Ekklesia: A Word Study

Vol. 2 No. 4 (1958): 164-79

Ekklesia: A Word Study

Roy Bowen Ward


Following the earthly ministry of Jesus, there arose an institution1 in response to his person and his mission. This institution was a community of persons who sustained a certain relationship to Jesus Christ, and it existed by virtue of that relationship. The most common term used to describe this institution was ekklesia, which we translate, church.

To determine why this particular Greek word came to be chosen and how it was used is the purpose of this article. We shall attempt to see the history of the ekklesia and what it meant to the mind of Greeks and Jews across the Mediterranean world of the first cent., A.D., when this term was first applied to the new institution of Jesus Christ. We shall attempt to see the significance of this term and parallel expressions as they are used in the N.T. And we shall attempt to follow some developments in the understanding of this term in the history of the primitive church.2


The most common classical usage of ekklesia and its cognates was as a political term, meaning an assembly of citizens. In the Greek city-state the citizens were called forth by the trumpet of the kerux (herald) summoning them to the ekklesia (assembly). The ekklesia was the ultimate power in the constitutional government of the Greek city-state, whether it was a monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy. Of the general assembly of the citizens in or before the time of Dracon (codified laws in 621 B.C.) nothing is really known-though the people must have had some power. Later Aristotle applied ekklesiai to the Homeric assemblies of the people.3 Most of our references to the use of this word concern the ekklesiai of Athens.4

The ekklesia in Athens enjoyed a long life from 508 B.C. until the early fourth century, A.D., in the time of Diocletian. But only from 508 to 322 B.C. was it a strictly democratic institution. In this time it was the general meeting of the people--all Athenian citizens could attend, excluding only aliens, females, and those disenfranchised (atimoi). What portion of the citizens actually attended we do not know, though Gomme suggests that 6,000 was perhaps one-seventh of the total in 431.5 A specially appointed council, the Boule,summoned the ekklesia and prepared its agenda. By law the ekklesia had to be summoned at least four times each 36 or 37 days, that is, forty times each year. One of each foul' meetings was more impor tant than the others, this one being called the ekklesiakuria. The president of the ekklesia was a particular member of the Boule who [165] could serve as president at only one ekklesia in his lifetime. Any citizen might speak in debate and initiate amendments or administrative motions. Voting was normally by show of hands, a simple majority deciding most issues.6

It should be noted that in ordinary usage, ekklesia meant the assembly, and not the body of people involved. The Boule existed even when it was not actually in session, but there was a new ekklesia every time they assembled.7 The demos (people) assembled in an ekklesia, but when they acted, it was said to be the action of the demos, not the ekklesia.8

Further, it should be noted that the principal meaning of ekklesia is simply, "assembly." Lexicographers give as the primary meaning, "assembly duly summoned."9 But it is doubtful that in usage "duly summoned" was remembered. At Athens the extraordinary assemblies were called sugkletoi, in distinction to the ordinary ekklesiai which met on fixed days.10

Finally, it should be noted that in classical usage ekklesia was, among Greek words for assembly, the most inclusive word in existence.11Ekklesia, being derived from the verb ek-kaleo, "to call out or forth," has often been interpreted as an exclusive term, connecting its etymological meaning with the Biblical doctrine that Christians are those "called out of the world by God."12 However, F. J. A. Hort, in his classic work, The Christian Ecclesia, reminds us that in usage this exclusive meaning—a caIling out from a larger group does—not have support.

There is no foundation for the widely spread notion that ekklesia means a people or a number of individual men called out of the world or mankind, . . . . the compound verb ekkaleo is never so used, and ekklesia never occurs in a context which suggests this supposed sense to have been present in the writer's mind.13

In usage ek-kaleo meant only, "to call forth," and not, as this interpretation would require, "to call out from a larger group." Ekklesia, in turn, meant only "that which is called forth, an assembly." As Campbell comments, "as so often, etymology proves to be here misleading rather than helpful."14

In the Hellenistic period ekklesia retained its usual, classical meaning of an assembly of citizens. The ekklesia continued to be held in Athens, though not as the democratic institution it had once been, and the term is found in other settings with the same meaning.15

There are indications that in this period the term may have developed a certain quasi-technical significance, though this does not rule out widespread non-technical usage as simply an assembly. Deissman has pointed out that the Latin-speaking people of the West borrowed the term ekklesia, rather than translate it. This was not due to a scarcity of Latin words for assembly—contio and comitia were often translated into Greek by ekklesia. As examples Deissman cites [166] the letter of Pliny the Younger (61/62-113 A.D.) to Trajan in which the Latinized term, ecclesin, is used,16 and the bilingual inscription of the year 103/104 A.D. at Ephesus where ekklesia in the Greek half becomes ecclesin in the Latin half.17 Deissman concludes, "There must have been some special reason for borrowing the Greek word, and it lay doubtless in the subtle feeling that Latin possessed no word exactly equivalent to the Greek ekklesia."l8 The reason may have been that a certain dignity had attached itself to this word due to its political context.

Finally we must note that ekklesia was never used in the Greek world as the title of a religious group. About the beginning of the first century, B.C., it is found used in connection with a society of Tyrian merchants and shipowners in. Delos which worshipped Heracles.19 But here it is used only in its classical sense: the assembly or meeting of the society. It was fitting that the term should be used since these societies were modelled on that of the city-state.


