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Ecclesia

The word “Ecclesia” appears over a hundred times in the original Greek New Testament. The ancient meaning of ecclesia was the “called out” ones. In the early Greek culture, for example, the ecclesia of Ancient Athens consisted of all the male citizens from 20 to 60 years of age. The Greek Ecclesia, the highest governing body of the city, were “called-out” to meet together whenever governmental decisions were needed.

The Holy Spirit chose this word to describe the original bodies of Christians, formed by the apostles throughout the Mediterranean world. They were God’s ecclesia, His people, called out of the Pagan world of that day to be a special, God-governed people that committed their lives to serving God. In Scripture, an ecclesia is a reference to a body of people; specifically the reference was to the Christians of the days of the apostles in their assemblies. There was the ecclesia in Corinth, the ecclesia in Thessalonica, the ecclesia in Ephesus, etc. These were all relatively small bodies of Christians that separated themselves from their surrounding pagan environments and lived in accordance with the teaching of the apostles. They formed a new and distinct kind of culture, one that lived by God’s law and demonstrated that form of life to the surrounding pagan population. They constituted the origins of the Kingdom of God that eventually spread throughout the Western World.

In all but three places, Our English language bibles translate the word ecclesia as “Church.” This is a very poor and very misleading translation. A church is a place, a building or an institution. The ecclesia is a body of people, a very special body, called by God to come out of, or away from, their previous worldly environments and interests. A little thought can show us that these are very different things. It’s not about going to church; it’s about who we are as God’s special, called-out, world-changing work force!

The early ecclesias were very different from today’s churches in both name and form. They didn’t just meet as a body once or twice a week. They formed a separate culture interacting with each other informally throughout the week. There were no pastors; a plurality of elders guided but most teaching was very likely informal with each individual exercising his God-given gift for the benefit of a few or of all (1 Cor. 11). The persecution they faced made certain that there were very few false Christians among them. They were fully committed, true believers that gradually developed into a real, culture-changing force. They went on to so affect and convert the people around them that by the fourth century AD Christianity had become the established religion of the Roman Empire.

This didn’t last long though; the conversion of the ecclesias into churches began early. As this transition progressed, the original dynamic force began to wane. The laity became lazy and left God’s work to the clergy, a miniscule force by comparison. While there was still some progress for a time, it was compromised in many ways and led to the widespread falling away of the faith we see today.

We, as Christians, as God’s representatives and workers in this fallen world, have not done the work He has assigned to us. We are remiss; we have sinned and need to repent and ask God’s forgiveness for our foolish neglect of the responsibility He has placed on us. We have allowed our churches to lead us away from His word. They have told us that they and not we are God’s workers in this world, that all we need to do is come to their churches, listen to their sermons and pray that all will be well.

We are not to be merely the passive laity; we are the ecclesia, God’s kings and priests and need to face up to the great responsibility He has entrusted to our keeping (Rev. 1:6, 5:10).