When we speak about the nature of something, we are usually interested in its origins, function, and purpose.
Besides providing several images to depict the church, the Bible uses a particular word in reference to it, ecclesia, which means “called out” or “called forth.” In secular Greek life the word was used primarily to describe a group of citizens that had been called out from their homes into a public place for an assembly or gathering. The New Testament uses the word in this general sense.
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint), the “congregation” of Israel, especially when gathered before the Lord for religious purposes, is referred to as ecclesia.
The Jews were “called out” to be God’s special people, and the early Christians may have used the word to identify those Jews and Gentiles who, as recipients of God’s grace, had been called out to be Christ’s witnesses. In the New Testament, the church describes the company of the faithful the world over. It’s important to note that the word ecclesia is never used with reference to a building in which public worship is conducted. Equally significant is that whereas the word “synagogue” originally denoted an assembly of people gathered for a specific purpose, the Christians preferred to use the word ecclesia. Nevertheless, both words indicate that the New Testament church was in historical continuity with the Old Testament church, the “congregation” of Israel (Acts 7:38).
The word ecclesia indicates, in general terms, a group of people called out through God’s initiative. How does this explain Paul’s use of the word at three different levels: (i) the church in individual homes (Rom. 16:5, 1 Cor. 16:19); (ii) the church in specific cities (1 Cor. 1:2, Gal. 1:2); and (iii) the church in larger geographical areas (Acts 9:31).
Ecclesia is the depiction of any group of people gathered together who share in a saving relationship with Christ. This means that individual congregations are not just a part of the whole church; each unit represents the whole. Furthermore, the church is one throughout the whole world but at the same time present in each assembly.
Think about your local church, which functions as a representative of God’s whole church. What kind of responsibilities does that place on you as part of the church body and on the local church itself?