Ever since I finished reading Pagan Christianity, I’ve been intending to do a blog entry on the word “church.” Luckily for me, my friend Jeremy from sustainabletraditions.com recently posted one on his blog there. It was lucky for me, because he’s done such an awesome job examining the subject that anything I could’ve done would have been an embarrasment by comparison. Rather than shamelessly plagiarize Jeremy’s post, I’ve decided to reproduce it here (with his permission).
An Assembly of Jesus Followers
We translate it church, which to our North American 21st century minds conjures up a typical image of a building in which people gather every Sunday to sing a few songs and listen to a guy talk for a bit. But because we are so far removed from the time, people, and place the bible was written we tend to sometimes miss the way they would have heard it, or the understanding they would have had. The Bible was written in the plain everyday language of ordinary folks and God uses this plain language and applies it to Himself communicating Himself to us in our language i.e. “God is love…” I would like to try and recover the sense they had in their time and place, that is to say, what they would have heard, and not what we hear sitting in 2009 in a part of the world they didn’t even know about, writing on computers they didn’t have, speaking a language none of them would have understood.
I would like to do this, not so much by repeating the good definitions scholars have written, but by helping you see how the experts come to some of those definitions. What I want you to see is the texts (chapters and verses) they get some of those definitions from, that is the context in which certain words are used. Most of us if we are honest take a tool like a New Testament Greek dictionary and trust the authors definitions to a particular word without looking up his or her cited texts which often show how he or she came to such a conclusion. For example ekklesia can also mean a specific legal group in their culture, as we will see, depending entirely on the context.
Here I have taken the notes on this word from the back of a Hebrew/Greek study bible and instead of listing a specific meaning of the word followed by a chapter and verse, I have given the verses so you can see more clearly how the word is used.
So, here are some of the texts which I pray will give a better understanding, or rather I hope we begin to hear our Bibles closer to the way they would have heard it originally.
First a basic definition: εκκλησια ekklesia: ASSEMBLY, in the everyday normal use of the word in the Hellenized Roman world εκκλησια just meant a group of folks gathered together for one reason or another. The word is being used by the writers of the Bible to refer to the people of God as a group or assembly. This word ekklesia was used to refer to the people of Israel, or the assembly of Israel in the Old Testament. (The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the OT used very commonly in Palestine during the time of Jesus.)
Deut. 31: 30 “And Moses recited the words of this song from beginning to end in the hearing of the whole assembly (εκκλησια) of Israel:”
Psalm 22:22 “I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation (εκκλησια) I will praise you.”
and in the New Testament for the people of Israel
“He was in the assembly (εκκλησια) in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.” Acts 7:38
This word ekklesia can also be used for a simple gathered group of people.
Acts 19:32 “The assembly (εκκλησια) was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”
(here referring to a riotous crowd in Ephesus that gathered together in a theater.)
further in the chapter, as a gathered legal body
Acts 19:39 “If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly” (εκκλησια)
a group of Christians meeting together
“Greet also the church (εκκλησια) that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.” Romans 16:5
all the congregations of christians in a region or in a single location.
“The churches (εκκλησιαι) in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church (εκκλησια) that meets at their house.” 1 Cor 16:19
These are just a few texts, and hopefully it all makes sense. As you can see, IT IS PEOPLE WHO ARE THE CHURCH, never ever some building or service, you can’t go to church, you can’t be late for it either. And if we think that “having church” consists of a few songs and a sermon, we have come pitifully short of what the people of God are supposed to look like and have not understood “church” like they would have understood it; it also means that we have a different “church” then what they would have had. Some other words the NT writers use to refer to the people of God are: family, body, “temple of God”- here in 1 Corinthians not referring to a building either, but to people, these can be looked up as well, just plug them in to biblegateway.com. Try this with other words like Grace. You can go to biblegateway.com and type in a word and read text for text to get a fuller sense of the way in which a particular word or phrase was used. Grace is a good one. Don’t just let scholars do the work for you, be encouraged, you can do it yourself!
Church is always plural, I am never an individual walking with Jesus all by myself; you can’t be an assembly of one. There are no christian lone rangers or christian superstars either. We get to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6
Since most of the letters in the New Testament are written specifically to congregations, all of the letters become a display of what the people of God look like, so rather than chase words around, it might be more helpful to just sit down and read.
Grace and peace to y’all