Nope: Ekklesia means “called out”

This is one of those fallacies with real staying power. Despite the mistake being conspicuous, I find it in all kinds of books, blogs, classes, and conversations. The idea has a grip on the imaginations of a tremendous number of Christians, and it spreads like a contagion.

So this one deserves a bit more comment below. But here’s the pithy version:

Is the church composed of people who are called out in some sense? Okay, that’s vague enough to work.

Does ekklesia mean “called out ones”?

sheldon-nope



The mistake is conspicuous

1. No legitimate lexicon makes the mistake in the first place.

Start with the stripped down UBS lexicon:

ἐκκλεσία, ας f church, congregation; assembly, gathering (of religious, political, or unofficial groups)1

Or consider the standard volume, BDAG: despite noting that the word is from εκ + καλέω, its multiple definitions include nothing about “called out ones.”

1. a regularly summoned legislative body, assembly, as gener. understood in the Gr-Rom. world. . . .

2. a casual gathering of people, an assemblage, gathering. . . .

3. people with shared belief, community, congregation. . . .

a. of OT Israelites assembly, congregation. . . .

b. of Christians in a specific place or area (the term e˙. apparently became popular among Christians in Greek-speaking areas for chiefly two reasons: to affirm continuity with Israel through use of a term found in Gk. translations of the Hebrew Scriptures, and to allay any suspicion, esp. in political circles, that Christians were a disorderly group). . . .

α. of a specific Christian group assembly, gathering ordinarily involving worship and discussion of matters of concern to the community. . . .

β. congregation or church as the totality of Christians living and meeting in a particular locality or larger geographical area, but not necessarily limited to one meeting place. . . .

c. the global community of Christians, (universal) church. . . .

α. ἐ. τοῦ θεοῦ . . . .

β. ἐ. τοῦ Χριστοῦ. . . .

γ. both together ἐ. εν θεῷ πατρὶ καὶ κθριῷ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. . . .

δ. ἡ ἐ. ἡ πρώτοη ἡ πνεθματική the first spiritual church (conceived in a Platonic sense as preexistent. . . .2

2. Louw and Nida’s lexicon based on semantic domains actually corrects the mistake:

11.32 ἐκκλεσία, ας f: a congregation of Christians, implying interacting membership — “congregation, church.” τῇ ἐκκλησία τοῦ θεοῦ τῇ ὄυσῃ ἐν κορίνθω “to the church of God which is in Corinth” 1Cor 1:2; ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς  αἱ ἐκκλησίαι πάσαι τοῦ Χριστοῦ “all the churches of Christ greet you” Ro 16:16.

Though some persons have tried to see in the term ἐκκλεσία a more or less literal meaning of “called-out ones,” this type of etymologizing is not warranted either by the meaning of ἐκκλεσία in NT times or even by its earlier usage. The term ἐκκλεσία was in common usage for several hundred years before the Christian era and was used to refer to an assembly of persons constituted by well-defined membership. In general Greek usage it was normally a socio-political entity based upon citizenship in a city-state (see ἐκκλεσία, 11.78) and in this sense is parallel to δῆμος (11.78). For the NT, however, it is important to understand the meaning of ἐκκλεσία as “an assembly of God’s people.”3

3. Speaking of semantics, James Barr’s 1961 The Semantics of Biblical Language debunked the myth in the course of his landmark exposition of etymologizing—”giving excessive weight to the origin of a word as against its actual semantic value”4:

It is . . . probable that the rendering ἐκκλεσία was used purely for its general surface meaning of “assembly” and corresponded simply to an understanding of qahal as “assembly”; and that the derivation from καλέω “call” or any associations with ἔκκλητος “called out” or κλῆσις “calling” (in the theological sense) had no importance.5

4. Yet, a few years before Barr’s publication, an article by Roy Bowen Ward in Restoration Quarterly had already laid the question to rest, quoting even older sources:

Ekklesia, being derived from the verb ek-kaleo, “to call out or forth,” has often been interpreted as an exclusive term, connecting its etymological meaning with the Biblical doctrine that Christians are those “called out of the world by God.”[[12 This doctrine is substantiated apart from etymology by such passages as: John 15:19; 17:6; etc., and by those passages dealing with “calling,” “election,” etc.]] However, F. J. A. Hort, in his classic work, The Christian Ecclesia, reminds us that in usage this exclusive meaning—a caIling out from a larger group does—not have support.

