“…and on this rock I will build My ekklesia, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18b)
The Greek word “ekklesia” is a mysterious and unfamiliar word for most people (so if it is new to you, you are not alone!). For the few people who are even familiar with the term, they may only know that that it is the original Greek word presented in modern translations as the word “church,” “assembly,” or “congregation.” Even fewer may be able to recite that the word, composed of the Greek roots ek+kaleo, literally meaning “out called,” as in the gathering of those specially called out. But all too rarely is it actually explained what the word “ekklesia” means. It’s good to know how the word is presented today and what roots were originally used to make up the word, but it is far more important for us to know what the word meant to Christ when he used it. Although it may be tempting to consider this word-study less important like indeed many word-studies are, Ephesians 5:25 tells us that the ekklesia is the thing for which Christ gave Himself and 1 Timothy 3:15 tells us that it is a pillar and ground of the truth, so we can be sure this matter is of the utmost importance!
On this page, the exploration of “ekklesia” is divided into the following sections:
- What context was Jesus relying on when He said He would build His ekklesia?
- Based on the Roman example in scripture, what does an ekklesia look like?
- What are not roles of an ekklesia?
- What is the primary role of an ekklesia?
- What is the secondary role of an ekklesia?
- What if an ekklesia is not performing these roles well?
- Isn’t There A Third Role?
- What is the conclusion?
- Common followup questions answered.
What context was Jesus relying on when He said He would build His ekklesia?
Contrary to the way it is often approached, when Jesus used the word “ekklesia” to describe what he was going to build in Matthew 18:16, he wasn’t making the word up. By the time Christ uttered the word, it had been in common use by the Greeks and then the Romans for 600 years. Jesus intentionally used a word that already had an extremely specific definition and a concrete context. When He said He would build His “ekklesia,” He was not asking His disciples to take it as a new word to be defined later, nor was He asking them to take it to simply mean “out-called” – no, he was telling them to understand what he was saying in light of what they already knew that word to mean. There was no other way around it; they had to rely on their knowledge of contemporary politics in order to understand what he was saying, and so must we. Although that sounds unnecessarily burdensome or like it might require extra-biblical sources, we actually don’t have to look any further than Acts 19 to see what the Roman ekklesia looked like.
Based on the Roman example in scripture, what does an ekklesia look like?
In Acts 19 we read that “there arose a great commotion about the Way” (v. 23). A certain idol crafter called together his fellow craftsmen in the city to discuss the loss they were taking on account of Paul and his message – a meeting which eventually broke out into an uproar in the city. But this gathering of similar individuals was not called an ekklesia. Then we read in v. 29 that “the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions.” But this unformed mass of citizens still streaming into the theater, even though they were of one accord, was also not called an ekklesia.
Finally, we read in verse 32 about those in the theater: “Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the ekklesia was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” (The word “ekklesia” has likely been translated “assembly” in your version.) Despite it being internally divided and confused (definitely not of one mind or spirit), these citizens who had come together were called an ekklesia. So, an ekklesia was only recognized once the local citizens physically came together, that is, those people united through a common city – not a common occupation or anything else. Confirming this, we find the same group called a “crowd” in verse 35 and a “disorderly gathering” in verse 40, both terms that indicate physical gathering. The chapter ends with another reference to the group as an ekklesia (v. 41).
So without any other sources beyond the bible, we can conclude that the thing Jesus was talking about when He said He would build an ekklesia, was a group of local citizens who physically gathered, which history confirms. Furthermore, history also tells us that only Roman citizens could participate in a Roman ekklesia in their city. This is consistent with the idea that the ekklesia of Christ can only be made up of citizens of Christ’s kingdom – it is not just a physical gathering of local citizens, but a physical gathering of those who are local citizens and Christians.
What are not roles of an ekklesia?
Now that we know what an ekklesia physically looked like, why did ekklesias come together at all? What were they required to do? Well, let us begin with eliminating what things they were not indented to accomplish.
In Acts 19:38-39, the official spoke to the people, saying: “Therefore, if Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a case against anyone, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful ekklesia.” From this we see a distinction made between the ekklesia that had formed and three other things: the courts, the proconsuls, and the lawful ekklesia. Simply by the description of the chaotic coming together, it’s easy to understand why the ekklesia that had formed was contrasted with a “lawful” one, but how was it different from the courts and proconsuls? The context shows us that the courts and proconsuls were different from the ekklesia in that an ekklesia was not intended to oversee reconciliation between two individuals and/or personal civic complaints. And this closely aligns with Christ’s expectation that His ekklesia not be the first place issues are brought:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell [it] to the ekklesia. But if he refuses even to hear the ekklesia, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
What is the primary role of an ekklesia?