Ekklesia occurs 80 times in the canonical books of the Septuagint translation (LXX) of the Old Testament, and where the Hebrew original is available for comparison,20 it always translates qahal or words from the same root.21

Two important Hebrew words were used in the Old Testament to denote a gathering or assembly: qahal and 'edhah. But when applied to Israel, 'edhah came to indicate the society itself, whether assembled or not. In particular, 'edhah is used of the children of Israel, whether assembled or not, during its journeying from Egypt to Canaan.22 Thus 'edhah assumes quasi-technical status as the People of God, but qahal continues to denote only the actual assembly or meeting.

Though ekklesia is nearly always a translation of qahal, on the other hand, qahal is also translated by other Greek words, especially by sunagoge. In 35 passages sunagoge stands for qahal, 19 of these passages being in the first foul" books where ekklesia is never used. But though sunagoge does translate qahal in certain passages, it is usually the LXX translation of 'edhah.

It is often asserted that the LXX added to the word ekklesia a religious connotation, the People of God, because of the association with the qahal, and especially with the qehal YHWH (the assembly of the LORD). Thus Johnson writes, "Knowledge of the LXX is vital for understanding its New Testament meaning. . . ." It signifies the people met for religious ends, especially worship. . . ."23 Schmidt states,

That the ekklesia is the People of God, the Congregation of God, becomes clear first through the addition of kuriou: ekklesia kuriou = qehal YHMH . . . In the rest ekklesia without the addition is the Congregation of God. . . it must be regarded as a technical term.24

J. Y. Campbell has taken exception to this idea: "It might therefore be expected that in the Septuagint ekklesia would acquire a [167] specifically religious connotation, but of this there is, in fact, no evidence whatever."25

The critical point concerns the meaning of qehal YHWH, and the consequent acceptance of the position that qahal used alone stands for this full phrase. There are only five O.T. passages where qehal YHWH is used. The first two cases—Num. 16:3 and 20:4—may be discussed because the LXX translates these by sunagoge. In Deut. 23 :2-4, 9, qehal YHWH is repeated five times, each time being translated by ekklesia kuriou. But here the context indicates that the phrase refers to an actual meeting, the assembly, not to the people itself.26 In1 Chron. 28:8 the qehal YHWH refers to an actual assembly at Jerusalem. In Hebrew this phrase is in apposition to "all Israel," but the reading in the LXX omits "Israel" and reads: "Now therefore before all the assembly of the LORD and in the hearing of God." In Micah 2:5 again there is no indication that it is more than the actual assembly to which the phrase refers; the expression en ekklesiai is quite classical.27

If the Hebrew reading in 1 Chron. 28:8 is correct so that qehal YHWH is in apposition to Israel, then there may be a development in its meaning toward the People of God; yet the LXX does not understand it this way, omitting Israel and leaving ekklesia in its classical usage: the actual assembly. The scarcity of this phrase, qehal YHWH, the fact that it is not used of such significant assemblies as that which gathered at Sinai as described in Exodus, and the fact that where it is used an actual assembly can be pointed to diminishes the probable technical significance commonly alleged to it. Thus, even if the word, qahal, stood for the full phrase, it would still not add anything new to our understanding of the word nor its LXX counterpart, ekklesia. Furthermore, if ekklesia had come to mean, People of God, or Israel of God, through the Hebrew qahal, it is difficult to understand why N.T. writers do not use it as evidence when trying to prove that Christians are the People of God; Paul does not use it in Rom. 1-15, nor does Peter in 1 Pet. 2 :4-10. There is no good evidence in the O.T. to show that qahal or ekklesia ever meant anything other than the actual assembly, be it a religious assembly (as in most cases), the assembly gathered when David slew Goliath, an assembly of prophets, etc.28

In the non-canonical LXX books the usage of ekklesia is generally the same. An exception can be noted in certain of the twelve passages in Ecclesiasticus where ekklesia is used.29 Campbell comments:

But in Ben Sira's book there is at least a suggestion that successive meetings of the same group of people are really the same ekklesia, not ekklesiai. . . . But if ekklesia is on the way to signify a regular meeting of a religious kind, there is still nothing to suggest that it has come to mean (as sunagoge did) the body of people who meet regularly in one particular place.30

Philo (fl. A.D. 39) uses ekklesia 30 times: five as in classical Greek, and 25 in LXX quotations, especially from Deut. 23. He [168] sometimes qualifies ckklesia by an adjective: theia31 or hiera;32 and he also uses it with the genitives theou33 and kuriou.34 In these passages there is still no evidence that the word alone (without descriptive adjectives or genitives) has a distinct religious connotation. On occasions he uses sullogos interchangeably with ekklesia, and he modifies this word by hieros.35 There is one passage where Philo might have used ekklesia in a technical sense. "For when the whole multitude came together with harmonious oneness to give thanks for their migration, He no longer called them a multitude or a nation or a people but a 'congregation'."36 Aucher's Latin translation has Ecclesiam.37 But unfortunately all this is based on an Armenian version, and there is no real clue as to whether Philo used ekklesia or sunagoge or another word.38 Philo's usage must be seen in the light of his own conception of the ideal state,39 and therefore it is questionable as to whether he can be of major importance in the understanding of the common usage.