There is no foundation for the widely spread notion that ekklesia means a people or a number of individual men called out of the world or mankind, . . . . the compound verb ekkaleo is never so used, and ekklesia never occurs in a context which suggests this supposed sense to have been present in the writer’s mind.[[13 F. J. A. Hort, The Christian Ecclesia (London: Macmillan and Co., 1898), p. 5.]]

In usage ek-kaleo meant only, “to call forth,” and not, as this interpretation would require, “to call out from a larger group.” Ekklesia, in turn, meant only “that which is called forth, an assembly.” As Campbell comments, “as so often, etymology proves to be here misleading rather than helpful.”[[14 J. Y. Campbell, “The Origin and Meaning of the Christian Use of the Word EKKLESIA,” Journal of Theological Studies, 49 (1948), p. 131.]]6

So, there is no lexical basis for the claim, making it an obvious mistake when explaining the meaning of a word, and experts have been directly, unambiguously denying the fallacy for over a century. So much for further explanation.

Why does it matter?

Interestingly, I suspect many people who have rehearsed this particular mistake passionately in sermons and print will be the first to respond with, “Why does it matter?” Of course, it’s irritating to hear a mistake repeated over and over, but that’s not why it matters. Being right for correctness’s sake is a relatively boring motivation. What matters in this instance is how a concept of the church shapes what the church is in the world. And it should be obvious that the importance of correcting the mistake is inherent in its ubiquity—if it’s important enough to assert continuously and pervasively, then it matters equally and for the same reason that the assertion is false.

As I said at the beginning of the post, the generic claim that Christians are called out in some sense is true enough. Ward makes a similar point when he footnotes “the Biblical doctrine that Christians are those ‘called out of the world by God'”: “This doctrine is substantiated apart from etymology by such passages as: John 15:19; 17:6; etc., and by those passages dealing with ‘calling,’ ‘election,’ etc.” Unfortunately, this is not a very careful affirmation on Bowen’s part. For one thing, being “not of world” and the doctrine of election are normally two theologically distinct notions. For another, it remains to be seen whether either of them actually substantiates the ideas typically connected with etymologizing ekklesia.

Of the two doctrines that Bowen mentions, the former (sanctification in John 15 and 17) is the relevant one here. In my experience, however, the use of ekklesia to instill a “called out” identity in the church actually runs against John’s point. The ekklesia is supposedly a gathering of people “called out of the world,” who are separated from the world, who exist apart from the world. John, by contrast, presents Jesus sanctifying his followers with the words, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world” (17:15). Instead, the disciples are both sanctified for and sent into the world:

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:16–19)

John, then, does not support the “called out” doctrine etymologically imported into ekklesia. Furthermore, the text indicates that Jesus’s missional intentions for his followers are at stake in the perpetuation of the erroneous claim that the church is called out of the world. In fact, if we want to get as close as possible to a linguistic basis of our faulty claim, we need only turn to Peter, who also indicates the error of our semantic ways.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness (τοῦ ἐκ σκότους ὑμᾶς καλέσαντος) into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. (1 Pet 2:9–12)

If we insist on building a case from ἐκ + καλέω—and there is really no reason to do so, I note for good measure—then here we have Peter saying that the church is “called out” of the darkness, not the world, precisely in order to live missionally among those who are not God’s people in the world. Sanctified and sent; Jesus echoes through Peter’s words.

Even if there is much to gain by emphasizing the church’s ethical distinctiveness, it does us harm to harp on the idea of being called out of the world when we are deaf to the consistent call into the world, to love the world as God so loved it, to identify with the world in its createdness and its pain, to be sent as Jesus was sent that the world might have abundant life. An anti-missional, sectarian ecclesiology lurks underneath the prolific misrepresentation of ekklesia. It matters. Let’s kill it at the root!

