What is an ekklesia?

Contents

Introduction

The word “ekklesia” is an ancient Greek word used by Jesus and the apostles that has been mistranslated as “church” in nearly every bible version available today. The word “church” is the direct descendant of an entirely different Greek word, “kuraikos,” and so it doesn’t make any sense to use the word as a translation for the Greek word “ekklesia.” As we will see, using the word “church” as a translation for “ekklesia” is also problematic because neither the modern meaning of “church” nor the meaning of its original form, “kuraikos,” is or was ever capable of sufficiently conveying all that the word “ekklesia” meant in Jesus’ time.

And clearing up this matter is absolutely necessary because, as Jesus and the apostles taught, the “ekklesia” is the very thing for which Jesus died; it is the only reason believers should seek to excel; it is impervious to the gates of Hell; and without it it is not possible to fully obey Jesus’ commands.

"Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the ekklesia that you seek to excel." (1 Corinthians 14:12)
"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the ekklesia and gave Himself for her" (Ephesians 5:25)
"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My ekklesia, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18)
“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 does “ekklesia” mean?

The first entry in the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for “ecclesia” (just a different spelling of “ekklesia”) is as follows:

1: a political assembly of citizens of ancient Greek states*
especially the periodic meeting of the Athenian citizens for conducting public business and for considering affairs proposed by the council

Note that the “states” in ancient Greece were individual cities. They were city-states. So, what the dictionary is saying is that an ekklesia was the political assembly of citizens held by each ancient Greek city. It’s not all that different from the concept of an American town-meeting.

I hope you will agree that this is a very concrete and helpful definition! But is it accurate for what the word “ekklesia” meant in Jesus’ time?

In fact, it is. We know from historical records that by the time Jesus and his apostles uttered the word “ekklesia,” it had been in common use by the Greeks and then the Romans for 600 years to mean exactly what our modern dictionary tells us it means. It was a word that had an extremely specific definition and a concrete context. In Jesus’ time the word “ekklesia” meant only one thing: an official assembly of all the eligible citizens in a city, or to put it simply, a “city-assembly.”

But…in our modern times that concrete definition has been severely muddied, which is made evident in the Merriam-Webster’s second entry for “ecclesia”:

2: CHURCH

I hope you will agree that that is not a very concrete or helpful definition… The idea of defining the word “ekklesia” with an entry that simply states one word, “church,” is like defining the word “congress” with an entry that states one rather disconnected word, “president”. That’s not how definitions work.

But still we must ask, does the word “church” accurately convey what the word “ekklesia” meant in Jesus’ time?

In fact, it is not.

What does “church” mean?

If we again use Merriam-Webster’s dictionary to check the definition of the word “church,” we find:

1: a building for public and especially Christian worship

All of the other entries are very related to this first entry, but either way, this is exactly what the word “church” means to most people today and is what it meant to people back many centuries ago when it came into usage in its current form. It means a building for worship and the institution that supports that building. As a few of the entries suggest, in modern times, especially with the rise of “house churches,” some people have begun to expand the meaning of the word “church” to include a concept of community, although this was never the traditional sense.

The word “church” comes originally from the Greek word “kuraikos,” which literally means “the Lord’s.” We find the word “kuraikos” in 1 Corinthians 11:20 when Paul refers to “the Lord’s” supper and in Revelation 1:10 when John refers to “the Lord’s” day. But the word became connected to the idea of a building when at some point believers began using it to refer to the place where believers gathered. They would say they were going to “the Lord’s” (as in, the Lord’s place for the city-assembly or any other gathering of believers), but just as the word started to be pronounced very differently as it passed from culture to culture, over time it also lost that full context as well. It eventually became the English word “church” and simply meant a building where people worshipped and the institution that supported the building.

Does “ekklesia” mean the same as “church”?

If we go back to the second entry for “ekklesia” in the dictionary, we can piece together that it is suggesting the word “ekklesia” can mean a building or at most a community in general. Is it possible that this captures an extended meaning of the word “ekklesia”? Did the word “ekklesia” sometimes mean a building or just a community in general in Jesus’ time?

The answer is no. There is no evidence of this usage in the apostle’s time and before. The word “ekklesia” could be used to refer to either a single city-assembly or the institution of city-assemblies in general, but the concept of city-assembly was still the only concept the word “ekklesia” ever represented.