Josephus (37-c. 100 A.D.) uses ekklesia 48 times, all according to strict classical usage. 18 of these passages may represent LXX allusions, and in nine cases he substitutes ekklesia for sunagoge. Hort reminds us, "Josephus's ostentatious classicalism deprives us of the information which a better Jew in his position might have afforded US."40

Conclusion. In the light of this study of the existing evidence concerning the pre-Christian history of ekklesia, the following may be noted: (1) Ekklesia meant an assembly. (2) It was familiar both to Gentiles by political usage and to Greek-speaking Jews through the LXX. (3) Its Greek history associated with it a certain dignity, with possible ideals of freedom and equal-membership playing a part. (4) It could be used of a religious assembly--Pagan or Jewish--but it did not become the title of any religious group, Pagan or Jewish. (5) Negatively, no evidence is found that in usage it meant "the called out"—despite etymology—nor that it came to mean "the People of God," nor that, in general, it was applied to any other than an individual assembly (though Ecclesiasticus shows a new trend: several assemblies being called the same ekklesia).


Ekklesia occurs 114 times in the New Testament,41 being found in Matt., Acts, Rom., 1 Cor., 2 Cor., Gal, Eph., Phil, Col., 1 Thess., 2 Thess., 1 Tim., Phile., Heb., James, 3 John, and Rev.42

Its use, however, is somewhat different from that which we have seen generally in the pre-Christian history. Although ekklesia sometimes denotes merely an actual assembly, for the most part there is a real sense in which the ekklesia exists whether assembled or not. This is not a development which can be detected prior to Christian history, and the charge is probably to be explained strictly as a Christian phenomenon.

The hypothesis of J. Y. Campbell may well be true: "The probability is that at first they used it [ekklesia] as an obvious name for those simple 'meetings' which were the most conspicuous distinctive feature in the life of the early Church. . . ."43 The next step was the application of the term to the body of people habitually meeting together. Early Christians could have used sunagoge; James 2:2 seems to indicate that some did. Even Ignatius and Hermas later used it to denote the gathering of the church,44 and Epiphanius states that the Ebionite Christians used sunagoge instead of ekklesia45 But sunagoge had by the first century, A.D., assumed too much of a technical status, denoting the religious assemblies of the Jews, these Jews themselves, and the places where they assembled. But ekklesia was not tied down to any group, much less to a religious group. Though used in the LXX, it was not distinctively Jewish; it was a term meaningful to Jew and Gentile alike. And, if Campbell's hypothesis is correct, then the primary use of ekklesia was local, its universal usage being secondary.

Acts. Ekklesia is used 23 times by the author of Acts. In two instances (19:32,40) it refers to the mob of people at Ephesus. In this passage it is also used to refer to the assembly which met regularly (ennomoi) at Ephesus (19:39). Once ekklesia is used in the speech of Stephen (7 :38) to designate the children of Israel gathered at Sinai, echoing perhaps Deut. 9: 10 where the LXX has ekklesia.

In the remaining passages ekklesia refers in some sense to the institution of Jesus Christ. It comes closest to its classical usage in 14:27 where the assembly is actually gathered at Antioch to hear Paul and Barnabas. In the rest, ekklesia means more than the actual assembly; it is also the people who assemble. Thus "great fear came upon the whole church" in Jerusalem (5: 11) ; there is a "great persecution of the church in Jerusalem" (8:1) and "Saul was laying waste the church, entering in house to house" (8:3).

In every case, with one possible exception, ekklesia. is explicitly or implicitly used in a local sense: it is the assembly (assembled or not) at Jerusalem (11:22; 12:1, 5; 15:4, 22), at Antioch (11:26; 13:1; 14:27; 15:3), at Caesarea (18:22), and at Ephesus (20:17,28). This local use is emphasized by the use of the plural, ekklesiai, when referring to churches in a larger area: in Syria and Cilicia (15 :41) and in areas of Asia Minor (16:4). The one possible exception to the local use is the statement in 9 :31: "So then the Church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, having been strengthened." But even here there is good textual evidence for the plural, rather than the singular.46

In this possible exception (and a textual variant of 15 :41 which has the singular) there is the beginning of another development in the meaning of ekklesia: the universal usage. If the singular reading [170] is correct, and ekklesia is used in a universal sense, then we have the local and universal usage here side by side (as also in Paul). But Schmidt rightly points out that there is no indication that the ekklesia is divided into ekklesiai, or vice versa. "It is rather that if the ekklesia is found in a certain place, even through the mention of ekklesiai by the side of it, it can not be affected by this."47 Thus, in this development, ekklesia can mean any portion of Christians: from a local group to those in a larger geographical area, and, by extension, to those throughout the world.

Pauline Epistles. Ekklesia is used 62 times in the Pauline epistles.

In Paul's first letter to Corinth he uses ekklesia several times according to common usage; denoting an actual assembly: "For first when you have come together in an assembly, I hear there are divisions among you" (11:18; see also 14:19, 28, 35). But in most cases the reference is to the institution, assembled or not; ekklesia has become a technical term.

