Ekklēsia or Church, Does It Matter?

Ekklēsia in the Septuagint

Ekklēsia was sometimes used by the translators of the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). Ekklēsia is often used for the assembly or congregation of Israel, as well as for other types of assemblies. The first appearance of the word in the LXX is in Deuteronomy 9:10 where it is translated “assembly”: “And the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.” Something to keep in mind is that the children of Israel came out of Egypt and were summoned or called to be an assembly before God. The historical Greek use of ekklēsia, as well as its use in the LXX–which was the version of the Scriptures commonly used in the time of Jesus and the apostles–can help us understand what Jesus had in mind when He chose to use this word. By the way, in Acts 7:38, Stephen also uses ekklēsia when speaking of the assembly of Israel at Mount Sinai.

Ekklēsia in the New Testament

The first place in the New Testament that we find the word ekklēsia is in Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says, “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.” I have already discussed the Peter/rock aspect of this verse here (“Why Peter is the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus says in Matthew 16:18 that He will build His church“). Now I simply want to point out that the first place ekklēsia is mentioned in the New Testament is here where Jesus said He would build (oikodomēsō–really “house-build” but, of course, here with a spiritual meaning) His ekklēsia.

We have seen that the most basic meaning of ekklēsia is “those called out from.” We have also seen that the ancient Greeks used this word to refer to the people called out from their community to the assembly. And we have seen that the translators of the LXX often used ekklēsia to refer to the Israelites who were called out of Egypt and assembled before God at Sinai. Now, let’s see if there are parallels to these meanings in the New Testament.

In Jesus’ allegory of the Good Shepherd and the sheepfold (see John 10), He says, “To him [the Shepherd] the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out” (verse 3). “Calleth” is from kaleō. If you read this entire allegory, you will see that it pictures Jesus calling those Jews who are His and leading them out of the sheepfold. Notice that He is both the Shepherd who leads and the Door–the way out of the fold. The fold is national Israel and its religion that keeps them separate from any other sheep. The Shepherd puts them, along with His other sheep–His people in other nations–into one flock together. These Jews and Gentiles together are His ekklēsia.

“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). “Called” is from kaleō and “out of” is from ek, the two words that create the word ekklēsia. Here, we see that we are called out of darkness and into God’s light.

In Galatians 5:13, Paul writes, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” “Called” is from kaleō. The context of this verse shows that what we have been called from is bondage to the law (see, for example, verses 1-4 of this chapter), and the verse itself tells us we have been called to liberty or freedom from this bondage.

Peter writes, “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (1 Peter 5:10). “Who hath called” is translated from kaleō. The word “by” in the King James Version is actually en, which is “in.” So, God has called us to his eternal glory in Jesus Christ.

Notice something: The Israelites were called from the bondage of Egypt to a physical manifestation of God’s glory at Mount Sinai. But they were also called to the law, which is another kind of bondage (Galatians 4:24). On the other hand, we have been called out of darkness, out of the world, out of sin, out of bondage to the law and to God’s glory in Jesus Christ and to liberty. We are called to both God’s glory and liberty in Jesus Christ (notice Galatians 2:4; 5:1).

The Israelites were called to Mount Sinai; we have been called to the Jerusalem above which is free (Galatians 4:26); or, put another way,

For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:) But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, 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, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
Hebrews 12:18-24

When we read this, we should understand that Hebrews was written to the Jewish Christians who were having trouble understanding the shift God had made from dealing with the Jews under the law to dealing with Jews and Gentiles under the grace of the New Covenant. So, the writer tells them that now that they are Christians, they have not come to Mount Sinai, representing the law, but to Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem and to myriads of angels.

He then says they have come “to the general assembly and church of the firstborn.” “General assembly” and “church” are two words for the same thing. “Church” is ekklēsia. But the writer wants these Jews to understand the same thing Jesus teaches in His allegory in John 10. The ekklēsia is no longer the called out assembly of Jews receiving the law at Mount Sinai. The ekklēsia is now the called out Jews and Gentiles receiving liberty at Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem.

And so, he also calls the ekklēsia the “general assembly,” the panēgurei. This, too, is a compound of two words: pan, meaning “all” or “the whole” or “entire” and agora, which means “a gathering” or “an assembly” (it also came to mean the town square or marketplace, since this is where the gatherings were held). Panēgurei even came to mean a festal gathering or assembly, probably because such festivals included people of all sorts. So, the writer is saying to the Jewish Christians, you have not come to some nationally exclusive assembly (the way it was under the Old Covenant). You have come to the entire gathering or festal assembly that is the ekklēsia, God’s people from all nations called out of darkness and bondage and gathered in freedom before God.

Ekklēsia Not Only Local

I should hope that the exciting and inspiring Scriptures we have just examined would cause us to see the big picture of the ekklēsia. Its primary use in the New Testament shows it to be inclusive of all nationalities of people and a spiritual, even a festal, gathering in liberty and light before God. The ekklēsia that Jesus built is composed of all believers, it is not limited to location, and it is not limited by time–all believers everywhere are always assembled before God.

Nevertheless, apparently not wanting to be bothered with the facts, many people try to make a point that the ekklēsia is only local. There are entire denominations, such as Landmark Baptists, who consider the doctrine of the “local church only” to be pivotal. But, besides those we have already seen, look at just a few of the Scriptures that cannot be referring to only local churches:

“And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22), “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God…. Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Ephesians 3:10, 21), “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 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…. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church…. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32), “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…. 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” (Colossians 1:18, 24).

Concerning Matthew 16:18, Landmark Baptists usually take either one of two positions: 1. Jesus said He would build His churches, OR 2. Jesus was referring to the Jerusalem church. My answer to the first is that the specific word ekklēsian in this verse is singular. My answer to the second is that, if true, it would make Jesus the builder of only one local church. Does this also mean that Jesus was the head of only one local church and died for only one local church? How patently absurd.

Jesus was familiar with all of the LXX Scriptures, not just the ones concerning the ekklēsia at Sinai. The word choices in the following verses are particularly interesting: “Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations. Selah. And the heavens shall praise thy wonders, O LORD: thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints” (Psalm 89:4-5). In the LXX, “build up” is oikodomēsō (house build) and “congregation” is ekklēsia. “My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him” (Psalm 22:25–see also Psalm 22:22 and Hebrews 2:12). In the LXX, “great congregation” is ekklēsia megalē. Read the context, and you will see that these are the prophetic words of Jesus Christ. Ekklēsia megalē is singular.
Further, in 1 Peter 1:1, we see that Peter wrote his epistle to five different locations. Yet, in 1 Peter 2:5, Peter wrote, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up [oikodomeisthe–“house built”] a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” “A spiritual house” is singular.

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