But even within the history of the word “church” we can see clearly that its origins do not overlap with the concept of the ekklesia. The word “kuraikos” (the ancestor of the word “church”) appears twice in the apostle’s writings and in both places the word “ekklesia” is also used nearby with no indication that they at all mean the same thing. And this contrast is also found in the story of how “kuraikos” came to mean “a building for worship.” Ancient believers began referring to the place where the ekklesia or any gathering for believers was held as the “kuraikos.” If “kuraikos” meant the same thing as “ekklesia,” that story wouldn’t make any sense. They obviously mean two different things.

To be fair, when some of the other cultures in ancient times embraced Christianity they instead latched onto the word “ekklesia” and still didn’t fair any better. For example, the Spanish equivalent is “iglesia” and the French is “église,” and yet in those cultures, those words have also ended up signifying a building and the institution that supports the building. Especially in those countries, this was no doubt heavily influenced by the rise of Catholicism, which literally means “universalism,” named after their belief in the “church” universal. You can’t get further from the idea of a “city-assembly” than that!

The lesson may be then that the best way to translate “ekklesia” is by using an actual translation and one that is highly accurate, especially concerning the aspects of the ekklesia most easily forgotten, such as its physical and civic nature; something like “city-assembly.”

Why do almost all English bibles use the word “church”?

When King James commissioned the creation of the King James Bible, instead of having his translators offer an attempted translation of the Greek word “ekklesia” like other English bible translators had done, he explicitly instructed his team of translators to use the word “church” as a substitute. From King James’ list of instructions to the translators, the third instruction 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” wherever “ekklesia” appeared in the Greek instead of a word like “congregation,” and this error has been repeated throughout history, finding its way into almost all translations, even today.

As we saw from the dictionary, a word like “congregation” would have been somewhat accurate of a translation for the word, but obviously the king wasn’t concerned with accurately translating the word. In fact, he wasn’t even concerned with translating the word “ekklesia” at all. Notice how even the king didn’t dare to say the ecclesiastical words should be translated as “church.” He knew it wasn’t a translation, and that’s why he said it had to be kept as the word “church” and not translated.

Since, as we’ve learned, the word “church” means a building of worship, and since King James had control over all of the buildings of worship in England and the clergy that ran them, it was obviously in his best interest to turn whatever Jesus and the apostles were communicating about the ekklesia into propaganda for the special worship buildings he controlled. Any attempt to translate the word ekklesia, even loosely, was prohibited by the king so that the truth would not be exposed.

He definitely wouldn’t have liked people accurately translating “ekklesia” as city-assembly like we find in the dictionary since that emphasizes an entirely distinct civic power. Just like how the authorities in Jesus’ day and in Paul’s day hated the idea of the Kingdom of Jesus, King James showed no fondness for any competition to his power.

Fun fact: the name James comes from the Hebrew name Jacob, which means “supplanter.”

Does anything in the bible confirm the meaning of “ekklesia”?

Fortunately, despite King James effort to shut out the truth about the ekklesia, there was one chapter that stood in his way, where an substitution for the word would actually reveal it’s meaning: Acts 19.

In Acts 19 we find a record of the apostle Paul travelling through Ephesus. The message of King Jesus had become so popular that people in the city of Ephesus weren’t buying as many idols, and so the idol makers weren’t making the profit they were used to making. A certain craftsmen named Demetrius gathered them all together to discuss this and in the process they all got very angry. They started shouting, eventually created a mob, and sent the whole city into an uproar. After having grabbed a few of Paul’s companions the huge mob filtered into the city’s large theater. Here’s a picture of that massive theater with its seating for 25,000 people:

An aerial view of the Ephesus Theatre. It is shaped as a semi circle with sixty six rows of seating going up into a large hill.

Once inside the theater, this mob, which had at first just been a small gathering, is called an “assembly” in the King James Bible. Uh, oh! The Greek word that we find at that point in the chapter is “ekklesia,” so if King James’ translators were following his orders perfectly, they were supposed to replace it with the word “church.” But they didn’t.

We can easily see why they didn’t. The translators were being tasked with covering up the truth about what the ekklesia is, so if in this instance they translated the word as “church,” it would have had the opposite effect – people reading would have plainly noticed that this city-wide gathering of citizens in Ephesus was being referenced in the same way that the gatherings of believers had been referenced elsewhere in their bible version. It would have made the true meaning of “ekklesia” plain for all to see. So instead the translators just went ahead and semi-translated it in that chapter, matching the other versions of the bible that had come before. And to this day bible versions have continued to do the same switcharoo just for this chapter.

Why should we care about having ekklesias?

As we mentioned at the beginning of this page, there are very clear verses in the bible that show us the “ekklesia” is important. We read that it is the very thing for which Jesus died; it is the only reason believers should seek to excel; it is impervious to the gates of Hell; and without it it is not possible to fully obey Jesus’ commands concerning addressing sin in a brother. But it still leaves the question why it is so important.