Like the Romans did before the courts and proconsuls, Christ called His followers to address personal grievances one-on-one and then before a witness. But, also like the Roman arrangement, after these steps were exhausted, the primary role of the ekklesia would come into play; one would then be expected to bring an unrepentant brother before Christ’s ekklesia, which we can see played out in 1 Corinthians 5 and reiterated in 1 Timothy 5:19-20: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” If a physical gathering of local citizens does not see itself as the final judge of unresolved personal disputes between members, it is not an ekklesia – even the chaotic ekklesia in Acts 19 had ultimately come together for judgement.
What is the secondary role of an ekklesia?
So besides being the final authority concerning personal grievances, what other roles were attributed to the ekklesia? According to the official in Acts 19:39 a lawful ekklesia was to facilitate “any other inquiry,” which can also be translated “any other cravings” or “any other demands.” In general, the role of the ekklesia was to provide a space for inquiry (in the pursuit of reaching a consensus), and that included both inquiry concerning unresolved grievances between citzens as well as “any other inquiry.” And again we find this secondary role of exploring “any other inquiry” to also match what Christ intended of His ekklesia, made evident by His description of their authority:
“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:18-20).
Not only was an ekklesia of Christ, by definition, the highest local authority for giving the final word on unresolved, personal disputes, but it was also defined by being the city’s Christians who physically gathered together to come to a consensus on inquiries concerning righteousness, spiritual cravings, and earthly demands. These two roles (providing space for accountability and inquiry) were fundamental, meaning that if they were not being enacted, even poorly, the local Christians physically gathering were nothing more than friends getting together.
Some examples of fulfilling this more general, secondary role might include: coming to a consensus for what should be done about a food shortage for believers in one part of the city, coming to an agreement about how a new pagan practice should be altogether avoided to maintain a clear witness, coming to one mind concerning the need for all the believers in the city to be in prayer about an unjust imprisonment, etc.
An ekklesia by definition and by precedence is governmental in nature. It must both claim governance and actually govern to be legitimate — but, then again, why wouldn’t God’s people take up the promised authority to rule the place they are in? It’s a wonderful promise that is offered to whoever of His people are willing to come together and claim it.
What if an ekklesia is not performing these roles well?
Now that we know what an ekklesia is required to do, what if an ekklesia is doing things wrong? What if, as a governmental assembly, it ins’t governing well? Is it still an ekklesia? This is a very important question, and the answer is also alluded to in Acts 19:39: “ But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful ekklesia ” The official makes it obvious that the ekklesia that had formed was not a good one; indeed it was disorderly and confused – and yet, it was still, repeatedly, referred to as an ekklesia. We can see from this that the Roman concept of an ekklesia was not based on it’s order and lawfulness, nor even on how well it functioned according to its purpose, but on it’s form and constituency (the local Roman citizens who physically gathered together to officially deliberate). And we find the same to be true of an ekklesia of Christ. It is obvious that many ekklesias of Christ in the New Testament are not united and doing what they were built for, and yet they are still called ekklesias.
Consider the rebellious ekklesias of Sardis and Laodicea in Revelation 3, or the ekklesia mentioned in 3 John, which had a leader so distorted that he led those in the ekklesia to put out the faithful who John sent to them…and yet John still recognized it as the ekklesia in that city.
Isn’t There A Third Role?
Some may wonder if the two fundamental roles mentioned so far are all. Shouldn’t the ekklesia have been obligated to care for the welfare of individuals? Strangely, the answer is “no.” Although a Roman ekklesia could have easily cared for the welfare of individual citizens in need, that wasn’t a fundamental role; as long as a Roman ekklesia was actually coming together, standing as the final authority over disputes, and giving space for popular demands (whether or not it did this well or fairly), it was still considered an ekklesia, even if it was letting the people of the city starve. As we can see from the examples of ekklesias of Christ in scripture that were wayward and still recognized, the Roman model and the Christian example match up; Jesus still acknowledges an ekklesia as His even if it is not fulfilling its purpose. Unless an ekklesia were to stop fulfilling the two main roles or reject its emperor/king (embraces another Jesus or another gospel), it will still be recognized.
