What is the meaning of Ekklēsía?
In a previous post (Part Four of this series) I indicated that one possible reason for the de-emphasis on elder leadership and authority among some House-Church Movement (HCM) advocates is a misunderstanding of the Greek word ekklēsía, which is commonly translated as church in the New Testament. Now I would like to address that issue more fully by examining one line of argument made by Steve Atkerson regarding church government, in which we will see that he places a fair amount of weight on his understanding of this important term. In fact, Atkerson begins his treatment of Consensus Governing with a discussion of the meaning of ekklēsía. Here are the relevant portions of the article:
Why do you suppose that Jesus choose the word church to describe His followers? “Church” is the English translation of the original Greek term ekklesia. Outside the context of the New Testament, ekklesia was a secular word that carried strong political connotations. There were other Greek words Jesus could have used to describe His followers and their gatherings, words that carried religious and nonpolitical connotations. As we will see, one of the reasons He chose the word ekklesia to describe His followers is because He wanted them to make corporate decisions that affected all of them as a group. How did Jesus intend for the church to be governed? Let’s begin by looking more closely at how the true meaning of the modern word church has been all but lost….
During the time of Jesus, the word ekklesia was used almost without exception to refer to a political assembly that was regularly convened for the purpose of making decisions. According to Thayer’s lexicon it was “an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberation.” Bauer’s lexicon defines ekklesia as an “assembly of a regularly summoned political body.” In Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ekklesia is said to have been “clearly characterized as a political phenomenon, repeated according to certain rules and within a certain framework. It was the assembly of full citizens, functionally rooted in the constitution of the democracy, an assembly in which fundamental political and judicial decisions were taken . . . the word ekklesia, throughout the Greek and Hellenistic areas, always retained its reference to the assembly of the polis.” In the secular ekklesia, every male citizen had “the right to speak and to propose matters for discussion” (women were not allowed to speak at all in the secular Greek ekklesia).
This secular usage can be illustrated from within the Bible as well, in Acts 19:23-41. These Acts 19 occurrences of ekklesia (translated “assembly,” “legal assembly,” and “assembly” in 19:32, 39, 41) referred to a meeting of craftsmen who had been called together by Demetrius into the town theater to decide what to do about Paul, though there was so much confusion the majority did not know why they had been summoned. This is an example of ekklesia used to refer to a regularly summoned political body (in this case, silver craftsmen and those in related trades). They convened (as a sort of trade union) to decide what to do about a damaged reputation and lost business. (Bold emphasis mine.)
Even though I will essentially agree with his position about the importance of consensus in governing the local church, I strongly object to Atkerson’s argument based upon the supposed meaning of ekklēsía in this respect. The problem that I have with this argument is that Atkerson restricts his understanding of the word to the secular use it had in the first century, while ignoring the Septuagint (LXX) background of the word, which is clearly the proper place to look for an understanding of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ use of the term. In fact, Atkerson asserts no less than four times that ekklēsía was a secular word and argues that this secular meaning was intended by Jesus when applied to the Church. He cites this meaning from two lexical works and one theological dictionary, and then he lists a single New Testament passage where this meaning is certain. But, just as he has done in his discussion of the meaning of dialégomai when arguing for interactive meanings (recall my response to his treatment of that term in a previous article), so here Atkerson has once again been selective and misleading in his use of lexical evidence. He operates under the faulty assumption that the word had no significant religious connotations in the first century and that, if Jesus wanted to use a word that carried religious rather than secular or political connotations, He would have chosen another word. But Atkerson couldn’t be more wrong here, as even a casual reading of the very lexical sources that he cites will show.
To be sure, the word ekklēsía did have a secular and political meaning in the first century, but all of the the primary lexical sources available also acknowledge a religious usage of the word and see this as the proper background of its usage in the New Testament. I will demonstrate the validity of this assertion by first examining the sources cited by Atkerson himself and then by citing several other recognized lexical authorities. I will quote in each case a significant portion of the cited works so that the proper context will be apparent. The reader will quickly see that Atkerson has simply avoided anything in these sources that happens to disagree with the meaning he wants ekklēsía to have in order to suit his argument.