The ekklesia is often local: the church at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1) I at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), at Laodicea (Col. 4:16), and at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1) . When speaking of a larger geographical area Paul uses the plural: the churches of Asia (1 Cor. 16:19), of Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:1), of Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1), of Judea (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14). Paul also uses ekklesia of smaller groups, such as the household church of Prisea and Aquila in Rome (Rom. 16:5), that of the same couple in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19), that of Nympha in Laodicea (Col. 4:15) and that of Philemon in Colosse (Phile. 2). These can evidently be called ekklesia, even while calling the total group in the city ekklesia.

Only once did the author of Acts add a descriptive genitive to ekklesia, and that (in reference to the church at Ephesus) was a quotation from the Psalms: "the church of the Lord" (Acts 20:28). But Paul often adds a descriptive genitive, usually tou theou (of God) . Twice he adds tou Christou (of Christ), once ton ethnon (of the Gentiles), and once ton hagion (of the saints). The salutations of the Thessalonian correspondence are particularly descriptive: "to the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and in our Lord Jesus Christ." Even when Paul does not use a descriptive genitive. it is usually to be understood, in accordance with Paul's doctrine of the ekklesia (see infra). It should be noted that tou theou is used with the singular, ekklesia, in reference to a local church. Paul addresses "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Cor. 1:2). Paul does not mean that the church of God is limited to Corinth, nor does he say, "the church of God, that part of which is at Corinth." As Schmidt rightly points out, "the Church is not primarily an accumulation of individual congregations of the whole community, but every congregation of the whole community, however small, represents the Church."48

It is in Paul's letters to the Ephesians and Colossians that ekklesia receives its fullest doctrinal expression, and at the same time is removed the furtherest from the classical usage. Already ekklesia has been used to designate the people, whether assembled or not. But in most cases the use was still local; these people could and were actually assembling. But in Eph. and Col. ekklesia is used of the people without respect to the possibility of actually assembling.

Ekklesia was already a technical term for the institution of Jesus Christ. But the term itself was rather neutral--not particularly expressive of the doctrine concerning that institution. Especially here in Eph. and Co!. ekklesia is grounded into the doctrine of the institution and made to carry in itself the doctrinal implications. Paul's device for accomplishing this is the use of two important parallel terms, some (body) and gune (wife). By these terms Paul clearly shows the intrinsic connection of Jesus Christ and his institution (ekklesia)-it is like head and body (Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:24), like husband and wife (Eph. 5 :21-33). In these terms Christ and the ekklesia become almost identified. Christ is the head of the body, but the body is not just a rump-it is "the fullness (ple?'o/)w) of him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1 :22). Christ and ekklesia are like husband and wife, but he adds, "the two shall become one flesh" (Eph. 5:31).

Here one does not need to add tou Christou to ekklesia, for in the term itself must now be included Christ as an essential connotation. Again the comments of Schmidt are well stated:

... the ekklesia as the soma Christou is not a mere association of men. . . Definitive is the communion with Christ. To sharpen tills point one could say: A single man can and must be the ekklesia, if he has communion with Christ.49

This being so, the classical meaning of "assembly," "gathering" has been superseded by the more dynamic, Pauline definition: ekklesia = body of Christ, or even, Christ himself!

This usage of ekklesia in Eph. and Col., although non-local and related emphatically to Jesus Christ, does not remove it from reality. There is no "invisible" ekklesia here, as distinguished from the "visible" one. That Paul calls this institution "holy," etc. (Eph. 5 :27), does not remove it from reality; those who compose the ekklesia are exhorted to be "holy" (Rom. 12:1; etc.) and are, indeed, called "holy" (hagioi: saints--Rom. 1:7; etc.). In Eph. 3:10 mention is made of the mission of the ekklesia, but this is a real and earthly mission.

Other N T. Books. In the other N.T. books, excluding the gospels, ekklesia is used 26 times. It is found 20 times in the Revelation, always in the local sense, referring to the seven churches of Asia. James and III John also use it in a local sense (Jas. 5:14; III John 6, 9,10.). Once in Hebrews (2:12) it is used in a quotation from Psa. 22 :22 where ekklesia simply stands for qahal. The only passage where ekklesia stands for a heavenly institution is in Heb. [172] 12:23. But here it is probably not used according to its N.T. technical usage, but simply in its common meaning: an actual assembly. It is here coupled with paneguris, which the RSV translates, "festal gathering."

Gospels. Ekklesia by name is found in only one of the four gospels, Matthew, and in only two passages in that gospel (16:18; 18: 17). This argument from statistics is often the first argument put forward in attempts to disassociate Jesus from the ekklesia. However, this question involves not only the word ekklesia but also the thing itself. Recent scholarship50 has shown the ekklesia (without name) to be an integral part of the teaching of Jesus.51 The question remains as to why ekklesia by name is scarcely used in the gospels. This term seems to be generally reserved for the time after the resurrection-ascension of Jesus as the Christ. Note, for instance, that in Luke-Acts ekklesia never occurs until after the events of Pentecost. There is an understanding that ekklesia is, strictly speaking, a post-resurrection institution.

Matt. 18: 17. The two occasions of ekklesia in this passage must be understood in its common usage: an actual assembly (so translated in RSV). And that assembly is, no doubt, present rather than future, Jewish rather than Christian. Hort states, "The actual precept is hardly intelligible if the ekklesia meant is not the Jewish community, apparently the Jewish local community, to which the injured person and the offender both belonged."52 But Hort also says, "The principle holds good in a manner for all time,"53 and thus this passage found application in the church.54

Matt. 16:18. Although many problems have been raised concerning this passage,55 the scope of this study limits us to the question of the usage of ekklesia as it here stands, and to the question of what precisely did it mean. The problem is a perplexing one, if our survey of the pre-Chlistian history of ekklesia is correct. If ekklesia meant only an actual assembly up until Christian usage converted it into a technical, religious term, then the statement here: "Upon this rock I will build my 'meeting' (ekklesia)" does not make much sense.

