is not one single definition of ecclesia in the New Testament, so we must not try to force our interpretation of one of them onto all the others. Context (usage) determines the meaning in each case. Second, ecclesia does not mean "called out ones." However, hagioi (pl., holy) used nominatively (saints) does identify the body of believers in Jesus Christ as those "sanctified" (set apart) in Him and for His purposes. While this is different terminology than "called out," it expresses a similar idea, namely, that Christians are called to a unique Kingdom type of life, in the way of Jesus. The difference is, there is no justification for claims that Christians have been called out of and separated from the world. Rather, they are called to be "set apart" from the values and allegiances of the world that are in conflict with those of the Kingdom of God, while being sent into and remaining firmly planted in the world.
I hope these clarifications will help those of us seeking to lead the church into greater faithfulness to its missional calling, in developing a more biblical ecclesiology.
So what is a church? It is a group of believers in Jesus Christ who gather together regularly for worship and equipping for their mission, who dwell with one another in Kingdom community, who participate together in the redemptive mission of God, and who together with all churches everywhere comprise the one Church of God in Jesus Christ.
The record is straight.