First, I take Atkerson’s mention of “Thayer’s lexicon” as a reference to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Joseph Thayer. Here is what that lexicon actually says:
1. among the Greeks from Thucydides (cf. Herodotus 3, 142) down, an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberating: Acts 19:39. 2. in the Septuagint often equivalent to [qāhāl], the assembly of the Israelites, Judg. 21:8, 1 Chr. 29:1, etc., especially when gathered for sacred purposes, Deut. 31:30 (Deut. 32:1); Josh. 8:35 (Josh. 9:8), etc.; in the N. T. thus in Acts 7:38; Heb 2:12. 3. any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance or tumultuously: Acts 19:32, 41. 4. in the Christian sense, a. an assembly of Christians gathered for worship… b. a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal Salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake…. [Note: Both Matt. 16:18 and 18:17 are listed under this last heading.](BibleWorks #1664).
Notice that, although it doesn’t make explicit the commonly assumed LXX background for ekklēsía, the Thayer lexicon does list the LXX usage (#2) as distinct from the secular usage (#1) and then goes on to list the word as having a Christian sense (#4) that is also distinguished from that of the common secular usage. And the primary meaning given there is not “an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberation,” as Atkerson suggests, but rather “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship” (#4.a). It then goes on to give an additional meaning as “those who, hoping for eternal Salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake” (#4.b) And, as I have indicated above, both uses by Jesus are included under this last heading and not as belonging to the secular meaning. How could Atkerson have missed this when he argued based on Thayer’s work that Jesus intended the secular meaning?
Now, I suppose that Atkerson may want to see connotations of the secular meaning in Thayer’s mention of the ekklēsía‘s management of its affairs, but given that this meaning is listed as distinct from the secular meaning, it would make sense to look somewhere other than the secular background to determine the nature of such management. So, instead of trying to read the secular connotations into the word in order to help support a preconceived idea, one should just read the New Testament texts that address the matter of church government in order to assess its meaning, allowing Jesus and the Apostles to shape the meaning as they intended. At any rate, if the Thayer lexicon agreed with Atkerson, wouldn’t it have addressed the meaning of the word under its secular usage (#1) as, perhaps, a subcategory? I conclude that it doesn’t agree with Atkerson, and that he should have known this given even a cursory reading of the lexical definition.
Second, I take Atkerson’s mention of “Bauer’s lexicon” as a reference to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker (BAGD3). Here is what this lexicon actually says:
… 1. a regularly summoned legislative body, assembly, as gener. understood in the Gr-Rom. World… 2. a casual gathering of people, an assemblage, gathering… 3. people with shared belief, community, congregation… in our lit. of common interest in the God of Israel… a. of OT Israelites assembly, congregation [Dt 31:30; Judg 20:2; 1SA.17:47; 1KI.8:14]; e.g. to hear the law (Dt 4:10; 9:10; 18:16) Ac 7:38… b. of Christians in a specific place or area (the term ev. apparently became popular among Christians in Greek-speaking areas for chiefly two reasons: to affirm continuity with Israel through use of a term found in Gk. translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, and to allay any suspicion, esp. in political circles, that Christians were a disorderly group). (BibleWorks #2369)
Notice that the first meaning, cited by Atkerson, is only one meaning that the word may have, but that it lists as a separate meaning the LXX usage of the word – a religious usage – with reference to the assembly of the people of Israel. And it lists the New Testament under the same category as that of the LXX, not as belonging with the secular usage. But you wouldn’t know this if all you read was Atkerson’s article. And you wouldn’t know that the lexicon gives a reason for not seeing ekklēsía as being properly understood in accordance with the secular meaning. The entry plainly states that the term “apparently became popular among Christians in Greek-speaking areas for chiefly two reasons: to affirm continuity with Israel through use of a term found in Gk. translations of the Hebrew Scriptures [the LXX], and to allay any suspicion, esp[ecially] in political circles, that Christians were a disorderly group.” So, there is no doubt that the religious usage of the LXX is seen as the primary background for the meaning of the term, while at the same time it is acknowledged that it would have indicated an orderly assembly to those more familiar with its secular meaning. However, that the term had this added advantage doesn’t entail that secular ideas predominated in the usage by the Church. The lexicon clearly dispels that notion. So, I assert once again that Atkerson is wrong about the meaning of ekklēsía as indicated in this lexicon and that he should have known this given even a cursory reading of the definition it gives. Atkerson just continues his practice of being selective and misleading in his use of such sources.