(1) There are several possibilities that Jesus spoke Greek, using this Greek word, (ekklesia), and that it did have a significant meaning.

(a) It is possible that ekklesia had attained a religious connotation prior to this time in some may not traceable in the sources we have. This word might have been capable of meaning assembly in a more universal sense with religious overtones: the People of God. If such is true, ekklesia fits well the context: "I will build my People of God, i.e., the new Israel."

This view is, of course, the prevalent concensus of most commentators: that ekklesia had a religious connotation. But they seek [173] evidence for this view from the LXX, where a closer investigation reveals no such evidence. The development, if true, must lie elsewhere.

But it is difficult to support even this hypothesis in the face of the failure of N.T. writers to employ this term in proving that this new institution is the People of God, the new Israel. If it had developed this connotation in a Jewish milieu, surely Paul and Peter would have used it (Rom. 1-15; 1 Pet. 2:4-10). Usage in Acts and elsewhere also stands against this view.

(b) A second possibility is that Jesus himself gave to the term ekklesia its new significance, either on this occasion, or elsewhere in his ministry. A definition of ekklesia in Messianic terms would give it the depth of meaning expected in this passage. The juxtaposition of ekklesia and basileia in the following verse might suggest that such a definition was made by Jesus. However, this hypothesis is weak in that this definition is nowhere to be found, either here or in any passage in the gospels. Would such an important definition be omitted? Usage in Acts and elsewhere oppose this view also.

(c) A third possibility is that in using ekklesia, Jesus used a synonym for sunagoge, using it in antithesis to this Jewish institution of his day, and borrowing by association the connotations of sunagoge. Sunagoge would fit this passage well, since it was a technical term denoting the Congregation of God. It even referred to the building where the Congregation met,' and the figure of "building" would be quite aptly associated with sunagoge. But Jesus could not use sunagoge because of its Jewish limitations. 56 Then he used a synonym in the way that he might have used sunagoge, and the connotations would thus be transferred to ekklesia, This hypothesis is possible, but probably is a bit too clever to be true!

(2) If we dismiss these hypotheses, we are left with one other possibility which seems, indeed, more convincing. This possibility is that Jesus did not say, "ekklesia," but rather the equivalent in the Aramaic language.57

The possible Aramaic equivalents include: qehala', 'edhta', ciburra', and kenishta'. With all four of these words is associated the idea of the People of God. 'edhata' may be ruled out since it does not occur in the Targums. Of the other three, the most common term was kenishta': gathering, assembly, place of meeting (synagogue); this term was also applied to the Great Synagogue.58 Furthermore, the Sinaitic Syriac version (3rd century, A.D.) uses kenushta' regularly for ekklesia and sunagoge (though Matt. 16:18 is not extant in this version), and the Palestinian Syriac version (Evangeliarium Hierosolymitanum--no precise date) also uses kenushta for both Greek words. Of this latter version Schmidt, following E. Nestle, states, "The dialect of Evangeliarium Hierosolymitanum differs considerably from the ordinary Syriac, and it possibly stands relatively close to the language of Jesus and his disciples."59 Schmidt, McNeil,60 etc., therefore prefer kenishta' as the original.

[174] Whether it was kenishta' or one of the other available words, it would be meaningful here in this passage. Each would convey the idea of the People of God, an idea fully in keeping with the figure of "building,"61 and each would be a term with Messianic overtones, in keeping with the basileia in the following verse. When Matthew later recorded his gospel in Greek, ekklesia would be the natural and only possible translation of the Aramaic. Sunagoge would have been eliminated as being a limited, Jewish term. But by Matthew's time ekklesia was the technical, religious term in usage to designate what Jesus earlier promised to build. For Matthew's readers ekklesia was natural and meaningful.


Ekklesia in Matt. 16:18, in Paul's doctrinal expositions, etc., is used in a general or universal sense. . Elsewhere the majority of instances are of local usage. This local usage continues in the literature of the Apostolic Fathers. I Clement is a letter from the ekklesia of God sojourning at Rome to the ekklesia of God sojourning at Corinth. Ignatius begins his letters in a similar way, as also Polycarp, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp from the church in Smyrna. Didache62 and the Shepherd of Hermas63 also know this local use.

