Robert Hatch

The New Testament word ekklesia is typically translated "church" in English translations of the Bible. The word "church" is virtually synonymous with Christianity, so much so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to think of one without the other. The church is, in a general sense, the organized religion of Christianity. Church, in a more specific sense, is the label attached to most denominational organizations of the Christian religion. At a local level, church is the congregational organization represented by the building of worship at which its members attend its services. At this level the organization and the building are virtually synonymous, so that the members are commonly said to "go to church" at the appointed meeting times. While "the church" of the Christian religion is clearly a religious organization, "the ekklesia" of the New Testament witness is a spiritual organism. Understanding the difference between the two is crucial to the process of Christian faith and the practice of Christian love.

Assemblies and Congregations

While church is a religious word, used almost exclusively with reference to the Christian religion, ekklesia, as it was used in the first century, is a secular word. It refers to an assembly of people united by a common bond or for a common purpose (Acts 19:32 uses ekklesia to refer to a mob and Acts 19:39 to a legal assembly of citizens). However, the word "assembly" can be misleading because it denotes a visible gathering of people who come together at a specific time and place. To "go to church" is to assemble for a religious service, to participate physically in an assembly. But ekklesia, according to the New Testament witness, refers not to a physical assembly but a spiritual assembly. In other words, the assembly exists in Christ at all times.

A person joins the Christian assembly when he or she receives the gospel and is immersed in the name of Christ.(1) The only way to leave the assembly is to fail to continue in the faith, in that it is through faith in the gospel that one is a part of the spiritual assembly. The spiritual assembly consists of all those everywhere who believe and obey the gospel. But this is different from people assembling for religious services of worship. For this reason the word "assembly" is probably not the best translation of ekklesia, though it is preferable to "church" because it is a secular rather than a religious word. But the ekklesia, which is a spiritual entity existing continually in Christ, must be distinguished from the physical entities which exist only when people come together for religious services. The distinction must be made, that is, if we want to understand the New Testament meaning of ekklesia.

The word "congregation" has come to be used inter-changeably with the word "church" with reference to religious organizations at a local level. It has no application beyond the local level and therefore is not an appropriate translation of ekklesia. While ekklesia has a local sense in New Testament usage, its primary sense has reference to the body of Christ as a whole, i.e., all Christians everywhere all at once.(2) Also, "congregation" is subject to sectarian associations in that it signifies an organization of people which, in practice if not in theory, tends to include some Christians and exclude others. Congregations are not simple groups of people who gather together at certain times and places. They are organizations that are similar in function to corporations (in fact, most are incorporated), with some form of board of directors, real estate, a budget, programs and services, all of which are external to the members and function without most of the members' active participation. The level of participation required for membership in most cases is some degree of congregational attendance and financial support of the congregational organization.

Ekklesia = Community

Probably the best translation of ekklesia is the word "community." This is because a community can exist at either a local or an international level and it exists without reference to organization of any formal kind and without reference to meetings at set times and places. It refers simply to people who live in a common area or who are united by a common bond or in a common purpose. This is parallel to the Christian meaning of ekklesia: the people who live in Christ, who are united by their faith in the gospel of Christ and in relationships of Christian love. The community of God in Christ is a community of faith working through love.(3) All distinctions of the flesh, whether racial, ethnic, sexual, economic, political or religious, disappear in the Christian community.(4) It is a community of the Spirit, who assembles the community through faith in the gospel manifested to the world through love for one another.

The New Testament witness locates the ekklesia at three points: the spiritual, the geographical and the interpersonal. The spiritual location of the ekklesia is, as already stated, in Christ. As such, it is the body of Christ. It is an international community, spiritually one in the faith of Jesus. It is composed of citizens of every nation on earth, all of whom share a common identity in Christ: sons of God, citizens of heaven, a royal priesthood and a holy nation.(5) This is the primary sense of ekklesia and is therefore foundational to the existence of the Christian community. Whatever other Christian sense ekklesia may have, it must be consistent with its primary sense.

The Local Christian Community

The geographical location of the ekklesia is, according to the New Testament witness, in cities. Acts of the Apostles refers, for example, to "the community in Jerusalem"(6) and to "the community in Antioch."(7) The apostle Paul wrote to "the community of God in Corinth" (8) and to "the community of the Thessalonians in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ."(9) Parallel greetings m Paul's other letters make clear that the ekklesia in a given city included all the Christians in that city, without reference to organization or appointed times and places.(10) Modern day references to the Hispanic community or the Jewish community, or the academic community in a given city have the same sense as New Testament references to the ekklesia, or Christian community, in a first century city. There may be organizations within, e.g., the Hispanic community, but no organization defines or encompasses the entire community. The Hispanic community consists of all individuals who have Latin blood running through their veins to any appreciable degree. The Christian community, or ekklesia, consists of all individuals who have Christian faith, i.e., faith in the gospel, living in their hearts.

