Ekklesia by Herman Ridderbos

The redemptive-historical significance of the New Testament church as the people of God already finds clear expression in its most prevalent name ekklesia. Without going again into all the questions connected with the early Christian use of ekklesia,1 with which Paul associates himself, it may be taken as established that the Christian church is thereby ascribed the title of the Old Testament people of God as the Qehal-Yahweh.2 The frequent use by Paul of the qualification "church of God"can also point to this,3 the equivalent of Qehal- Yahweh in Deuteronomy. At the same time the use of this name for the early Christian church must not be taken as a simple repristination. Rather, in it the consciousness was voiced that in its existence as the Christian church the true people of God, the Messianic congregation of the great end time (cf. Matt. 16:18ff.), had been revealed, and that the privileges and qualities attributed to ancient Israel in the making of the covenant in the wilderness had found their God-intended application in this church. Paul associates himself with this usage and the thought contained in it,4 when for him too ekklesia constitutes the customary description of the communion of those who believe in Christ and have been baptized into him.

Just as elsewhere so (and especially) in Paul ekklesia is at one time the description of the church in its totality, irrespective of its being scattered over various localities, then again of the local church or even of the so-called house-churches (for this last use see Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). As a description of the church as a whole the use of ekklesia in Ephesians and Colossians is particularly to be pointed out (cf. Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-32; Col. 1:18, 24, although it is there also used of the local church and house-church [Col. 4:16, 15]). In the remaining epistles ekklesia usually means the local church. As a rule it is then called simply "church," although sometimes also plerophorically "the church of God" (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:5 [and 1 Cor. 1:2 and 2 Cor. 1:1 (?); see below]). There are then outside Ephesians and Colossians passages of which it is usually judged that Paul speaks of the ekklesia as a whole, whether as the "church of God" (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; Gal. 1:13; 1 Tim. 3:15), or simply as the "church" (1 Cor. 12:28; Phil. 3:6).5

To be sure, the attempt has been made to understand the passages mentioned above (apart from Colossians and Ephesians) of the local church. Thus Cerfaux, for example, has wished to make it plausible that ekklēsia tou Theou originally had reference to the church at Jerusalem and that when Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13, and Philippians 3:6 of his persecution of the church (of God) he is not thinking of the church in general, but of the church at Jerusalem.6 And so far as 1 Corinthians 10:32 and 11:22 are concerned, it is said that there is no reason to think of the church in general; rather, the gathered local church is again intended. Paul would then have transferred the title that originally pertained to the church at Jerusalem specifically to the church at Corinth in order to set its obligations clearly before it. In this sense 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1 are consequently to be assessed as a simple designation of the local church.7

Now in our view one may with good reason maintain that, in addition to the local and universal church, ekklesia in Paul can have the significance of a religious gathering (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19, 28, 34, 35). This is especially clear in 1 Corinthians 14:34ff. where "in the churches" stands over against "at home," and therefore can be translated "in the church meetings." In this sense 1 Corinthians 11:22, too, can be understood, not of the church in general, but of the church meeting. Here again "house" stands over against ekklesia as the place where one eats and drinks. One can also interpret 1 Corinthians 14:4 in this way. In other places, however, one can hardly deny the meaning of Gesamt-gemeinde, the church-in-general. Thus in 1 Corinthians 12:28 where apostles, prophets, etc., are spoken of as given by God "to the church." Here it is obviously a matter not only of that which applies to the individual local congregation, but to the church in general. Regarding 1 Corinthians 10:32 one may be doubtful because with ekklēsia tou Theou one can think both of participants in local church gatherings8 and of the church in general.9 In our view it is otherwise, however, with the three passages where Paul speaks of his persecution of "the church of God" (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Phil. 3:6). Although this name certainly will have been applied in the first instance to the church at Jerusalem as the mother church and to the churches afterward established in Judea (1 Thess. 2:14), it is apparent even from this last passage that "church of God" was not employed by him as a terminus technicus for the church in Jerusalem or in Judea. In the plural form of 1 Thessalonians 2:14 the principle is already clear of the particularization and extension of this name. Paul's attacks, too, were not directed only or in the first place against the primitive church at Jerusalem, but also against the Christians in cities abroad (Acts 9:2; 22:5; 26:11; Gal. 1:17). For his object was the complete extirpation of the name of Christ (Acts 26:9; Gal. 1:13).10 In the three places mentioned one is undoubtedly to think, therefore, of the church in general. (Acts 26:9; Gal. 1:13).10 In the three places mentioned one is undoubtedly to think, therefore, of the church in general. (Acts 26:9; Gal. 1:13).10 In the three places mentioned one is undoubtedly to think, therefore, of the church in general. (Acts 26:9; Gal. 1:13).10 In the three places mentioned one is undoubtedly to think, therefore, of the church in general.

Furthermore, however one chooses to take 1 Corinthians 1:2 and 2 Corinthians 1:1, it is in our view incontrovertible that from the beginning Paul in his epistles ascribes more than one meaning to the title ekklesia: next to that of the local (house-)church and church meeting also that of the church in general, the church as a totality. The passages in Ephesians and Colossians (and 1 Tim. 3:15) are therefore not in conflict with the general usage of Paul, though it remains true that in Ephesians and Colossians ekklesia has the meaning almost exclusively of the church-in-general while elsewhere the majority of Paul's pronouncements concerning the ekklesia have reference to the local church or church gathering.

When one inquires after the relationship of both these meanings of ekklesia, the view that has frequently been advocated that the universal church is for Paul a secondary concept and is intended as the joining together or confederation of individual churches is to be repudiated even on the ground of the little that has so far been said about the ekklesia. For if the concept of the ekklēsia tou Theou has above all a redemptive-historical content and speaks of the church as the true people of God, the manifestation of the (Messianic) congregation of the great future, then it is clear that for Paul, not only in Ephesians and Colossians but in all his preaching, the thought of the universal church is primary and the local church, the house-church, and the church gathering can be denoted as ekklesia because the universal ekklesia is revealed and represented in them. Consequently we see that for unity and peace in the local church Paul appeals to the unity of the church as the body-of-Christ (that is, as we shall see still further, to the unity of the church as a whole; 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12). The fact that the usage of ekklesia outside Ephesians and Colossians to a preponderant degree denotes the local church is thus in no way decisive for the fundamental idea of the ekklesia in Paul's epistles. It proves only that in these pronouncements he is occupied with relationships in the local church — which in view of the concrete purpose of his epistles is not to be wondered at — and that he regards and addresses these local churches according to what they are as the manifestations and representations of the people of God in general.


From Paul: An Outline of His Theology by Herman Ridderbos

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links