There is, however, an increasing tendency to use ekklesia in referring to the church universal. This is explicit when Ignatius adds to ekklesia the adjective, katholike64 (general or universal65), which later becomes a technical term: the Catholic Church. The universal idea is even more emphatic in the Martyrdom of Polycarp where the universal ekklesia is in the oikoumene (the whole habitable world, i.e., ecumenica]).66

The ekklesia appears in the visions of the Shepherd of Hermas as a holy, ancient Lady,67 and as a Tower.68 This Church is cleansed and purified, and after the wicked are cast out, she is one body, one understanding, one mind, one faith, one love. This unity of the church is found in Ignatius where God, Christ, and Church form a single entity,69 which is in connection with the church officers: "without these [deacons, bishop, presbyters] it is not called a church."70

II Clement, so-called, describes the ekklesia as pre-existent, the "ekklesia of life," spiritual, but made flesh--as the Logos.71 Though the words have a Pauline sound, the tendency here is better described as a Gnostic development72 or the Semitic belief of the pre-existence of certain things, such as the tabernacle.73


The pre-Christian history of the ekklesia74 presented the new institution of Jesus Christ with an easily adaptable word to describe that institution. At first it was a neutral term, devoid of any special doctrinal significance. But this word which meant "assembly" now included the people who assembled, whether actually in an [175] assembly or not. This assembly was something real; thus the first and most common usage was of a local church, i.e., where there was actually an assembling of the people. This usage is typical of Acts, of much of the Pauline epistles, of the general epistles, of the Revelation to John, and of many of the passages in the Apostolic Fathers. It had become in most of these passages the technical term to designate this new institution.

Alongside of this usage there developed a wider, non-local use. The church, after spreading out from Jerusalem, was still in all these places that one and the same institution of Jesus Christ. But the Greek word ekklesia did not readily lend itself to this non-local usage. Thus we often have the plural, ekklesiai, when speaking of a larger geographic area. But, perhaps in order to emphasize the oneness of these ekklesiai, the singular, ekklesia, came to be used. In this usage the idea of assembly was no longer prominent. In Eph. and Col. we have this non-local usage. The difference of usage by Paul in Eph. and Col. as contrasted with his other letters must be explained as a grounding of this term ekklesia (which had become the technical term for the institution) in the basic doctrines of the Faith (especially in Christology), which were already integral parts of the concept of the church.

The concept of the church began with Jesus Christ, though he may not have used the Greek word, ekklesia. When ekklesia was used, it became what it was because of Jesus Christ; for it became the technical term of that institution which assembled in his name, and which was composed of people who sustained a certain relationship to him, i.e., people "in Christ."


Most scholars are agreed that "church" is derived from the Greek kuriakon, an adjective (of the Lord). This adjective is used in the N.T. with deipnon (Lord's Supper--1 Cor. 11:20) and hemera (Lord's Day--Rev. 1:10). It was also used with doma (the Lord's house) in the early church, and from the third century, at least, it began to be used substantively as the place of worship.75 From this usage it passed into the Gothic languages through the barbaric invasions, probably as kirika. From this comes the English church, the Scottish , the German Kirche, and other modern language derivations, including Slavonic forms.76Ekklesia lies behind such modern terms for church as the French eglise, the Spanish iglesia, the Portuguese igreja, etc. English words from this root include Ecclesiastes, ecclesiastical, etc.

1 This term is used advisedly, though criticized by Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church (Translation by H. Knight, London: Luttenvorth Press, 1952), p. 10, etc.

2 For an important bibliography see O. Linton, Das Problem der Urkirche in der neueren Forshung (Uppsala Universitets Arsskrift, 1932) ; for more recent additions to this bibliography see W. Arndt [176] and F. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957).

3Politics 1285a 11. 174 175

4 See references in Thuc., Herod., Aristoph., Plato., Arist., and in inscriptions and other non-literary sources.

5 A. W. Gomme, "Ecclesia," The Oxford Classical Dictionary, p. 304.

6 For further discussions see short article by Gomme, op. cit., pp. 303, 304; and fuller presentations in C. G. Brandis, "Ekklesia," Pauly's Real-Encyclopaedie der classischen altertumswissenschaft, revised by Wissowa, (1905), vol. 5, cols. 2163-2200; R. Whiston and W. Wayte, "Ecclesia," A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquity, vol. 1, pp. 697-703.

7 See Thuc. 3.46: en tei proterai ekklesiai (in the earlier assembly); inscription in Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum, vol. 3, p. 101: en tei deuterai ton ekklesion (in the second of the assemblies).

8 See the prescription of an Athenian assembly in Dittenberger, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 512: prosetaxen ho demos. . . (the people commanded) ; vol. 1, p. 731: psephisma tou demos (the vote of the people).

9 Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Jones-McKenzie edition), S.v.

10 See Aristotle, Politics, 1275b 8.

11 See E. L. Hicks, "On Some Political Terms Employed in the NewTestament," Classical Review, 1 (1887), p. 43. Moulton and Milligan cite as a non-literary example of the "inclusive" use of ekklesia the assembly at Apamea: agomenes pandemou ekklesias (being gathered in the assembly of all the people). The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, S.v.

12 This doctrine is substantiated apart from etymology by such passages as: John 15:19; 17:6; etc., and by those passages dealing with "calling," "election," etc.

13 F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (London: Macmillan and Co., 1898), p. 5.

14 J. Y. Campbell, "The Origin and Meaning of the Christian Use of theWord EKKLESIA," Journal of Theological Studies, 49 (1948), p. 131.

15 The historian Polybius (c. 202-120 B.C.) tells of an ekklesia in Sparta, which was the gathering of the people to hear Machatas. History, iv. 34.6. Plutarch (c.46-c.120 A.D.) uses this term to describe the assemblies before which Tiberias stood. Tiberias Gracchus, 14-16. Lucian (c.115-200 A.D.), in his parody, Parliament of the Gods, calls this meeting a sumposium and a sunedrion. But when the official motion is presented, the meeting is then called an ekklesias ennomu and the decree follows the formula of fourth cent. Athens. 1, 3, 14.