The only times ekklesia is found in plural form is with reference to Christian communities existing in cities. The most obvious case of this is "the seven communities in Asia"(11) referred to in Revelation. The "seven communities" exist in the seven Asian cities of "Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodiciea.(12) Paul's Galatian letter addresses "the communities of Galatia,"(13) which would have included Christian communities in the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and possibly others.(14) Paul's reference to "the communities of Christ",(15) almost certainly means the Christian communities in the various cities in which he preached the gospel and to which his letters were addressed.

It would be misleading to translate ekklesia in these cases as "congregations" because there is no indication that all of the Christians in a given city were organized as a congregation with a central meeting place. This would have only been the case when the gospel was first preached in a city and the Christian community was initially established. But as the Christian community grew in numbers it did not continue to have a centralized existence, except in Christ and in spiritual terms. The unity, or oneness, of the Christian community was, and is, a spiritual unity, not an organizational unity. This is what makes the body of Christ a spiritual organism rather than a religious organization. Christian unity is a "unity of the Spirit" that must be kept "in the bond of peace."(16) The theological instruction of the New Testament letters explains the unity of the Spirit that exists in Christ and which we participate in through faith in the gospel. The practical instruction of the New Testament letters explains how the unity of the Spirit, i.e., our oneness in Christ through faith in the gospel, is kept in the bond of peace, i.e., in relationships of Christian love. The New Testament witness is conspicuously silent about organizational matters, confirming the understanding of ekklesia as community rather than as congregation.

It seems significant that just as the world community from nation to nation is divided into cities, so the Christian community scattered throughout the nations is designated according to cities.(17) While, from a human point of view, a city consists of all the inhabitants of its area, from God's point of view a city consists of those who belong to him through faith in the gospel. This potentially includes all of a city's inhabitants (18), but in actuality is the Christian community. What is significant is that no special religious grouping is indicated with reference to God's people in the New Testament writings. They are designated by cities just as all people are grouped geographically according to cities. This is because, in God's wisdom, Christians are in the world but not of the world.(19) They are not distinguished from the world by special organizations with special designations. Instead they are a community among communities; there are racial, ethnic, academic, business, and other communities of the flesh, among which exist members of the Spirit's community, functioning in these other communities but not of them, in that they walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh.(20)

The Christian Community Manifested

The third location of the ekklesia is an interpersonal location. The plural form of ekklesia is never used in the New Testament writings with reference to groupings of Christians within a city. As has already been shown, there is one Christian community per city and as many Christian communities in the world as there are cities with some Christian inhabitants in them. The international Christian community is comprised of local Christian communities. But this does not imply one organization, or congregation, per city, but simply one Christian community per city, just as there is, e.g., one Hispanic community per city. The modern day scenario of numerous churches/denominations in a city, each with numerous churches/congregations in that city has no precedent in the testimony of the apostolic writings.

But what indications are there of the local organization of the Christian community? The only indications of anything that might be considered organization are New Testament references to the community in or at the houses of certain Christians.(21) This suggests two possibilities in terms of this usage of ekklesia. The first possibility is that each house to which Christians were connected was considered as the location of a community, in which case every local Christian community would have consisted of one or more "house communities" (or, as in common usage, "house churches"). This seems unlikely however in that, as has already been stated, the plural form of ekklesia (i.e., "communities") only seems to be used in reference to cities, never to organizations within a city. The letters of Paul were written to the local Christian "community," not "communities," and were evidently circulated from house to house within the community.

The second possibility regarding the meaning of the ekklesia in a certain house is that each house represented the primary visible manifestation of the Christian community. Obviously, neither the entire international Christian community nor the entire local Christian community would be visible to anyone other than the Lord himself, the Head of the body (though this is not obvious to the sectarian mind). Jesus, while in the flesh, made it clear that the identifying mark of his disciples would be not a distinctive organizational structure, but Christian love, i.e., love for one another that reflects the love of Christ.(22) In this connection Jesus said, "Wherever two or three come together in my name, there I am in their midst."(23) It seems consistent with the words of Jesus and the practice of the first century Christian community to understand the houses of Christians to have been the focal point for the manifestation of the spiritual community in the visible world. The spiritual community, in other words, is translated into physical reality through family relationships, i.e., relationships among brothers and sisters in Christ, not through organizational structures.

Just as the Hispanic community, e.g., is composed of households of Latin flesh, so the Christian community is composed of households of Christian faith. Each household of faith is composed of a cluster of relationships, Christian friends who eat and pray together, who encourage and admonish one another in the faith. It is erroneous to think that references to the community in Christian households are referring to locations at which religious services took place at appointed times, as if they were simply miniature church buildings. These houses were the reference points for small clusters of Christian relationships. This certainly included meetings for the purpose of mutual edification in the faith(24), but the emphasis of New Testament teaching is on relationships not meetings. The houses of certain first century Christians were the interpersonal location of the Christian community. It is vital to understand this because the Christian ekklesia, the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit, is only translated into physical reality on an interpersonal level, i.e., through relationships of Christian love.

