Ekklesia - A Word Study

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. 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."

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 furthest 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 Ephesians and Colossians. 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, “body” and “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 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 the point one could say: A single man can and must be the Ekklesia, if he has communion with Christ.”

This being so, the classical meaning of "assembly," "gathering" has been superseded by the more dynamic, Pauline definition: Ekklesia = the body of Christ, or even, Christ himself!

This usage of Ekklesia in Ephesians and Colossians, 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.

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. 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."

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 scholarship has shown the Ekklesia (without name) to be an integral part of the teaching of Jesus. 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.

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