Although the apostles used the term “ekklesia” a lot, there are only two references to Jesus ever using the term. The first time he does so is in Matthew 16, and He simply says that He would build His ekklesia – His city-assembly – and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it….which is very encouraging but doesn’t say anything about what the city-assembly will be practically look like or do. It’s purpose does not become clear until the second and last time Jesus is recorded using the word. He said:

“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)

Since Jesus said so little about something we know from the apostles He cared so much about, we can only assume the concept of “ekklesia” was expected to be very clear to His disciples without more explanation. Everything about it – how it met, how it would operate, what it was supposed to focus on – all of it was assumed knowledge. And this is only confirmed by the fact that the only thing Jesus mentions about its direct operations fits in perfectly with the form and function of the Roman ekklesias operating in His day, which were first and foremost legislative bodies established for legal clarification, legal expansion, and legal enforcement.

So the city-assemblies of Jesus were important for the same reasons the city-assemblies of Caesar were: for proper order, addressing needs, and providing an official place for issues to be escalated to. As we read through the rest of the apostle’s writings it becomes clear that the city-assemblies were also perfect places for sharing instructions, needs, spiritual gifts, food, and prayers. But all the while they maintained their primary purpose of city-wide accountability, as we see exampled in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul instructs the ekklesia in Corinth to send out a brother who is disobedient and unrepentant.

Paul’s strong command to send the brother out is not much different then sending a destructive family member out of the house until they change. In fact, Paul likens ekklesias to a house:

"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." (1 Timothy 3:15)

This is a wonderful analogy and helps us to see that although someone may be a part of the family of God (“a brother”), he can still be sent out of the house of God in whatever city he currently resides for disobedience. One can wonder how Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians would have gone, though, if he agreed with many modern interpreters that just next door to his audience was another legitimate assembly to whom the unrepentant brother could flee. His rebuke would have meant hardly anything at all. Just like happens today, the man would have gotten offended, left to go next door, and met with that separate group of Christians until he caused the same stir much later on.

Why do ekklesias matter?

Jesus taught us to take unresolved issues to the ekklesia. He didn’t tell us to take it to a select group of people. He didn’t tell us to take it to “those we fellowship with.” And he definitely didn’t tell us to take it to “our” church. Jesus told us to take the issue to His city-assembly. If we care about obeying Jesus’ commands then we will of course care about establishing His city-assembly, because there’s no way to fully obey His commands without it!

In a system like we have today where each congregation promotes many other nearby congregations as equally legitimate options, then none of them are legitimate. In a system like that where each congregation promotes many other nearby congregations as equally authoritative, then none of them have any real authority. In a system where each person personally appoints for themselves who they want to hold them accountable, instead it being determined for them based on locality, then each person can rightfully hop wherever and whenever they would like, and there can never be any true accountability.

Even every other major religious group in the world knows that it is self-defeating if in the same city or town they hold more than one official gatherings for their followers. Jesus says even the enemy knows this truth, and yet nearly all of His followers today reject it:

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.” (Matthew 12:25b)

And we’re not talking about just Christians denominations being separated in one city, but even within denominations. You may find within one small town two separate congregations who are both a part of the same denomination and also consider each other in fellowship. They say they are in fellowship and yet they see themselves as separate and never gather together as one. The mindset of division runs so deep that even when no one has a reason for division, they persist in it!

But ultimately, it is not for wisdom’s sake or for our own sakes that we should approach the assembling of ourselves together in an obedient way with one official assembly per city. It is because it is what our Lord Jesus desires, and because that is how the world will believe that the Father sent Him:

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word;  that they all may be one, as You, Father, [are] in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one  in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21)

What is the scope of an ekklesia?

The system Jesus instituted is one based on the Roman ekklesia of the time where each city had one and only one assembly where every unresolved matter was brought. If we examine Acts 19 as our model for the basic elements of an ekklesia, we see that it is not just some people gathering, like in verse 9 when Demetrius called the craftsmen together. The ekklesia is not just any group of people bonded by strongly held beliefs, like in verse 28. The ekklesia is only established after the constituents of a whole city come together in one place, like we see in verse 32.

And this matches with every other instance of the ekklesia in the writings of the apostles. Whenever we see a specific established ekklesia, it is always one ekklesia to one city and multiple ekklesias to multiple cities. For example:

"Then the ekklesias throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied." (Acts 9:31)
"Then news of these things came to the ears of the ekklesia in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch." (Acts 11:22)

There are no exceptions to this because the apostles understood an ekklesia to be just what the rest of their contemporaries understood it to be: a city-assembly.