Paul's reference to "the whole community (25) coming together in first century Corinth has been generally understood in a congregational sense, i.e., as a meeting in a centralized location. But this is not necessarily self-evident. Certainly if the Christian community in Corinth, still in its infancy, was still small enough to gather in. one house ("the household of Stephanas" (26)), a centralized assembly is indicated. But it may also be that the whole community gathered in several groups, in houses around the city, to eat and pray together and to encourage and admonish one another (27). Either way, few present day local congregations presume to represent "the whole community", i.e., all the Christians, in a given city (though there are some who claim to be the local remnant of God). If Paul s words are understood to mean that the "whole community" must meet in one location, then neither households nor present day congregations fit the "pattern."

Scripture References:

1 Acts 2:41
2 Eph. 1:22-23; 5:23; Col. 1:18, 24
3 Gal. 5:6; Eph. 1:15, 3:16-19; Col. 1:3-4; 1 Thes. 3:6; 2 Thcs. 1:3; 1 John 3.23
4 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:26-28; Col..3:9-11
5 Rom. 8:14, 19; Gal. 3:26; 4:5-6; Phil 3:20-21; 1 Pet. 2:9-10
6 Acts 8:1;11:22
7 Acts 13:1
8 I Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1
9 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thcs. 1:1
10 Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2
11 Rev. 1:4
12 Rev. 1:11
13 Gal. 1:2; cf. 1 Cor. 16:1
14 Acts 16:1-5
15 Rom. 16:16
16 Eph. 4:3
17 Rom. 16:4
18 Acts 18:9-11
19 John 17:13-19
20 Rom. 8:4
21 Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phm.: 2
22 John 13:34-35
23 Matt. 18:20
24 1 Cor. 14:26; Heb. 10:24-25
25 1 Cor. 14:23
26 1 Cor. 16:15
27 1 Cor. 11:20-21; 14:26

Part II

The Christian community, according to the truth of the gospel, is an interpersonal reality, not an organizational reality. Because of this it can be said to be an organism, existing from its relationship to its Head and through the relationships of its parts, or members, rather than an organization. An organization exists by the imposition of a structure of authority on individuals, binding them together by external means, through its structure. The Christian community is a creation of the Spirit, built on the finished work of the risen Christ and held together internally through faith working externally through love.(1) The Christian community of the first century came together in households of faith and love in every city in which the gospel was received and continued in.

It may appear as though the only difference between first century Christian households ("household,") meaning the group of Christians connected with a specific member's house) and twentieth century congregations is the size of the group. But, in reality, the larger a centralized group becomes the more organization is required for it to function. As already referred to, congregations tend to function as corporations. A corporation functions, to one degree or another, on the basis of and in reliance on its organizational structure. This is why, as a rule, congregations seem to function with 10% of the members doing 90% of the work. A small percentage of the members are needed to actually operate the organizational structure of the congregation; the rest of the membership supports the organization with varying degrees of its time (attendance) and money (contributions). It seems clear, at least to those with eyes to see, that "church" is a religious organization, regardless of its "brand name."

God's ekklesia is a spiritual organism. It functions on the basis of every member's relationship with its Head, who is Christ, as each one believes and obeys the gospel on a continuing basis.(2) It functions according to an interpersonal dynamic, not an organizational dynamic. In other words, God in Christ through the Spirit does not work through organizational structures but through the interpersonal relationships of those who believe the good news-faith working through love. The question for contemporary Christians is: at what point does organization replace the gospel, i.e., method replace message, as the basis for our participation in the Christian community?

First Century Organization

It seems that organization was employed to a very limited and temporary extent in the first century Christian community. Even in Jerusalem, in the early days of the community when the apostles were almost the only teachers and the Jewish temple was used for large gatherings, almost nothing is indicated in Acts about organization. In fact, it seems doubtful to use the Jerusalem community of faith as a "pattern" for "church organization'' in that the Jerusalem Christians were still practicing Jews, the Christian community was still a sub-set of the Jewish community, among other sub-sets, and consequently, the Jewish organizational structure was still normative, at least to some extent, for the Christian community (thus their access to the Jewish temple). At any rate, the only clear reference to organization is the episode of the Helenistic widows.(3) In this case seven men were selected by the community (we are not told how they were selected) to organize the distribution of food among the widows. Evidently they themselves were the organization. They did not organize the entire Christian community in order to meet this, or any other, need. The organization was limited to the need. With the passing of time this likely ceased to be a need and the organization presumably dissolved. At least nothing more is indicated about it in Acts.