However, even the pagan emperors of Rome would have held an ekklesia accountable for bad governance if half of its members were starving while the other half were fat. Even more so, Christ established His ekklesia for the purpose of bringing glory to God through good works, which includes edifying one another, sharing resources, and together making disciples (baptizing and teaching), and if an ekklesia does not do those things, we can be sure He will judge that ekklesia. He will indeed recognize a disobedient ekklesia – but whom He loves He chastens (Hebrews 12:6). For example, those in the ekklesia in Corinth were “not discerning the Lord’s body,” and Paul wrote that it was for that reason that many were weak and sick among them, “and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:29b-32).
And, oh, the undoing if an ekklesia does not change in response to this kind of chastening! Christ has no obligation to maintain it. Although love is not fundamental to an ekklesia’s existence, love is required of an ekklesia for it to continue – if we can’t imagine a Roman emperor refraining from tearing apart one of his ekklesias that persisted in challenging him, surely our Lord will not refrain from removing the lampstand from one of His ekklesias that continues to be a bad example of His love (Revelation 2:5).
Unlike the Roman ekklesia, which was not expected to be more than a forum for deliberation and decision-making, an ekklesia of Christ is expected to be a forum for deliberation, decision-making, and expressions of love. Yes, that means an ekklesia is essentially a business meeting, but the business of the Kingdom of God is an exciting thing full of love and gifts of the Holy Spirit given for its operation! Christ didn’t use the Roman ekklesia as the model just so we could throw out all the things that were unique about an ekklesia: one per city, the authority to resolve disputes, and the authority to make decisions. He gave us the model so we could do all those things better than the Romans and really show the world how its done in love!
What is the conclusion?
By examining the ancient precedent of the Roman ekklesia, which Christ intentionally used as a model for His own kingdom’s local government, we can see how an ekklesia of Christ is the number of Christians in a city who physically come together for giving the final word on unresolved, personal disputes and for coming to a consensus on inquiries concerning righteousness, spiritual cravings, and earthly demands. And this framework of full accountability allows the Christians within that framework to express and experience Christian love to its fullest.
Being a final local authority and facilitator of popular demand is the what of an ekklesia of Christ and those functions lay the framework for believers in a city to be able to fulfill the why, which is love for one another. Although an ekklesia of Christ could exist (at least for a time) where Christian love does not abound, the fullness of Christian love cannot be expressed or experienced in the local context without His ekklesia being established to secure it. Quite the opposite of the common perspective today, the legitimacy of an ekklesia of Christ is not found in whether the group in question loves well, though that should be true, but whether or not they claim Christ and whether or not they claim to be the only convening body of His people with the authority to resolve disputes between a few and make decisions for the whole.
Common followup questions answered below:
- Did Jesus really use the word “ekklesia”?
- Isn’t ekklesia just another word for “church”?
- Isn’t it possible for a city to have more than one ekklesia?
- Is a “city” like New York City limited to just one ekklesia?
- Why does one ekklesia per city/town matter?
- Doesn’t the ekklesia refer to all the followers of Jesus in the world? Can a person be a brother or sister in Christ and yet not be in an ekklesia?
- If there is not a universal ekklesia, why does the Bible say there is one body?
Did Jesus really use the word “ekklesia”?
We don’t really know if Jesus was originally speaking in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic when He spoke to Peter and the other apostles about His ekklesia, but even if He had actually uttered the Hebrew word “qahal” instead of the Greek word “ekklesia,” it really makes no difference because at its essence it means the same thing: a group of people united through a common local and national citizenship who physically gather for the purpose of official deliberation. Another example of this, but from American history, would be the “town meeting.”
Long before the time of of Christ, and even before the Greek ekklesia was formed, we see this “qahal” type of ekklesia in the Old Testament when the children of Israel came together for official, organized assembly. We could, therefore, explore the slight differences between the Hebrew form of the ekklesia, but because the apostles saw fit to use the word “ekklesia” throughout the New Testament, including as the word to describe the Ephesian ekklesia, and since the Hebrew assemblies were referenced with different words in the New Testament, we have limited our study here strictly to the Roman ekklesia in order to understand what Christ said He would build.
Isn’t ekklesia just another word for “church”?
No, the word “church” is defined, both originally and in modern times, as a “place of worship,” specifically a building built for worship. However, it’s possible to use the word church, then, as a metaphor for the ekklesia, likening it to a place of worship, but one built out of people instead of stones. This would be similar to 1 Timothy 3:15 where an ekklesia is referred to as a “house of God,” or 1 Cor. 3:16-17, 1 Cor. 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:16, and Ephesians 2:21 where an ekklesia is referred to as a “temple.” Obviously a physical gathering for Christians with a common city to deliberate is not literally a house, temple, or church; but the metaphors can be useful.
