Before becoming a word of the creed, of theology and of the catechism, “Church” is a biblical word. What follows is not a meditation on the Church, but an attempt to discover how the readers of the New Testament understood that word, in the hope of restoring to it something of its first freshness.
The word ekklesia appears over two hundred times in the Greek Bible read by most of the Christian of the first centuries. What may surprise us is that it is found almost as many times in the Old Testament as in the New. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, ekklesia means the assembly or congregation of God’s people.
In the New Testament, ekklesia means either a local assembly or all Christians. But there are interesting exceptions. Luke, author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, also used it for the assembly of a city (see Acts 19:23-40). Ekklesia was thus not solely reserved for religious use. The word could apply to the life of Greek cities with their assemblies which met to discuss public affairs.
Another exception is that, even in the New Testament, ekklesia can designate the people of God of the First Covenant. Stephen called the people who were together in the wilderness around Moses the ekklesia (Acts 7:38). And the Letter to the Hebrews quotes a verse from Psalm 22: “I will sing to you in the midst of the ekklesia” (Hebrews 2: 12). Should we translate it “in the midst of the assembly” or “in the middle of the church”? The psalm speaks of the assembly of Israel. But since the Letter to the Hebrews puts these words on the lips of the Risen Christ, they refer also to the Church.
Biblical usage thus unites what we tend to distinguish. The example of the Letter to the Hebrews invites us to let the scriptures of the First Covenant speak of the church of the New Covenant. So the meaning of the word ekklesia becomes wider. Its use in the Psalms, in particular, gives it a musical dimension. The ekklesia becomes the congregation in celebration, one brought together by Christ’s song.
The word ekklesia is often used in the Acts of the Apostles, but surprisingly it is not found in the first chapters. The community that comes into being at Pentecost is not called ekklesia. The text speaks simply of “all believers” (Acts 2:44). Then the word plêthos appears (Acts 4:32), a word which can be translated as “the multitude of believers”. But extra-biblical parallels have led exegetes to recognize that plêthos can refer to a community. The word is sometimes translated as “assembly” or “plenary assembly” (for example Acts 6:2), but it is not an exact synonym of ekklesia. The plêthos, like other groups existing in Jerusalem at that time, is a community with its rules of membership, its rites and its leaders.
Thus the Acts of the Apostles witnesses to the fact that ekklesia was not exclusively used to designate the Christian communities. From the letters of Clement, bishop of Rome, and Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, we know that both words, ekklesia and plêthos, coexisted at least until the early second century. But what distinctive characteristics of the Christian communities did the word ekklesia emphasize? And why did it finally take over? The book of Acts suggests that this had something to do with the apostle Paul, since the word started to play a role at the same time as Paul himself did (Acts 8). This also confirmed by the Pauline letters, where the word ekklesia is particularly frequent.
Why did Paul prefer ekklesia? In this word, there is the verb “to call”. While plêthos refers to a community as such, the ekklesia, in the Greek world as well as in the Bible, is an assembly called together, a congregation. It seems that every time Paul says ekklesia, he implies a “convocation” or “call”. For him, “the church of God” are “saints by calling” (1 Corinthians 1:2), those who were “called to the communion” of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9).
Half a century later, writing to the Christians of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch describes the ekklesia for the first time as “catholic”, in other words universal: “Wherever the bishop appears there is the community (plêthos), just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church (ekklesia).” Christians form concrete communities. But for Ignatius just as for Paul, the most beautiful word is "church". For in this word does the accent is not on stewardship of a community, but on the universal call of Christ’s gospel. And the adjective “catholic” implies that one and the same gospel, everywhere and at all times, calls to the one communion of Christ.