To understand what the ekklesia of Jesus is, it is important for us to understand this point (and this is usually a surprising point when it is seen for the first time): the Greek word “ĕkklēsia” is not inherently a religious word like our English word church is. Let me say that again. The Greek word that is translated as church in our Bibles (Ekklesia) is not inherently a religious word.
In the Greek world the word ekklesia simply designated an assembly or group of people. We see this idea even in the use of ekklesia in the New Testament. It is not just used as a religious word.
First, let’s look at Acts 19:32. In the context of this passage, the people were stirred up by the silversmiths and craftsmen who built idols. Their businesses were in danger because of the preaching of the Gospel and people being told to not serve God’s made by human hands. A riot ensues and they all enter a theatre yelling and screaming. Here is what we are told in verse 32:
“32 Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly (ekklesia) was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” (Acts 19:32, ESV)
In this passage, the word ekklesia is talking about a mob that was in a theatre. Yes, it could be argued that it was religiously motivated, but it surely was not God’s people coming together. Verse 41 also uses the word ekklesia when it mentions the dismissing of this assembly of people.
One other verse in this passage uses the word ekklesia. Verse 39. I will read verse 38 also…
“38 If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly.” (Acts 19:38–39, ESV)
This is the town clerk saying these this. The last word there in verse 39, “assembly” is ekklesia. He is talking about an assembly where that the people of a city were often called to in order to talk about grievances that they had and to get judgments from the authorities.
THE SEPTUAGINT - EKKLESIA BEFORE COMING OF JESUS
Before Jesus came, we see this same usage of the word ekklesia in the Septuagint — the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Ekklesia is used over 50x in the Septuagint, and in most of the cases where this word is used, it is also talking about an assembly, congregation, a bunch of people, or a group of people. It is often used to talk about the Israelites who were assembled together in the wilderness.
I would like to give you a couple other examples of how ekklesia is used in the Greek Old Testament:
As David speaks to Goliath, he declares that all “all this ekklesia shall know” that “the battle is the Lord’s” (I Samuel 17:47 [Lxx I Kings 17:47]) Here, ekklesia is used to describe armies that came out for battle
David says that he avoids & hates “the ekklesia of evildoers” (Psalm 26:5 [Lxx 25:5]) Ekklesia here is an assembly containing “men of falsehood” and “hypocrites” (v4).
In the account of David and Goliath, ekklesia is used to talk about all those who were present and would see David fight Goliath.
THE EKKLESIA OF JESUS
It is important to see the use of ekklesia throughout the Bible and in the Greek speaking world because this helps us to understand what is being spoken of when the word is translated as “church” in the New Testament. As I said last Lord’s Day, church is really not a good translation of the word. It is not a literal translation like the other uses (assembly, congregation, etc).
We see in the usage of the word before and during the first century that the word is always talking about a group of people, so whenever we think of the church, we should not think of buildings, clergy or church leaders, organizations, institutions, or business enterprises. We need to think of a group of people. The ekklesia of Jesus is the assembly or congregation or community of Christ’s people. Nothing more and nothing less. Whenever we think about the church of Jesus Christ in these types of ways, whether it be a local congregation or the universal assembly, we have adopted a mindset that is unbiblical and/or denominational. And when we think of the church in these types of ways, unbiblical practices are soon to follow also.