Unfortunately, though, the word “church” that many find in their versions of the bible are replacements of the Greek word “ekklesia,” which does not at all mean “a place of worship,” as has been explained on this page. “Church” is not a translation of “ekklesia,” but an inaccurate replacement of the word, and the confusion this creates becomes abundantly clear when a reader gets to Acts 19 where the same word, ekklesia, is translated differently, often as “assembly.”
Some versions, as a translation of “ekklesia,” instead have the English word “congregation.” This also falls short, not conveying a lot of important information, but is still accurate nonetheless.
So, why do most versions have the word “church” in the place of “ekklesia,” if they don’t at all mean the same thing? The answer is King James. The third rule for the translators authoring the King James Version of the bible was as follows: “The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, as the word church, not to be translated congregation.” In order to fit the text to his own best interest, King James gave specific instructions to use the word “church” in the place of any reference in the Greek to a Christian ekklesia. This instruction had to be provided to the “translators” because it was an unnatural deviation from real translation work. This is neither a theory nor an exaggeration, but a historical fact, and this mistake in translation has been copied throughout history, finding its way into most translations, even today.
Isn’t it possible for a city to have more than one ekklesia?
The Four Verses
Some people believe (like the writer of this page once did) that the New Testament contains evidence of multiple ekklesias in a single city, but this is simply not true. Let us look at the four passages that can at first appear to contradict the civic nature of the ekklesia:
“The ekklesias of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the ekklesia that is in their house” (1 Corinthians 16:19)
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, … Likewise [greet] the ekklesia that is in their house…” (Romans 16:3, 5a).
“Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the ekklesia that [is] in his house” (Colossians 4:15).
“…to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the ekklesia in your house…” (Philemon 1:2).
(Take note that any translation that has the phrase "that meets" in these verses has done so without support from the original Greek.)
Two assumptions are usually made when reading these verses. The first assumption, because of the way these verses are translated, is that what is being described is an entire ekklesia meeting all in one house. This is possible, but not necessarily the case, which we will expand on later. The second assumption is that in any one of the cities there were too many disciples for them to fit into a single house. Based on our understanding of the population of these ancient cities, this may be likely, at least in Rome, but by no means a fact. The homes of the wealthy in that time period were known for being quite accommodating to large numbers and people were more comfortable with close quarters than we are today.
Despite these two assumptions being only assumptions, however, many consider them reason enough to come to novel conclusions. Based on these assumptions many conclude that the word “ekklesia” in these verses can’t possibly be referring to all the believers in the city, and instead must be referring to one of many “house churches” that was not correlated to the entire city. They then use this conclusion based on assumptions to define ekklesia as something that can be tied to whatever scope one wishes. In order to account for the way the writers of the New Testament never mention more than one ekklesia in a city, they conclude that the sometimes the writers used “ekklesia” to mean a “house church” and other times to mean “all the house churches in the city.” This is all without evidence and is not the case.
Although many attempts have been made to provide loose evidence to the theory of “house churches”, the evidence is actually to the contrary. In Acts 2 where we read about the only ekklesia that we can be sure was too large for a house (numbering more than three thousand), the explanation was not that they broke into smaller ekklesias throughout the city, but that “…continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart” (v. 46). The members of the one ekklesia were with one accord in coming together and so had to do it in the temple for obvious reasons, and oppositely, they were not with one accord as they broke bread from house to house, for obvious reasons. There is simply no reference in the New Testament to multiple ekklesias in a city – every reference to an ekklesia in a place is either a reference to one ekklesia in one city or to multiple ekklesias in multiple cities.
So how should we interpret the four verses then? We can explore this, but let us do so keeping in mind that no matter how we interpret these verses, there is no evidence of more than one ekklesia anywhere and therefore these verses really have no impact on our subject… So, for what it is worth, especially because these verses almost always come up in the conversation, let’s explore alternative translations:
The Word Kata
The most common flaw, which is, admittedly, very easy to overlook, begins in the way the word “in” is interpreted in the four verses at the beginning of this section. It can be said the word is translated correctly, but only because English contains a similar nuance. And that nuance is this: if I am away on a trip and ask you to check on the sidewalk “in” my yard, would you expect to show up and find a sidewalk that begins and ends in my yard? Of course not.
