"One of the first difficulties in defining the word ekklesia is determining whether there are two different definitions for the word when it is applied to Christians. All agree the word is used for both a secular and a spiritual group. What about when the ekklesia is talking about the people of God? Does the New Testament Scripture use the word ekklesia two distinctly different ways or only one way? Almost all theologians since the time of the Reformation have spoken of the 'universal' (or invisible) and the 'local' (or visible) ekklesia and have given different definitions to both concepts. Different groups have emphasized one or the other of these two ideas.
The Plymouth Brethren magnify the universal/invisible concept. They insist the ekklesia is 'an organism' and not an 'organization.' They have no church membership (on paper), and no 'ordained clergyman.' Roman Catholicism and Landmark Baptists emphasize the local/visible concept of ekklesia. In their view the ekklesia is a visible physical organization, instead of an invisible organism, instituted by Christ and left in control of duly authorized leaders here on earth. Landmark Baptists call the universal ekklesia concept the 'doctrine of the great spiritual whore,' and Rome insists that one of the four marks of 'one the true church' is that the true church is 'visible.' Here are two quotes setting forth the Landmark position:
The New Testament usage of the term [ekklesia] denotes an assembly or a gathered group, a congregation . . . . . The words church and assembly are therefore synonymous. It is, therefore, essential for a church to church before it can be a church! That is, an 'assembly' must assemble before it can be an assembly. A church that has never assembled or met together in an organized fashion and for a specific purpose, never having been functional, would certainly not be a church in the scriptural sense! From: New Testament Church, by Dr. W.R. Downing, pp. 3 and 16.
As you can see, such a definition eliminates any possibility of a so-called 'universal/invisible' ekklesia. The ekklesia must be visibly assembled before it is an ekklesia. Any idea of the redeemed people of God bowing their hearts in worship all over the world being construed as the ekklesia is ridiculous to these people. There must be a visible gathering of individuals bound together under some form of constitution with leadership ordained by God and given authority to rule the ekklesia. This same group of individuals is not considered the ekklesia when they finish assembling and go their separate ways. It is only when they are 'assembled' that they are considered the ekklesia.
Mr. Downing uses the typical Landmark Baptist caricature of the 'universal church' to establish his position when he writes . . .
A "universal, invisible church" could have: No address or location, yet every church in the New Testament was located at a particular place… No pastor, elders or leaders that were functional…No deacons or property…No treasurer…No prayer meetings…No missionaries… etc. Ibid 18, 19.
It may seem strange that the Romanist and the Landmark Baptists are both so adamant against any idea of a 'universal' church. However, when we see that their respective concepts of authority are almost identical, it becomes very clear why they are kinfolk. Every group that emphasizes 'God ordained authority' for either their particular church practices or the authority of their 'duly authorized leadership' will always emphasize the so-called 'local/visible' church as the true ekklesia of Christ. Baptists who do this can be just as tyrannical as Roman Catholics. We will say more about this later. For now, I intend to argue that there is only one definition of the word ekklesia in the New Testament Scriptures even though there are two applications of the one definition.
The Definition of Ekklesia
The first question we must ask is, "What is the best way to translate the Greek word ekklesia."? Some people go into the various words used to define the meaning of 'church' in many different languages, Scottish kirk etc. This may explain history but it does not help us at all to grasp Scripture. The Plymouth Brethren use the word assembly and some other groups use congregation, but nearly everyone uses the word church which means nothing. I personally, until recently, would have said that 'assembly' was probably the best way to translate ekklesia. I would no longer do that. I would now translate it so that it clearly expresses exactly what everyone agrees is the actual meaning of the word. I would translate ekklesia as "the called out ones" since that is precisely what the word means. This is not only the true and accurate translation of the word ekklesia, it also demonstrates the first major truth, namely, that the ekklesia of Christ is they, meaning people, and not an it, meaning an organization. If you cannot speak of the ekklesia as 'they' but constantly think and speak in terms of 'it' you have not totally come out of Romanism!
Usually the first thing we do in trying to understand a specific doctrine in Scripture is translate the actually meaning of the word itself as clearly as possible into our language. We do that with words like justification, sanctification, and regeneration, etc. However, when we come to the word ekklesia we use the word church instead of actually translating the word ekklesia into its English equivalent. Ekklesia literally means 'the called out ones' and should be so translated. In failing to do that we ignore the first basic step that we otherwise always follow when trying to understand any specific doctrine. We always try, whether it is a Greek or a Hebrew word, to translate the word as closely as possible to an English word, or words. We try to stick as closely as we can to the original Greek or Hebrew. If we did that in the case of ekklesia we would say without hesitation, "the word ekklesia means 'called out (ones).'"
