ἐκκλησία (ekklēsía)

The term most often translated “church” is ἐκκλησία (ekklēsía) in the Greek. This term has the meaning of an assembly or congregation. The term appears over 100 times in the New Testament. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, called the Septuagint, most often translates ἐκκλησία as קָהָל (qā·hāl). קָהָל has the same meaning as the Greek. It is used over 57 times of the 97 uses of ἐκκλησία in the Old Testament (Septuagint) and refers to an assembly, congregation, army or crowd.

ἐκκλησία had several meanings in the first century[1]:

1) a regularly summoned legislative body or assembly

This meaning was a generally understood concept in the Greco-Roman world and in Ephesus this was even used for the theater.

2) a casual gathering of people or an assemblage

3) people with shared belief, community, or congregation

This meaning is used often in the Old and New Testament.

The root word of ἐκκλησία means to “call out” or be “called out”. It was a common term for a congregation of the ekklētoí (n.f.), the called people, or those called out or assembled in the public affairs of a free state, the body of free citizens called together by a herald (kḗrux) which constituted the ekklēsía. … The word ekklēsía is nowhere used of heathen religious assemblies in Scripture.[2]
For the biblical history of the word ἐκκλησία, it meant originally any public assembly of citizens summoned by a herald.[3]

The Historical Meaning

Over time ἐκκλησία came to have a more specific term for a more specific assembly or congregation that we call the “church”. Thus, the term ἐκκλησία was not specifically a Christian term. In the Greek world it was used of a public assembly summoned by a herald.[4] By indicating that the use of the term changed we are referring to the change in use from the wider and secular Greco-Roman use of the word to the biblical use of the word. This constitutes what might best be called a narrowing of the definition of the word from a general sense of assemblage to a particular sense of assemblage around certain doctrines and parameters.

“From an early period it has been recognized that, while the church is one and catholic, it presents different aspects or forms which call for differentiation in reference. Thus already in the Bible itself there is distinction between the OT church and the NT church. It would be wrong to deduce from this a complete dichotomy, as though the NT church were something quite different which began only at some point in the NT story, e.g., at Pentecost. On the other hand, it would be pointless to deny that there are valid differences between the OT church and the NT church. A legitimate distinction may thus be drawn.”[5] This addresses an issue that for 2,000 years has been the cause of tension in defining the church and the interpretation of the Bible. It is the continuity and discontinuity of the congregation of Israel and the church.

At this point it is helpful to indicate that there is a theological difference of understanding between the authors. The covenantal point of view would stress that there is basic substantial continuity and administrative discontinuity between the church before Pentecost and the church after Pentecost. The dispensational point of view would stress a discontinuity.

We will address the issue of the definition of the church from both points of view. The point on which we will both agree as regards our main theme is that you can not biblically get away with defining the church as just any old group of people who got together for any old purpose or reason.

The covenantal view would stress that there is substantial continuity between the old covenant church and the new covenant church. That is to say that the substance, the thing that makes it what it is, is the same in both the old and new covenants. However as I said again, there is a fundamental discontinuity of administration, the ordinances and rules of the organization. The old covenant particularly associated with Moses and Mt. Sinai was a covenant of types and shadows which pointed to Christ. These types and shadows were to instruct those under that administration to look to Christ in faith just as the reality is to perform the same purpose in the new covenant. The paschal lamb was a picture of Christ and was meant to teach the people who God had chosen for himself to look to Christ as their passover lamb to save them from death and judgment.

From the same substance there is a different administration, we no longer have animal sacrifice. This is because under the new covenant we do not need shadows to point us to Christ. We have the reality. Praise God for the reality of the cross and resurrection!

In any case, the point of discussing this is that you can not say as a covenantalist that the church has ever been just any old group of people. God has always defined what the church is and who is a member of the church. From the time of Adam to the time of Abraham it was those whom God called to himself out of darkness chiefly the children of Seth. Often few in number and greatly persecuted, they were still called out by God. From the time of Abraham to the time of Moses, God particularly dealt with Abraham’s descendants and commanded them to take the sign of circumcision. From the time of Moses to the time of Christ, God gave the most strict outward rules regarding who could be a member of his covenant people, in all of redemptive history.

Many use Matthew 18:20, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”, to explain what makes up the church. However, this passage addresses church discipline, and does not define the church. Therefore, this passage should not be used to define the church. With that said, it is clear that if the church is a congregation or assembly it requires more than one person to define the makeup of the church.

Early Church

When Paul spoke of the church he did so without thought of separate congregations but as one church. Though Paul wrote to individual groups of congregations that were recognized as separate and distinct, he also saw the true believers as one church.  As the congregations of believers met for the purpose of the worship of God, the term church started to come to have a more specific meaning to a more specific group of people. Thus, the word ἐκκλησία took on a new and more specifically Christian meaning. It no longer refers to a general gathering or assembly of people but a group that meets for the worship of God, reading and explaining of His Word, the practicing of the ordinances (baptism and communion), and the purity of the group, i.e. church discipline.


[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary: New Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

[3] Moulton, J. H., & Milligan, G. (1930). The vocabulary of the Greek Testament. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[4] Bromiley, G. W. (Ed.). (1979–1988). In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans.

[5] Bromiley, G. W. (Ed.). (1979–1988). In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans.

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