Our word church is comes from the older kirk (Scottish) or kirche (German), which in turn derives from the Greek adjective kuriakos, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The Greek term directly behind our word church, however, is ekklesia, a combination of the preposition ek (“out of”) and the verb kaleō (“to call”). Ekklesia could refer to those who have been called out of something, and, as applied to believers in the present age, it refers to people who have been called out of this dying world to be part of the church, the body of Christ.
Ekklesia is used four ways in the NT. Ekklesia can be used generally to refer to a gathering of people. For example, Israel was the ekklesia in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), and Ephesus had a pagan ekklesia that protested the preaching of Paul (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Of the 114 times the NT uses ekklesia, these four uses are the only ones that do not refer to the church. The remaining 110 uses can be divided into three categories and refer somehow to the church.1
First, ekklesia can refer to the universal church, that is, all of the saints in this present age, whether in heaven or on earth. We see the concept of the universal ekklesia the title “the church, which is His body” (Eph 1:22–32), composed of “all the members of the body… baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:12–13). It is not just those in one local church or the other but all those in the ekklesia for which Christ died (Eph 5:25).
Second, ekklesia can refer to a local church, such as “the church at Antioch” (Acts 13:1) or “the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2).
Third, ekklesia can refer to the entire church on earth at a given point in time. Paul once “persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13), obviously more than a single, local congregation. Similarly, when ekklesia is used in the plural, it can likewise refer all the churches on earth at once. Certain commands apply to “all the churches” (1 Cor 7:17; 14:33) on earth at any given point in time.
Theoretically, if all the true, local churches indeed belong together as the one church and body of Christ, we should be able to perfectly get along. Unfortunately, there is great divide in understanding many important passages in Scripture, which has led to scores of denominations today. The choice one is left with is to limit one’s message and increase their connections or to decrease their connections but have a high level of commonality with others by means of a confession. For the sake of practicality in relating to others and in accord with my own doctrinal convictions, I encourage opting for the latter of the two.
For those who are truly our fellow Christians, we should strive to have what level of fellowship we can. And for those who are sister churches in both cardinal doctrines and distinctives, we should strive for fellowship all the more.
- For the discussion below, see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 1041–44, and especially Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 199–200. [↩]