Ekklesia in NT Usage


We’ve been doing some evening talks recently on Christians and politics. This past Sunday we were thinking about the relationship between church and state. Thomas Jefferson wanted a ‘wall of separation’ between the two, and Alistair Campbell famously said ‘We don’t do God.’

It struck me in preparing that its pretty crucial to understand what you mean by the word ‘church.’ A few years ago I read Bannerman’s The Church of Christ. In his opening chapter he outlines the various NT uses of the word ekklesia. This got me thinking about Kuyper’s distinction between church as institution and organism. Is there a biblical warrant for the distinction. I also read, last week, Matt Banks’ dissertation on Kuyper’s distinction and Matt made some helpful critiques and suggested that local/scattered might be a fruitful way forward.

I went back and did a little work on ekklesia myself to help me get my head round it and came up with the following, which may (or may not) be helpful:


  • Institution refers to the local church organized around the Christ given congregation recognized office-bearers (think of some of the instructions in the pastoral epistles)
  • Organism refers to the wider church as vine, bride, temple, church of Christ (Eph 1)
  • Gathered refers to the church as Christians together for a purpose (end of Acts 2)
  • Scattered refers to the church as Christians apart (think Paul’s persecution of the Jerusalem ‘church’ [sing.] by going house to house to imprison Christians – seems to refer to church not gathered, i.e. scattered)

And so some of the suggestions in the boxes:

  • Institution gathered is Sunday worship (1 Cor 14 – when you come together . . .)
  • Institution scattered refers to those things done in the name of the institution, but done outside of the gathering – eg. homegroups, community work in its various forms (Acts 6 seems to fit the bill)
  • Organism scattered refers to individual Christians on their personal front-lines at work, home, or wherever (think instructions in Col 4 or Eph 6 to slaves and masters working for the Lord)
  • Organism gathered seems to refer to Christians from a number of different ‘institutions’ coming together for a purpose – think parachurch work (an interesting example seems to be the collection in 2 Cor 8:23 – those who administer the collection are described as representatives of the churches)

I’d value your comments on this as I continue to dwell and refine. I think its useful but would value help in sharpening it up. In particular I think it helps us think and talk more carefully about what we think the ‘church’ should do. Should the church feed the poor? Should the church be involved in politics? Should the church run debt-counselling services or food-banks? I guess part of the answer is what do you mean by ‘church’? Would love your thoughts.


6 Replies to “Ekklesia in NT Usage”

  1. I would suggest we need to take account of the eschatological dimension also. Can a word study on “ekklesia” exhaust what is meant by “church”?

    1. Thanks Jonathan – very helpful comments. In my mind I think I’m trying to equate institute/organic with local/catholic though whether the latter really captures eschatological not sure. And of course you’re right – word studies alone aren’t enough. This was one of Silva’s points in his book on lexical semantics. Hence the reason for including thoughts on body, bride, vine, temple – if we just focused on ‘ekklesia’ we’d miss some crucial stuff. Thanks for your comments.

  2. (Edited)

    I don’t know how realistic this is, but I think it would be helpful if we stopped using the word “church” altogether and instead use a word that (a) properly translates “ekklesia” and (b) which has a meaning in and of itself outside a religious context, so that, when we read that word, we have in our minds the same picture that the readers of the New Testament would have had when they read “ekklesia.”

    The problem with using “church” in English is that it is a word that is meaningless in and of itself, or worse, it puts an image in the mind of the reader/hearer that is nothing like what would have been in the minds of the original readers of the New Testament’s original when they read “ekklesia.”

    My understanding is that anyone reading “ekklesia” in the first century would simply have thought of a group of people gathered together, and so a good translation of “ekklesia” into English would be “gathering”, “assembly” or “meeting”.

    Consider what impact consistently translating “ekklesia” as “gathering” throughout the New Testament and completing doing away with “church” would have on the discussion and the diagram in this article.

    If you retained the adjectives “gathered” and “scattered” you would then have the gathered gathering and the scattered gathering.

    It soon becomes clear that the act of gathering is essential to the body of Christ and that the body of Christ is a gathering.

    The New Testament teaches that the ekklesia is the body of Christ. When we translate this teaching as “the gathering is the body of Christ” we get an idea of what this means. When we translate it as “the church is the body of Christ,” we often fail to understand what it means because we tend to see “church” as a contentless word whose meaning is informed solely by the reference to “body,” or worse, we have something other than “gathering” in mind when we read the word “chuch.”

    When we translate the New Testament’s teaching that “the ekklesia is the body of Christ” as “the gathering is the body of Christ” we see that “gathering” and “body” are two equal words, already full of meaningful content and this has an impact on what we understand by this teaching of the New Testament.

    A person who reads that it is the “gathering” that is the body of Christ understands that he will not have the assurance he should have of belonging to the body of Christ unless he actually attends the gathering. A person who simply reads “the church” is the body of Christ will miss this and may feel secure simply on the basis that he has his name on a membership list even though he never actually gathers with other people. The teaching that the “gathering” is the body of Christ also reminds the reader that because the members of the gathering are also members of Christ’s body, each member of the gathering should love and care for every other member of the gathering even when they are not gathered together because they still form part of the body of Christ.

    I would encourage everyone who has read this to try replacing “church” with “gathering” every time this word comes up in their Bible reading over the next year and see whether this changes how they think of the body of Christ.

  3. Hi Martin. I love what you’re trying to do here.

    A few responses and I’ll keep them limited as it’s been a long time since I did any serious thinking on the finer points of Ecclesiology and I’m feeling a bit rusty!

    Kevin’s comments are very interesting and much cleverer than mine. But since you asked me (on Twitter):

    1. First a little point about the term institution. I think that the biblical church is not an institution. It is rather a living organism (understanding the dominant NT images of church to be People of God, Body of Christ, Temple of the Spirit). I like each of those images as they each stress the communal and missional angles – and taken together present an aspect of the work of all three members of the Trinity, but that’s just a bonus!

    I’d argue that seeing the Church as Institution (or evening referring to it as such) presents us with problems. I.e. people thinking they can set up a church and get all the organization right and then have church.

    There are, however, ‘institutional elements’ in church (embodied in the structures and rituals and as you mention the office-bearers).

    2. Second, where you talk about ‘Organism gathered’, you suggest that 2 Cor 8:23 is an example of parachurch activity. My problem here would be that the representatives of the churches in the NT are never the same as the kind of distinct group that acts as a separate unit, that para-church groups often are/have been in the last couple of centuries of church history.

    But I think you are onto something here in terms of searching for a new biblical theology of parachurch. Probably badly needed. If you know of a decent one – and it’s fairly short – I’d love to read it!

    3. Thirdly and briefly, where you mention Saul going house to house, you suggest that as an example of church scattered. However, it could just as well be an example of church gathered – as believers met in homes like many do in various parts of the world today.

    Thank you for making me think. Not sure if my comments will do the same for you!

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