16 Epistle x. 111. bule et ecclesia consentiente.

17hina tithentai kat' ekklesian en to theatro epi ton baseon /ita ut [om]n[i e]cclesia supra bases ponerentur.

18 A. Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1927), p. 113.

19Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum, 2271. See discussion in F. Poland, Geschichte des griechischen Vereinwesens (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1909), p. 332.

20 1 Sam. 19:20 - lahaqah: Neh. 5:7 - qehilah; Psa. 26:12 - rnaqhelim; Psa. 67:26 - maqhiloth. "In the case of lahaqah it is the same radicles in another sequence; either here it is supposed to be a derived word from qahal, or else it is possibly a case of dittography, occurring here so close to laqahath." K. L. Schmidt, "Kaleo . . ." Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testarnent, vol. 3, pp. 530, 531. See English translation by J. R. Coates in Bible Key Words (New York: Harper and Bros., 1951).

21 In three instances no Hebrew word stands behind the use of ekklesia in the LXX: Deut. 4:10; I Chr. 28:2; II Chr. 10:3.

22 Five-sixths of the total occurrences of 'edhah in the O.T. are in the four books of Ex:, Lev., Num., and Jos.--more than one-half are in the book of Num. alone.

23 G. Johnston, The Doctrine of the Church in the New Testament (Cambridge: University Press, 1943), pp. 36, 37.

24 Schmidt, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 531.

25 Campbell, op. cit., pp. 132, 133.

26 In Neh. 13: 1 the phrase qehal ' elohim occurs, but this is a reference to the assembly in Deut. 23.

27 Lam. 1:10 may be a further reference, ekklesia sou here prob ably referring to the assembly in Deut. 23.

28 The most recent discussion of the qehal YHWH is to be found in Johan D. W. Kritzinger, Qehal Jahwe. Wat dit is en wie daaraan rna.q behoort (Acad. Proefschrift, Kampen: Kok, 1957), and in the review of this work by L. Rost in Theologische Literaturzeitung, (1958), pp. 266, 267.

The summary of Kritzinger's work is written in English. In summarizing chapter 1, paragraph 3: The use and meaning of qehal (YHWH) in the O.T., he states: "Qahal primarily means 'gathering' or 'assembly.' This general meaning is found throughout the O.T." (p. 152) He cites one text where qahal is used as a technical term for the cult-assembly, but this text—Num. 15:15—is one that is translated by sunagoge, not ekklesia.

29 Ecclesiasticus 15:15; 21:17; 23:24; 24:2; 26:5; 31:11; 33:19; 38:33; 39:10; 44:15; 50:13; 20.

30 Campbell, op. cit., pp. 137, 138.

31De Confusione Linguarum, 144.

32Quod Deusimmutabilis sit, 111; De Migratione Abrahami, 69; De Somniis, ii, 184, 187.

33Legum Allegoria, iii, 8.

34De Ebrietate, 213.

35Legum Allegoria, iii, 81; De Somniis, ii, 184; De Specialibus Legibus, i, 325.

36Quaestiones et Solutiones in Exodum, 1.10, translated by Ralph Marcus in the Loeb Classical Library, supplement to Philo series, vol. 2, pp. 19, 20.

37 Philo Judaeus, Paralipomena Armena (Armenian text and Latin translation by P. Aucher, 1826), p. 456.

38 The word in question is zhoghov. Although the Armenian language has a word derived from ekklesinekeghetsi—here this word is related to zhoghvoort, the usual translation of sunagoge! Aucher's Latin translation is here misleading as far as indicating what Greek word stood originally in the text. See M. Bedrossian, New Dictionary--Armenian-English (Venice: S. Lazarus Armenian Academy, 1875-79), s.v.

39 See H. A. Wolfson, Philo (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947), vol. 2, chap. 13, especial1y pp. 374-395.

40 Hort, op. cit., p. 7.

41 Acts 2:47 may be another example of the use of ekklesia, but [178] textual evidence is not strong for it. K. Lake and H. Cadbury, in The Beginnings of Christianity (London: Macmillan and Co., 1933), vol. 4., p. 30, argue for epi to auto, to which the Western text added en tei ekklesiai. The Antiochian text then dropped en, moved epi to auto to the next sentence, and read, "added to the church. . . ." Whether ekklesia is present in name or not, the thing itself is--the corporation of the saved. Ekklesia is supported by D. Pesh, P, S, 462. Epi to auto is supported by B, Aleph, A, C, 81, Vg, Sah, etc.

42 The ten books in which ekklesia is not found do not present great problems. Schmidt's comment is sound: "That it is missing in 1 J and 2 J should not be very surprising since, indeed, it appears in 3 J. Likewise it is not in 2 Tm and Tt, while it appears in 1 Tm. When so small a letter as Jd does not have the word, we must here reckon it with the accident of statistics. On the other hand the non-appearance of the word in 1 Pt and 2 Pt is extra-ordinary. But since in 1 Pt, in a special, emphatic way, the essence and meaning of the O.T. community is spoken of directly, with the use of O.T. expressions, thus the question emerges whether it is the thing or the word that is missing." op. cit., vol. 31, p. 505. This last comment is true also of Mark, Luke and John.