If everyone had a clear view of the true meaning of 'the ekklesia of Christ' issues like who should take communion, who should be baptized, when and how should discipline take place, the authority of eldership, etc., would all be looked at differently. All agree that the word Greek word ekklesia is a compound of two Greek words. The first word is "ek," and means "out," and the second is, kaleo (kal-eh'-o) and means 'to call.'
All agree that the word kaleo means 'to call' or 'called ones,' and the word ekklesia literally means the same thing except of the addition of the word 'ek.'' That means we merely add the word 'out' and it becomes 'the called out ones.' Ekklesia has nothing to do with 'calling an individual to join a local congregation.' In fact, biblical calling is totally spiritual and has nothing to do with the physical. We need only note a few verses where the word is used to clearly understand its meaning. These verses show that the 'kaleoed' and 'the Christians' are the same people.
Gal 1:6 "I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel . . ." Does joining a local congregation have anything at all to do with being called (kaleoed) into the 'grace of Christ'?
Gal 1:15 "But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace . . ." Did this calling have anything to do with Paul joining a local congregation or in any way coming under the authority of a local congregation?
A shorter form, klesis (klay'-sis), of the same word, is often used. Here are a few instances.
Rom 11:29 "For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance." What does that text have to do with membership in a local congregation? What do any of the following texts have to do with anything other than spiritual effectual calling?
Eph 4:4 "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling . . ." Phil 3:14 "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." Heb 3:1 "Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling…"
Did any local congregation, or any, or all, of the other apostles, or anyone else have anything to do with God calling Paul in the following verse? Remember this is the same word used in ekklesia. Rom 1:1 "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle…"
What does the calling in the following verses have to do with the concept of a local congregation? These verses are talking about regeneration, about being joined to Christ. The word ekklesia is talking about being 'called out' of death and being brought into Christ. The word has nothing to do with either defining or joining a local congregation.
Rom 1:6 "Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ…"
Rom 1:7 "To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints…"
Rom 8:28 "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."
Is Romans 8:28 assuring us that all is well because one is a member of a local congregation or because one is part of the ekklesia of Christ? I am sure you know the answer. I am also sure you realize that the two things just mentioned, membership in a local congregation and being a part of 'the called ones' (ekklesia) of Christ is two totally different things. It is understanding just why these two things are so radically different that opens up the biblical doctrine of the ekklesia.
Eklessia Is Another Word for Christian
I think it is easy to see that the words 'the called ones' are nothing less than another name for a Christian. A child of God is called, a 'believer,' a 'sheep,' an 'elect one,' a 'brother,' a 'saved one,' etc., and the same person is often labeled or addressed as a 'called one.' The above texts are clear. The ekklesia is Christians. All Christians are in the ekklesia and no one but chosen sheep are a part of the ekklesia. All of the ekklesia have been 'called out' to Christ Himself. It is the experience of being kaleoed out of the world that makes them Christians. They did not join the ekklesia¾they were joined to the ekklesia by the Holy Spirit.
Let's take that descriptive name, 'called out ones', and ask these obvious questions:
(1) Who is included in this group described by the Holy Spirit as the ekklesia, or 'called out ones'?
(2) Who is the Person who is calling, or has called, the ekklesia?
(3) To where or to what have the ekklesia been called?
(4) From where, or what, have the ekklesia been called out from?
(5) Why have these particular ones been 'called out' to the exclusion of others?
(6) What is the exact nature of this calling?
(1). 'The called out ones' are the people of God. They are the 'sheep who hear my voice' and gladly respond. They are the saved, the justified, and the born again who have been baptized into the living body of Christ. Simply put, 'the called out ones' is a synonym for the word 'Christian.' The ekklesia is another name for saved people¾all saved people, but only saved people. It is impossible to have a lost person in the ekklesia, or among the 'called out ones,' and it is just as impossible to have a saved person who is not a member of the ekklesia. Both of these things would be a contradiction in terms.
(2). The Person is doing the calling is God. We need only one glance at the texts above to see it is God Himself Who is the 'Caller' in every case. The calling is directly due to both God's purpose in unconditional election and His sovereign power in regeneration. It has nothing to do with man's will or an organization.
(3). We can say that ultimately they have been called to heaven itself. We can also say they are 'called to holiness,' 'called to peace,' 'called to life,' and many other things. For our purposes, we insist that the 'called out ones' are called into membership in the ekklesia of Christ. Each 'called one,' or each member of the ekklesia, has been effectually called out of sin and death into a living fellowship with Christ Himself.
(4). All of the 'called out ones' were once dead in sin. It was 'the call' that brought them out of death and brought them into life. Their calling is spoken of as a resurrection out from the dead as well as regeneration.
