The Greek word ekklesia means assembly. It’s pronounced “eck-lay-SEE-ah.” The verbal form, egkalein, means to summon or call forth [e.g. to the assembly]. The Romans changed the word to ecclesia, since Latin has no ‘k’. Derivatives of ecclesia are Ecclesiastes (assembly leader — also the 20th book of the Bible) and ecclesiology (the study of church).
Ekklesia isn’t necessarily a “religious” word. Acts 19 (the riot at Ephesus) illustrates the basic (secular) meaning:
- “So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together” (Acts 19:32 ESV). Here ekklesia refers to a riot!
- “But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly” (v.39). Here ekklesia refers to a court of law.
- “After saying this he dismissed the assembly” (v.41). The ekklesia is no longer a riot; it’s time to go home.
If ekklesia doesn’t refer to a building, where does the idea of a “church building” come from? The word comes from kurios (Lord), adjectival form kuriakos — as in “the Lord’s house.” Clues about its evolution lie in its etymology. There were no church buildings as such in the first two or three centuries of the Christian era, as God’s people usually met in homes.
But there’s more. In the Bible, ekklesia isn’t only a N.T. word. It appears frequently in the Greek O.T., the Bible of most Jews and Christians in the early centuries. The word shows up in Exod 16:3; Num 14:5; Deut 31:30; 1 Sam 17:47; Job 30:28; Psalm 22:22; and dozens of other passages. It is especially frequent in Deuteronomy and 1 Chronicles-Nehemiah. Ekklesia refers to the assembled congregation of Israel. (Technically speaking, all Jews were “church members” — members of the assembly.)
The word for gathering, synagogé, is a near synonym (Judges 20:1,2; Psalm 40:9,10; James 2:2). Synagogé sometimes even refers to Gentiles; like ekklesia, it was an ordinary word later infused with a religious meaning. A little study goes a long way to clarify the message of the Bible.
- The Greek word for “church” packs at least three surprises: It isn’t a religious word; nor does it denote a building; nor it is only a Christian word.
- Ekklesia is the word in the Greek N.T. and O.T. for assembly. When the Lord’s people are together (O.T. Jews or N.T. Christians), that’s “church.”
- Church is not a physical structure (like the beautiful cathedral at Lausanne, Switzerland, pictured here), but a spiritual one (1 Cor 3:10-16; Eph 2:19-22).
- It follows that the common notion that one can be a church member without being present in the assembly is flawed.