43 Campbell, op. cit., pp. 141, 142.

44To Polycarp 4:2 - puknoteron sunagogai ginesthosan. (Let the "gatherings" be more frequent); Mandate 11 :9,13,14 - ets sunagogen andron dikaion (into the "assembly" of the righteous men).

45Against Heresies xxx. 18 - sunagogen de outoi kalousi ten heauton ekklesian, kai ouchi ekkesian (and these call their church a synagogue, and not an ekklesia).

46 The support for ekklesiai is to be found in the Antiochian text, which may preserve the Western text which is somewhat defective here. The plural is supported by H, L, P, S.

47 Schmidt, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 506.

48 Ibid., vol. 3. p. 508.

49 Ibid., vol. 3, p. 515.

50 See R. Newton Flew, Jesus and His Church (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1938); Schmidt, op. cit.; Johnston, op. cit.; Anders Nygren, Christ and His Church (translation by Carlsten, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956); and various works connected with the ecumenical movement.

51 Such indications are to be found in his teaching concerning discipleship, which is certainly a preparation for the founding of the ekklesia. There are synonyms, such as poimne (flock) in Matt. 26:31 and John 10:1 (cf. I Cor. 9:7); poimnion (little flock) in Luke 12:32 (cf. Acts 20:28; I Pet. 5:2f.); etc. The Gospel according to John, though never using ekklesia by name, obviously speaks of the church; especially note the similarity of the vine and the branches in John 15:1 with the Pauline doctrine of the ekklesia. See C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1955), p. 393, etc.; also see O. Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (translation by Todd and Torrance, London: SCM Press, 1953), pp. 37ff.

And certainly Jesus taught about and preached the Kingdom of God. When the modern antithesis between Kingdom and church is removed, the ekklesia is seen as a realization of this teaching. This is not to say that ekklesia exhausts the meaning of basileia tou theou (the sovereignty or reign of God). Flew states: "The Basileia creates a community, and uses a community as" an instrument. Those who enter the Basileia are in the Ecclesia; the Ecclesia lives beneath the Kingly Rule of God, acknowledges it, proclaims it, and looks for its final manifestation; but the Ecclesia is not itself the Hasileia." op. cit., p. 126.

52 Hort, op. cit., p. 10. There are Jewish pala1lels to this passage, such as that in the recently discovered Manual of Discipline (vi.l) from Qumran.

53 Idem.

54 Didache 15 (2nd cent. A.D.) seems to a1lude to this passage; the Apostolic Constitution, 38 (4th cent. A.D.) quotes it in direct application to the church.

55 Questions are raised as to the genuineness of this statement as coming from Jesus, the possibility of a different context other than the Caesarea Philippi scene, the relationship of the church and Peter, the possibility of successors toPeter and this promise, etc. See Cullmann, Peter (translation by F. V. Filson, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953) and other references.

56 Other possible words (laos - people; sunedrion - council; etc.) were likewise limited in genera] by Jewish usage.

57 That Jesus himself spoke Aramaic is suggested by the fact. that this was the common language of Palestinian Jews of his day. Metzger states, "In common with his Palestinian contemporaries Jesus undoubtedly spoke Aramaicas his mother tongue, but being a Galilean he very likely was able to use Greek as well. One would expect that most of his teaching to the common people ofPalestine would be given in Aramaic." "The Language of the New Testament," The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 7, p. 52. This is substantiated by the Aramaic words preserved in our Greek gospels: talitha cumi (Mark 5:41), ephphata (Mark 7:34) abba (Mark 14:36), and Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (Mark 15 :34; cf. Matt. 27 :(6). Metzger further points to the fact that several sayings of Jesus, when translated into Aramaic, involve puns—an unlikely circumstance unless the punswere original. One such pun is to be found in this passage—the play on "rock." See the discussion by Metzger, ibid., p. 53.

58 See references in Jastrow, Dictionary of the Talmud, s. v.

59Schmidt, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 529.

60 A. H. McNeil, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (London: Macmillan and Co., 1915), ad loc. Note the discussion in Johnston, op. cit., pp. 37ff, 48ff.

61 See Cullman, Peter, p. 188, and references.

62 9.4.

63Vision ii.2.6; ii.4.3; iii.9.7.

64To the Smyrneans, 8.1.

65 Schmidt takes this to mean "one and only" here, rather than "universal," op. cit., vol. 3, p. 536.

66 8.1 - pases tes kata ten oikoumenen katholikes ekklesias (all the universal church throughout the whole world); also 19.2.

67Vision i.1.6; ii.4.1; iv.1.3; etc.

68Vision iii.3.3; Sim. ix.1.2; ix.13.1; etc.

69To the Philadelphians, 3.2.

70To the Trallians, 3.1 - choris touton ekklesia ou kaleitai.

71 14.1ff.

72 See Schmidt, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 537.

73 See Wolfson, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 182f.

74 See supra, p.10.

75 Cf. Apostolic Constitutions II. 59; an edict of Maximmus (303-313 A.D.) in Eusebius, Eccl. Hist, ix. 10; canon 15 of the Council of Ancyra (314); canon 5 of the Council of Neo-Caesarea (314-323); canon 28 of the council of Laodicea.

76 See article "Church," A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (edited by J. H. Murray, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), vol. 2, pp. 402, 406.

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