Third, although Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT) does discuss the secular meaning as Atkerson indicates, it also has this to say:
Where ekklesia is used in the LXX for qahal, it indicates the assembly of the people or a judicial assembly (e.g. Deut. 9:10; 23:3 ff. ; Jdg. 21:5, 8 ; Mic. 2:5 ), the political body (e.g., the returned exiles Ezr. 10:8 , 12 ; Neh. 8:2, 17 ). It also indicates, especially in the Chronicler, the assembly of the people for worship (e.g. 2 Chr. 6:3 at the consecration of the temple; 30:2, 4, 13, 17 at Hezekiah’s Passover; cf. also Joel 2:16 and several times in the Pss. , e.g. 21:22 (22:22); 88:6 (89:6). Nevertheless, even in these instances (even though, unlike Deut. 23:2 , 3, 4, 9, Mic. 2:5, and Jdg. 20:2, the gen. kyriou, of the Lord, or tou theou, of God, is not added) ekklesia is only used where it is a question of the people as God’s assembly, characterized by having answered Yahweh’s call. Admittedly the word is used especially where the historic greatness of Israel is implied, and avoided where it could perhaps suggest to the Gk. reader merely a political claim on the part of the contemporary Jewish community (in the sense of the Gk. ekklesia, see above, CL). Perhaps that is why, in the legal passages regulating the life of the community, qahal is translated by synagoge (cf. L. Rost, op. cit., 127 ff.). (p.295-296)
Now, this passage does indicate that ekklēsía could sometimes be used to translate the Hebrew qāhāl in instances where it refers to a judicial or political assembly, but such an assembly among the ancient Jews would have been quite different from that of first century Greeks! Why, then, does Atkerson look to the first century Greek secular usage to support his view? The answer appears to be that this is really the only usage that could support his view. Such a usage just happens to differ with the very source he cites.
In addition, the dictionary also goes on to stress the fact that the term ekklēsía was used in the LXX in such away as to avoid the kind of political (i.e. secular) meaning that the Greek reader might mistakenly attribute to the assembly of God’s people. Thus, according to NIDNTT, the LXX translators tried to reserve the term for a more religious use and chose to use sunagōgē for more overtly political passages. Clearly, then, the LXX usage was intended not to highlight the very secular notions that Atkerson believes to be necessarily associated with ekklēsía. He has committed the very mistake that the LXX translators tried to avoid people making. But there is more:
It seems indisputable that, if ekklesia here [in Matt. 16:18] represents an idea of late Judaism, it has taken over the content of qahal, and is probably to be understood as the eschatological assembly of the true people of God. On the analogy of the claim of remnant groups representing the whole (cf. OT, 4) the word then stood for an eschatologically determined special synagogue, in which the true Israel was present. The statement that “the powers of death (Gk.: the gates of Hades) shall not prevail against it” has its foundation in the fact that this community is linked to the risen Christ as victor over death. This again indicates the period of the primitive church. (p.302-303)
Notice that NIDNTT believes that, if Jesus’ usage of ekklēsía is congruent with the Jewish usage at the time (which the dictionary appears to grant), then it is indisputable that it is to be understood in light of its LXX usage as a translation for the Hebrew qāhāl (referring to the congregation/assembly of Israel). But this means that it sees the proper background of the term as being found in the religious usage of the LXX and not in the secular usage of first century Greek culture. This is opposed to Atkerson’s view. But, again, you wouldn’t know any of this if you only read what he has to say about the matter.
So, after examining the three lexical sources cited by Atkerson in defense of his contention that Jesus intended ekklēsía to be understood as a secular term, it should be obvious to the impartial reader that even a casual reading of these very lexical sources demonstrates that he is wrong and that, in fact, these sources disagree with him.