Because a sidewalk is a structure that we know usually has portions overlapping or throughout a place, we wouldn’t be confused just because the word “in” is used. This is the same way the word “in” is being used in the above four verses. The Greek word in those verses translated “in” is kata, and it literally means “according to,” “throughout,” or more literally, “overlapping,” like something “apportioned out” into something else. It does not exclude the possibility of the grammatical subject being entirely within the grammatical object, but had Paul had wanted to say there was an ekklesia wholly hosted within someone’s house, there were better Greek words to choose from. For example, notice how the the four verses contrast with the following verse which makes it clear that there is an entire ekklesia in a house:
“Gaius, my host and the host of the whole ekklesia, greets you. Erastus, the treasurer of the city, greets you, and Quartus, a brother.” (Romans 16:23)
Notice how the above verse says “the host of” the ekklesia, and it even says the “whole” ekklesia. This is the way one would expect the meeting of entire assembly in one place to be described. If I had a family over to my home for a meal and then I described it to a friend by saying a family was “kata” (overlapping) my home, as opposed to “en” (in) my home, he would immediately think it was strange that I had indicated some of the family stayed outside and some were welcomed inside and we never came together. “Overlapping” is just not how people usually talk about a group meeting in a single place.
As an example of how the word kata is normally used, we find it in Mark 6:40:
“So they [, the multitude,] sat down in ranks, kata hundreds and kata fifties”
Is the whole multitude in a rank of one hundred? Are all of them in one group of fifty? No, the whole is the multitude and it is only called a “multitude” as a whole (v. 34). Jesus taught the multitude as a whole, but for this activity of eating, they were separated into distinguishable portions of the whole, which are here called “ranks,” meaning “plots” or “groups.” It is similar to how a person’s body is made up of various parts and how some of those parts that reside close together can be grouped together to be called a portion of the body.
A Shared Household
So who was Paul talking about when he asked his recipients of his letters to greet the ekklesia overlapping a house? The answer is we don’t know; but one possibility is that it is a reference to a number of disciples who all lived together, that is, those who were both part of the city’s gathering saints (the ekklesia) and the household in question (oikon can either be translated “house” or “household”). In other words maybe what Paul was saying was “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, and greet those of the ekklesia overlapping their house.” Similarly, it’s also possible he was saying to greet the whole ekklesia, of which a portion was in their house, like this: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, and greet the whole ekklesia which intersects their house.”
It shouldn’t be surprising to imagine households sharing all things in common, or breaking bread from house to house, since that is what we are told the saints did in Jerusalem (Acts 2:44-46). A small number of the believers of a city can always come together for various purposes such as breaking bread or for prayer, like we see in Acts 12:12 where many were gathered together praying. Even though such gatherings are not the ekklesia or the ekklesia coming together, they are intentional and allowable portions of the ekklesia in the city – or in modern terms, “small groups.” Notice the contrast in the following verses between the ekklesia and “many” of the saints:
“Peter was therefore kept in prison, but constant prayer was offered to God for him by the ekklesia. … So, when he had considered [this], he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.” (Acts 12:5, 12)
An Inclusive Ekklesia
The above interpretation is reasonable, but it still wouldn’t explain the awkward situation we find ourselves in with Romans 16:5-6. Let’s take a look at that passage again:
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…Likewise greet the ekklesia that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ. Greet Mary, who labored much for us.” (Romans 16:3, 5-6)
The way it is translated sounds so strange, and has been a source of many wild theories. It seems like Paul is greeting an ekklesia in Rome, and then greeting many people in the same city that are isolated from that ekklesia. Most people are understandably confused by that first-glance interpretation and are unfortunately quick to conclude (without evidence) that the others must have also been part of other separate ekklesias in the city.
One way to resolve this is to simply accept the basic translation and insert a colon:
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…Likewise greet the ekklesia that is in their house: Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ. Greet Mary, who labored much for us.” (Romans 16:3, 5-6)
…But is that really what it is saying? Maybe. The colon definitely works better, but maybe it isn’t Priscilla and Aquilla’s house we’re talking about afterall. Here’s another legitimate translation of this passage:
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…Likewise greet the ekklesia in their own houses: Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ. Greet Mary, who labored much for us.”
Notice how this translation bridges what seems to be a contrast between the ekklesia and the rest of the people in the city, instead revealing the ekklesia as a group that is spread throughout homes in the city, not a group in Priscilla and Aquilla’s house. So how is this a legitimate translation? What is the precedence for this? Let’s take a look:
In Their Own Houses
“So continuing daily with one accord [en] the temple, and breaking bread [kata] house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart,” (Acts 2:46)
What version of the bible translates the above to say the followers were breaking bread in one person’s house? None that I know of. Word for word, there is kata and then there is the singular word for house. There is no definite article and it is not plural. (see Acts 5:42 and 8:3 for more of the same). In most versions of the bible, this combination of kata and a singular house is “from house to house” or “in every house.” This combination is what we find in Romans 16:5, except that in Romans it also has the word for “their” in the Greek, “their house”.