(5). The 'called out ones' are the same as the elect. All of the elect are 'called' and all 'the called' are the elect. All the sheep, the elect ones, will always 'hear' the voice of their Shepherd calling them and will gladly come. All of the 'called out ones' become part of the ekklesia simply because they, and they alone, are the objects of this special 'calling,' and they are the special objects because they have been chosen to be sheep. All the chosen are 'called' but only the chosen are 'called.' That is the same as saying, "All the elect are in the ekklesia, but only the elect are in the ekklesia." There is not a single exception to this fact, and we must again emphasize that being a 'called out one' has nothing to do with birth, baptism, or joining something.
(6) This calling is nothing less than effectual calling. The 'calling' extended to the elect sheep is actually regeneration. It is being born again and in no sense whatever is it "joining something." It is 100% spiritual and it is 100% the work of God, and in every case it is successful. The ekklesia, or 'called out ones,' will have no missing members. All without exception who are chosen to be in the ekklesia will be effectually called by grace and power and will become a living part of the ekklesia. Again this fact has nothing to do with any or all visible congregations. Someone has said, "THE Church will be found in the churches, but the churches are not THE Church."
I should not have to make this application, but I do so for clarity. The reality, or actual spiritual entity, that is created by this calling of the ekklesia is the spiritual Body of Christ and it cannot possibly have anything to do with a physical organization. We are talking about a spiritual calling. If the kaleo, or calling, that creates the ekklesia of Christ is nothing less than regeneration, then the thing created by that spiritual calling, namely, the true ekklesia, must of necessity be a God produced spiritual creation. It has to be first of all a living spiritual entity. The words 'called out ones' cannot possibly have anything at all to do with the physical organization or assembling of that which we today call a 'church.' The spiritual experience of effectual calling (kaleo) creates, in and of itself, the ekklesia of Christ and since that effectual calling (kaleo) is totally spiritual it follows that the thing created by that, calling the ekklesia, must also be spiritual and not physical.
What we will see as we proceed is that the whole 'visible/invisible' or 'local/universal' concepts expressed by those terms are simply not biblical ideas. They do express an element of truth but they are also loaded with error. At the most we may say, "The Word of God recognizes that the word ekklesia basically means 'Christians.' Sometimes an apostle will speak of all Christians, the elect, or all of the 'called out ones' of Christ, and other times he may speak of all the Christians, or all the 'called out ones' meeting in a given town or even in a house. However, in both cases the basic meaning of the word ekklesia remains the same. It means 'the called out (ones),' or Christians, in both cases." The difference is not a 'local/visible' versus a 'universal/invisible' concept where one is an organism and the other is an organization. The only difference is how many of the 'called out ones' are you talking about. In both cases the word means 'all of the Christians' either all for whom Christ died or all those in a given described area.
Men can, and do, create organizations and call them churches or fellowships, but only God the Holy Ghost can create the ekklesia of Christ. The ekklesia that God creates is the Body of Christ. Every person in that ekklesia is 'in Christ.' When man creates a physical organization and calls it a 'church' it will be a mixed bag. As long as we argue about 'visible/invisible' or 'local/universal' as a means of distinguishing between a 'spiritual' (universal) ekklesia and a 'physical' (local) ekklesia, we are missing the real problem. The real question is this: Does the New Testament Scripture conceive of the ekklesia, the 'called out ones,' as a spiritual organism created by the Holy Spirit or a physical organization created by men of like mind? Is the Body of Christ (which is never spoken of in the plural) ever conceived of as anything less than all of 'called out ones,' or 'the ekklesia of Christ'?
Let me mention another obvious implication. If any individual person evidences the spiritual marks of being one of Christ's sheep, or a 'called out one' can they be denied total acceptance in a group claiming to be a sheepfold of Christ? Dare we say, "I know that Christ, the great Shepherd, has put His mark of grace on you and sealed you with His Spirit. He has unconditionally accepted you as one of His 'called out ones,' however, before we will accept you into this sheepfold, or before we allow you to eat with us at His table, we must put our mark on you also."
Nothing I have said rules out the need for an organized local congregation of like-minded Christians, with a constitution, church officers, church discipline, and a lot of other things. I believe every child of God should be a part of a congregation of Christians and submit to the love and oversight of their brothers and sisters in Christ. However, that does not do away with either my personal responsibility to Christ or to all of my 'called out' brothers and sisters in other congregations. What it does mean is that in every thing connected with our idea of ekklesia, we have to make sure we do not believe and practice a lot of things that grow out of a totally wrong view of the ekklesia, or the 'called out ones.' John Reisinger: The Ekklesia .
If we understood the Biblical use of the word translated "church" as described by Reisinger above, then a great deal of error in the Landmark Baptist Identity movement would be avoided.
In His Grace,