  1.  A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1993)
  2. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000
  3. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Societies, 1989)
  4. James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University, 1961), 103.
  5. Barr, 121.
  6. Roy Bowen Ward, “Ekklesia: A Word Study,” Restoration Quarterly 2, no. 4 (1958): http://www.acu.edu/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/archives/1950s/vol_2_no_4_contents/ward.html.

10 Comments

  1. I was dreaming this week about what a church that did not make the “world” their enemy but rather their mission would look like. Much different than the small institution we have today.

  2. I can understand the negative implication of believing the tradition belief of “called out” as the definition of ekklesia. It just gives those inside the church one more excuse for separating themselves and having a fortress type attitude toward those who look, think, or act differently than Christians. It’s a shame we often look for every excuse we can just to stay “comfortable.”

  3. I have often said that to say ekklasia means “called out” because “ek” means out and “kaleo” means “to call” is about as sound an argument as saying “butterfly” is an “airborne stick of fat.” The usage of the word (at least in Jesus’ day) was simply “assembly.” Another interesting thing I note with Paul’s use of the word church to describe us as a universal body (even when not gathered) takes on a whole interesting definition of who we are. We are the assembly even when not assembled – we are still a part of community even when not physically assembled together. There is so much deepness you can get from that… far more than the cop-out of “he really meant we were called out, even if the word didn’t have that meaning.”

  4. I know you aren’t making judgments here, just clarifying what you understand the church is (and is not). I appreciate a good discussion on etymology and definition, but I have to ask. To you, who belongs to Christ’s church? Is it anyone professing a belief in Christ and trying to do God’s will, or is it confined to a particular strain of Christianity (say, evangelical Christians)? Does the church include Lutherans, Catholics, or Anglicans? Surely, your liberal interpretation of Christ’s church is not so expansive as to embrace those crazy Mormons, is it?

    I get the sense from your post that being part of the church is a more personal and less institutional matter. Does it matter more that I believe that Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the world than which group I worship with? Does it matter that I repent of my sins? Does it matter that I pray with my children and read from the scriptures with them daily? Or am I not part of Christ’s church because I don’t adhere to someone else’s interpretation of scripture? (How’s that for a weighted question?)

    Just stirring the pot. 🙂 Know that I won’t be offended by your honest answer, no matter what it is because I’m secure in my own faith. (Besides, I’ve heard it all.) I’m simply curious about your interpretation. You seem so liberal in your definition of Christ’s church that it’s difficult for me to understand where you believe the line is between those within and those without the church.

    1. Hey, Chad! I’m really glad you commented.

      My working definition of the church is ultimately pretty simple, I think. The church is everyone who follows Jesus on Jesus’s terms. I realize putting it that way defers the definition to my understanding of “Jesus’s terms,” but I do so because Jesus says, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must . . . .” He has a criterion that we can call “taking up the cross” for shorthand. I would rather say this than “faith in Jesus,” because that has come to mean so little in this context. If I were to say “faith in Jesus,” I would mean trusting the Jesus revealed in the Gospels enough to live in his cruciform way in the world, by the power of his Spirit, to the glory of the God of Israel.

      How much does this have to do with being in a particular religious tradition? Only as much as that tradition affects whether we follow Jesus or live in some other way. So, even though I think it’s pretty insane to venture a general judgement (on the basis of a label like “Mormon”) of who is a Christian, since Jesus is clearly the one who decides who his followers are, I don’t want to dodge your question. In practice—in terms of fellowship and cooperation—it is my call and yours and everyone else’s to make. So here is my answer: if you pray to God through Jesus, I’ll pray with you; if you worship God through Jesus, I’ll worship with you; if you serve God’s purposes, I’ll serve with you; live and die for Christ, and I’ll live and die right beside you.

      If it makes me liberal that I have no interest in stopping to draw lines when we’re busy bearing the cross, then I will wear that label indifferently. If it makes me liberal that I consider abstract judgements about who is “in” to border on stark raving lunacy, I can handle that too. Of course, tell me you wear the name of Christ, and I’ll say, “Okay, let’s see the cross being borne”—and expect you to say the same to me. If that makes me judgmental, then I’m prepared to be indifferent to that description too. And if uncertainty about what bearing the cross looks like puts us in a long, difficult interpretive process, all the better! Being in that process is how we increase faithfulness; being in that process is *not*, however, an answer to the question!

