Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 2, 1956
NUMBER 13, PAGE 6-7a

The New Testament Church (III.)

George P. Estes, Maplewood, Missouri

Ecclesia In Classical Greek

A number of Greek cities rose and flourished in the ancient world. Each had a long and colorful history. Each city was a city-state, completely independent and free from any central government. Each city was democratic, made its own government, carried on its own trade and fought its own wars. In the fourth century B.C. these cities came under the domination of Philip, king of Macedonia. It was in these free, independent and democratic Greek cities that the word ecclesia was first used. Ecclesia is a "common term for a congregation of the ekkletoi (the called out) assembled in the public affairs of a free state the body of free citizens summoned together by a herald (keerux)." (Cremer, pg. 332.) Keerux is a word used by inspired writers of the New Testament which is translated "preach" "proclaim." The kingdom of the gospel is preached. R. C. Trench describes the ecclesia this way: "A lawful assembly of the free Greek city of all those possessed of the right of citizenship for the transaction of public affairs. That they were summoned is expressed in the latter part of the word (kaleo — call); that they were summoned out of the whole population, a select portion of it, including neither the populace, nor strangers, nor yet those who had forfeited their civic rights, this is expressed in the first (ek — out of)." (Synonyms of the New Testament.) These statements refute the popular teaching that the word ecclesia is used for any kind of a gathering. In fact in its secular connexion "it is, among the Athenians, an assembly of the sovereign people, not any fortuitous gathering." (Essays On the Early History of the Church edited by H. B. Swete, pg. 6.) The ecclesia is "properly a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly; so used(;) Among the Greeks from Thucydides down, an assembly of the people convened at the public place of council for the purpose of deliberating." (Thayer's Lexicon, pg. 195.) The meaning of ecclesia is called out; the usage includes the idea of gathering or assembling into a body. The people were called out for a purpose but at the same time they were called together into an assembly.

Ecclesia is common in Classical Greek for political assembly, cp. Xenophon, History of the Greeks II, iv, 38. Ekkletoi are members of the national council which takes the place of the ecclesia in aristocratic states like Sparta. (Schmidt: The Church, pg. 57.) The ecclesia became the constitutional assembly in Athens. (Robertson: Greek Grammar, pg. 174.) Each large city and several small ones had its own separate government. The power of government was vested to certain qualified citizens who were called out for legislative assemblies. Qualification for citizenship was important. Many residents of the city had no place in the ecclesia. (Dana: Manual of Ecclesiology, pg. 26.) Dana believes the following Classical elements are transmitted to the New Testament ecclesia: Pt "referred to a body of persons having definite qualifications, assembled to carry out certain organized aims on democratic principles." (ibid, pg. 26.) That "the assembly was local; (ii) it was autonomous; (iii) it presupposed definite qualifications; (iv) it was conducted on democratic principles." (ibid. pg. 26.)

The only objection to the above statements would bethe one about a church conducting its affairs on democratic principles. The New Testament is the law given to govern the church. It is thus ruled by God. But God has placed a "government" an "administration" in each congregation in the divine pattern he gave for the church. (1 Cor. 12:28.) Those who rule are the elders. (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:7.) The administration of a congregation is in the authority and work of the eldership. They are to decide what is right or wrong in accordance with the New Testament scriptures. Every member however is free to express his belief or opinion.

A church is a body of baptized believers. Those who obey the gospel and are faithful in the Christian life, possess the qualifications for membership in the congregation. They are to work as a body, as a unit to carry out certain organized aims — worship, mutual edification, and preaching the gospel to the lost. The citizenship of faithful Christians is in heaven. (Phil. 3:20.) Each congregation during the apostolic era was self-ruling or autonomous and the assembly was local. Christ alone was the head of each congregation. There was no central head on earth which bound the congregations together and dictated to them. A church was inclusive and exclusive; it included all those in one place who were in Christ, it excluded all others.

It is recognized that the New Testament is complete and inspired writers were directed by the Holy Spirit in the choice of words used. However, words written by inspired writers which were common in secular writings (as ecclesia was among the Greeks) and in the Old Testament are not separated from their root meanings nor divorced from their antecedents. And ecclesia was originally from the Greek language. It is therefore only fair in arriving at full and just conclusions to study thoroughly the background. If God intended to add a new meaning to a word or to change or alter it in any way the context of the New Testament will denote such. Trench makes the following remarks on this point: Some words acquire a deeper and new meaning in the church. The church did not invent them but assumed them into service. (Synonyms.) The responsibility rests squarely upon the institutionally minded brethren, the sponsoring church brethren, the promoters of brotherhood projects who set up homes to be supported from the church treasury and form a program in which one eldership assumes and takes charge of a work of many congregations, to show why the background of ecclesia (the local assembly in a free Greek city) does not have a bearing on the meaning and usage of the word in the New Testament, when ecclesia lost its original meaning (documented with evidence) and to demonstrate conclusively from specific references in the New Testament by an example or examples where such organizations as a sponsoring church or the Herald of Truth program were formed and operated with apostolic sanction. If no such proof can be given then they must concede and admit that they are teaching false doctrine resulting in erroneous practices. That all such is based upon false premises. The truth of the matter is overwhelming that the Classical background imparts several important meanings to the church of the New Testament: that a congregation is a free, independent and local body of Christians who are autonomous in the administration of their own program. No Greek city allowed citizens from another city to enter its assembly and legislate to it; no other city dictated the policies of another city neither ruled it. No city carried on the work for another city. There was no federation of cities among the Greeks under a central head. If there had been then the cities would no longer have been free and independent. These same principles hold true in the New Testament church.

Schmidt points out that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) renders qanal (assembly) with ecclesia and therefore the Septuagint gave the word religious value. (The Church, pg. 25.) However the word originally had a religious significance. "This view is not affected by the fact that the political assembly — at least in Classical times — was not without a religious undertone, being regarded as one of the most important duties required by the gods when they founded the city. That this was so may be seen from the prayers customarily offered by the herald before he made his speech." (ibid. p. 26.)

At one time in Bible study the classical and vulgar (Koine) Greek were studied because of the bearing they had on the meaning of New Testament words. Then the study turned more to the Old Testament as a background. I do not see how either can be fully disregarded.

The background of a word must be duly considered but this background must not be brought into conflict with the teaching of the New Testament. Consider the following remarks of E. Peterson: "The secular ecclesia of antiquity is a recognized institution of the polis (city). It is the assembly of those who have full citizenship, met together for the performance of legal acts. Analogously the Christian ecclesia might be described as the assembly of those who have full citizenship in the heavenly city, met together for the prescribed acts of worship The public and legal character of the Divine Service in the Christian church shows that the church owes more to political models, like the kingdom and the city, than to voluntary fellowship and societies." (Die Kirche, p. 19-20.) It is true that the church is described under the figure of a city. "Jerusalem that is above" (Gal. 4:26) and "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22) proves this. Furthermore the church sand the kingdom are one and the same which refutes all premillennialism. On the other hand the church is strictly religious, not political. Church and state are separate. (Rom. 13:1-50 And the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-16) clearly teaches that membership in the church is voluntary. The public assembly is legal that is, it comes by God's sanction.

The Classical background teaches the high and noble calling of the citizens to the assembly; that the assembly was not the gathering of any rabble as some of our brethren believe and teach.

The statement of Lindsay will serve as a fitting conclusion to this article: "It had been a self-governing Greek republic, ruled by elected office bearers; hereafter the communities of 'Christians which were to be the ecclesia, were to be little self-governing societies where the individual rights and responsibilities of the members would blend harmoniously with the common good of all." (The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, Pg. 5.)