Now, in order to show that these works are typical of lexicons and theological dictionaries in differing with Atkerson, here are three more reputable lexical works that define ekklēsía in a way that disagrees with him:
… In general Greek usage it was normally a socio-political entity based upon citizenship in a city-state…. For the NT, however, it is important to understand the meaning of [ekklēsía] as ‘an assembly of God’s people.’ (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, by J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, BibleWorks #2029)
… 1) in a general sense, as a gathering of citizens assembly, meeting (AC 19.32); (2) as the assembled people of Israel congregation (HE 2.12); (3) as the assembled Christian community church, congregation, meeting (RO 16.5); (4) as the totality of Christians living in one place church (AC 8.1); (5) as the universal body of believers church (EP 1.22). (Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, by Timothy and Barbara Friberg, BibleWorks #8531)
… [ekklēsía] 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 (kerux [G2783]) which constituted the ekklēsía. In the NT, the word is applied to the congregation of the people of Israel (Act 7:38). On the other hand, of the two terms used in the OT, sunagōgē (G4864) seems to have been used to designate the people from Israel in distinction from all other nations (Act 13:43 [cf. Mat 4:23; Mat 6:2; Jam 2:2; Rev 2:9; Rev 3:9]). In Heb 1:25, however, when the gathering of Christians is referred to, it is called not sunagōgē, but episunagōgē (G1997), with the prep. epí (G1909), upon, translated “the assembling . . . together.” The Christian community was designated for the first time as the ekklēsía to differentiate it from the Jewish community, sunagōgē (Act 2:47 [TR]). The term ekklēsía denotes the NT community of the redeemed in its twofold aspect. First, all who were called by and to Christ in the fellowship of His salvation, the church worldwide of all times, and only secondarily to an individual church…. In the OT, two different words are used to denote gatherings of the chosen people or their representatives: edah (H5712) meaning congregation and qahal (H6951), assembly. In the Sept., sunagōgē (G4864) is the usual translation of edah while qahal is commonly rendered ekklēsía. Both qahal and ekklēsía by their derivation indicate calling or summoning to a place of meeting, but there is no foundation for the widespread notion that ekklēsía means a people or a number of individual men called out of the world or mankind. Qahal or ekklēsía is the more sacred term denoting the people in relation to Jehovah, especially in public worship. Perhaps for this very reason, the less sacred term sunagōgē was more commonly used by the Jews in our Lord’s time, and probably influenced the first believers in adopting ekklēsía for Christian use. Sunagōgē, though used in the early church as a syn. for ekklēsía (Jam 2:2), quickly went out of use for a Christian assembly, except in sects which were more Jewish than Christian. Owing to the growing hostility of the Jews, it came to indicate opposition to the church (Rev 2:9; Rev 3:9). Ekklēsía, therefore, at once suggests the new people of God, the new Israel. (The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament by Spiros Zodhiates, e-Sword #G1577)
Note again that in each instance there is a separate listing or discussion of the word as it applies to the Church. None of these lexicons treat the usage of ekklēsía with reference to the Church as rightly belonging to a treatment of its secular meaning. The reason for this can be found especially in BAGD3 and Zodhiates as cited above. It is because the proper background for understanding the usage of ekklēsía as applied to the Church is not to be found in the secular usage of the first century but in the religious usage of the Septuagint (LXX). This Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures had been in common use among the Jews for generations by the first century and was the common Bible for the Apostles and early Christians as well. It provides the proper background for understanding much of the language in the New Testament as the above cited sources consistently – and correctly – assume.
But what does all this mean with respect to Atkerson’s argument about the nature and government of the New Testament churches? Well, it certainly means that he cannot use the first century Greek notions of a secular and political entity as the analogy he draws upon for so much of his understanding of the nature of governing in the New Testament churches. Rather it means that, if he wants to understand the correct form of governing in the churches, he should allow the various New Testament passages that actually have some bearing on the subject to speak for themselves, instead of trying to force a secular meaning into the text. This is a major flaw in his presentation and should give anyone pause when reading much else he has to say about the subject.
I find it inconceivable that Atkerson could have written that “during the time of Jesus, the word ekklesia was used almost without exception to refer to a political assembly that was regularly convened for the purpose of making decisions.” That may have been true of pagan Greek culture at the time, but it definitely wasn’t true of Jesus and the Apostles when referring to God’s people.
I also cannot imagine how Atkerson could say that “there were other Greek words Jesus could have used to describe His followers and their gatherings, words that carried religious and nonpolitical connotations.” Really? Then what are these words? What other words could Jesus have used if He intended to highlight the continuity of His people with that of the Old Testament assembly while at the same time distinguishing them as His own assembly? What other Greek word was there that was so connected in meaning with the Old Testament people of God and with the Hebrew qāhāl? If Atkerson is going to make such a claim, shouldn’t he make some attempt to support it?
I will conclude by saying that, as I see it, it is inexcusable that Atkerson simply ignores all of the evidence contrary to his view, even from the very lexical sources that he cites. After all, it is one thing for him to be mistaken on some point due to misunderstanding, or to have a stated disagreement with current lexicographical consensus, but it is another thing altogether for him to cite sources so as to give the impression that they agree with his view of Jesus’ usage of ekklēsía when, in fact, these sources all disagree with him. Atkerson has led his readers astray here, and he should have known better.