Because it says “their house” in Romans 16, most take that as evidence that it is talking about Priscilla and Aquila’s house. So is there reason to think it might be talking about the houses of all the people in the following list, their houses? We have this in Mark 8:3, where Christ is talking about a multitude of people:
“And if I send them away hungry to their house, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.”
Because it is obvious that not everyone in the crowd was from the same house, most versions translate this verse like this:
“And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.”
But the Greek word for “house” in this verse is singular, not plural. And the word “own” is added for emphasis. It’s contextual. Sometimes “kata house” actually means “in every house”, as in many houses, and sometimes “their house” means “their own houses,” also as in many houses, so it’s not unreasonable to translate “kata their house” as “in their houses.”
All of this taken together means we have the ability to translate Romans 16:3, 5-6 like so, in a way that makes much more sense to the context:
“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…Likewise greet the ekklesia in their own houses: Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ. Greet Mary, who labored much for us.”
And this translation approach also works for both 1 Corinthians 16:19 and Philemon 1:2, though it doesn’t make as much sense for Colossians 4:15.
Even though there are never any verses that show more than one ekklesia in a city, people tend to conclude it was that way based on their uncomfortably with the way certain verses have been translated. But instead of adding in what we don’t know, maybe we should re-approach the translation based on what we do know. It seems to make a lot more sense.
We have reviewed how the four verses that are brought up to question the validity of an ekklesia being tied to a city don’t actually pose any problems; how the word kata can be used to mean “in” but always carries more meaning behind it; how each ekklesia-in-a-house could have been referring generally to those of the ekklesia in a household or a household that overlapped with the ekklesia; how the list in Romans 16:6 is best seen an expansion on the ekklesia mentioned in verse 5; and, finally, how an ekklesia-in-a-house could have been referring, at least in most cases, to the houses of all the followers throughout a city, instead of to only one house.
Is a “city” like New York City limited to just one ekklesia?
Having one ekklesia of Christ in New York City, which would gather all the followers of Christ there together in one place, might seems absurd, but the size or population of the city isn’t the reason it wouldn’t make sense. New York City is actually made up of five county-level administrative divisions called boroughs. If from an earthly perspective, there are five different governments in New York City, one for each borough, it would make sense that there would be at least five ekklesias in New York City. Most large cities have similar divisions of government that can inform the appropriate number of ekklesias to be formed.
As for the rest of the places in the world (cities, towns, villages, etc.) the best reference for how we should distribute the light of God might be Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when he sent them out to preach:
“Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out.” (Matthew 10:11)
The words “city” and “town” seem to be pretty obvious even today, but ultimately this matter is something the Lord will have to lead. The most important thing is that each ekklesia is tied to a specific earthly community instead of a specific worship style, Christian pedigree, or culture. Notice how the ekklesias in the New Testament were sometimes referenced by the city they were in, but also by the people they were of, a specific community. If we are dedicated to tying the ekklesia to a specific earthly community without fear of the result including too many or too few people, the answer will no doubt present itself. And, of course, if we’re unsure, we can always ask the lost in the area — they usually know what greater community they belong to. It is, after all, the only one they have.
Why does one ekklesia per city/town matter?
Jesus once said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.” (Matthew 12:25b) Not only does a home need to be united in order to stand, but even an entire city must be united in order to stand. Could you imagine if your city had even two city halls? What if your town had three separate “official” courts that you could transfer between at will? What would be the result? Desolation. It would be full of confusion and empty of any real accountability.
Now the mature citizens in this scenario could obviously still go about their life and work with at least a few other citizens in advancing the prosperity of the city, but there would be no centralized way of consolidating their efforts or combating crime. For example, even if multiple citizens wanted to build a new road through the city, having five “official” committees that approved such projects but refused to work together, would put a halt to the effort pretty quickly. Their only option would either be to all recognize one of the committees or go it alone, neither of which sound like good options.
This is the situation a city would find itself in if it could have more than one ekklesia of Christ, and indeed is the situation most cities in America find themselves in because of the claim that they contain more than one ekklesia. When one accepts the claim that a single place can have more than one legitimate ekklesia, it strips away all legitimacy of anything they would call an ekklesia. Not even the false religions in the world allow such rampant division! Satan knows that working against himself is self-defeating.
