The Church and the Kingdom
A New Testament Study
By Jesse B. Thomas, D. D., LL.D
THE CHURCH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
THE GREEK "ECCLESIA"
I. A Characteristic Institution. The Greeks differed radically from the Romans in their individualistic tendency. The "topography of the country," as Grote remarks in his History (II., 301), "fostered that powerful principle of repulsion which disposed even the smallest township to count itself a political unit apart from the rest, and to resist all ideas of coalescence, amicable or compulsory." Every city, accordingly, became an independent state. Aristotle, in his last work, made an analysis of 158 differing constitutions of such independent municipalities; for they were so jealous of their separate self-government that no one of them would accept the precedent set by another city, lest they should somehow jeopardize their liberty. They were as vigorously set upon individual independence as upon local self-government. They became, in the strictest sense, democratic - governments
"of the people, for the people, by the people." Their courts as well as their legislative bodies were popular assemblies. Now, the summary form in which this pervading temper found most unique expression was the ekklesia. It was the organized assembly of the authorized voters of the local community met to transact business of common concern. It corresponded to the town-meeting of New England of later days. Even after the subjugation of Greece by the Romans, in the second century before the Christian era, the Greek cities retained nominal self-government. There remained in each an ekklesia, as its conspicuously central feature, at the time the New Testament was written.
Reference to the speeches of Demosthenes, the history of Thucydides, the comedies of Aristophanes, or other classical documents, will show how familiar and how uniform was the meaning of the word. Aristotle, in his "Politics," emphasizes the characteristics of the institution, as local and democratic, when he says that it is essential to the very nature of the city-state, of which it is the representative, that it should be small enough for all the citizens to know
each other. Passng this limit, he says, it ceases to be properly a state, with a proper ekklesia. As a ship, only a span long on the one hand, or a quarter of a mile long on the other, has ceased to serve its appointed end, and so to be a ship at all, so an ekklesia, the extent of whose constituency forbids the normal interchange of opinion and discussion, ceases to be equal to its purpose, and therefore to be a proper ekklesia at all. The language of this authoritative exponent of Greek ideas has is obvious bearing on the question whether the term ekklesia can ever be extended to cover a world-body, or a body governed otherwise than democratically.
It may properly be added that the word ekklesia seems after Aristotle's day to have been sometimes sill more restrictively understood, bringing it into still closer parallelism with New Testament usage. For Dr. Hatch, in his "Organization of the Early Churches," cites, from lately recovered inscriptions, frequent instances in which it is applied to local self-governing secular clubs or associatbns. In these the titles given some of the officers are identical with those of officers of New Testament churches.
II. Relation of "Ekklesia" and "Basileia." -
It will readily be inferred, from what has just been said, that the word ekklesia would call up, in the mind of an ordinary Greek, or Greek-speaking person, a conception not only not identical with, but in every particular the antithesis of, that suggested by the word basileia. The early Greek basileus, who had been an absolute local or tribal ruler, had long since vanished, as Aristotle explains in his "Politics." The title was now restricted exclusively to the head of the Roman Empire - the one sole master of the "habitable world." The word basileia had, therefore, come to carry with it the inevitably associated notion of world range and mastery. Our Lord's allusion to a new basileia (which might have been with even greater fitness translated "empire" rather than "kingdom" of God or of heaven) must suggest instantly and logically the idea of rivalry with Caesar, and not of local insurrection or insubordination only; for two world-empires could not exist together (Acts 17:7). Instances have already been cited from Carr, showing how instinctive was this sense of antagonism. Add to these the reply of the chief priests to Pilate's question, "Shall I crucify your king?" They promptly answered,
"We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15). Note, also, the nature of the charge made against Jesus in Luke 23:2: "We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king." This inevitable suggestion of clashing jurisdictions explains, also, the "craftiness" of the chief priests, noticed by Luke in connection with the incident (recorded also by Matthew and Mark) in which they demanded of our Lord whether it was lawful to "give tribute to Caesar." For had the word basileia, used by him as describing the new regime to be set up, meant to the ordinary hearer only a local and subordinate regime, its threatened establishment would have been insubordination only - a less serious offense. But if the broader meaning necessarily attached to the word, he could not escape the charge afterward actually made of attempted world-rivalry with Caesar.