What is an ekklesia not called to do?

We can again look at the contemporary pagan example of an ekklesia in Acts 19 to glean a little more about what activities ekklesias did and didn’t perform.

"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." (1 Corinthians 19:38-39)

The leader standing up to quiet the crowd in Acts 19 told the ekklesia that had gathered they were being unlawful, meaning what they were doing there was not the function of the ekklesia. His response to them also indicated the role of the ekklesia was not to be an initial judge. In the exact same way Jesus did not say that a brother should bring a dispute straight away to the ekklesia, but that he should first go through two initial steps of escalation before bringing it to the ekklesia.

What else is an ekklesia expected to do besides keep people accountable?

In Acts 19:39 to we read a broad description of what an ekklesia was intended to do when it assembled:

“But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly."

We’re told that a lawful ekklesia was to facilitate “inquiry,” which can also be translated “cravings” or “demands.” In general, the role of the ekklesia was to provide a space for inquiry in the pursuit of reaching a consensus. That included both inquiry concerning yet unresolved grievances between citizens, the main function of the ekklesia as we discussed above, as well as inquiries concerning anything else that affected the whole city. We also know from history that the ekklesia determined for itself additional laws to be implemented in its city’s borders and when it would join in going to war. Besides being the final say in disputes, these are the kinds of inquiries that the ekklesia deliberated on and resolved.

And again, we find these functions to match what Jesus described His ekklesia to be about:

“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).

The people of God in each city must come together to determine what it is that they all want God to do for them in their city. Just like in a Roman ekklesia, an ekklesia of Jesus should determine what they are going to make spiritual war against. They should be united in their petitions to God. If they are united against the devil and against sin among themselves then they will be able to advance the Kingdom of God powerfully. When believers gather as the city-assembly they are capable of establishing a community of love and accountability that shines the message of the Kingdom to a disorderly and chaotic world. This is how the gates of Hell will not prevail!

But this won’t always be straightforward. When Paul writes to the ekklesia in Corinth he clearly expects that there will be divisions in need of resolving among them:

"For first of all, when you come together as an ekklesia, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you." (1 Corinthians 11:18-19)

But the purpose of any divisions among those of God’s people is always that they may through love and prayer learn which way is right and proceed in unity.

What is the vision for ekklesias? Just official business?

As we see in the letters of the apostles, Jesus had more in mind for the ekklesia than just clinically resolving city-wide concerns and issues of accountability. Although Paul insisted we should have a serious amount of structure and order in our city-assemblies, especially concerning the “business” of resolving disputes and sending people out, it is obvious that both the Lord and the apostles also wanted the city-assembly to be a community of love and learning that would foster an overflow of spiritual gifts.

Paul writes to the ekklesia in Corinth as follows:

"How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification." (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Whenever the ekklesia came together it was meant to be a time of sharing and edification, building up the people who gathered. Not everyone was going to speak necessarily, and in fact the rest of chapter 14 is about maintaining order and a limitation on who and how many people spoke, but the purpose of it all was the same: edification in the pursuit of honoring Jesus.

A few chapters prior Paul also indicates that when they came all together they would eat together (1 Corinthians 11:20).

This vision for the ekklesias matches perfectly what we see the first ekklesia of Jesus devoting itself to:

"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers." (Acts 2:42)

“Fellowship” means “common sharing.” They shared their hearts, their needs, their gifts, their strength with one another. This is the vision of the city-assembly in every city. And when those four main activities of the ekklesia (the four walls of the house) are established, the believers in that city will experience the blessings of Jesus who is the head:

"Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So 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, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the ekklesia daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:43-47)

Do notice that it wasn’t only all together that they met. They also enjoyed sweet fellowship from house to house doing the same four things together in smaller groups. Although spending time together from house to house will not necessarily have the same level of order and officialness that the ekklesia will have when it comes all together, these portions of the ekklesia will still be about the same work of edifying one another in love. When that vision of God’s people in a city is fulfilled then Jesus can work powerfully through them and bring about the abundance we see above.

And that abundance is ever-so useful in Jesus’ ultimate desire to be made known through all the cities of the earth. He is very passionate about cities, whether they are more like small villages or a mega city like Rome (for which the modern equivalent would be between 1 to 4 times the size of Tokyo). Jesus came for cities, is moving from city to city, and wants to establish city-assembly for Himself in each one.

"but He said to them, 'I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent.'" (Luke 4:43)
"Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet." (Matthew 10:11-14)