What Does Ekklesia (Ecclesia) Mean?
The Words We’ve Fudged: Church
In this article, we look at the Greek word ekklesia (Latin: ecclesia) and explore why this word was translated “church” and the implications of such a translation.
Clarifying the Objective
More than a few words get lost in translation and sadly, ekklesia is one such word. In fact, not only have we lost its compelling meaning, we’ve settled for a format of gathering that continues to obscure the function of governance Jesus intended.
Before we explore what the word originally meant and how this meaning was lost, it’s important to clarify that this article is not aligned with the church-bashing so in vogue today.
It’s becoming increasingly common to hear people say things like, “It’s all about the Kingdom. The church stinks. The church is old and outdated … it’s convoluted and unnecessary. We don’t need it”. 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. Yet God has ordained our lungs as the organ that facilitates our breathing. The church is to the Kingdom what lungs are to breathing. Yes, understanding the Gospel of the Kingdom as the framing big picture is critical. Yet grasping that God has ordained the church as the organ or vessel through which He brings His Kingdom is vital, too.
The objective is to discern where we’ve fudged the original meaning of the word and to then rediscover the term as it was intended.
The Meaning of Ekklesia
The Greek word ekklesia—ecclesia in Latin—is a compound of two words: ek meaning, “out of” and kaleo meaning, “to call”. Together, they literally mean “to call out” and refer to “the called-out ones” or the “selected ones”.
In the first century, the word was not a religious word. In fact, it was a political word referring to those called out of the general populace to serve as a civil body or an executive arm.
In ancient Greece (as early as 621 BC), the ekklesia was a group of selected individuals who would assemble regularly to deliberate and decide on matters of civil policy. It still retained this meaning in the first century. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Assemblies of this sort existed in most Greek city-states, continuing to function throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods.” For example, Luke refers to the city council in Ephesus pressed into mediating the marketplace uproar, as the ekklesia (Acts 19:32, 39, 41).
Thus, the word spoke of an executive body whose function was to govern.
According to Jesus
While the word ekklesia is used 114 times in the New Testament, Jesus used the word just twice. However, both times were significant. In the first case, He used it in the context of Kingdom authority (Matthew 16:1-20). In the second case, He used it in the context of mediating relational conflict—an act of governance (Matthew 18:15-19).
Let’s explore the first case here.
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. 13-16).
Jesus applauded Peter’s courage, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (v. 17).
In contrast to a lifeless, second-hand relationship through religion, Father God longs to reveal Himself to us personally, intimately, affectionately.
Jesus then 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.”
(Matthew 16: 18, 19)
“I will build My ekklesia…”
Firstly, if we don’t hear Jesus saying something like, “I will build My governmental executive” or “I will build My governing arm,” we haven’t understood the word ekklesia or the incredible truth revealed in this encounter.
Peter, a mere man (“son of Jonah”), received the Father’s revelation of Jesus’ Lordship and glory. Jesus underlined the importance of this revelation by essentially saying, “Peter, mere pebble, upon the rock of revelation that just happened to you, I will build My executive body.”
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 to the authority He intended to invest in the redeemed (c. 16:1-12 and vv. 18, 19).
In this work of the Spirit, we’re entrusted with true, life-giving authority: “the keys of the Kingdom” (v. 19). In Christ’s authority, ordinary people like Peter could release the resource of heaven to advance His rule on earth.
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 (v. 1), 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 might define the “church” as the King’s Executive Body. Together, we’re called to serve as His representatives on this earth and to rule on His behalf. Paul used the word “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20), another socio-political term.
It goes without saying that representing and ruling on His behalf involves loving and serving people not controlling and lording it over them. Jesus reminded us frequently, in word and action, that we’re called to serve not rule others.
“…and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Secondly, Jesus envisioned a prevailing ekklesia against whom even the “gates of Hades”— note, not the “gates of hell” as many are in the habit of misquoting—would not prevail.
The phrase “gates of Hades” referred principally to the power of death. The word Hades was used as a synonym for the Hebrew word Sheol: the grave, the great leveller, death. While the Greek word Hades also had other pagan connotations in ancient Greek thought, they weren’t imported into mainstream Judaism (as they were unfortunately in Christendom from about the second century AD).
Thus, in Matthew 16, Jesus could be simply stating that even death is now a non-issue. In Paul’s only usage of the word Hades, he declared just this point: “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
However, there does seem to be a secondary meaning in Matthew 16 especially given that Jesus then spoke about “keys of the kingdom”, a reference to authority, and then used the rabbinical terms, binding and loosing (v. 19).
