Ekklésia – The Assembly
The New Testament usage of the term “assembly” is based on the language and imagery of Israel assembled before Yahweh for worship in front of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Greek noun rendered “church” in many English translations is ekklésia, and it means “assembly, congregation, convocation.” In secular Greek usage it could refer to an “assembly” of citizens gathered to conduct matters of state. However, that is not the sense found in the Greek New Testament.
In the Bible, the term ekklésia occurs only twice in the four gospel accounts, and both times it is found on the lips of Jesus. Thus, its original application to congregations of disciples can be traced to him (Strong’s - #G1577 - Matthew 16:18, 18:17).
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The term occurs over one hundred times in the Greek New Testament and most often is applied to congregations of believers. But it is Paul’s usage of ekklésia that is the most distinctive and instructive for followers of Jesus.
AS USED BY PAUL
First, the Apostle employs both the singular and plural numbers when applying ekklésia to local groups of believers, but he does so with discrimination. Invariably, when referring to a local congregation in a city, he uses the singular form (e.g., the “CHURCH at Corinth” - 1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:1).
Second, when he refers to different groups of believers collectively, he uses the plural noun. For example, to the church at Corinth, he writes that God is not “a God of confusion, but of peace, as in ALL THE CHURCHES of the saints.” To the believers in Rome, he remarked that “ALL THE CHURCHES of Christ salute you” – (1 Corinthians 14:33, Romans 16:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:14).
This does not mean that each city church is independent of the others, and certainly not that each maintains its own doctrinal traditions and practices. But each congregation represents THE “church” assembled for worship in its respective location.
Several times, Paul describes the local congregation as the “church of God,” and collectively, he labels all his congregations as the “churches of God” - (1 Corinthians_1:2, 10:32, 11:16, 1 Thessalonians 2:14).
ASSEMBLY OF YAHWEH
Paul’s usage reflects the influence of the Hebrew Bible, especially its descriptions of the “assembly of Israel” gathered before the Tabernacle.
Several times in the Pentateuch, when Israel is assembled before for worship, it is called the “assembly or convocation of Yahweh” - the ‘qahal Yahweh’ - and the “assembly of Israel.” For example:
- (Exodus 12:6) – “So shall it be yours to keep, until the fourteenth day of this month,— then shall all the convocation of the assembly of Israel slay it between the two evenings.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
- (Leviticus 16:17) – “And ||no human being|| shall be in the tent of meeting when he cometh in to make a covering by propitiation in the holy place until he goeth out,— so shall he put a propitiatory-covering about himself and about his household and about all the convocation of Israel.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
- (Deuteronomy 23:1-2) – “Neither he that hath been mutilated by crushing, nor he that hath had his privy member cut off shall enter into the convocation of Yahweh. A bastard shall not enter into the convocation of Yahweh,— <even to the tenth generation> shall none of his enter into the convocation of Yahweh.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
The ancient prohibitions against anyone in an “unclean” state participating in the “assembly of Yahweh” is echoed in several of Paul’s declarations about proper and improper behavior in the church. For example:
- (1 Corinthians 11:22) – “What! have ye not |houses| for your eating and drinking? Or the ||assembly of God|| do ye despise and |put to shame| them who have nothing? What am I to say to you? Shall I praise you? In this, I praise you not.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
- (1 Corinthians 14:34) – “<As for the women> ||in the assemblies|| let them be silent, for it is not permitted them to be speaking; but let them be in submission,— even as ||the law|| saith.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
- (1 Timothy 3:15) – “But <if I should tarry> that thou mayest know how it behoveth |in a house of God| to behave oneself,— |the which| is an assembly a of a Living God, a pillar and basement of the truth.” ~ [Text of the passage from The Emphasized Bible].
In the preceding verses, Paul is concerned with behavior that occurs in the “assembly,” and not necessarily with Christian conduct outside church gatherings.
Thus, in the New Testament, the “church” is not a building or the designation for a sect or denomination, but the local assembly of the saints gathered before the Lord in worship, the place where God’s presence is found among His new covenant people.