The use of the term “church” or ekklésia is derived from the “assembly of Yahweh” gathered for worship before the Tabernacle.
The Greek term commonly rendered “church” in English is ekklésia, the noun that means “assembly, the congregation” – (Strong’s – #G1577). While it was used in ancient Greek for an “assembly” of local citizens gathered to discuss and legislate laws, political policies, and the like, it is a mistake to assume that is the source for or sense of how the New Testament employs the word.
In the New Testament, ekklésia occurs only twice in the four gospel accounts, and both times on the lips of Jesus:
- (Matthew 16:18) – “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church.”
- (Matthew 18:17) – “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to hear the church also, let him be to you as the Gentile and tax collector.”
Thus, the application of the word to congregations of disciples can be traced back to Jesus himself.
The term is found over one hundred times in the Greek New Testament, most often applied to congregations of Christians. But it is the Apostle Paul’s usage that is the most distinctive and instructive. First, he uses it in both the singular and plural numbers, and with discrimination. Invariably, when referring to local congregations in particular cities, he refers to the “church of the Thessalonians,” or to the “church at Corinth” – (1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:1).
Second, when he refers collectively to believers scattered over larger areas, or even over the entire world, Paul uses the plural form. For example, to the church at Corinth, he wrote that God is not “a God of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” To the believers in Rome, he remarked that “all the churches of Christ salute you.” And he praised the Thessalonians for becoming “imitators of the churches in Judea” – (1 Corinthians 14:33, Romans 16:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:14).
This does not mean that each city church was independent of the others, and certainly not that each one maintained its own doctrinal traditions and practices. But each congregation constituted the “church” assembled for worship in its respective territory, and each represented the larger whole in its locale.
Several times, Paul refers to the local congregation as the “church of God,” and collectively, to all churches as the “churches of God.” For example:
- (1 Corinthians_1:2) – “To the church of God which is at Corinth…”
- (1 Corinthians_10:32) – “Give no occasion of stumbling, either to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the church of God.”
- (1 Corinthians_11:16) – “But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither do the churches of God.”
- (1 Thessalonians 2:14) – “For you became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judaea in Christ Jesus.”
His usage reflects the influence of the Hebrew Bible, especially the “assembly of Israel” gathered before the Tabernacle, and not Greek political practices. Several times in the Pentateuch, Israel assembled before the Tabernacle for worship is called the “assembly of Yahweh,” or ‘qahal Yahweh’, and other times, the “assembly of Israel.” For example:
- (Exodus_12:6) – “And you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month, and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at even.”
- (Leviticus_16:17) – “And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the holy place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.”
- (Deuteronomy_16:8) – “Six days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly to Yahweh your God; you shall do no work therein.”
- (Deuteronomy_23:1-2) – “He that is wounded in the stones, or has his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh. A bastard shall not enter into the assembly of Yahweh.”
The ancient prohibitions against anyone “unclean” participating in the “assembly of Yahweh” is echoed in several of Paul’s declarations about proper and improper behavior in the church. For example:
- (1 Corinthians 11:22) – “What? Have you not houses to eat and to drink in, or do you despise the assembly of God, and put them to shame that have not?”
- (1 Corinthians 14:34) – “Let the women keep silence in the assembly, for it is not permitted them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also says the law.”
- (1 Timothy 3:15) – “But if I tarry long, that you may know how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the assembly of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
In the preceding verses, Paul is concerned with behavior that occurs in the “assembly,” and not necessarily with Christian conduct outside church gatherings.
In the three preceding passages, I have changed the English “church” to “assembly” to better represent the sense of ekklésia. Unfortunately, the real force of the word is diminished, if not lost, by the English word “church” that is from the Old English term cirice, which, in turn, is derived from the Greek adjective kyriaké. The latter means “lordly.” Most likely, the modern usage evolved over time from a misapplication of the term “lordly day” (kyriaké hémera) found in Revelation 1:10 – (“I came to be in spirit in the lordly day”), also the source for the custom of referring to Sunday as the “Lord’s Day.”
Through these latter developments, the original force of the word ekklésia with its emphasis on the saints being “assembled” for worship has been diminished, as well as the connection to Old Testament usage. For that matter, in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible, ekklésia represents the Hebrew word qahal in phrases like the “assembly of Israel” and the “assembly of Yahweh.”
Thus, in the New Testament, the “church” is not a building or the designation for a sect or denomination, but the local assembly of the saints gathered before the Lord, the place where God’s presence is found.