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”?
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. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1993)]
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. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000]
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. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (United Bible Societies, 1989)]
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. James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University, 1961), 103.]:
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. Barr, 121.]
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. 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.]
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!