The Earliest Historical Use of the Word ‘Church’

The Earliest Historical Use of the Word ‘Church’ The Greek word ekklesia has a rich and meaningful history. One of the earliest appearances of this word was in ancient Athens, where the word ekklesia was used in a political context. This early meaning of ekklesia is significant because the application of its meaning was still in force when New Testament writers used this word to describe the Church of Jesus Christ. The writers of the New Testament clearly understood the meaning of the word ekklesia — a meaning that was far more profound than the one attributed today to its modern English counterpart, the word “Church.” Anyone with a knowledge of the Greek language in the First Century — and certainly this would include Paul — understood the historical, political, and judicial implications connected to this word. It was therefore no accident that New Testament writers used ekklesia to depict the Church and its role in God’s plan. Yet because of this word’s strong political implications, to use it in a separate context was a courageous act at that time. In other words, the use of this word could have resulted in charges of treason against the authors of these New Testament epistles and the church members to whom they wrote. But in Classical Greece, the word ekklesia, which is translated “Church” in the New Testament, denoted a secular assembly of citizens who were invited to participate in a closed assembly in Athens. In this privileged assembly, a variety of functions were performed: 

  • Laws were created. 
  • Governmental decisions were debated. 
  • Policies affecting both internal and external affairs were formulated. 
  • Key judicial cases were decided. 
  • Customs and cultural norms were adapted and changed. 
  • Officials were appointed. 
  • State decisions were proclaimed. 
  • Chief magistrates of the land were elected.

Every Athenian citizen was invited to attend the meeting and participate in this ruling body regardless of his class or status in society. Then delegates were called out from their private lives and summoned to take their seats in this distinguished assembly. The Athenian ekklesia was considered the most prestigious group of people in the land, and it was a great privilege and honor to participate in this illustrious ruling body. Its decisions were far-reaching, affecting every aspect of public and private life. The meetings of the Athenian ekklesia were conducted 30 to 40 times a year, and the site for these meetings was a small, artificial platform called the Pnyx in the southwestern district of ancient Athens, near the Acropolis. The ekklesia proceeded to deal with matters of law, public policy, and other business. Sessions frequently included speakers who made eloquent speeches, taught or debated law, argued for truth, or promoted specific agendas on behalf of the wider population. When meetings concluded, a closing prayer and a final sacrifice was offered to the gods. This secular ekklesia was such an integral part of life that famous Greek orators and statesmen — such as Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, and Demosthenes — regularly delivered speeches at these meetings. Even Plato referred to events that occurred at Athenian ekklesia meetings in his writings. Political parties and factions were strictly forbidden in this respected assembly. The idea that such an illustrious group could degenerate into a group of contentious factions was an intolerable prospect. There was too much prestige attributed to the ekklesia for its meetings to deteriorate into ugly fights and divisions.

As frequently occurs when people become accustomed to privilege and honor, eventually citizens began to take for granted their right to participate in the ekklesia meetings, and over time attendance at the ekklesia dropped substantially. Many would attend meetings only when they were coerced to do so. It is important to also note that the Athenian ekklesia had different levels of leadership. It had a council that would operate when the ekklesia was not in session, which functioned as a kind of eldership. This council determined what would be brought before the people at the next general assembly ekklesia meeting. In many respects, the levels of leadership in the Athenian ekklesia were similar to the levels of leadership that later emerged in the early New Testament Church The fame of the Athenian ekklesia was so widespread that any educated writer during the First Century would have understood this word’s historical roots and ramifications — including the apostles who penned the pages of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit inspired those writers to use the word ekklesia because it unmistakably means the Church is a body of individuals who have been called out, called forth, and separated for the purposes of God. And just as the Athenian ekklesia ruled in matters of law, business, society, customs, culture, and judicial matters, God expects the Church to exert its spiritual influence in every arena of the society in which it exists. The mere use of the word ekklesia to depict the Church emphatically tells us it was never God’s intention for the Church to be a small group of silent, unnoticed people who gathered to quietly discuss religious affairs. This power-packed Greek word tells us God’s original intention was for the Church to exercise a voice of influence in private and public life. So the concept of the Church, translated from ekklesia, is that of a body of believers as called-out citizens of Heaven who are to apply God’s laws in the affairs of the earth — and to be invited to this distinguished Body is both an honor and a privilege.

Rick Renner