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The Church - Terminology

We continue with our systematic theology study, commonly known as ST 3.  We are on Ecclesiology, which simply is the doctrine of the Church.

Last podcast was a simple introduction to the subject, and today we will follow our habit of dealing with the lexical aspects of the church as well as images used in the New Testament for the Church.


Primary Terms:

The English term church comes from Kirk and Kirche (keeursheh), Scottish and German terms respectively.  They are derived from the Greek word kuriakos, which means “belonging to the Lord.

Its application to the church stems from its use by early Christians for the place where they met together, denoting it as a place belonging to God, or God’s house.  With realization that the place had significance only because of the people of God who met in it, the term was applied to the assembly itself” (Saucy, The Church, p. 11)

- Old Testament -


The verb . . . conveys the idea of assembling without regard to purpose. . . . Assembly, company, congregation. Usually [it] is translated ekklesia in the LXX, but in thirty-six instances it is sunagōgē” (TWOT, BibleWorks Ed.)

"It is used definitely to refer to a particular meeting at a particular place; it is used indefinitely to refer to a local meeting at a particular place; it is used of meetings for wickedness, for politics, for war, [and] for religion;” (Baker, Ph.D. diss., quoted in Radmacher, Nature of the Church, p. 118).


This word is usually translated as “congregation.”  Radmacher points out that it is “a company assembled together by appointment, or acting concertedly.  Its usage is given variously as referring to people, to the righteous, to evildoers, to animals (such as a swarm of bees), to a whole assembly of Israel.  Many times it seems to approximate the meaning of qahal” (Radmacher, p. 119).

At the same time, these two words are used together at times in the Old Testament and are used at times to make a distinction between the community as a whole and a subset of that community, an assembly of officials.  At other times they are used in such a way to indicate that they are synonymous (cf. TWOT, BibleWorks ed.)

Because these terms are so broadly used in the Old Testament there is no reason to try to make them become technical terms in their own right.

In the Septuagint (LXX):

The primary background for the New Testament use of the term ekklesia as with most New Testament word thought, is the Old Testament, specifically the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the third century B.C.  The word ekklesia occurred almost a hundred times in the Septuagint and always translated the Hebrew qahal or a word of the same root.  Although qahal is also rendered by seven other Greek words, including sunagōgē, which indicates its breadth of meaning, ekklesia is the preeminent translation” (Saucy, p. 13).

ekklesia is not a technical term in the Septuagint. 

"Rather, the content of the word ekklesia was determined by its modifiers. . . . The assembly may be religious, political, military, judicial, national, or racial. . . . One thing must be stressed and that is that it always describes a corporeal, physical unity of people.  In other words, one must be physically present in the assembly itself to constitute a member of the ekklesia.  If there were some absent that should have been present, they [were] not members of the ekklesia.  A mental or spiritual unity is not contemplated” (Radmacher, p. 122).

The point to take away is that as we now look at the New Testament’s term that it was not some special, Christianized term. Rather, it represented its normal usage and the meaning. It is the context that defines it more than the simple word itself.


This is the primary term used to refer to the Church but it has different applications within the NT.  It literally means “to call out from.”

Although ekklesia soon became a distinctively Christian word, it has its own pre-Christian history; and to those, whether Jews or Greeks, who first heard it applied to the Christian society it would come with suggestions of familiar things.  Throughout the Greek world and right down to New Testament times . . ., ekklesia was the designation of the regular assembly of the whole body of citizens in a free city-state, "called out" (ek, "out," and kalein, "to call") by the herald for the discussion and decision of public business.  The Septuagint translators, again, had used the word to render the qahal, which in the Old Testament denotes the "congregation" or community of Israel, especially in its religious aspect as the people of God.  In this Old Testament sense we find ekklesia employed by Stephen in the Book of Acts, where he describes Moses as "he that was in the church (the Revised Version, margin "congregation") in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38).  The word thus came into Christian history with associations alike for the Greek and the Jew.  To the Greek it would suggest a self-governing democratic society; to the Jew a theocratic society whose members were the subjects of the Heavenly King."   (Orr, J. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, electronic ed.).

In a general sense, as a gathering of citizens assembly, meeting.

"So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion and the majority did not know for what reason they had come together." (Acts 19:32)

This was the common use of the term in secular Greek.  Saucy points out that “ekklesia refers only to the assembly or meeting and never to the people which compose that assembly.  When the people are not assembled, they are not considered as composing an ekklesia.  A new ekklesia existed each time people assembled” (Saucy, The Church, p. 12).

As the assembled people of Israel:

" This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you." (Acts 7:38)

Hebrews 2:12

As the totality of Christians living in one place.

"Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." (Acts 8:1)

Acts 11:22

Acts 15:22

As the “local” church:

This is the most common use of the word.  The vast majority of the 114 times the term is used it is speaking of a local assembly.