Some inferences are suggested by this testimony: 1) Most needs were satisfied interpersonally, i.e., through relationships, which is consistent with faith working through love, as elaborated in the practical instruction of the apostolic letters; 2) needs that could not be satisfied interpersonally, e.g., the case of the widows, were satisfied through a small organization of spiritual individuals (deacons?) who dissolved their organization when the need was satisfied. If this limited use of organization were the case, it is understandable why so little testimony exists in the New Testament writings about organizational structure in the first century Christian community. If organization in the community of faith was the work of deacons (the literal meaning of diakonos is "servant"), then it is clear that organization was always the servant of the community in the first century. The deacon, or "servant of the community"(4) (Paul used a masculine form of diakonos with reference to Phoebe, a first century Christian woman), ministered to needs that required some degree of organization to satisfy. But the organization would have been embodied in the deacon, or deacons, who would have been recognized as such by the community because of the need he or she was meeting, and until the need was satisfied.

Organized Religion

This is very different from the modern-day scenario of organized religion. Rather than organization being the servant of the community, the community has become the servant of the organization. A religious organization, like any other organization, must be supported with its members' time, energy and money if it is to exist, and certainly if it is to expand. The satisfaction of needs by a religious organization must be paid for by its members, at least with their money. It is not, as a rule, the free exercise of faith working through love that satisfies needs. In reality, organized religion satisfies most needs through paid religious professionals, which would seem to indicate a widespread reliance on the organization, rather than on God working in peoples' hearts through their faith in the gospel. The more that is expected of a religious organization the more authority must be given to "leaders", i.e., those who run the organization, and the more subservient members must become to the organization - all in the name of "commitment,'' "sacrifice," "discipleship," "lordship," and even "faith" and "love."

This is not to suggest that the Bible prohibits organizing the Christian community into congregations, or into denominations for that matter. The Bible is silent in regard to both denominations and congregations, as they exist today. The Bible is not a religious code of conduct which either legally compels or prohibits. This is the work of religion and politics, not the work of God in Christ. (God used religion and politics in his Old Covenant dealings with Israel for a temporary period and purpose, which ended at the cross of Christ). The inspired writings are not a religious code of conduct, but are spiritual words of wisdom, preserved to guide the Christian community in the exercise of its freedom with responsibility. In that "all things are permissable" in Christ, organization is certainly permissable. But as the words of Paul admonish, "not all things are beneficial"(5), i.e., profitable or expedient.

Wisdom of God or of Man?

The question is: to what degree is organization beneficial to the process of Christian faith and the practice of Christian love? In other words is the extensive use of organization born of spiritual wisdom? The question is of major importance in that salvation is "by grace... through faith...for good works,(6) i.e., works of love. To the extent organization is found to subvert the process of faith and replace the practice of love, to this extent it is an instrument of the evil one and leads to spiritual destruction. What has been the effect of the growth of organization on the Christian community, in terms of both our understanding of the truth of the gospel and the free exercise of our faith through love?

A significant example of the effect of organization on understanding and practice is in the area of leadership. The words of Jesus equate Christian leadership with servanthood(7), and apostolic teaching and practice testify solely to interpersonal leadership, i.e., leadership through relationships by example and teaching, rather than organizational leadership in the Christian community. But because of the organizational structure of modern Christianity, leadership is defined in organizational terms-someone must run the organization. And leaders pay lip service to servanthood as they, often with the best of intentions, "lord it over" the church, much as the "high officials" among the nations "exercise authority over" the organizations they run. The point is not that church leaders are power-brokers with evil intentions (some are and some aren't); the point is that someone must run the organization if the organization is to function with any degree of effectiveness (nothing is less inspiring than disorganized religion). But this has nothing to do with the work of God in that God does not work through organizations, nor does he delegate people to run them.


God works in the hearts of persons who believe the good news as they serve other persons in love. This qualifies as leadership in an interpersonal context, but is obviously not sufficient to maintain and expand an organization. But this kind of leadership, on the part of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastoral teachers and elders in the first century Christian community, led to the worldwide spread of the gospel in the first century. While few religious organizations would elect to dissolve themselves into the Christian community at large, it remains for individual Christians to pray for spiritual wisdom to exercise their freedom with responsibility, in regard to their participation in the Christian community-the ekklesia of God-which is a spiritual organism not a religious organization - Robert Hach, Editor, Reflections


Scripture references:

1 1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:19-22
2 Eph. 4:16
3 Acts 6:1-6
4 Rom. 16:1
5 I Cor. 6:12; 10:23-24
6 Eph. 2:8-10
7 Luke 22:26; Mark 10:42-45

Editor's Note: The above is an excellent study or a vital subject. I urge you to study it carefully in the light of God's word. I believe that an honest examination will show you the author is right in his conclusions. If so, this should, cause you to do some serious soul-searching regarding your proper response to the truth set forth.