Understanding ekklesia: The unity and role of the local church

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Understanding ekklesia: The unity and role of the local church

June 17, 2024 -

A congregation sharing the peace of Christ during a church service. By Iftikhar alam/stock.adobe.com

A congregation sharing the peace of Christ during a church service. By Iftikhar alam/stock.adobe.com

A congregation sharing the peace of Christ during a church service. By Iftikhar alam/stock.adobe.com

To read the first two articles in this series, you can go to these links:

If you have been following this series, it should have become apparent to you that the aspects of unity, universality, belonging to the Lord, and community are important aspects of the body of Christ’s foundation. And these feed into the identity of the local church. As we venture toward unveiling the local church’s purpose, there is an important piece of the puzzle to look over. And this is understanding how the local church played a role in the New Testament.

One word characterizes the church: “Ekklesia”

The New Testament concept for the local church hinges on the facets of strong community and assembly. Millard Erickson informs that the Greek word, “ekklesia,” is often used to render qahalthe Old Testament word for assemblyand suggests that it “is our major source of understanding the New Testament concept for church.”  There are two specific uses of ekklesia, and Kevin Jay Connor informs that the first is when it is “used in Scripture to refer to the nation of Israel and to the Christian community of believers.” That this term is used in reference to both Israel and believers demonstrates God’s fulfillment of his promise in the Old Testament (discussed in the previous article). Through Christ, believers from all nations are joined into one body.. 

A second use of ekklesia is when it is translated as “assembly” or “gathering.” This use directly applies to our understanding of the local church. And it confirms that the local church is characterized by an assembly or gathering of believers for worship.

Uses of ekklesia in the Gospels

In the Gospel books of the New Testament, we see both uses. The first is when it is used to refer to the Christian community of believers in Matt. 16:15-20. This passage could be designated as the inception of the church. In context, Jesus is questioning the disciples about his identity. After Peter correctly identifies him as “the Christ,” Jesus responds with this exclamation: “’And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Christ’s statement has produced many interpretations. One of them would be to understand “rock” as referring to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. In this case, it would be the confession of Jesus as the Savior of the world that ignites the church and builds it up.

While that makes sense to the Christian ear, a look at this sentence’s grammar in the original language tells a different story. Craig L. Blomberg remarks that “The play on words in the Greek between Peter’s name (Petros) makes sense only if Peter is the rock and if Jesus is about to explain the significance of this identification.” In other words, the sentence can only make sense if Jesus is talking about Peter when he says “the rock.” 

In turn, Blomberg believes the sentence’s grammar suggests Jesus is simply promising “that he will establish a gathered community of his followers and help them to grow.”  Not only does the Greek support this interpretation, but it would align with the Old Testament understanding of assembly. It seems then that Jesus is reiterating the integral aspect of community within God’s plan and predicting that nations would come to worship him together. 

Additionally, the significance of community within this verse goes one step further. Connor points out that church is used in the singular and subsequently suggests that “There is but one Church and Christ Himself is the builder of and the Head of this Church.”  All of Christ’s followers make up one body, and this body is connected by Christ. This passage is establishing the importance of the church’s unity.

The second use of ekklesia, to render an assembly or gathering, is found in Matt. 18:15-20. Contextually, the passage addresses church discipline. Edward W. Klink submits that verses 19 and 20 express “the conscious choice of identification with what is taking place” and affirm “that the Lord himself is overseeing—by means of authority and the Spirit’s guidance—the ministering activity of the church, specifically the shepherding (disciplinary) oversight of its people.”  This is clearly speaking about a local congregation of believers, and Jesus’ words carry the expectation that local congregations will have leaders within their body. 

But it also provides a glimpse into the extent of the local church’s involvement in the lives of its believers. As Klink assumes, discipline is a part of the local church’s role in shepherding its members. This can be boiled down to the church investing in the faith of its members and encouraging them in how to live it out.

Uses of ekklesia in other NT books

Beyond the gospels, we can find impressions of both uses of the word, ekklesia. As Jesus predicted, the church grew, and great expansion led to the apostles traveling to share the gospel and serve the body of Christ. One of these apostles was Paul, whose letters to Christians make up most of the New Testament.

In the first article of this series, it was shown that the Apostle Paul often spoke on the body of Christ or the entire group of Christians (this relates to the first use of ekklesia. These are not restricted to Paul though, as there are many instances where other NT writers address their audience as a part of the entire Christian body. One example is when Peter does this in 1 Pet. 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” This verse champions the necessity of unity, and such passages that speak to this should not be lost. 

However, Erickson informs that a “local sense of the church is evidently intended in the vast majority of occurrences of the word ἐκκλησία within the New Testament. This makes sense, as local churches were the main audience of Paul’s letters. In fact, many of Paul’s letters were titled according to the local churches to which they were written, and they were intended to encourage local churches to spread the gospel and live for Jesus. The local church was clearly an important institution for New Testament writers to engage with.

Connecting the uses of ekklesia

In the New Testament, from the uses of ekklesia, the church is understood as the entire body of believers and the local assemblies of believers for worship and community. This has been a recurring theme as we’ve examined the nature of the church in this series. 

However, the present emphasis is on discovering the purpose of the local church. It cannot be emphasized enough that each local church is not its own, and that it is a part of a larger body that depends on Jesus Christ as its head. 

But the New Testament has designated the local church as a distinct mechanism in the Christian faith. Each local church formed the original audience of New Testament letters. Each church had an important role in the lives of its members. And each church served as a critical factor in the body of Christ advancing the gospel. 

So how can our churches continue that legacy today? We’ll examine that question in greater depth in the next article but, for now, let’s start by remembering that none of our missionary endeavors, programs, or services will accomplish Christ’s goal unless Christ remains at the head of our community of faith. It can be tempting, at times, to think that we’re doing God a service when we work on his behalf when the truth is that it should be considered a privilege to join him in the work he’s been doing since the dawn of creation. 

So, as we finish up for today, take a moment to ask God to help you understand how you see your role in his ekklesia. Do your actions and approach fit best with a Lord who is still actively involved in the mission of his church or one who is distant and removed from the community he started? 

Only one of those approaches is biblical. Which is yours?

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