But if instead one accepts that there can only be one ekklesia in a city according to its historical definition, and if it happens that such an ekklesia is formed in their city, the following will be true:
- it would no longer be possible for followers of Christ in that city to hop from one group to another to avoid accountability, since the authority of the ekklesia will reach wherever they go
- it would no longer be inevitable for followers of Christ in that city to be distracted from loving one another by the question “where you go to church”
- it would finally be possible for the inevitable factions in that city to be heard altogether so “that those who are approved may be recognized” (1 Corinthians 11:19a)
- it would finally be feasible and natural to pool all the available resources of God’s people in that city for whatever He has planned
- the lost in that city would finally see something consistent with the love for one another that followers of Christ say they have
- Christ would finally see His prayer for His future followers to be one (John 17:20-21) fulfilled in that city
This is why it matters.
Doesn’t the ekklesia refer to all the followers of Jesus in the world? Can a person be a brother or sister in Christ and yet not be in an ekklesia?
Although it is by no means the norm, “ekklesia” can be used in a generic way, like when Christ said, “I will build My ekklesia.” However, this was not Christ establishing an invisible singular ekklesia, but instead it was Him using general language to refer to each ekklesia He would build or, in other words, the institution He would build. If someone was writing about American politics, would it not be acceptable for them to write, “The town-meeting under George Washington was a great example of early American wisdom”? Would we read that to mean that the author intended to talk about a singular invisible town-meeting that included all citizens across the nation? Of course not. The natural reading is to understand that the author is talking about each instance of the town-meeting wherever it is instituted even though singular form, “the town-meeting,” was written. When Christ said He would build His ekklesia, ekklesias were and always had been tied to cities, and the pattern in the New Testament shows Christ didn’t intend on changing that.
To help us see how this applies to the instances of the generic ekklesia references, anywhere “ekklesia” is mentioned in a generic way, we can tack on “instituted in various places” to see how it fits. Even in Christ’s words about the ekklesia, where he says “I will build My ekklesia,” we can easily add on “instituted in various cities”: “I will build My ekklesia [instituted in various cities],” and it still makes perfect sense. And as another example, Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the ekklesia [instituted in various cities].” There is no scripture that would make this insertion awkward, unless a specific city is already mentioned, of course.
“The ekklesia” of Christ never refers to something invisible that is instituted to cover the whole earth, but sometimes it does refer to a model which was to be or already was instituted in a specific city. Think about it. Is there any generic reference that talks about the state of “the” ekklesia as if it is one thing that fluidly changes throughout time? Is there any scripture that says something like “I look around the world, and the ekklesia is in shambles”? Nowhere. The ekklesia when referred to generically only references ideals – what it should be or how it is formed – aspects of a model, not an instance. And if all the saints in the world were all a part of one ekklesia, wouldn’t we expect the pattern of generalizing God’s people to continue such that all the saints in Asia, for example, would have been called “the ekklesia of Asia”? But instead, because it is neither a reference to the model nor an instance of the model in a specific city, we find the plural: “the ekklesias of Asia” (1 Corinthians 16:19).
The ekklesia in a city is not the same as all God’s saints in the world. In fact, the ekklesia in Corinth was contrasted in 1 Corinthians 1:2 with “all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” This larger group is called many things, but never an ekklesia. It is called the family of God, the saints, the saved, the elect, etc. This is because family members do not always dwell in the same house, but that doesn’t stop them from being family members. It is the same with a house of God. 1 Timothy 3:15 says, “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in a house of God, which is an ekklesia of the living God, a pillar and ground of the truth.” (Notice how most translations insert the word “the” into this verse multiple times where it does not appear in the Greek.)
A house of God is an ekklesia of God for sons and daughters of God, and just like with physical houses and physical family’s, you can be sent out of or be travelling away from a physical house and still be considered a part of the family. If a part of our body gets cut off, won’t it still be a body part even though it is not a part of our body? 1 Corinthians 5 details one such instance of this needing to happen, when a man named a brother had his father’s wife: “But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral…” (v. 11a). So what happened then? Was the man still considered a brother? It would seem he was. Notice the same “do not keep company” consequence discussed below:
“And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count [him] as an enemy, but admonish [him] as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
So one sent out of the house was still a brother. This seems to be extending the following command:
“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who [are] spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)
So being a part of an ekklesia is distinguished from being a part of the family of God. Even the righteous can be unjustly put out of the ekklesia in their city (3 John 1:10) – surely we don’t suppose that an errant ekklesia could put a righteous man out of the family of God! Whether one is alone on a desert island, behind jail bars, or sick in a coma, even though the person may not be of the number of followers who come together in a city (an ekklesia), the person is still able to be a part of the family of God.
But Praise the Lord that all this distinction will not always be relevant! One day, the number of everyone whose Lord is Jesus will be indistinguishable from the one ekklesia, which will be in the one city of New Jerusalem. We will all be together in one place and will praise the Lord together.
