In New Testament times a good number of Classical Greek words took on a new semantic dimension. One example is the word ἐκκλησία [eklisia] “church.” This article focuses on a revelation that begins to unfold with Jesus’ utterance of the word ἐκκλησία and which is later portrayed by Paul as “the Body of Christ.” Here some historical background of the term will help.
In classical Athens every male citizen was ex officio a member of the ἐκκλησία (from ἐκ “from/out of” + καλέω“I call”), a lawful “called-out assembly” that met for the transaction of public affairs. Citizens were summoned out of their homes to conduct meetings in a fashion that resembled our modern parliaments. It is this decision-making process in which the Athenian citizens had an equal share of power that laid the foundation of democracy “people’s-rule.”
In New Testament times, ἐκκλησία still carried its secular meaning (cf. Acts 19:39). So when Jesus declared to Peter, ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν “upon this rock I will build my church” (Mat. 16:18),the name ἐκκλησία probably gave the disciples the much-anticipated signal that the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth was imminent. After all, from the very beginning of his public ministry Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mat. 4:17), a thing the disciples themselves were instructed to proclaim also (Mat. 10:7).
High hopes for such a mighty earthly kingdom were all but dashed when Jesus went to the cross (Luke 24:21). But with such hopes revived after Christ’s resurrection, the disciples raised the same question about the establishment of His kingdom in Israel (Acts 1:6).
It is worth noting that in his declaration to Peter, Jesus used the word ἐκκλησία rather than συναγωγή [sinaɣoji]“synagogue” or another synonym, such as συνάθροισις [sinaθrisis] “congregation.” For while συναγωγή or συνάθροισις denotes a gathering or a congregation respectively, ἐκκλησία denotes a calling. The genius of the word ἐκκλησία points to a called-out body of people separated from the world.
Thus, what unfolds between Christ’s utterance of ἐκκλησία to Peter and Paul’s writings is an immeasurably profound revelation: each believer is a member of Christ’s Body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:27, Eph. 1:23), with Christ being the Head of the Church (Eph. 1:22).
As Christians, we would do well to bear in mind that we, as members of The Church of Christ, do not “go to church” but rather meet at designated places of worship, and that in obedience to the admonition regarding the assembling of believers together (Heb. 10:25).
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