What Does Ecclesia Mean?
More than a few words get lost in translation, and sadly, ecclesia is one such word. The answer to the question, “What does ecclesia mean?” is perhaps captured in this comparison: we’re contending for a Kingdom-shaped church not a church-shrunk kingdom.
So, let’s take a look at this contrast and try to make heads and tails of this gripping Greek word that’s loaded with implications.
So, what does ecclesia mean?
There is a fair amount of church-bashing going around today. It’s becoming increasingly common to hear people say things like, “It’s all about the Kingdom … the church stinks. It’s old and outdated; it’s complicated and unnecessary. We don’t need it”. But that’s like saying, “Life is all about breathing. We don’t need lungs, you know. Lungs can get old … and they complicate things, those little alveoli and all”.
Of course, life is all about breathing but God has ordained our lungs as the organ that facilitates our breathing. The church is to the Kingdom what lungs are to breathing. Yes, it’s without question all about the King and His Kingdom, but God has ordained the church as the organ or vessel through which He brings His Kingdom.
Man’s versions of church are, of course, the issue. However, we must think through this carefully. We certainly don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Yes, Jesus only used the word “church” twice in comparison to the nearly 120 times He referred to the “Kingdom”. But when we understand Jesus’ version of the word “church,” we realise that we cannot climb aboard the church-bashing train. We simply yet profoundly need to get the context right. For this reason, we stress we’re contending for a Kingdom-shaped church, not a church-shrunk kingdom. When we understand the panoramic context of the Kingdom, we can grasp the beauty and responsibility of the church more clearly.
So what did Jesus have in mind when He used the Greek word ekklesia in Matthew, Chapter 16? (The word ecclesia is the English transliteration of this Greek word). Most know that the word means, “called out ones”, but to many this is merely a religious cliché assuming this simply means that we’re called out of darkness and into the light. And of course, we are. Peter made this clear in 1 Peter 2:9. However, this is merely scratching the surface. While this certainly captures a sense of our salvation, as awesome as this miracle is, the word Jesus used of His redeemed people spoke more about our Kingdom destiny than our salvation.
Yes, Jesus is without question the “Door” (John 10:7), but He is also the “Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Sadly, in my opinion, it is too easy to camp at the Door and fail to walk into our Kingdom destiny. It was a sober moment when it dawned on me that I was “spiritual streaker;” I had the helmet of salvation tightly fastened but was “spiritually naked”. No wonder I was scaring everyone off.
The Greek word ekklesia, translated “church” in our English translations1 (transliterated as ecclesia), was not a religious word in Jesus’ day; it was, in fact, a politically charged word. Jesus had a wonderfully ‘bad’ habit of using explosive contemporary words—such as “Gospel” and “Kingdom”—to envision His government on this earth.
The word ekklesia referred to people selected, called out from the general populace, to serve in a civil capacity as a governing arm or cabinet of a governor or king: technically, “a civil body of selected officials.”
Yes, we’re called out of darkness into light but more specifically (and accurately) we’re selected to serve as the “cabinet of the King,” Jesus’ governing arm on the earth: the governmental executive of the Kingdom. If this doesn’t stir your imagination and inflame the fire in your heart, then nothing will!
After Jesus warned the dirty dozen about the dangers of legalistic religion (vv. 1-12), the disciples started discussing the street-talk on Jesus. When Jesus cut through the pious clichés by asking the all important question—“Who do you say that I am?”—Peter stepped up to be counted: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (vv. 13-15). Jesus applauded Peter’s courage and accuracy, and then, in essence, said, “Peter, you mere pebble, upon the rock of revelation that just happened to you, I will build My governmental cabinet!”
Peter, a mere man—“son of Jonah”—touched the divine life of God, as Father God downloaded the truth to him. And upon this revelation of His Lordship and glory, Jesus declared: “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (vv. 18, 19).
The comparison that Jesus made in this account must be grasped. Jesus compared the impotent, man-made authority structures of the religious system of His day with the authority He intended to invest in the redeemed, once overhauled by a revelation of His Lordship and glory. In this creative miracle of the Spirit, we’re enthused with divine life and entrusted with true authority: “the keys of the Kingdom” (v. 19 c. vv. 1-12). In Christ’s true, life-giving authority, “ordinary” people like Peter would release the resource of heaven to enforce His rule, made available through His victory.
Jesus used the phrases “bind” and “loose,” rabbinical words that meant “prohibit” and “permit” respectively. It was a clear reference to the anaemic, rule-crazy approach of the Pharisees and Sadducees, an authority that only resulted in bringing people into bondage and fear. The “church” Jesus builds walks in true authority; releasing the rule of God on this earth, an authority that sets people free and ushers in the Kingdom’s redeeming power.
Thus, we can define the “church” as God’s Kingdom Advancers; communities of the King who usher in His Kingdom rule; not with a sword but with a basin … not to manipulate and control but to love and serve … not to rule over people but to overcome the powers of darkness that rule over them.
Jesus envisioned a prevailing ekklesia—a cabinet of the King—against whom even the “gates of Hades”—a reference to the counsel or cabinet of systemic evil—would not prevail. The prophet Isaiah had foreseen this holy moment declaring that “the government” rests on Jesus’ shoulder and that “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6, 7).
The ekklesia, by definition, then has nothing to do with some denominational affiliation or a brick-and-mortar building, and is not the meeting that takes place on some day of the week.
The ekklesia has everything to do with being a Kingdom community; a redeemed family, centred on the King, advancing the Kingdom of God in their collective sphere of influence, knowing their Christ-centred personal lives woven together into a Christ-filled communal life ought to be the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 c. Colossians 2:2, 3)2.
For sure, such a community will meet, often and in various ways, but their meetings don’t define or restrict them; their meetings are an overflow of who they are: alive in the Spirit, in love with one another and on mission together.
1 The use of the word “church” in our English translation actually reflects poor translation etiquette. The word “church” comes from the Greek word kuriakon which means “pertaining to the Lord” (from the word Kurios meaning, “Lord”). The word kuriakon is used only on two occasions in the New Testament, referring to the “Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20) and the “Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10).
This word kuriakon was then used in Old English as “kirche” and in Scotland as “kirk” from where the modern word “church” arose. Correctly, the word “church” (Greek: kuriakon) then refers to that which pertains, or belongs, to the Lord. While, in a substantial sense, God’s people certainly do belong to the Lord, the word “church”—and, in time, its baggage – was unfortunately used for the Greek word ekklesia.
As we’ve seen the Greek word ekklesia means something very specific with respect to the Kingdom of God and the mistranslation of the word seems, to me, to have robbed us of this connection.
However, the question becomes: do we delete the word “church” from our vocabulary or use the word, seeking to re-engage with original meaning of the ekklesia? It is my opinion that the wisest battle to fight here is the latter. Let’s give the translators the benefit of the doubt—the ekklesia, in every way, belongs to God; we are the Lord’s people—while we unpack the Kingdom implications of this loaded word.
2 This astounding verse emphatically states that the family of God (Greek: oikos) is the “pillar and foundation of the truth”. If you asked most believers what the pillar and foundation of the truth is, most would answer either Jesus or the Bible … and be incorrect. While, of course, the family of God ought to be filled with Jesus and anchored in the Word of God, the point must be clear. The family of God—each redeemed community, every simple/organic church—ought to be the pillar and foundation of the truth. See also Ephesians 1:22, 23 for another “almost heretical” statement of the church’s high calling.