If there is not a universal ekklesia, why does the Bible say there is one body?
Colossians 1:18 and 24 explicitly tells us that the body of Christ is the ekklesia of Christ. Although this is true, since there are some passages that make it sound as though the body of Christ is a universal body including all disciples, many take this as a reason to believe that the ekklesia of Christ is a universal thing that includes all disciples. In the previous section, it was shown that ekklesia as a word can never refer to followers of Christ universally, and so it should follow that the body of Christ, as a metaphor of the ekklesia, can also never refer to this population, since the ekklesia is the literal and the body is the metaphor.
Calling the full number of disciples who gather all together in a city the “body” of Christ in that city is a metaphor; it isn’t literally or visibly true. But calling the full number of disciples who gather all together in a city the ekklesia of Christ in that city is not a metaphor; it is literally and visibly true. And although it is true that our understanding of the ekklesia of Christ and the body of Christ do indeed need to match up, that doesn’t make it a good practice to rely on scriptures about the metaphorical body in order to determine what the literal ekklesia is. A metaphor is most useful for describing in more versatile ways how the literal works, not what it is.
Furthermore whenever a metaphor is applied, the abilities and limitations of the metaphor should be applied as well. When the metaphor of a body is applied to an ekklesia, the fact that a body is a visible thing, is in a certain place, and has distinct parts should all be things that we also apply to the ekklesia. Also, as discussed previously, the phrase “the”+something does not always mean there is one instance of that something; sometimes it is a way of generically referencing each instance of that something.
But even if we ignore all that and focus on investigating what is written about the “one body” and who is included in it, we will still find that it supports the definition of ekklesia that ties it to a city. Let’s look at one of the verses from which people get the idea that all Christians are together “one body”:
“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free–and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
Obviously the one body being referred to here is a metaphor – we didn’t literally all coalesce into some gigantic body. That’s easy enough to understand; Christians were joined together in a way that was so similar to how body parts are joined together that it was said they were baptized into one body. But this still leaves a question as to the scope of the application. Can it be said that the all the Christians in the world are joined together as one body? Can it be said that the all the Christians in some city are joined together as one body (while the Christians in other cities are not joined together with them as one body)? The confusion stems from Paul’s use of the word “we.”
When Paul wrote “we were all baptized into one body,” was he saying that that body was instituted invisibly over all the world and included all of the saints as members, or was he saying that that one body was instituted in each city in such a way that he was a member of the body where he was and the audience of his letter were members of the body where they were? Since the human body is never invisible, the second option seems more likely, but looking further in the chapter, we find conclusive evidence that the second option is definitely the correct one; he was writing to a distinct instance of the body of Christ, of which he was not included. He wrote the following later in the chapter to the same audience:
“Now you are a body of Christ, and members individually.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
Tragically, translators for generations have, based on their own assumptions, inserted “the” into this verse where it does not exist. This verse says a body. And so we can be sure it is acceptable to say that the gathered saints in one city are a body of Christ while the gathered saints in another city are also a body of Christ. Because there is only one body, that is, one body type, it wouldn’t be appropriate to say that in one city is a body of Christ while in another city is “another” body of Christ. The body in both places are the one body, the body of Christ, but they are distinct and in different places. And in the same way, even though the one body has been fully and separately formed in multiple cities, it wouldn’t be appropriate to say that there are bodies, plural, because there is only one body type. If Jesus is over here and looks well, while Jesus is over there and looks sickly with body parts missing, it’s obvious that the Jesus is separately and distinctly in each place, but there is still only one Jesus.
At this point, one may still be thinking “but Paul said ‘we’.” To continue the explanation as to how “we were baptized into one body” doesn’t mean we are all a part of the same instance of the body, let us consider the following verse:
“For as we have many [physical] members in one [physical] body, but all the [physical] members do not have the same function, so we, [being] many, are [metaphorically] one body in Christ, and individually members [metaphorically] of one another.” (Romans 12:4-5)
Is Paul saying in the first part of the verse that we as humans all are joined into one giant universal human body with many physical body parts? No, of course not. Paul is saying that we each, separately have one physical body. So if we take that same understanding to the second half of the verse, was Paul saying that we, the many, are one giant universal spiritual body? No, of course not. He was saying that we, the gathered Christians in various cities each, separately have one body, the one body of Christ which is the same type of body found in Ephesus and Colossae, etc. In one city, one entire body of Christ may exist, which is one entire ekklesia of Christ, and it is the one body of Christ that may also exist in the next town over. This is how there is one body.