But over against this single, comprehensive, world-extensive conception, the word ekklesia set up an idea as distinctly local, partitive and multiple. The empire was, and must be, one. But there might be as many ekklesia as there were Greek cities. Even
the Latin cities had their local comitia, which the eminent historian Freeman declares to have been the exact equivalent of the Greek ekklesia, each being the counterpart of the later Saxon town-meeting. The basileia was centered in the basileus, as its etymological form indicates, and was therefore necessarily monocratic: the ekklesia, from like etymological implication, must derive its central significance from the whole body of people assembled, and be democratic. The autonomy of the gathered group, as contrasted with individual lordship over it, was essential to the conception of the thing itself.
Since the two words in question must have suggested to the ordinary Greek mind notions directly and irreconcilably antithetic, it does not seem strange that modern scholars have begun to hesitate before counting them as being identical in force in New Testament usage. Dr. A. M. Fairbairn (in his "Studies in the Life of Christ"), after pointing out the grounds of such irreconcilability, concludes that "the church and the kingdom may thus more properly be contrasted than compared. . . . The church was to promote the ends, realize the ideals, of the kingdom. If basileia was steeped in Hebrew, ekklesia
was penetrated with Greek, associations." This last remark is significant in connection with the circumstance that, in the new dispensation, the Greek language, with its existing fixedness of meaning, was providentially chosen as the medium of revelation, rather than the equally fixed, but then practically dead, Hebrew.
III. Bearing of the Septuagint on New Testament usage of "Ekklesia." - Dr. B. H. Carroll, of Baylor University, a very thorough scholar, has collated all instances of the occurrence of ekklesia in the LXX. He finds them to be ninety-two in number. Not a single one of these has a broader meaning than that thus far assigned to it as familiar to the common Greek citizen. As confirming this statement, he gives the translation of the word in our Revised Version, it being there uniformly rendered "assembly" or "congregation."
It has been affirmed, however, that the word "congregation," here used as the equivalent of ekklesia, and the word qahal, which it translates in the passages in question, refers to the whole nation; and that the word ekklesia, thus broadened in meaning, has led to like broadening of meaning in its usage
by New Testament writers. Aside from the grotesque incongruity of the notion of an unassembled assembly or uncongregated congregation, we may wisely listen to the conclusions of the eminent linguistic master, Dr. F. J. A. Hort. "There are two words in Hebrew," he says, "referring to the Israelitish community. The one (edhah) designates the society itself, formed by the children of Israel or their representative heads, whether assembled or not assembled." The other (qahal) is "properly their actual meeting together." The two words sometimes occur together and may be rendered, in such a case, the "assembly of the congregation." The LXX. choice of the word ekklesia to designate the actual local assembly, rather than the Israelitish people at large, he thinks due, as before explained, to the apparent etymological origin of the Greek and Hebrew word from a common root, signifying to summon or call out.
In considering the possibility that the original Hebrew word, alleged to be of broader meaning, may have indirectly attached like breadth to the Greek in the New Testament writings, it may be observed that even were such a broader meaning traceable,
which, as we have just seen, is denied by Hort, it seems incredible that it could have had the effect indicated. The Gentile communities, who were addressed, knew the word ekklesia well, whether heard in common speech or found in the LXX., and were not likely to attach gratuitously divergent meanings to it, wherever found. The supposed modification of meaning hidden in the Hebrew original could not have affected them, for they did not know Hebrew. Paul was most painstaking and most skillful in adjusting his forms of speech, so as to make himself unequivocally and exactly intelligible to those whom he addressed. It is especially worthy of notice that in the very two Epistles where, if anywhere, this broader significance of the term is to be traced (Ephesians and Colossians), he lays peculiar emphasis upon the Gentile character of those appealed to. Is it likely that he, a Greek in education and early environment, writing to people Greek in speech and custom, would make use of a well-known Greek word, descriptive of an equally well-known Greek institution, not in the sense familiar to them, but in a technical sense borrowed from the LXX. - a source of which they probably knew nothing?
Yet it is on so narrow a basis that conception of a "Hebraic" tinge in the use of the word has been built, and the consequent theory of a Christian church as a riper form of the Jewish, including the world-elect race. The "Hebraic" figment has, as has already been shown, begun to "wax old and vanish away." The conception growing out of it ought also to fade.
Having now asked what the attendant circumstances may lead us to expect as the New Testament meaning of the word ekklesia, let us next appeal to the text to learn whether the presumptions raised are justified by the record itself.
[Jesse Thomas, The Church and the Kingdom: A New Testament Study, Louisville, 1914, pp. 210-219. - Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall]
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