In the ancient world, governmental and official affairs were conducted in the city gates, serving as “command and control centres”, and the Pharisees and Sadducees had assumed this moral gate-keeping role. Consequently, Jesus is probably alluding to the religious command-and-control systems of His day. He was, thus, referring metaphorically to man-made authority structures that oppress and exploit others (see vv. 18, 19 c. 5-12).
Most importantly, Jesus cast the vision of a victorious executive body that would not only trump these oppressive and exploitive authority structures, but model a new way of being, thinking and living that would bring liberty to those under the thumb of Religion and Empire.
The prophet Isaiah captured this incredible idea 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).
Jesus nested the term ekklesia, a political term, in the context of the Kingdom of God. He anchored it on the foundation of God’s Father-heart and directly contrasted it with religion.
It’s this term that speaks to our collective mandate as the redeemed, an executive body through whom He advances His Kingdom.
Ekklesia in the Epistles
Likewise, when Paul used the term ekklesia, it had nothing to do with some denominational affiliation or a brick-and-mortar building and it was not the meeting that took place on some day of the week.
Rather, the word ekklesia was used to refer to the King’s Executive Body in three dimensions:
The Church Universal
The word ekklesia was used in the universal sense to express God’s original intent manifested through Christ’s body on earth. Here’s an example:
“He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church (ekklesia), which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all … To the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church (ekklesia) to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord…” (Ephesians 1:22, 23; 3:10, 11)
The Church Local
The word ekklesia was used in a local sense in referring to all the believers in a town, city or region. Here are two examples, the first to believers in the city of Corinth; the second to believers in the province of Galatia:
“To the church (ekklesia) of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord…” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
“Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), and all the brethren who are with me, to the churches (ekklesia) of Galatia…” (Galatians 1:1, 2)
A Church Communal
Finally, the word ekklesia was used in referring to a specific group of believers enjoying a shared, communal life together.
“Likewise greet the church (ekklesia) that is in their house.” (Romans 16:5)
“Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea and Nymphas and the church (ekklesia) that is in his house.” (Colossians 4:15)
In all three dimensions, ekklesia implies a function of governance not a format of gathering.
Together, as One Body, as local believers in a region, city or town, and as a Kingdom community of faith, we’re to advance the Kingdom of God in our collective sphere of influence, knowing our Christ-centred relationships, Christ-filled expressions of community and Christ-motivated good works serve as a witness of the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 c. Colossians 2:2, 3).
Yes, as believers we’ll meet, often and in various ways (and formats), but our meetings don’t define or restrict us; our meetings are an overflow of who we are: the King’s Executive Body; in love with God and one another, and demonstrating His love to the world.
Lost in Translation
Pointing out that words are lost in translation is not to condemn the translating process. Gratitude is the correct response for the hundreds of hours invested to not just translate one language into another but to capture the intent of the language across two thousand years.
That said, no translation process is faultless, and no translation is flawless. The goal of exegesis is to use all the tools available—including various translations, lexicons, dictionaries and the like—to draw out the full meaning of the Biblical text, accepting the limitations of the translation process.
To the issue at hand:
The use of the word “church” in our English translations reflects one of the more obvious errors in translation.
The word “church” stems from evolution of the Old English (ċiriċe), Old Norse (kirkja) and Scottish (kirk) words derived from the Greek word kuriakon meaning, “pertaining to the Lord”—from the Greek word Kurios meaning, “Lord”. The word kuriakon is only used on two occasions in the New Testament: in referring to the “Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20) and to the “Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10).
The word “church” (along with ċiriċe, kirkja, and kirk) then referred to that which pertains or belongs to the Lord. When applied to believers, it implied the “Lord’s people”.
While we certainly are the Lord’s people, it’s not difficult to see how the religious meeting held on what was deemed the “Lord’s Day”, and which often included the “Lord’s Supper”, became associated with this new word.
However, when translators then used the contemporary word “church” in place of ekklesia, it obscured the function of governance Jesus intended, turning it into a format of gathering.
While there’s everything right with believers gathering in His name for worship and fellowship, conflating ekklesia with a meeting (or worse, a building) robs us of understanding our Kingdom identity and role.
The question becomes:
Do we delete the word “church” from our vocabulary or use the word, seeking to re-engage with the original meaning of the ekklesia?
It is my opinion that the wisest course of action is the latter. Let’s give the translators the benefit of the doubt—the church, in every way, belongs to God; we are the Lord’s people. However, let’s work hard to revitalise the word with its Kingdom intent while shedding the notion it refers merely to a religious meeting or worse, the brick-and-mortar building in which believer’s meet.