"For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church." (1 Cor. 4:17)

1 Corinthians 7:17

Galatians 1:22

As the universal body of believers:

In the New Testament the vast majority of occurrences of ekklesia refer to the local church, that is, to a local assembly of believing followers of Christ (e.g., 1 Thess. 1:1). The plural form is used to designate a group of churches in a particular area (Gal. 1:22).  But in its most significant deviation from classical usage ekklesia also designates what has come to be known as the church universal. In this sense, the word designates not an actual meeting, but instead refers to the spiritual unity of all believers in Christ even though they are not physically assembled. Believers continue to constitute “the church”even when they are dispersed in various localities (Acts 8:1–) . . . . The universal church represents the aggregate, not of local churches, but of believers in the Lord Jesus. At times it is difficult to distinguish between the local and universal usages in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 2:47, 5:11), but the technical use of ekklesia is limited to these two meanings and does not refer to the many other meanings of the word church in contemporary English.  (Grant, Charles. Emmaus Journal Volume 7 “The Nature of the Universal Church”, p. 6-7) .

The ekklesia was therefore all those spiritually united in Christ, the Head of the church. There is no concept of a literal assembly in this sense of ekklesia, nor does the New Testament, as will be seen later, have any organizational structure for the church universal. The unity is that of the Spirit in the body of Christ (Eph. 4:4) (Saucy, p. 17).

"I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." (Matt. 16:18)

Acts 8:3

1 Corinthians 12:28

Ephesians 1:22-23


People of God:

"You once were not a people, but now you are God's people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy." (1 Pet. 2:10)

Romans 9:25

The Body of Christ:

This is the most frequently used metaphor in the New Testament.

Romans 12:4-5

"Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread." (1 Cor. 10:17)

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Ephesians 1:22-23

Ephesians 2:14-16

Ephesians 3:6

“. . . for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;” (Eph. 4:12)

Ephesians 5:23, 30

Grudem makes a very helpful observation regarding the ‘body’ imagery used by Paul in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians:

We should recognize that Paul in fact uses two different metaphors of the human body when he speaks of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12 the whole body is taken as a metaphor for the church, because Paul speaks of the ‘ear’ and the ‘eye’ and the ‘sense of smell’ (1 Cor. 12:16-17). In this metaphor, Christ is not viewed as the head joined to the body, because the individual members are themselves the individual parts of the head. Christ is in this metaphor the Lord who is ‘outside’ of that body that represents the church and is the one whom the church serves and worships.

But in Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15-16, and in Colossians 2:19, Paul uses a different body metaphor to refer to the church. In these passages Paul says that Christ is the head and the church is like the rest of the body, as distinguished from the head: ?We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love? (Eph. 4:15-16).  We should not confuse these two metaphors in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, but keep them distinct” (Grudem, p. 858).

The Bride of Christ:

Ephesians 5:31-32

"For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin." (2 Cor. 11:2)  (Here it is the image of a chaste virgin prepared for her groom.)

"Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready."  Revelation 19:7

The Flock:

John 10:11-16

"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.

"I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;” Acts 20:28-29

1 Peter 5:1-3


Ephesians 2:19

Philippians 3:20

The Temple of God:

1 Corinthians 3:16

1 Corinthians 6:16-19

1 Peter 2:5

The elect:

Matthew 24:22

2 Timothy 2:10

et al.

Branches (John 15:15).

Olive Tree (Romans 11:17-24).

A field of crops (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).

A building (1 Corinthians 3:9).

Pillar and Bulwark of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

Strangers and Aliens (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11; 2 Peter 1:1).

Implications and Cautions

Each of the metaphors used for the church can help us to appreciate more of the richness of privilege that God has given us by incorporating us into the church. The fact that the church is like a family should increase our love and fellowship with one another. The thought that the church is like the bride of Christ should stimulate us to strive for greater purity and holiness, and also greater love for Christ and submission to him. The image of the church as branches in a vine should cause us to rest in him more fully. The idea of an agricultural crop should encourage us to continue growing in the Christian life and obtaining for ourselves and others the proper spiritual nutrients to grow. The picture of the church as God’s new temple should increase our awareness of God’s very presence dwelling in our midst as we meet. The concept of the church as a priesthood should help us to see more clearly the delight God has in the sacrifices of praise and good deeds that we offer to him (see Heb. 13:15–6). The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ should increase our interdependence on one another and our appreciation of the diversity of gifts within the body. Many other applications could be drawn from these and other metaphors for the church listed in Scripture” (Grudem, 858).

The wide range of metaphors used for the church in the New Testament should remind us not to focus exclusively on any one. For example, while it is true that the church is the body of Christ, we must remember that this is only one metaphor among many. If we focus exclusively on that metaphor we will be likely to forget that Christ is our Lord reigning in heaven as well as the one who dwells among us. Certainly we should not agree to the Roman Catholic view that the church is the ‘continuing incarnation’ of the Son of God on earth today. The church is not the Son of God in the flesh, for Christ rose in his human body, he ascended in his human body into heaven, and he now reigns as the incarnate Christ in heaven, one who is clearly distinct from the church here on earth” (Grudem, 858).


So there is the imagery and terms that are key to this subject.

Next episode we will continue to expand on this critical point of theology.


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