      The church is God’s people, and the Messiah is the one who defines them. There are many implications to this assertion, which might allow us to make more informed judgements about worship and cooperation, but not among those implications are statements like, “Therefore Mormons aren’t Christians” or “Therefore sectarian Churches of Christ aren’t Christians.” I simply have to reject those kinds of declarations as meaningless.

      I’m not aiming to answer you definitively, so how does that strike you so far?

  5. Yours might have been some kind of libertarian, relativist Christianity without any meaning or substance, but you have rightly placed judgment in Christ’s hands and ours. That places accountability of our standing with God within our own imperfect grasp. I believe God judges each of us–our thoughts and actions–according to the light he has shown us.

    I agree that having faith in Christ might mean very little on its own. Bearing his cross is indicative of one who has the kind of faith I imagine is necessary for salvation. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” enters the Lord’s kingdom, after all. I view true faith as the assurance that leads us to do the Lord’s work. It is the beginning of all godly action.

    Thanks for letting me stir the pot. I know your intention was to say “Christ’s church goes out to help and teach people and is not some exclusive club.” However, it is important to understand what the club is. Your definition is quite the liberal one from what I can gather, but thankfully, Christ is quite liberal with us. If not, we’d all be in big trouble.

    In your theology, would I know that I am a follower of Christ only through studying the precise words in the Bible or am I also to listen for and follow the Holy Spirit in my daily life? I would argue that there is no one objective reading of the Bible (as witnessed by the many differences among those who profess to only follow the Bible) and we need the Holy Spirit in order to assess our standing with God. (Of course, you might also say that people understand the Spirit differently, as well.) In either case, there is obvious necessity for God’s infinite wisdom as we are weighed in the balance.

    And for the record, I am carrying the cross with you. Even if I am just a crazy Mormon.

    P.S. I don’t think it’s lunacy that you are unwilling to play God and pass final judgment on other people. That sounds remarkably sane to me, in fact.

    1. Definitely “also” follow the Spirit. For me, that shouldn’t become “instead” follow the Spirit, though. The Spirit helps us understand Scripture instead of being a substitute. And obviously, if subjectivity in reading the Bible is a difficulty, subjectivity in listening to the Spirit is at least as much so. I agree there isn’t “one objective reading” of the Bible, though I can’t tell whether you mean that just descriptively (as a matter of observing interpretive variety) or also prescriptively (as a statement of Scripture’s inherent equivocality). I would still argue, nonetheless, that Scripture functions effectively for a variety of purposes, including guiding the interpreting community in its discipleship to Jesus. Your question, “Would I know?”, actually tends toward the quest for the kind of certainty or finality that I find counterproductive in the church’s ongoing process of seeking and repenting, which includes reading together and discerning the Spirit together (not individualistically).

      1. Agreed that understanding God’s word a process based in scripture and the Spirit. Agreed that this process is often communal–I believe it is particularly family-based. It’s also a highly individual path as each of us has liberty and agency that can lead us to God (or somewhere else).

        Agreed that the Spirit helps us understand scripture, but many of life’s important decisions cannot be answered by scripture alone. For example, you and your family moved to Peru for quite a while, no? That was an important decision for you, and I imagine you and your wife prayed for direction from God, implicitly if not explicitly. Sure, you believe that you should be missionary-oriented, and so to fulfill that responsibility you wanted to go out into the world and help and teach. But why not go to Brownsville, Texas, or Cordoba, Argentina? I think you probably believe God led you to Peru, even though your going to Peru is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. I would argue that you, Greg McKinzie, interpret the Spirit individually and with your family every day. Sure, you seek the safety of community consensus, but life moves faster than that and God guides each of us. God’s house is a house of order, but it’s His order, not necessarily our clean, sterile order that we may wish. I think that’s partially what you are saying when you push against my questions about final, definitive statements.

        Agreed that my black-and-white/yes-or-no questions can be a bit silly. However, I believe we should ask them constantly. I have been on God’s path and off, and it is always useful to know where I am heading. I don’t think we can sit back in our armchairs with our hands behind our head and say, “I’m here. I’ve arrived.” But we can and should evaluate the path we are on.

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